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Changing Lanes creator takes difficult, uncharted path

It’s tough enough to challenge prejudice when you’re just looking at one side of the equation.

So what can you say about a guy who has chosen to bite off both sides of the problem in tackling NASCAR’s historic focus on white guys driving cars?

Already a pioneering African American in the sport, Max Siegel is attempting the equivalent of walking while chewing gum as you execute an Olympic-level backflip off a balance beam perched on top of Mount Everest.

He’s going to put NASCAR on Black Entertainment Television.

Siegel’s brainchild, the unscripted show Changing Lanes, turns the diversity program funded by the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing into a soap opera on wheels – mining drama and tears from the effort to winnow 30 drivers down to one ethnic minority or woman who gets a shot at qualifying for the Toyota All-Star Showdown race in Irwindale, Calif.

The first episode airs at 8 p.m. Wednesday. And Siegel, the first black man to serve as a NASCAR franchise president and former president of global operations for Dale Earnhardt, Inc., based the idea on an unlikely inspiration:

American Idol.

“If you communicate the message through pop culture, people listen,” said Siegel, 45, a former entertainment lawyer. “I worked at (record label) SONY/BMG on all the American Idol things; I saw how, by the time an (Idol) singer put a record out, the fans were already bonded with their brand. I thought, to the extent that people felt NASCAR had this (diversity) stigma, with the BET brands attached, it might give them some credibility.”

The result is Changing Lanes, a stylish, Idol-tinged search for a champion racer co-produced by Ken Mok, the mastermind behind America’s Next Top Model and MTV’s Making the Band.

As so-called reality TV shows go, Changing Lanes is relatively straightforward. Siegel runs NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, an effort aimed at diversifying the sport by developing a team of 10 drivers who are female or ethnic minorities to showcase their skills for potential sponsors and team owners.

Siegel also owns Revolution Racing, a NASCAR team which hopes to take the top four drivers from this year’s program and get them competing in the 2010 K&N Pro Series races. Revolution’s existence is an effort to immerse female and minority drivers in all the experiences they’ll need to succeed in a sport where important firsts for non-whites and women remain to be achieved.

As the show opens, we’re introduced to the prospective drivers and their backstories, from a 24-year-old white daughter of a car dealer whose father bankrolls her racing career to a 16-year-old African American phenom who will struggle with the H1N1 virus during training.

The concessions to an urban audience who might be unfamiliar with NASCAR stick out. The soundtrack is hip-hop flavored and reminiscent of the music used in other BET unscripted shows; rapper Ludacris narrates the series, a voice which may be recognizable to the channel’s fans.

And enthusiasts for the sport might expect a little more racing to make it into the show. Judging by a sample episode provided by NASCAR, viewers aren’t even told the times drivers scored during trials designed to winnow the field from 30 aspirants to 10 people.

As you might expect in a sport with a strong history of family involvement, many of the minority drivers are from mixed-race families with ties to the sport. Michael Cherry, a 20-year-old from Florida, credited his white stepfather – a local racing legend – with helping him get involved at the relatively ancient age of 17.

Cherry is used to being the only black face in a white-dominated sport, speaking easily on camera about the moment when a competitor’s girlfriend slung the n-word at him during an argument. But he sometimes finds other black people have just as much difficulty imagining him as a race car driver.

“I always get the question, ‘Why don’t you play basketball?” said Cherry, who last year scored a sponsorship from Nationwide Insurance through the Drive for Diversity program. “They didn’t know that I drove a race car or any African Americans drove a race car. They don’t have anyone to cheer for. They don’t have that connection…which is what we’re trying to change.”

As an experienced viewer, I wondered about what we weren’t seeing. Are there folks in NASCAR who think the program gives unfair advantages? Do some owners object to NASCAR funding a program which funnels promising drivers to Siegel’s team?

Most of all, I wondered whether Siegel wasn’t taking a serious chance – airing a show on a channel NASCAR fans likely don’t watch regularly, centered on a subject BET fans may not care to learn much about.

As an explanation, Siegel cites his own history. When he was a sports and entertainment lawyer, he teamed with former NFL great and NASCAR enthusiast Reggie White to try buying a franchise.

Though the deal fell apart when White died unexpectedly in 2004, Siegel landed an interview with the organization formed to promote the legacy of racing legend Dale Earnhardt as it was looking for a president.

After getting the job, Siegel felt the lesson was obvious: exposure and opportunity equals involvement.

“(The show) definitely has the potential to fall through the cracks…(but) if you don’t try, you don’t know if it will work,” said Siegel, who noted that some in NASCAR see a business opportunity – reaching a new fanbase – while also trying to correct the sport’s historic lack of diversity.

“I think this has the ability to change minds,” he added. “I don’t get hung up on how we get there. Just as long as we get there.”

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed, at blogs.tampabay.com/media.
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