Imagine , if you can, being in front of a sold out stadium and all eyes are on you. You have spent the week practicing for a task that requires stregnth, speed, quickness and agility. Then the big moment arrives. Your heart pounds as you and your teammates spring into action and the crowd roars. Execution , free from mistakes, is the goal and it’s all over in ten to twelve seconds.
Some might say that I just described the opening kickoff of college or professional football game, but it’s not. What was described were the actions and emotions of a NASCAR crew member as they work a pit stop during a stock car race.
Jeremy Kimbrough has expirenced both . He grew up in Dekalb County and attended Cedar Grove High School where he was a high school football star . It’s a short drive from Ellenwood to Hampton, where Atlanta Motor Speedway is located, but it might has well have been in another country. NASCAR was not on Kimbrough’s radar. Jeremy is the son of athletic parents. His father played football at the University of Tennesse, and his mother played basketball at Tennessee. Never in his wildest dreams did Kimbrough see himself working in the fast-paced world of auto racing.
” No, I did not believe it,” recalls Kimbrough. “Last year I had my parents come and we actually won the race in Atlanta. That was a good homecoming and I got to taste victory lane , so I’m just glad to be a part of it. I’m so glad I decided to give this sport a try.”
After Cedar Grove Kimbrough went to Appalachian State for college and was a two-time All American linebacker. That was followed by a stint in the NFL with Washington. When football came to an end, Jeremy gave NASCAR a try. That was six years ago and he has never looked back.
“It almost feels pretty much identical, ” says Kimbrough.” It’s a real adrenaline rush. Everybody is coming down pit road and passing around you. The same type thing goes on with football. You have so many schemes with guys trying to come and hit you.So I just embrace those feeling again. It’s just great to come out and compete.”
These are changing times for NASCAR, a sport that has been largely viewed as a lily-white event , held in environments that are less welcoming to minorities. The death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests have impacted stock car racing in ways that few every expected.
It was during those protests that Bubba Wallace, the lone African-American driver in the sport’s major series, drove a car with the words Black Live Matter on it for all the world to see. Wallace followed this by challenging NASCAR to have the Confederate flag removed from all race tracks. NASCAR agreed !! It was a decision with moral content that also made good business sense.
It has brought new sponsors and business partners while opening doors for more diversity. Brandon Thompson, a Clark-Atlanta University graduate, is NASCAR’s Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion. Earlier this year Jusan Hamilton made history when he became the first Black race director at the prestigious Daytona 500.
Phil Horton is a North Carolina A&T alum who has worked as an athletic trainer for both college and professional sports teams. These days he is a NASCAR pit crew coach and he is a recruiter for the Drive For Diversity program. At the recent race in Atlanta, Horton was pleased to see more African American’s in attendence and hope that they are noticing NASCAR’s changes.
“It’s definitely changed,” says Horton.” The word is out, it’s even to a point where it’s ok to go and check it out.In the past it wasn’t even ok to go and check it out , for the black community. Let’s just say. It appears to be changing for the better.”
Then there are the sports legends who have recently become NASCAR team owners. Football Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith, Basketball Icon Michael Jordan and Boxing Champion Floyd Mayweather have all joined the ranks of NASCAR team owners, signaling a real commitment to diversity in ways that many other sports have not.
This season Jeremy Kimbrough is working with Trackhouse Racing. A team that is co-owned by entertainer PitBull. The driver of car #99 is Daniel Saurez. Both are symbolic of NASCAR’s expending umbrella. Kimbrough hops that young people from his community are paying attention.
“We are showing the young kids that there is another avenue, more that just stick and ball sports,” says Kimbrough .”With the way the sport is evolving and with the single lug nut change going from 5 to 1 , they will need be a lot more athletic. We are looking for Dekalb County kids to come out , give it a shot, and see what they can do.”