Driver sues NASCAR, claims he was excluded from diversity program for being ‘too Caucasian’


Michael Rodriguez

A discrimination lawsuit filed by a former candidate for NASCAR's Drive For Diversity program was settled Tuesday afternoon. Michael Rodriguez, a former two-time Pennsylvania karting champion and youngest Super Late Model winner at Mountain (St. John's, Pa.) Speedway, claimed in his lawsuit that he lost his opportunity to participate for appearing "too Caucasian," and that's why NASCAR rejected him at age 15 and 16 from trying out for the Drive For Diversity program in 2005 and 2006. Rodriguez filed the suit against NASCAR and Access Communications, the company NASCAR hired from 2004-2008 to administer its diversity program to increase minorities' participation in the sport, in U.S. District Court in January 2010, and the trial began Monday in Charlotte.

But after a day of jury selection, opening statements and testimony by Rodriguez's father, the sides said Tuesday morning they had come to an agreement. NASCAR was dismissed outright as a defendant to the suit, while Access and Rodriguez worked out a settlement. The Rodriguez family declined to speak about the details of the settlement. Now 22 and not having driven in four years because of a lack of funding, Rodriguez said the settlement will allow him to compete in some ARCA races. Sporting News

04/23/12 A federal judge has denied NASCAR’s request to throw out a lawsuit by an aspiring driver who was invited to its 2005 Drive For Diversity combine but claims he was discriminated against when he never made it onto the track.

Michael Rodriguez, who is of Puerto Rican descent, filed the lawsuit in January 2010 claiming NASCAR and Access Communications, which operated the diversity program, violated his civil rights. He is asking for unspecified damages.

Rodriguez, a former state karting champion who was 15 at the time of the combine, never participated in the on-track portion of the program. He claims in the lawsuit that he was denied the opportunity to participate because his blue eyes and fair skin made him look “too Caucasian."

Rodriquez also claims in the suit that he was twice referred to as a “poster boy" or “poster child" for the Ku Klux Klan by Access personnel.

NASCAR claims in its court briefs that Rodriquez was not allowed to drive because he was disoriented after complaining of a headache, possibly from bumping his head.

The case is set for trial beginning June 4 in Charlotte after NASCAR’s and Access Communications’ motion for summary judgment was denied.

“Genuine issues of material fact remain for resolution by a jury," U.S. District Court Judge Max Cogburn wrote in his two-paragraph order denying NASCAR’s motion, an order that he signed Friday and was released Monday.

NASCAR and Access attorneys had argued during the hearing last Wednesday that the color of someone’s skin could be considered as part of the affirmative action criteria.

They also argued that the selection of drivers for the 2005 combine was done by closed ballot and that there is no proof that Rodriguez was rejected by a majority of the members because of his skin color.

NASCAR’s attorneys argued that Rodriguez’s civil rights could not be violated as defined by law because Rodriguez never had a contract with NASCAR nor Access, that participation in the program was voluntary and that there were other platforms for a minority driver to get noticed by race teams. Sporting News

04/19/12 An aspiring stock-car driver is suing NASCAR, claiming he was denied the opportunity to compete in NASCAR’s diversity program because he looks “too Caucasian."

NASCAR argues that in trying to change the “face" of the sport, it has the right to select drivers for its diversity program based on skin color, attorneys for the sanctioning body and its former diversity program administrators have told a U.S. District court.

Michael Rodriguez, a driver from Pennsylvania, says in his complaint filed in U.S. District Court that he was denied the opportunity to compete in the 2005 and 2006 Drive For Diversity combines.

Rodriguez is suing NASCAR and Access Communications, which operated NASCAR’s diversity program from its inception in 2004 until 2008 and conducted the combines that are designed for teams in NASCAR’s regional series to scout minority drivers.

NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program was created to develop minority drivers and crewmen and help them advance through the NASCAR ranks with the goal of reaching the sport’s top series. Since 2004, the program has included 41 drivers, with most being selected multiple times. There currently are six drivers in the program racing in various NASCAR regional series.

Rodriguez, now in his early 20s, is asking for undetermined damages for violation of his civil rights.

NASCAR and Access Communications are seeking to get the case, filed in January 2010, thrown out before it goes to trial. Attorneys for NASCAR and the company argued their side in a summary judgment hearing Wednesday in federal court in Charlotte.

The case has forced NASCAR and Access to work together even though NASCAR turned over its diversity program to former Dale Earnhardt Inc. executive Max Siegel in 2009 after Access failed to produce a significant number of minority drivers who advanced to the national NASCAR ranks.

Judge Max Cogburn did not issue a ruling immediately after Wednesday’s hearing and indicated that he was uncomfortable with the case. More at Sporting News

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