New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara had always known about NASCAR.
But as the sport soldiered through its 2020 season during the coronavirus pandemic, he decided to give it a proper look.
“I really sat down and was like, ‘Alright, let me see what’s really going on, let me watch it and give it a chance – try to really understand it,'” the four-time Pro Bowler told reporters on Friday.
“I’m really listening to what they’re talking about – and I realized that there’s really more than what meets the eye when it comes to NASCAR.”
From there, Kamara secured an invite to attend last June’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway – partly to support Bubba Wallace in the wake of NASCAR’s ban of the Confederate flag, and partly to discover the sport as a whole.
Now, over eight months later, he’s about to become more than just a fan.
His juice bar chain, “The Big Squeezy,” is sponsoring the No. 6 JD Motorsports Chevrolet for rookie driver Ryan Vargas in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race on the road course at Daytona International Speedway.
The deal was announced Wednesday – two days after Vargas asked for help on social media in securing a sponsor for this weekend.
Kamara found out about Vargas’ situation after attending last weekend’s Daytona 500, and reached out to Vargas. Following some messages back and forth, Kamara was put in touch with JD Motorsports to work out the details.
His entrance in the sport marks another milestone of sorts for NASCAR’s diversity and inclusion efforts. Basketball icon Michael Jordan is now one of Wallace’s bosses for the new 23XI Racing team, while musician Pitbull is a co-owner for the new Trackhouse Racing team and driver Daniel Suarez.
From Kamara’s perspective, he says that in the Black community, NASCAR is now “more on our radar” thanks to Wallace’s exploits and the Confederate flag ban.
He’s keen on helping to attract more Black fans to the sport and put aside any preconceptions about the sport, like he had.
“It’s one of those things where I feel like – I don’t think this was a place where a lot of us felt comfortable being,” he explained. “I had a perception of what NASCAR was before I was involved. You see that (Confederate) flag, you see the scope of what’s going on … One bad apple spoils the bunch. You see certain things and you’re like, ‘No, that’s not anywhere I need to be at.’
“But fast forward, and I’m getting involved and I’m seeing what’s going on, seeing the leadership from the top to the bottom – starting with upper personnel, talking to (NASCAR President) Steve (Phelps) and his staff and his crew. Everybody is so open and welcoming. At first, I had some withdrawal from it. Even when I went to (Homestead), I was, ‘Alright, let me just stay on my side – I’ll introduce (myself).’
“But everybody was so welcoming: ‘Man, we love that you’re here! Are you really interested?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah!’ We got a conversation going and flowing, I’m meeting fans, interacting with people, and I’m like ‘Oh, this is a safe space. This is not what I thought it was. I was pleasantly surprised.'”
Vargas, a 20-year-old Hispanic driver from La Mirada, California, is well aware of the sport’s drive to bring more minorities into the fold.
He was part of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity development program in 2018, and says that the sport has always “welcomed (him) with open arms.”
Now, he’s hopeful that Kamara’s involvement will continue the positive momentum.
“To see just where the sport is going in terms of its diversity efforts, I mean, it’s incredible,” said Vargas, who’s competing for Xfinity Series rookie of the year honors. “You see a lot of people back drivers like Bubba (Wallace). You see a lot of people back drivers like Daniel Suárez. You see people starting to back drivers like me.
“It takes a lot for people to start believing in each driver. For me, last year, I only ran nine races. The other races, I was a tire guy, a road crew guy. It takes a lot of believing in me. For people like Alvin to jump on board and support this team and support myself, it goes a lot farther than many people think.”