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Race and Sports in America: Conversations to air at 8 p.m. ET Monday

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Damon Hack will host two roundtables with athletes and former athletes for a conversation on race and sports in America. The show airs at 8 p.m. ET Monday on NBCSN, Golf Channel, Olympic Channel and the NBC Sports Regional Networks.

Appearing with Hack will be Los Angeles Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, NBA superstar Steph Curry, NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, NFL player Kyle Rudolph, pro golfer Troy Mullins, former tennis player James Blake, Major League Baseball player James Rollins and Baseball Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith.

Among the topics discussed are: The conversations they’ve had with family in the last few months, what they hope things will be like in a year’s time, the level of optimism vs. pessimism and their experiences.

 

 

Bubba Wallace: ‘People are wanting to stand up for what’s right in this world’

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Bubba Wallace knew when he spoke about Black Lives Matter that he would face responses that “all lives matter.”

Wallace, whose car Wednesday night at Martinsville Speedway had #BlackLivesMatter on it, explained in a media session Friday about the importance of Black Lives Matter, his form of protest, what’s next and more.

“There is a poster of a little girl that says, yes we said Black Lives Matter, no we did not say only Black Lives Matter,” Wallace said. “We know that all lives matter, but we are trying to make you all understand that Black Lives Matter, too. Too. T-o-o. It’s three letters that is left off that people don’t understand. Black Lives Matter, too.

“Families are worried about their kids going out and driving for the first time and getting pulled over and being killed. The African American community is so worried about that right now. We shouldn’t live like that. The African American community should not live like that. We’re trying to get other people to understand just how tough it is to live in this world right now.”

Bubba Wallace during the national anthem last weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Wallace also has spread his message by wearing an American Flag face covering and a T-shirt that states “I Can’t Breathe” and “Black Lives Matter” during pre-race ceremonies the past two races. “I can’t breathe” is what George Floyd said before he died May 25 after a since-fired Minneapolis police officer put his knee on the back of Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes, 46 seconds. 

While other athletes have kneeled during the national anthem to protest social injustice perviously — NASCAR official Kirk Price, who served in the U.S. Army, kneeled while saluting the flag last weekend at Atlanta — Wallace has remained standing during the anthem the last two races.

Asked if he will kneel during the anthem, Wallace said he is studying the matter. NASCAR recently removed requirements on what team members must do during the national anthem, allowing for peaceful protest.

“I’m still looking up and reading on stuff and learning,” Wallace said. “Exactly what the message we are trying to push across, learn, and understand. I think the messages that I have been putting out there on the racetrack during the anthem is speaking for itself, so I haven’t put much more thought into that.

“I loved that the official Kirk Price took that initiative and stood for what he believed in, kneeled for what he believed it, a man that served our nation in the military kneeled, so I thought that was pretty powerful.”

Some athletes have commented about Wallace on social media, including LeBron James, NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders and New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara.

Wallace said he has had conversations with Joshua Dobbs of the Jacksonville Jaguars. The two met when Dobbs played quarterback at the University of Tennessee, which is Wallace’s favorite college football team. Dobbs was among the Jacksonville Jaguar players and team officials who protested racial inequality and police brutality during a June 5 march from their stadium to the steps of the sheriff’s department.

“He reached out last night with some powerful quotes that he lives by and made a ton of sense and just kind of fit the narrative that we are living in the world today,” Wallace said. “There’s been a lot of outreach just from social media fan points, privately, that was probably one of the ones; but there is a lot of support in my corner from all aspects; from sports, from just normal people, people that are wanting to stand up for what’s right in this world.”

As for what is next, Wallace said he isn’t sure. He has ideas and is looking forward to a meeting Tuesday between “key leaders” in NASCAR and select drivers. They’ll discuss what more the sport can do after announcing this week it is prohibiting the display of the Confederate flag at all NASCAR events and facilities.

Sunday’s Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway marks the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic that fans will be in the stands for a race since the NASCAR season resumed last month. Up to 1,000 military guests and family members will be allowed at the race. Up to 5,000 fans will be allowed for the June 21 Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway. As of Friday afternoon, tickets remained for that race.

Wallace looks forward to the return of fans and seeing more at races at some point.

“I would love to see us get back to normal and fans to come back in full capacity just to see how much more diverse or different demographics we bring in,” Wallace said. “I would love to see studies on that as we start allowing fans to come back.”

Wallace also knows that being more vocal can make him a target to some.

“I like to go out and sometimes spend time in the infield with the fans and have a good time,” Wallace said. “I haven’t been ridiculed against. I know that is going to change now. I’ve got to be careful what I do and that’s kind of the sad world we live in. My dad had texted me that he was proud of what I was doing on and off the racetrack, but he was worried about safety, going out in public and whatnot. Just crazy that you have to think about that sides of things.”

“Definitely have got to watch your back now and can’t be like that outspoken guy, just happy-go-lucky guy that would go take a trip on the golf cart or my longboard down into the infield, or whatever, and have a good time.”

NASCAR America draft … who you got?

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The NFL isn’t the only sport with a draft taking place this week. NASCAR on NBC analysts Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton are each doing a draft of current NASCAR Cup drivers and invite you to play along.

But there’s a twist to picking your four-driver team.

To keep it simple, we’re using tokens. Each driver has a token value assigned to them. You can use up to 10 tokens to select your four drivers. You don’t have to use all 10 tokens but you can’t use more than 10 in selecting your four-driver lineup.

So do you pick a team with one title contender and three young drivers? Or do you go with four veterans who have won? Or do you have fun and pick four drivers who are friends? Or four who maybe haven’t gotten along so well on the track in the past?

It’s your team. Are you building a team to win now? Or potentially dominate the sport for years to come?

Who you got?

Make sure to share your team with us at #NASCARAmericaDraft

Check on the NASCAR on NBC Twitter account, the Motorsports on NBC YouTube page and NASCAR Talk today to see who the NBC experts pick and how it compares to your team.

 

President Trump seeks to make sports central part of economic revival

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President Donald Trump spoke with sports leaders Wednesday, expressing his desire to make sports a central part America’s economic revival, according to a press pool report.

The report sates that Lesa France Kennedy, executive vice chair, represented NASCAR on the call. Others on the call included NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Major League Baseball Commissioner Robert Manfred.

According to the press pool report: “The President expressed optimism to the major sports organizations that are eager to get their athletes back on courts, courses, and fields of play, and for the millions of sports fans who are missing their favorite teams and players. Leaders of the sports organizations expressed appreciation for the President’s attention to their industry and offered innovative input on social distancing guidelines.

“President Trump acknowledged the important role that sports play in American life and expressed his desire to make sports a central part of the great American economic revival.”

MORE: Dr. Anthony Fauci on how sports can return: Regular testing, no fans

MORE: N.C. Gov: “Our new normal” may have no in-person crowds for awhile

President Trump held a call with sports league executives April 4. That call included NASCAR President Steve Phelps. President Trump later said in a press briefing that day:

I want fans back in the arenas. Whenever we’re ready and as soon as we can, obviously. The fans want to be back, too. They want to see basketball and baseball and football and hockey. They want to see their sports. They want to go out on the golf courses and breath nice clean beautiful air.

“I can’t tell you a date, but I think it’s going to be sooner rather than later. We’re not going to have to have separation for the rest of our times on the planet. We need it for this period of time. Eventually, people are going to be able to occupy those seats in arenas next to each other like we have for all of my life and all of your life.”

NASCAR has postponed seven races through May 3 at Dover International Speedway. NASCAR’s next scheduled race is May 9 at Martinsville Speedway, but Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam issued a stay-at-home order from March 30 to June 10. The next scheduled events after that would be All-Star weekend (May 14-16) and Coca-Cola 600 weekend (May 22-24) at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, North Carolina.

According to the press pool report, these were the individuals on Wednesday’s call with President Trump:

* Todd Ricketts—Chicago Cubs
* Jerry Jones—Dallas Cowboys
* Mark Cuban—Dallas Mavericks
* Ari Emanuel— Endeavor
* Robert Kraft—The Kraft Group
* Mike Whan—LPGA
* Robert Manfred— MLB
* Don Garber—MLS
* Adam Silver—NBA
* Lesa Kennedy—NASCAR
* Mark Emmert—NCAA
* Roger Goodell—NFL
* Gary Bettman—NHL
* Lisa Baird—NWSL
* Jay Monahan—PGA TOUR
* Dana White—UFC
* Sarah Hirshland—U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee
* Patrick Galbraith—USTA
* Cathy Engelbert—WNBA
* Vince McMahon—WWE

Friday 5: North Wilkesboro to make its comeback on iRacing

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Long gone but never forgotten, North Wilkesboro Speedway will make a comeback.

On iRacing.

Steve Myers, executive vice president and executive producer at iRacing, told NBC Sports that “we’re on track to get (North Wilkesboro) released the first week of June.”

No other long lost track is as revered among NASCAR fans as the .625-mile speedway where the frontstretch went downhill into Turns 1 and 2 and the backstretch went uphill into Turns 3 and 4.

NASCAR ran 93 Cup races there from 1949 — when it was the finale in the inaugural season of NASCAR — to 1996. Hall of Famer Junior Johnson was the local favorite. Richard Petty and Bobby Allison had an epic door-banging battle in 1972. Ricky Rudd and Dale Earnhardt tangled on the last lap in 1989 and crashed, leading Rudd to hide in the back seat of a passenger car to escape the wrath of fans. Jeff Gordon won the final Cup race there in 1996.

The track was revived in 2010 and held a few races. Its final race was 2011. 

North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1966. Jim Paschal won the pole and the race. David Pearson started second and finished third. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

In December, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others helped clean the surface so the track could be scanned and added to iRacing’s sim racing program.

“There were certainly sections of the track that were much worse condition than could possibly be raced on,” Myers said. “Turns 3 and 4, the pavement was sliding. You could see it was buckling in on a section of the track … from sitting unused for so many years.

“Going into Turn 1, the drainage coming out from underneath the grandstands kind of ran across the track and because it was downhill, it was funneling down the front straight pit wall and right along into Turn 1 and collecting in the apron at the exit of the pits. You could tell there (had been) a lot of water there because the pavement started peeling up along that wall. So those things are kind of the obstacles that we have in the production process of trying to figure out how to smooth those things out and do the best we can.

“The data, we looked through it already, we’re pretty far along on the development of the track. It actually looks pretty good.”

That’s not the only track iRacing is working on to give race fans. They are working to do a version of Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville.

“Everyone that has kind of been clamoring for that, I think, is going to be excited about that,” Myers said.

2. Offseason iRacing?

OK, it was one event under extraordinary times where there were no other live sporting events on TV at time when normally there would have been NCAA basketball tournament games, NBA and NHL contests, among other sports, but the excitement (and viewership) for last weekend’s debut of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series has raised the question of if this is something that could be done in NASCAR’s offseason.

With NASCAR looking to end future seasons earlier and possibly making the offseason longer, a question was posed on social media if iRacing with Cup drivers would be a good offseason element for the sport and its fans.

Tim Clark, NASCAR senior vice president and chief digital officer, told NBC Sports this week that “anything is possible, (but) I do think it’s probably early to think about that now.

“I think we’re in a unique position in that we’ve got not only sim racers like you see in the (eNascar) Coca-Cola (iRacing) Series but also professional drivers that are able to do this at a high level,” Clark said. “What that does, I think it gives us some flexibility to determine what we’re going to do with these platforms and the timing. I think we want to strike the balance between having some opportunities to do more in this space but also being cognizant enough to not oversaturate.”

Should there be something in the offseason, it would face obstacles. Many drivers typically take vacations after the season. With the holidays of December, that makes it more challenging.

Now, if there was an interest in a short series of offseason races, January could be the time. Sundays could prove difficult because of NFL playoff games. So maybe a midweek event? Still that would face competition from other pro and college sports. And of course, the biggest question is if people will still want this after sports resume throughout the calendar.

3. IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheaders

Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s announcement Thursday that it was moving its IndyCar GMR Grand Prix from May 9 to July 4, puts it on the same day as the Xfinity race there, also on the road course, and a day before the Cup race on the oval.

IndyCar and NASCAR doubleheaders have been discussed often in the last year and Josef Newgarden ran six laps in an IndyCar on the Charlotte Roval in September. Now fans will have the chance to see the NTT IndyCar Series and NASCAR’s top two series at the same facility on the same weekend.

Josef Newgarden drove demonstration laps Sept. 27, 2019 at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval. (Photo by Dannie Walls/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Mark Miles, president and CEO of Penske Entertainment Corp., which owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the NTT IndyCar Series, explained the move and what it could mean for the future.

“It’s not like we had a plan in place,” Miles said Thursday in a conference call with reporters. “It’s something that comes up. It’s been clear for a long time that both series, under the right circumstances, thought it could be a good thing for the sport and for each of our series.

“The spirits have always been willing. It hasn’t necessarily always been the highest priority, but this just sort of created the opportunity of here’s an opportunity, let’s go for it and as has been said there wasn’t much hesitation.”

IndyCar driver Graham Rahal expressed his feelings with running at Indy with NASCAR and the possibility of future doubleheaders with NASCAR.

“I’m extremely excited to run with NASCAR,” Rahal said in a social media video. “I think it’s a great opportunity for our sport, for their sport to come together. Opportunity maybe for some doubles to be done, which we’ll look into and things like that. But I do think that’s really good and it’s exciting for all of us to go off and do that together.”

Indianapolis Motor Speedway also announced Thursday that the Indianapolis 500 would move from May 24 to Aug. 23.

4. What to do?

With shops closed or running with a limited crew because of no racing until May 9 at the earliest for Cup organizations, teams are trying to figure out what to do next.

“What became very apparent to me about two Mondays ago is after Atlanta is that you could not make a long-range plan,” Philippe Lopez, general manager of Richard Petty Motorsports, told NBC Sports. “Because I did. I did it on Tuesday. I redid it on Wednesday. Then on Friday, I said, ‘You know what, it’s impossible. We’ve never gone through this.’ ”

RPM driver Bubba Wallace with team owner Richard Petty earlier this season. (Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Lopez said the RPM shop was closed this week and was closed part of the previous week.

“The biggest thing we’ve told (employees) that right now this is about them and their families and we wanted them to be home and be safe. We have continued to pay our employees and not cutting anything yet.

“They know, obviously if this goes on for much longer, we can’t afford to stay at that rate and that pace. There are, fortunately, some teams that can but we’re, unfortunately, not one of those.”

Lopez said that he is reaching out to employees each Friday to give them the plan for the coming week.

“The biggest thing was,” he said, “is we’re all going to get through this together.” 

He said a group text for employees has been “really heartwarming to see how they are taking care of each other. It’s just a good bunch. Everyone is taking care of each other right now. I told them to not worry about the racing part. We can build cars in two weeks.”

5. Long wait

There are certainly bigger issues in the world with COVID-19 infecting more people in the U.S. than any other country and the demand for medical supplies.

While racing, along with all sports, waits to resume, there have been many stories that have intrigued me. One is Jesse Little.

The 22-year-old senior at UNC Charlotte spent the previous five seasons trying to make it in NASCAR’s Truck Series but never competing in half the races any of those season. His was a case of a driver seeking work his way into a full-time ride.

He got that chance this season in the Xfinity Series with JD Motorsports and after four races, he, like everyone else, waits for when sports can return.

Jesse Little is in his first season in the Xfinity Series. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Little understands his plight does not compare to others who are suffering.

He also understands that this pause is just part of a journey he has gone through to become a full-time racer.

“I’ve learned to expect nothing and be prepared to react to everything,” Little told NBC Sports.

The Xfinity Series is not scheduled to return to racing until May 23 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, meaning teams would go 11 weeks between races. He’s gone months between starts in his Truck career, which has seen him run between four and nine races since 2015.

He admits there have been times when his career could have ended because of the lack of rides.

“Like a lot of drivers in my position, there were always crests and there were troughs,” said Little, whose best finish this season was 14th at Las Vegas. “I think at the end of 2017 when I ran only four Truck races that year and my last race I crashed and was, like ‘OK this might be it. Luckily, I’m going to school full-time who knows.’

“We were fortunate enough to be able to make the investment and go racing and bring back some people I had great chemistry with and had good notebook and that’s when I had my most successful year in Trucks in 2018. So in the span of six months, I went from thinking I was pretty much done to having my best career finishes and leading laps.”

And it led to him getting a full-time ride this season.

“I’m fortunate to have the support system I do,” said Little, the son of former NASCAR driver Chad Little, of family and friends. “If it wasn’t for them, without a doubt, I probably would have said, ‘All right this racing stuff didn’t work out. I played my cards.’ “They forced me to continue down the path and in doing so, each step … I’ve been given chances and I’ve seen personally that I believe I have what it takes and I’m confident enough in myself. It’s proved to me and I think to the people I want to prove, I think I deserve a shot at showcasing the potential I have. Each one of those things has given me the next step to readjust and get to that next spot.”

While he waits to race, he keeps busy with school work.

“The week heading into Atlanta I was stressing a lot because the week going into Homestead was my midterms and I was swapped absolutely with school,” said Little, whose major is management information systems. “The week after my midterms was my senior project. Literally racing got put on hold right when I needed to focus on my two classes at school the most. That’s what I’m taking up my time and I’m able to focus on my school stuff.”

Even with that, he’s still doing his race prep work from exercising and studying race film.

“I want to be as prepared as I can,” he said about when racing returns.

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