Victory by Michael Jordan’s racing team is also a win for NASCAR

OPINION: The NBA legend's racing team, 23XI Racing, has reached victory lane twice since he entered the sport last year. It's good news for NASCAR, which wants to grow and diversify its fanbase.

NBA Hall of Famer Michael Jordan and co-owner of 23XI Racing looks on from the 23XI Racing pit box during the NASCAR Cup Series Go Bowling at The Glen at Watkins Glen International on August 08, 2021 in Watkins Glen, New York. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Thanks to Michael Jordan and the flyest race car ever, NASCAR just hit for a lick. 

The sport that wants more cool points and a wider swath of fans just achieved both goals, with props to Air Jordan and the internationally iconic logo. Though Jordan has struggled mightily as an NBA owner in Charlotte, N.C., his motorsports shine is blinding after last Sunday’s race in Kansas.

The Hornets have reached the playoffs twice in Jordan’s 11 seasons as an owner. His NASCAR team—23XI Racing (pronounced twenty-three eleven)—has reached victory lane twice since he entered the sport last year. The Jordan crossover broke ankles on the court; now it’s drawing eyes at the track. Driver Kurt Busch’s win came in the first race to feature a Jordan Brand ride, with Jumpman and “Black Cement” print all over.

“A lot of the reason we started this race team is Michael felt like NASCAR was a platform that didn’t maybe always understand his brand,” 23XI Racing co-owner Denny Hamlin told reporters. “He thought this was a good way to branch out the Jordan Brand.”

Fair to say, NASCAR has more to gain than Jordan. 

He’s generally considered the greatest of all time, a title that will remain if this racing thing doesn’t work out. But he can break even in his most public-facing ventures—failure as a baseball player and NBA owner versus success as an NBA player and NASCAR owner. 

“We did it!” Busch tweeted. “We had to play like the GOAT and race like the GOAT to win like the GOAT! This was all about teamwork!

Jordan’s pride and money are at stake in 23XI Racing, with Busch and Bubba Wallace driving for him and each having won. But Jordan is low-key building an activist spirit rarely displayed outside of boardrooms. Maybe he’s still growing since he infamously joked, “Republicans buy sneakers too,” and declined to endorse Harvey Gantt, Charlotte’s first Black mayor, in a 1990 Senate race to unseat Hall-of-Fame racist Jesse Helms. 

The wall between Jordan’s corporate interests and social causes has crumbled since 2016, when Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were murdered by police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota, respectively, and five Dallas officers were randomly targeted and killed. “I know this country is better than that, and I can no longer stay silent,” Jordan said in a statement, announcing $1 million donations to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and a police organization.

I looked at him a bit sideways for funding the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Institute for Community-Police Relations. But I can’t deny his longtime approach to social activism—largely steering clear—has paid dividends in its own way, building on the work of vocal athletes previously (Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, etc.) and complementing the current crop (Colin Kaepernick, LeBron James, the Atlanta Dream, etc.).

The range of his philanthropic ventures includes $3 million to the Black Smithsonian, $1 million to Morehouse College and $1 million to the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, part of a 10-year, $100 million commitment to the Black community.

Keeping pace with social and political issues is vital, ditto matters of business. Jordan has spoken out softly, when at all, but has amassed the economic clout to shout with a big stick. Others have followed. Jordan, Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal wield status and power once unimaginable for Black athletes. Grant Hill (Atlanta) and Dwyane Wade (Utah) have purchased NBA ownership stakes. Steph Curry has so much juice his rebuke led Under Armor CEO Kevin Plank to recant favorable comments about Donald Trump in 2017.

“Curry forced the owner to take a step backwards,” Columbia University lecturer and former NBA player Len Elmore told CNN Sport. “Remember, he’s just a paid endorser, but his power in many ways was greater than the owner of the company.”  

Jordan blurred the lines between performer, endorser and owner. His historic Nike deal birthed the Jordan Brand, leading to a rack of sponsorships that helped place him among the world’s richest Black people. From that rare air, his activism hits different. Especially as a Black owner with a Black driver (Wallace) in a predominantly white sport. 

In October, Wallace became just the second Black driver to win at NASCAR’s top level. Wallace continues to face torrents of criticism for racing while Black, but Jordan is untouchable as an owner. His presence makes life in the sport easier for Wallace and folks with similar hues.

“Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity, and there have been few Black owners,” Jordan said in announcing 23XI Racing. “The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more,” he said, relishing the chance to “educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.” 

With Jumpman on the winning car last Sunday, Jordan scored a victory for his people—and for NASCAR.


Deron Snyder thegrio.com

An award-winning columnist and a principal of BlackDoor Ventures, Inc., Deron Snyder is a veteran journalist, stratcomm professional, author, and adjunct professor. A native of Brooklyn and an Alpha from H.U.-You Know, he resides in metropolitan DC with his wife, Vanessa, mother of their daughters, Sierra and Sequoia. To learn more, please visit blackdoorventures.com/deron.

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