By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
HOLLYWOOD, Fla. – It was a chance internet search that led jackman Mike Russell to NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program and, ultimately, to a NASCAR XFINITY Series championship with driver Chris Buescher.
“I was on the internet searching pit crew development stuff, and I came across coach Phil Horton,” said Russell, who on Saturday became the first African-American D4D alumnus to win a NASCAR national series championship in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“So I called him and talked to him, and that really jump-started my career.”
Horton serves as the pit crew coach at Rev Racing, D4D’s competition arm. Russell arrived with a background in high school sports, but with a limited knowledge of racing gleaned from the occasional television broadcast.
But Russell, who had enrolled in courses at NASCAR Technical Institute, was a quick study with a formidable work ethic.
“I had always seen racing on TV, but I didn’t know anything about racing when I got into it. When I moved to Charlotte (from eastern North Carolina) and went through the school and got hooked up with Coach Phil and the diversity program, I really learned a lot.”
That was five years ago. Russell honed his skills in the ARCA Series with Cunningham Motorsports, which entered into a driver development deal with Roush Fenway Racing earlier this year.
Now, he’s one of more than 25 Drive for Diversity crew member graduates that pitted for national series teams in 2015.
“Mike is a true testament to the D4D program’s success,” said Horton, who continues to train aspiring pit crew members at Rev Racing. “We knew early on that he could be a valuable asset for an organization at the national series level.”
In a watershed year for the program, RFR driver Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. battled Daniel Suárez of Mexico for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year title in the XFINITY Series, with Suárez prevailing as the second D4D driver to win top rookie honors. The first was Kyle Larson, who won Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300 XFINITY Series race.
Two years earlier, with a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series victory at Martinsville, Wallace became the first African-American driver since Wendell Scott in 1963 to win a race in one of NASCAR’s national series.
But Russell is the first African-American graduate with a national touring series title, the culmination of a remarkable five-year journey.
“Man, if you had asked me five years ago when I was getting into this, I would have never thought I would be winning a championship this weekend. I would have never thought that. But I’ve always worked hard at what I did, and it’s only a matter of time before something good is going to happen for you — and it did.
“Last year when I got hired on, I didn’t even have a deal. I practiced and I worked out, and a couple of guys got hurt, and I was there, and I was ready. So they put me into that position (jackman on Buescher’s XFINITY team), and I got it, and I stayed with it and held onto it, and it all worked out for me this year, man.”
But for the chance search on the Internet, the call to Horton and the association with the Drive for Diversity program, however, the championship might never have happened.
“It really gave me a big platform where I could start,” Russell said. “I didn’t know anybody. And it gave me a platform where I could go work out and train and learn about being at the track.
“That really helped me. That played a big part in where I’m at today.”
Image: Chris Graythen/NASCAR via Getty Images