Truth be told, a blind man could tell you that NASCAR is racially unbalanced. There have been books written about how difficult it is for a minority to break into America's premier racing league. Well, now things are starting to look a bit better for kids looking to race stock cars at a professional level. NASCAR recently implemented a new diversity program with the intent of bringing more color into the country's second most popular sporting league. Not only that, BET has teamed up with Revolution Racing to bring a lucky and talented minority into NASCAR through a new reality show, Changing Lanes. Airing on BET on Wednesday nights at 8 p.m., the show will follow a group of young men fighting for a coveted NASCAR seat. We caught up with one of the competitors, 21-year-old Florida native Michael Cherry, to talk about how he got into racing, his views on NASCAR, being on the show, and why he wants a Subaru...
Interview by Damien Scott
Complex: How long have you been racing?
Michael Cherry: I've been racing for about six years now.
Complex: How'd you start out?
Michael Cherry: I actually didn't start racing until I was like 16, 17. Bicycle racing. I started dirt bike racing before I even got into a stock car.
Complex: How different was stock car racing for you?
Michael Cherry: It was pretty different. We didn't go straight to asphalt. We actually raced dirt for the longest time down at East Bay Raceway in Florida. I raced dirt for about two-and-a-half years before I got invited to the NASCAR combine in 2007.
Complex: Is dirt racing a big part of the culture down there?
Michael Cherry: Dirt Racing, yeah. A lot of dirt racing down there.
Complex: So was driving in NASCAR a big dream or no?
Michael Cherry: Believe it or not it wasn't. My dad owned two dirt cars and two guys drove for him. I really didn't see me being here now. My life changed drastically. I mean, I was planning on being a dirt bike racer. I was getting it in. We won two championships and a world title. I just never seen myself going in that direction. I just wanted to try the race cars. My dad owned them and I was like, "Eh, I'll just try it one time." And that's all it took.
Complex: The big story here is NASCAR looking to expand the demographic of its race series. How daunting is it to enter a sports league where no one looks like you?
Michael Cherry: When I first started racing, I really didn't look at it that way until I started moving up a little bit. I really didn't look at it until the diversity program, and once I got into the diversity program, then it really started. Don't get me wrong, we had our problems when we went to race tracks with my skin color. We had little problems, but I mean everybody's got problems. So we just kept moving on. I really haven't looked at it that way. I just look at myself as when I put my helmet on and I'm in that race car you don't see color, you see a race car driver and that's how I sort of look at it as. I mean it's tough because there's not a lot of us. You've got Wendell Scott, he sort of paved the road for us now we're sort of just...we've got to get through the door. I feel the revolution in racing. The diversity program is doing that for us.
Complex: Many people think of NASCAR as a very Southern kind of thing. Do you think that the diversity program will broaden its horizon, bring in more fans, and bring in more viewers?
Michael Cherry: Don't get me wrong: It started in North Carolina with bootleggers, so yeah, it is a bit Southern, but I don't really see where that really comes into effect. It's fresh. If you like racing, it don't matter if you're black, white, purple, African-American. It really don't matter—we're all people. Me, I just see it as, this is a sport I love and if you love that sport, then I believe we can bring that fan base and it's showing now little by little.
Complex: You mentioned something about things happening at a track because of your skin color. Can you talk about one of them?
Michael Cherry: I mean, we had problems. People just looked at me like, "He ain't going to do much. He don't know much." But dedication and hard work is what it takes to be successful. I have that side in me to want to do well and succeed. To them, I don't think they've seen what I feel—and once they did, I earned their respect on the race track. I had the worst enemy and now that's my best friend in the world. You can't judge somebody before you know them. My buddy, my best friend now, he said the same thing and he says, "Man I judged you before I knew you and now that I know you I would never dream that in a million years."
Complex: What would you say are your strengths and weaknesses are as a racer?
Michael Cherry: The biggest weakness was financial. You've got to have the sponsors and all I had was me and my dad. I've been working since I was 15 years old just to support my racing. It was tough, we struggled and we worked through it and we fought, but the last year I actually raced on the dirt we won 17 out of 19 races and a championship—my last year before I got to the diversity program. If it wasn't for the diversity program, that right there would've probably been the end of my career. We put all we could into it and we just wanted to show that we were somebody or that I was somebody to reckon with. We put every last dime that we had to stay in the fight and we stayed 'til the end.
Complex: What kind of music do you listen to? Do you play anything special before you hop into your car?
Michael Cherry: Believe it or not, I listen to country. I mean you could probably hear it from my accent. [Laughs.] Country, rock, it really doesn't matter. I mean, I listen to all of it. Especially some Ludacris. [Laughs].
Complex: So, what can we expect from the TV show? It seems like a lot of stuff goes down during the season—some fights, some arguments...
Michael Cherry: I mean there's a lot of house hacks. You've got 10 kids in the same house fighting for one spot and everybody's friends, but to a certain point. You're friends off the track, but on the track you're racing for your spot. I mean, it was tough and it was really something to work through and something we've never went through in our lives. You had the TV cameras, you had the competition. You're so overwhelmed with so much and you still have to show what you're made of.
Complex: Yeah, how hard was that for you to perform knowing there were all these cameras around?
Michael Cherry: You sort of try to turn it away. You try not to look at the cameras, you try not to look at it. It's hard because you have the cameras, you gotta watch what you say. You got so much going around you at once and you're trying to focus on what you're doing. It was a lot of pressure.
Complex: Who are some of your favorite race car drivers?
Michael Cherry: Favorite race car drivers...one of them would have to be one of the guys who raced for my dad, David Simpson, that would be one of them. That'd be the person I'd look at the most and I'm gonna say... Wendell Scott would be one of my idols definitely.
Complex: Besides NASCAR, are there any other forms of car racing that you want to get into? Like rally or IndyCar?
Michael Cherry: To tell you the truth, I wouldn't mind trying an IndyCar, that would be pretty cool. The biggest thing I'm focused on right now is stock cars. I'd love to do the stock car road course, I haven't got to do that quite yet. I don't know if you've ever seen a Figure 8 Race? I've done that. The Indianapolis Speedrome. I've done it last year. It's actually a three-hour Figure 8 Race.
Complex: Over in Formula 1, Lewis Hamilton, the first black F1 driver, is killing it. Do you follow his races? Or follow Formula 1 at all?
Michael Cherry: I mean, I hear about it and I watch on the Speed Channel. There's a lot going on with him, you can hear that anywhere. Just being the first African-American to win that championship. I'd love to see myself or Ryan Gifford or Darrell Hall or any of them be that person, the first African-American to win here. I have a couple back home: being the first African-American to win at certain dirt tracks. It's cool to see your name at the top. The first African-American to actually win at these places. I just got one this year at Track County. I was one of the first African-Americans to win at Track County. It's pretty cool seeing that.
Complex: What kind of cars do you drive when you're not racing? What's are your top three favorite cars?
Michael Cherry: First, I have a Ford F-150 pickup truck, because you've got to have something you can drive in the mud. My second one would be the first thing I've ever owned, it was a motorcycle, a GSXR-1000, but I'm not allowed on them no more. [Laughs.] I've never been much of a car person, but if I had to choose, I'm gonna say a Subaru. One of the ones they do the rally racing with, that one. I'd like to try that. I've never really thought of that. That would be fun. [Laughs.]
Complex: Many people think NASCAR is boring to watch. What would you tell people out there to convince them to tune in?
Michael Cherry: The main thing I would say is go to the race track and watch it. I could understand the whole, you're at home, you're comfortable, you're watching it. I mean, you've got a million things going through your mind. When you go to the race track and actually watch a NASCAR race, that's when you get the buzz. I've had a million people say that: "It's just boring. You watch it on TV, it's boring." Until you go watch a race live, you will not see the real part of NASCAR. I was the same way. I was like, "Man I just can't watch this on TV," but until I went to Daytona and watched it from the infield—cars zipping by, smelling the fuel, the whole nine yards...
Complex: Yeah, it definitely makes a big difference once you go see it live. You're completely overtaken...
Michael Cherry: Breathtaking almost. Until you're sitting there and you hear 43 cars fire up you're just like, "Wow! Really?"
Complex: What are you doing when you're not racing? How do you have fun outside of racing?
Michael Cherry: Actually I go home every once and a while when I'm not racing and hang out with some of my friends and, believe it or not, we'll actually go dirt bike racing or just go out and have a little bit of fun. Relax a little bit and get away from the racing—but not get away from it. It always turns into a race between me and my buddies. We'll be riding and I'll be like, "You wanna race?" So there's always racing involved. [Laughs.]
Complex: What do you hope the show accomplishes?
Michael Cherry: I believe the TV show is gonna draw attention and draw more African-American kids to racing. They're gonna hopefully go to their local racetrack and watch people race. And hopefully African-Americans go to the short track and go watch racing and they'll have us to cheer for. They'll have the diversity program and to me that's going to be the start of it. And it can only get better from here.