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Minority team, Guard ready to race

©Associated Press
August 30, 2002

CONCORD, N.C. -- A minority-owned race team took the first step toward breaking into NASCAR when it announced sponsorship commitment, a temporary driver and plans to run a full Winston Cup season in 2003.

BH Motorsports said it would field a Chevrolet in three races this season with Ron Hornaday as the driver. The goal is to have a minority in the seat in 2003.

The team is owned by Sam Belnavis and Tinsley Hughes, two black men who have been involved in racing in various capacities over the years but have been unable to launch a team.

"We constantly knocked on doors and the doors were always closed," Belnavis said. "It was so frustrating to know you possess the skills, the tools and the knowledge to lead a Winston Cup but couldn't get a door to open."

Their efforts were helped seven months ago when they approached car owner Rick Hendrick, who fields four Winston Cup cars, including Jeff Gordon's.

"The relationship with Rick Hendrick is the number one reason we are here today," Belnavis said.

Hornaday will drive the car at Charlotte, Atlanta and Rockingham, N.C., this season and the Army National Guard will sponsor the No. 54. The number signifies the 50 states and four territories from which the National Guard draws its reserves.

The Guard has agreed to sponsor the car next season, but Hornaday probably will be replaced because BH Motorsports wants a minority driver.

To help their efforts, they are teaming with the Guard on a Driver Diversity Development program to groom minorities and women for Winston Cup rides. Belnavis said they probably would achieve that by entering cars in ARCA races.

Hendrick said he would help the team by providing engines, chassis, pit crew training and any other resources he has available at his shop.

"It is our duty to try to make this work," Hendrick said. "We will open up our resources to them and let them use what we have. And I believe there will be other car owners who will step up and help make this happen."

STUDENT DRIVER: Sarah Fisher is spending her weekdays in the classroom and her weekends in a race car for the next few weeks as she concludes a breakthrough season.

Fisher started classes Wednesday at Butler University in Indianapolis, where she's a sophomore and her major is undecided.

The Indy Racing League season, which has two races to go, ends Sept. 15.

"For the next month or so, my job remains No. 1, but the real classroom pressure won't come until the end of the semester, so that's perfect timing," Fisher said.

"It's hard to concentrate on something else when I'm racing and that showed in my grades. When I wasn't racing last year, I got A's and B's, but during the racing season I had an occasional C."

She has earned what would be the equivalent of high grades in her second IRL season, winning the pole position and leading the first 26 laps at Kentucky Speedway last month and starting ninth in May at the Indianapolis 500 with a qualifying speed of 229.439 mph -- easily the fastest by a woman in Indy history.

FATALITY CLOSES DRAGWAY: Cordova (Ill.) Dragway Park was closed to midweek practice after the second fatality of the season.

Joe Esolato, 44, died at an Iowa hospital late Tuesday of injuries from a fiery crash during last weekend's O'Reilly Auto Parts 49th World Series of Drag Racing.

The first 2002 fatality at Cordova came in June when Dennis Begyn, 48, had an engine fail in his dragster, resulting in a fatal rollover.

"Both fatalities were different from each other," said Scott Gardner, Cordova's track owner and operator.

He said Esolato's dragster apparently started the race without its gas cap, causing fuel to leak under the tires. He said the car then went into a slide, tipped onto its side and burst into flames.

It was the fourth driver death since the track opened in 1956.

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