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Group plans NASCAR protest

By Kathy Jefcoats

A little-known group of minority race fans plans to protest a NASCAR event at the Atlanta Motor Speedway Oct. 31.

Hampton Police Chief Bud Smith said representatives from the National Association for Minority Race Fans are seeking a protest permit for that day's race. However, the city ordinance does not address such a request.

"We do not have an ordinance that requires them to get a permit," he said. "But we will require them to register at city hall. We will also discuss this issue at the Oct. 5 pre-race meeting."

Little is known about the group, which has a Web site at www.namrf.com. The site displays a countdown to when the site will be open to the public, midnight Oct. 1. Until then, only members can log onto the site.

Phillip W. Offill Jr., an attorney with Dallas law firm Godwin Gruber, said he represents the group.

"This will be a fairly substantial protest," he said. "They are loud and proud and have a problem with what is going on with NASCAR."

Specifically, Offill said the group pinpoints racism and the safety of minorities and women at race events but declined to elaborate.

"Some more will come out closer to the release of the documentary," he said. "But a lot of folks, because of the color of their skin or gender, don't feel safe at race events."

In June, Griffin resident Toby Dearing, 26, pleaded guilty to killing Alisson Alvarez, 19, who was attending an event at the Atlanta Motor Speedway with her boyfriend Sept. 21, 2002. Dearing is serving life without parole.

NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said Wednesday that he is not familiar with the protest group. He said NASCAR is proud of the strides made within the organization to attract everyone as fans.

"NASCAR respects the right of all people to express their opinions and NASCAR is committed to making the sport off and on the track even more like America," he said. "No issue is more important for NASCAR to succeed and grow."

Smith said the group specifically wants to protest the Oct. 31 race – the Bass Pro Ships MBNA 500 – but Offill alluded to Talladega as another possible target but would not elaborate. The EA Sports 500 is slated at Alabama's Talladega Superspeedway Oct. 3. Talladega officials said Wednesday they have not had contact with the group, which they had not heard of.

Offill said the Web site is available only to members because they don't want to let "personalities" get out in front of the issues and concerns of the group.

Offill, 45, is a partner in the 100-lawyer firm. He worked for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission 1985-1999 and specializes in SEC enforcement and commercial litigation.

Godwin Gruber includes as its clients Ross Perot, American Airlines, the city of Dallas and Tenet Healthcare. The firm's Web site lists among its statement of practice as high profile controversies.

Smith said the group seeks a peaceful demonstration but the request itself is unusual.

"They say they are very peaceful and not aggressive," he said, "but I have not known of a race protest and I've been here since 1972. As long as they are peaceful, we'll work with them."

The group, accompanied by a film crew, first approached the Henry Superior Court clerk's office for a permit. However, Clerk Judy Lewis sent them to Hampton since the track is inside the city limits.

Getting permission to protest and actually having a place in which to do so are two different things.

"We'll have so much traffic, we don't have a place to put a large crowd of protestors," said Smith. "We'll have 15 state troopers out directing traffic and we need to have a place where protestors won't interfere or endanger themselves or anyone else."

AMS spokeswoman Angela Revell said she is not familiar with the group and has had no contact with any of its representatives. She also expressed surprise that minorities have a beef with NASCAR.

"I guess they haven't heard of Magic Johnson's minority initiatives," said Revell.

Earlier this year, sports legend Johnson announced plans to boost minority involvement in NASCAR. He told reporters in June his dad, a "big fan," took him to the track when he was a child. The event made a lasting impression.

"He used to like to drive fast, so that made me like to drive fast," said Johnson in the interview posted on www.NASCAR.com. "That's a big reason why I'm a big fan, not only of NASCAR but of drag racing as well."

During the same interview, Johnson said minority race fans don't attend events because they feel uncomfortable and because some are offended by the prominence of Confederate flags displayed by white fans.

NASCAR is also making other efforts to diversify the fan base including developing a program called "Drive for Diversity," aimed at generating well-trained minority and female drivers and crew members.

Last year, NASCAR clashed with Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition when board member Bill Shack called car racing organizations "the last bastion of white supremacy." NASCAR Chief Operating Officer George Pyne responded that his organization is "vigorously" reaching out to minorities, citing mandated sensitivity training for all employees and the formation of a diversity council, intern programs and college tours.