FONTANA, Calif. (AP) — Jusan Hamilton grew up working on cars in his grandfather’s garage, and he has been in love with motorsports ever since.
He dreamed of driving all the way from upstate New York’s dirt tracks to the bright lights of NASCAR. When it didn’t work out behind the wheel, he poured himself into a career behind the scenes of racing.
Hamilton hit a milestone Saturday when he debuted as a NASCAR race director for the Xfinity Series event at Fontana. He is the first black race director in NASCAR history, and his co-workers say the 26-year-old can go any direction he chooses in the sport he loves.
“I think this sport is open to everyone,” Hamilton said. “Like myself, if you find a passion in this sport and it’s something you enjoy, I think there’s an opportunity for everyone to come into the sport.”
Hamilton likens a race director to a quarterback. Wearing a headset in the control tower high above Auto Club Speedway, Hamilton communicates with track and race officials while overseeing everything that occurs in the race, including penalties, crashes and cleanups.
Hamilton has to make quick decisions involving safety personnel and even emergency services, and he had plenty to do in an eventful Xfinity race that featured several yellow flags and plenty of car damage.
Just three weeks after getting married to his college sweetheart, Hamilton ran his first race without a significant hitch.
After getting extensive experience in other areas of NASCAR’s operation, Hamilton has been preparing for this new role for several months. He oversaw the practice sessions at Fontana earlier in the week before his first chance to run the show in a real race.
“Having a really good understanding of racing coming in has definitely benefited me,” Hamilton said. “I’ve been observing, and I’ve been on the radio for a while now.”
Hamilton became a multisport athlete who participated in track and field at Ithaca College, even while he dreamed of driving like Kevin Harvick and Bobby Labonte. Hamilton applied to NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity training program, which helps minority drivers — but he wasn’t accepted.
He still did three internships in various aspects of sports before landing a full-time job with NASCAR four years ago. Jim Cassidy, NASCAR’s senior vice president of racing operations, has played a significant role in Hamilton’s extensive experience across several departments.
“He’s younger, but he’s curious, and he probably knows as much as I do from a race procedure standpoint, having been a driver,” Cassidy said. “There are some instances where I’m going to learn from him. … I want those working close with me to know everything I know, and I think that helps our relationship quite a bit, because he’s a sponge. It’s a pleasure to work with him. A pleasure to see where he’s come from, and where he could go.”
NASCAR has made extensive efforts to expand its fan base and internal structure beyond the white, Southern stereotype commonly imposed on the sport, although CEO Brian France’s endorsement of Donald Trump last year undid some of that work.
The governing body has established internships, outreach programs and even more specialized ideas, such as a program to welcome minority athletes for training to work on pit crews. Hamilton oversaw that pit crew program along with his new competition responsibilities.
Hamilton realized he wasn’t racing with many other minorities during his youth in New York, but he didn’t perceive any obstacles because of it.
“I don’t really think race comes into play at all when it comes to who ends up in the sport,” Hamilton said. “It’s just a matter of the knowledge of the sport, and some people don’t get that opportunity to learn about the sport at a young age like I did. So if you have that family member who has that connection and can share that with you, or if you develop it on your own, I think there’s a path for everyone.”
Except for an occasional stint in an iRacing simulator, Hamilton doesn’t have much time to get behind the wheel. He’s too busy driving his own career forward.
“I want to continue to be a successful race director, and I’d like to stay with the company somewhere on the competition side,” Hamilton said. “Anything that allows me to positively influence the sport, that would be my goal.”