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Ithaca native Jusan Hamilton shapes NASCAR's diverse future, plays key role on race days

Andrew Legare
Ithaca Journal

Jusan Hamilton's view of NASCAR races isn't the cockpit perspective he pictured while racing on dirt tracks in upstate New York growing up. But in some ways it's even better because the Ithaca native is helping an entire race series move forward instead of a single car.

Hamilton, 30, has held the title of race director and director of racing operations and event management for NASCAR for the last four years. His myriad roles with stock-car racing's sanctioning body are lengthy in their own right and a big part of where the sport is headed in more ways than one.

He is in the tower on race days making calls on everything from when a caution flag comes out to penalties and weather delays. During the week Hamilton puts together schedules for race weekends and helps coordinate efforts with NASCAR's TV partners. He also oversees NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program, which is helping to bring more minority and female drivers and pit crew members into the sport.

It's not quite a dream come true for the youngster who hoped to become a professional driver, but it's a dream job nevertheless for someone who in 2017 became the first African American race director in NASCAR history.

Ithaca native Jusan Hamilton during practice for the NASCAR XFINITY Series Service  King 300 at Auto Club Speedway on March 24, 2017, in Fontana, California.

"It's been a really challenging position, which I love about the position," Hamilton said. "A lot of things going on. Those four years have really flown by, but it's been a really good challenge and a position I've really taken a lot of pride in learning and growing within the last four years."

Hamilton lives in Port Orange, Florida, near NASCAR's headquarters in Daytona Beach, with his fellow Ithaca College graduate wife, Charis, and their two young daughters, 3-year-old Weslyn and 4-month-old Reila.

After graduating from Ithaca High in 2008, he earned degrees from Ithaca College in integrated marketing communications and sociology. All along, he had designs on a career in motorsports, even if the economic realities of trying to make it as a young driver led him to change course in high school.

Former NASCAR driver Elton Sawyer, who is vice president of officiating and technical inspection for the series, is a mentor who describes Hamilton's work ethic as "second to none."

"I haven't seen anything he has been asked to do that he doesn't do with class and does it with a great attitude and works hard at it," Sawyer said. "Going into a race weekend and all the moving parts, just calling the race and sitting up there and the challenges that go with that on Sunday, he's the last one that we'll have to worry about being prepared for a weekend."

Shifting gears

Ithaca native Jusan Hamilton during practice for the NASCAR XFINITY Series Service  King 300 at Auto Club Speedway on March 24, 2017 in Fontana, California.

Hamilton recalls seeing a race car for the first time during Super DIRT Week at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse when he was about 4. He joined his grandfather and immediate family in visiting tracks across the Northeast, from NASCAR weekends and other events at Watkins Glen International, to trips to Pocono Raceway and Dover International Speedway.

Young Jusan drove go-karts, mini-sprints and advanced to compete in a Sportsman Modified car until going to college. Dundee's Black Rock Speedway (now Outlaw Speedway) and Thunder Mountain Speedway in Lisle were among his regular tracks. He played baseball and basketball, then competed in track and football for Ithaca High, but racing never lost its grip as Hamilton's favorite athletic pursuit.

"Racing was always the sport I connected with the most and really became a motivating factor for me on a number of levels throughout my life," he said.

Jusan Hamilton (9) combines with a teammate to make a tackle for Ithaca High School in a 2007 high school football game against Horseheads.

Doing well in school was tied to setting himself up for a career in racing. He picked up odd jobs to help support racing expenses. Hamilton applied to the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program, but he wasn't accepted largely because he didn't have experience in higher-powered cars. At that point the realization hit that perhaps becoming a driver was not feasible.

"I realized the cost and uphill battle we were fighting there was going to be a pretty big challenge and that's where my goals kind of switched," he said.

He pushed toward his degrees at Ithaca College with hopes to work for a marketing agency or a company involved as a sponsor or vendor for NASCAR. His racing background, and sports in general, proved valuable assets.

"He's tied to a lot of the things that we do and we're just lucky to have him on our team," Sawyer said. "He's a true professional the way he prepares for events, which is no surprise knowing his background and being an athlete. Just a great human being."

Jusan Hamilton stands on the track after the NASCAR Xfinity auto race at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., Saturday, March 25, 2017.

Hamilton received an internship at Watkins Glen International, where he worked in the public relations department, helping out during the Sahlen's Six Hours of the Glen sportscar weekend and the Finger Lakes Wine Festival. From there he was accepted into the NASCAR Diversity Internship Program, where he helped out in racing operations.

"I was able to make a lot of connections and learn a lot about how the industry works from a business standpoint and the different job opportunities within the industry," he said.

Race day responsibilities

Ithaca native Jusan Hamilton during practice for the NASCAR XFINITY Series Service  King 300 at Auto Club Speedway on March 24, 2017 in Fontana, California.

Hamilton is scheduled to travel to 28 race weekends this year, with those weekends generally including two to four events between the top Cup Series, Xfinity Series and Gander RV & Outdoor Truck Series. Tim Berman and Hamilton each do half of the Cup races among their responsibilities.

With 40 or so cars on the track jockeying for position and crashes common, a lot of pieces are involved in making up the bigger picture at NASCAR races that routinely last three hours or more. Hamilton's responsibility is to help make sure everything runs smoothly during what some might view as controlled chaos.

"You want to make the right decisions. You don't want to impact competition in a negative way," he said.

He tries to take a calm approach to his duties, even as cars speed by down below at 200 miles per hour.

"There's going to be pressure-packed times for sure, but my approach is you don't want the adrenaline to get to you," he said. "Leave that to the competitors on the track and just focus on making the right decision for what you have control of in the tower."

For a track like the sprawling road course at Watkins Glen, it's much the same. TV cameras become more valuable at WGI and turn spotters positioned around the track are valuable resources. Pandemic complications led this year's race at Watkins Glen to be moved to Daytona Beach, but as expected the track is on next year's schedule.

Drive for Diversity

Jusan Hamilton, Manager of Racing Operations and Event Management, speaks to competitors during the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Combine at the NASCAR Research and Development Center on May 25, 2018 in Concord, North Carolina.

Diversity has been a significant topic for NASCAR this year, most notably when it banned Confederate flags at its races.

Bubba Wallace, the only Black driver in NASCAR's top Cup Series, was part of a national story in June after a noose was discovered in his car's stall at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. The FBI determined that a hate crime had not been committed in relation to the noose, and said the noose, which was used as a garage door pull rope, had been in the stall since the year before.

Within NASCAR, Hamilton is among those spearheading efforts to bring more diversity to the sport. The Drive for Diversity Program partners with Rev Racing to develop young minority and female drivers and pit crew members, with the ARCA Menards Series a key part of the program.

"I really enjoy what I'm doing with the Driver Diversity Program and that relates directly back to me racing when I was growing up," Hamilton said. "To help a kid maybe reach that same point that I did where financially we couldn't go any further in racing, but to help them have that next opportunity and really structure the program in a way where we find kids that were in the exact situation I was in. Where instead of having them on their own go try and get experience in the larger car, we now have a structure in our program and a ladder system to spring kids in like that."

Brett Bodine (left), Jusan Hamilton (center) at the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Combine at New Smyrna Speedway on October 23, 2018 in New Smyrna Beach, Florida.

Hamilton said he never thought of NASCAR's perception as a largely white sport as a roadblock for him or a concern. While pointing out Black racers such as Willie T. Ribbs, Bill Lester and James "Bubba" Stewart as some of his role models, Hamilton added he also saw white drivers who fit that category for him growing up.

He mentioned Wallace and promising talents such as Rajah Caruth and Lavar Scott as some of the success stories from the program. Hamilton said it will take the whole industry, including sponsors and manufacturers, to help NASCAR's driver base continue to become more diverse at the top levels.

The recent announcement that NBA legend Michael Jordan will field a team with longtime driver Denny Hamlin that features Wallace as their driver is "huge" news for NASCAR, Hamilton said, adding he is excited to see how that collaboration develops over the next few years.

Racing family, part two

Jusan Hamilton talks  NASCAR Drive for Diversity Combine participants at New Smyrna Speedway on October 23, 2018 in New Smyrna Beach, Florida.

Family and racing were intertwined for Hamilton growing up and it's still that way now that he has his own children. Weslyn is already a motorsports fan as a 3-year-old. Her favorite driver is Kyle Busch, with the bright colors of his M&M's-sponsored car part of the attraction.

"I've taken her to the local dirt track down here, Volucia Speedway, a number of times," Hamilton said. "I think she just enjoys watching the cars go past. That's a pretty cool thing to see."

Hamilton describes being a dad as "life-changing" and said the opportunity to help provide for his family doing something he loves is not lost on him.

"I just want to be able to contribute in a positive way and help the sport grow and help the sport move forward in any way possible," he said. "Whatever position that lands me in or leads me to, I'm open to. But right now I'm definitely enjoying working in racing and I still have the same passion for it that led me here."

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