Family, NASCAR remember motorsports pioneer Sam Belnavis

CHARLOTTE — Sam Belnavis, the former Chief Diversity Officer and Owner-Designate for Roush Fenway Racing and a motorsports pioneer, died last Wednesday. He was 81.

Belnavis was a trailblazer as a Black general manager and team owner in NASCAR. He introduced the National Guard as a sponsor of his team, BelCar Racing, with crew chief Travis Carter and driver Todd Bodine.

Prior to that, Belnavis had joined the Miller Brewing Company in the late 1970s and managed the sports marketing department. He broke into NASCAR when he signed driver Bobby Allison to a Miller Brewing Company sponsorship contract. Two years later, Allison won the NASCAR Cup Series championship in the No. 22 Miller High Life Ford.

His daughter Cherise took Channel 9 reporter Ken Lemon down memory lane at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

“All of the blood, sweat and tears he put in to having a seat at the table,” she said as she touched the car she remembers sitting in as a child.

She says she didn’t fully understand how determined her father was until she found a stack of letters from Fortune 500 companies that rejected his requests for sponsorship.

“I started to realize how many times he was told, ‘No, this doesn’t make sense. African Americans don’t really care about NASCAR’ ... but he kept pushing,” she said.

Her father’s hard work and efforts led to NASCAR’s Drive For Diversity Program and the Belnavis Collective, NASCAR’s Black Employee Resource Group named in his honor.

“To say that Sam Belnavis was a trailblazer and a pioneer in this sport would be an understatement,” said Brandon Thompson with NASCAR.

The organization also released the following statement upon news of Belnavis’ passing:

“We are saddened by the passing of Sam Belnavis, a true pioneer in motorsports whose tireless work helped foster an inclusive environment throughout NASCAR. For more than 30 years, his efforts as a team owner and executive, as well as his work to support the launch of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Program, helped introduce career opportunities in NASCAR to people of color. NASCAR offers its deepest condolences to Sam’s friends and family.”

On Sunday, NASCAR held a moment of silence in Belnavis’ honor at the race in New Hampshire.

His daughter recorded it with her cell phone.

“He always knew there was a place for us in the sport,” she said.

NASCAR.com contributed to this article.

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