Former NFL player and Prince George’s county native Shawne Merriman brought NASCAR to youth in the metropolitan area Oct. 2. Just months following his initial visit to D.C. for the launch of his “Light’s Out” clothing line, Merriman hosted his very first “Light’s Out Youth Activation Drive” event at Dover International Speedway in Dover, Del.
“Number 36 car, Jeffrey Nguzi – who’s one of two African Americans in the sport – our initiatives were the same. Really just to bridge the gap. NASCAR is a great sport and unless you’re able to have the opportunity to go to these tracks and go to the events, you’ll never know,” Merriman told the AFRO.
Merriman’s partnership with NASCAR was an intricate part of blending his vision and program together. He says he is happy to bring kids from his home town to a NASCAR arena. Students from area schools such as James Madison High School in Vienna, Va., were bussed to the event in addition to children from the Baltimore and D.C. areas.
“Growing up as a kid I watched NASCAR TV all the time and I just saw them going at 180 miles an hour, 200 miles an hour around a circle– it didn’t look that exciting,” he said. “But when I went to the track in 2008 when I was invited to be the grand marshal in this Montana race in Montana, it just opened my eyes to something way bigger. It’s so much excitement, and adrenaline, and energy. And once the children get to experience it for the first time I think they’re going to be hooked like I was.”
Merriman said he expected about 10,000 to 15,000 people in addition to the students. “Big up to them too because, you know obviously, it’s been out there and they’ve talked about it, NASCAR diversity issue, but NASCAR has not only opened its arms to me but to supporting this cause.” While the Confederate flag was once a staple at NASCAR events, in 2015 the organization asked, but did not insist, attendees to not display the divisive symbol. Today the Confederate flag is still flown by patrons, although in smaller numbers than in the past.
Merriman told the AFRO he intends for the launch event to be the first of many throughout the year around. “Everybody is not going to be a professional football player or a professional athlete, but you can be involved in NASCAR. You can be involved in the organization. You could possibly work with NASCAR in the future and things like that. NASCAR is a huge, huge company. There’s all kinds of opportunities to do that and hopefully I can provide some of that and kind of open the door,” said Merriman.