Racing Still Has a Diversity Problem. Robb Holland’s Got a Plan to Fix It

Holland’s plan isn’t some quick-fix thing designed only to earn headlines.

byFeb 14, 2022 3:42 PM
Racing Still Has a Diversity Problem. Robb Holland’s Got a Plan to Fix It
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Robb Holland, accomplished race car driver, automotive journalist, and friend of and contributor to The Drive, thanks his dad for all of this. 

"He was like, 'I don't mind being the first one through the door,'" Holland told me in a recent interview. "'But I want to make sure that I am not the last one through the door.'" 

Holland's father, Robert Holland Jr. (yes, Robb Holland is technically Robert Holland III), lived a life of incredible leadership. Besides being the first Black partner at McKinsey & Company and Ben & Jerrys' first Black CEO, he also served as a chairman and director at countless other companies. Though he died this past Christmas at the age of 81, his beliefs live on in his son.

"That philosophy made me look around and realize that I've been in [motorsport] for almost two decades now," Holland said. "And in terms of diversity, it is only moderately better off than it was when I first started." 

Holland doesn't think of himself as a Black driver and journalist. He's just a driver and journalist who happens to be Black, as he wrote for us in June 2020. Luckily, he hasn't had to overcome any obstacles that were overtly put in his way that had to do with his race. "I've been fortunate because my father was a fairly well-known corporate executive. I grew up having an understanding of what corporations wanted and were looking for in their partners," he said. That, in addition to his days spent racing bicycles—where he also had to work with sponsors to make a living off of it—are what Holland attributes to his own longevity in the sport. 

But as one of the very few Black pro drivers and automotive and motorsports journalists, he sees it as his duty to keep that door open behind him for others to follow if they so choose. Just because something wasn't a problem for Holland doesn't mean he won't recognize it as a problem for others. Holland's own activism, then, includes speaking up, speaking out, and being as visible as possible so others can see that you don't need to be a white man in order to drive, wrench, or write.

The Natural Momentum of Things

The galvanizing murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers in 2020 swept the nation, with company after company subsequently pledging better DEI initiatives and outreach. The automotive landscape was no different. Programs sprang up, solidarity

statements appeared on corporate press sites and Twitter

Now, two years later, I asked Holland if he thought places like the motorsport industry have continued the move in the way that everybody pledged it would—or if that momentum has slowed.

"I think the momentum slowed, but that's always going to be what happens," Holland said. "I don't see any evil intent behind it. It's just the natural ebb and flow of things, but the one thing that made an impact is that it created a different platform for us to work with." 

Before, according to Holland, it was much more difficult to make a stand and push for diversity. Now, though, there's an opportunity to be heard. "We," Holland said, indicating himself, Bubba Wallace, and Lewis Hamilton, "are stepping up now that we have a platform to say, 'Yes, we are proud Black drivers, we are in this sport, and we want to do things to help the sport going forward.' We now have a voice to be able to go do that. Whereas before, I didn't see quite as much."

There's still a ton of work to be done, though.

The Problem With Programs

"What I see out of other programs is this need to hire Black drivers to put out there and basically showcase, 'Hey, we are doing something with diversity,'" Holland said. "The reason they do that is that it's the most public way to go about doing things. As drivers, we're the ones that get all the press and the publicity. If you put a Black mechanic on a team, that's not going to make the cover of USA Today, but you put a Black driver in IndyCar, Indy Lights, NASCAR, or whatever, you can go, 'Hey, there's our diversity program.' That's on the front page of USA Today. Then, everyone can pat themselves on the back and say, 'We've done something with diversity.'"

He went on, "The problem with that is that as soon as that driver loses their funding—which will happen as a natural ebb and flow in two or three years—you're not creating a platform for that driver to succeed past the racing they're currently doing. More importantly, you're not creating a platform for any more drivers like them to come through."

But by using that quick-fix approach, companies can then "blunt any potential possible criticism" that says they aren't doing enough by pointing to their headline-grabbing campaign, according to Holland. "That's the thing that's the most frustrating," he said. "It doesn't create permanent, sustainable change. It basically diverts any attention away from the problem. And then that way, we can all go back to doing what we're doing."

A Solution Without a Name

Frustrated but clearly not content just to focus on his own career, Holland took things into his own hands. Last April, he announced on Jalopnik that he was starting a new diversity program in racing. 

It doesn't have an official name, by the way; Holland called it "just a thing." He said, "I always find that programs that have names are like, 'Hey, let's draw attention to this thing.'" This isn't that. 

And it's not just for hiring more Black drivers, either. It's meant for everyone for all positions. Holland and his team, Rotek Racing, recruited David Middleton, a Black Nürburgring race engineer, and Brian Ma, an Asian-American ex-Champ Car engineer, to not only help out with their race car but also to find and cultivate underrepresented talent in the motorsports world. (Anyone looking to get involved can reach out here.)

Everyone participating in the program has two roles, with part of it being identifying talent, whatever and wherever that might be. "If we can't bring people through the program directly," Holland said, "we will at least steer them to areas where they can nurture that talent. And then, hopefully, in a period of time, we can bring them onto the program."

It's no easy task; Holland will be the first to tell you that. "We don't have someone like Roger Penske backing this where you can throw a couple of million dollars at it. We can't create this perfect program right away," he said. "But through Rotek Racing, we want to create a platform to attract the talent that might be out there that hasn't gotten or doesn't know how to get a chance." 

Rotek Racing has run in everything from the British Touring Car Championship to the German VLN Endurance Championship and beyond. So there's a lot of experience to be passed onto others. "One of the complaints that we always hear when you're looking at doing diversity hiring is that people should be there 'on merit'," Holland said. "It's the most frustrating argument to me in the world because how do you know if someone has merit unless they've been given a chance?" 

That's where Holland and his team come in to hopefully make a difference. The point isn't to hold onto a hire forever; the point is to bring them through, hone their skills, and then get them out to other teams within the paddock. 

Looking forward, Holland and his team want to expand their outreach, to go and see if they connect with high school and college kids who could be looking for career ideas. Webinars, post-race debriefs with Ma and Middleton—these are all in the realm of possibility. But the challenge here will be what to do after getting the kids excited. 

"This is obviously the issue with not having an unlimited budget to create something that gives these kids the next step," Holland said. "But some of the kids we hope to inspire are ones that are in college already—[we can] direct them to the engineering degrees. Or, kids who haven't gone to college and maybe want to go to vocational school—try to get them into some of the schools that are for mechanics." 

Follow-through is crucial at this stage. "We're trying to identify how we direct kids after getting them excited in our webinar because we don't want to start this, have them say, 'Yeah, this is great,' and then have nowhere to go," Holland explained. "We try to let those kids know that, 'Hey, look, there are amazing opportunities even if you're not a race mechanic.' If being a mechanic is your passion, you can make a really good living to be a mechanic for a dealership. There's so much need for dealership mechanics now."

Inevitable Resistance

Ironically, it seems like most of the resistance Holland encounters—people questioning why we need diversity programs where candidates should be selected on merit alone, or the discomfort that comes when racial issues are brought up at all—happens now, after he's already established himself. Holland gets that it's a difficult topic. It puts people on the defensive and it's very difficult to have a rational conversation after that. (One could reasonably argue it's also a conversation very few in power are willing to have.)

But Holland doesn't think this resistance is always done in bad faith or comes from a racist place. It's a matter of differences in perspective—understanding that underrepresented people just have not had equal exposure to and opportunities in racing. This is something that's harder for a white person to spot because it's typically never been an issue for them, never been a problem to overcome or a question that got asked.

First touching on it in his story about Wallace's NASCAR victory, Holland explained that motorsports are a very generational sport—perhaps more so than any other sport. People in motorsport most likely have had a relative of some kind who was in it, whether it be a cousin, sibling, father, or uncle. Through that, they gain access to the behind-the-scenes stuff, teams, team owners, and engineers. People from underrepresented communities have traditionally not been offered such luxuries. "We were excluded from a lot of those things back in the day," Holland said. "It has been much harder for [us] to get in that door."

Furthermore, Holland believes it's human nature to hire and associate with people that look most like themselves. But when white men are the only ones in charge of motorsport, they tend only to hire people who look, think, talk, and walk like them. These two factors, combined, are "why there's no diversity in motorsport," Holland said. Little by little, he's trying to change that. The door isn't closed. For now, it's just very, very hard to find.

"There isn't a short-term solution," Holland said. "Hiring one Black mechanic or one Black engineer isn't going to create a diverse paddock by tomorrow. But what we want to do is seed the paddock with [underrepresented] people so that hopefully they will inspire others to come in. That's not going to happen in a year or two or three or five. Hopefully, it happens in 10."

It's an uphill battle, but Holland is extremely well-equipped to fight it. Not only is he pushing for racial visibility and inclusion on a grand level, but he also involves himself in the minutiae of the fight—like being a constant presence in the comments section of diversity-focused stories he writes for The Drive or other outlets. We like to think that the comments section here is a respectful place—and it largely is thanks to you wonderful readers—but it's the internet and there will always be the trolls who show up, asking bad faith questions about why this is all necessary. Holland is always there, doing the exhausting work of educating those who don't seem like they want to be educated.

At this, Holland laughed. "I've gotten in a position where I just don't give a fuck," he responded. "The questions have no power over me. Because of that, I can answer them honestly and not care what they think. To me, that's a power a lot of people don't have." And he's trying to use it for good.

Got a tip? Hit me up at kristen@thedrive.com.