Ryan Gifford set for Nationwide debut

Updated: July 17, 2013, 9:02 AM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

Ryan Gifford, a 24-year-old African-American stock car racer, will make his NASCAR national series debut Aug. 3 at Iowa Speedway, his first start in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

The Winchester, Tenn., native will be in the No. 33 Menards/Rheem Chevrolet Camaro of Richard Childress Racing, a car already driven this year by the all-star likes of Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart and Camping World Truck Series title contender Ty Dillon, grandson of team owner Richard Childress.

A formal announcement is expected Wednesday afternoon.

It's a one-race deal aimed at gauging Gifford's development and will be part of an Iowa doubleheader weekend. On Aug. 2, he will compete in the event for the NASCAR K&N East Series, in which he is a full-time driver. He's currently fourth in the championship standings with a win at Richmond International Raceway. That victory is what inspired Childress to give Gifford an opportunity in the Nationwide Series.

[+] EnlargeRyan Gifford
Justin Edmonds/NASCAR/Getty ImagesRyan Gifford, set to make his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut, poses at Iowa Speedway.

"As recently as a year ago, I thought my career was stalled out. I thought I might be done as a driver," Gifford told ESPN The Magazine via telephone Tuesday evening. "But now we've got a chance to win a championship in the East Series, I won the race at Richmond and now I'm finally getting a chance at the national level. I've gone from feeling like my career might be finished to everything moving back in high gear. I owe so much to Richard Childress Racing for this chance."

Gifford's relationship with Childress runs deeper than most. He also is a race shop employee of RCR vice president Mike Dillon, Childress' son-in-law and father of Ty and Nationwide Series title hopeful Austin Dillon.

Gifford moved in with the Dillon family in 2008, when as a teenager he came to North Carolina seeking a NASCAR ride. In the years since, he has driven for both Team Dillon and RCR in lower-level stock car series. It was Gifford's prowess in a Dillon-prepared dirt late model that first earned him a ride with RCR in the K&N East Series in '09.

This year he has run full time in that series with Rev Racing, the team charged with developing young drivers as part of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity (D4D) since 2010. Rev Racing is owned by Max Siegel, a former musician and NASCAR team executive who also has served as CEO and president of USA Track & Field since May 2012.

Both Siegel and NASCAR's longtime push to diversify its stable of drivers have been the target of criticism over the years. But their efforts have quietly started gaining traction. Since joining into their partnership in 2010, five different Rev/D4D drivers have won races in the K&N East Series.

When Gifford races at Iowa, he will join Rev/D4D alum Kyle Larson, a Japanese American who is seventh in the Nationwide Series standings. That same day, another Rev product, African-American Darrell Wallace Jr., will be competing at the Pocono Raceway in the Truck Series, ranked 10th with five top-10 finishes in nine starts. Just as significant are the teams with which each driver is affiliated. Larson is under contract with Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, Wallace with Joe Gibbs Racing and Gifford with RCR, teams that are among the NASCAR elite in terms of resources and résumés.

Like Larson and Wallace, Gifford routinely sidesteps any questions that might draw attention to his ethnicity. Instead, he politely deflects the conversation back to his on-track performance.

"We all feel like we've kind of grown up together," Gifford said. "Now I'm hooking back up with those guys, but at the national level. That's a big deal. Now, like them, I just need to make the most of this chance I've been given and keep moving up."

Ryan McGee | email

ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR