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Sam Belnavis

Sam Belnavis: Racing Toward Success

By Mary C. Curtis

For all of his life, Sam Belnavis has been a pioneer. Though best known as an African American alone at the top ranks of the racing world, his singular accomplishments started long before that.

A track star and double bass player in high school, Belnavis won an athletic and music scholarship to Manhattan College, where he was also in the Air Force ROTC. After receiving an accounting degree, he earned a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Michigan. In 1968 he became the first African-American management trainee for Sears, and moved up the ladder to become assistant personnel director of the eastern territory.

Belnavis joined the Miller Brewing Company in the late 1970s, and in 1978 was chosen to manage the new sports marketing department. He broke into NASCAR, and signed driver Bobby Allison to a Miller sponsorship contract.

Belnavis and Bill Cosby owned a team who raced Willy T. Ribbs in the Indianapolis 500, where Ribbs became the event’s first African-American driver. Belnavis blazed paths, as a general manager and race team owner, and introduced the National Guard to NASCAR as sponsor of his team, BelCar racing, with driver Todd Bodine.

“The best part of my career is creating opportunities for African Americans,” Belnavis said. “I was fairly intense about it. I believed that if you are placed in a leadership or pioneer position in corporate America, you have to be willing to sacrifice your job, because you’re going to confront someone who’s going to tell you, ‘I’m not going to do that,’ and you have to be ready to take them to task at great risk.”

Though Belnavis is retired as chief diversity officer and owner-designate at Roush Fenway Racing, he visits the office frequently to keep up with the sport and team. He is chairman of the board of the N.C. Motorsports Foundation and the Ten80 Education STEM (Science, Technology Engineering, Mathematics) Foundation, which provides grants for curriculum through 12th grade. Belnavis consults with NASCAR, and is developing an engineering curriculum focused on students at historically black colleges and universities. “Most youth and fans don’t look at NASCAR as a career opportunity,” he said.

In Charlotte, Belnavis is past president of the 100 Black Men of Greater Charlotte and chaired Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration for six years before turning it over to his daughter, Cherise. He and Chris, his wife of 50 years, are the parents of four and the grandparents of seven. Belnavis is a life member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc., and a member of Jonesville AME Zion Church in Matthews, North Carolina.

Belnavis says that his parents and a staunch Catholic education set his standards and goals high. He was raised in Brooklyn, New York, by a mother from Trinidad and a father from Jamaica. “They held me accountable to my education,” he said.

His relationship with NASCAR has not always been smooth, as he faced resistance and skepticism. He says Humpy Wheeler, former president of Charlotte Motor Speedway, “took me under his wing because he knew what was ahead of me being an African American coming into this deeply rooted Southern sport,” Belnavis said.

Now Belnavis is part of the NASCAR family, finding time to jet to races while placing most of his efforts on creating opportunities for the next generations.

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