The 2019 New York Lizards season has not gone the way that Owner Andrew Murstein expected as the team is 4-11 heading into the final game of the regular season next Saturday against Atlanta. But Murstein is all smiles today, because there is something special happening with his NASCAR team that is changing the landscape of the sport.
When Bubba Wallace drove the #43 car to a third-place finish at this past week’s NASCAR race at the historic Indianapolis Motor speedway, for Richard Petty Motorsports it was another defining moment for the driver, its owners, and the sport in general. It was one of the best finishes ever by an African American driver in over fifty years since the sport was founded.
Two years ago, RPM chose Wallace, a driver in the NASCAR Xfinity Series at the time, to fill in for the injured Aric Almirola. It was a significant moment for the team, as well as for NASCAR, giving an African American driver the opportunity to compete at the highest level of the sport. In 2018, Wallace became RPM’s full-time driver continuing the team’s commitment to diversity which began back in 2010 when the team was sold to Murstein and NASCAR legend Richard Petty.
Murstein would later go on to purchase the New York Lizards of Major League Lacrosse.
“When we bought RPM, Richard had a similar objective and focus as I did which was to improve performance and bring diversity to the sport,” said Murstein, RPM’s Co-Owner. “I remember at the press conference I made that objective clear. It’s a major major sport but the athletes and the fan base were not as diverse as other sports. I wanted to focus on changing the image of NASCAR and give everyone the same opportunity to succeed.”
RPM’s commitment to drive towards adversity did begin with Almirola, one of the first Hispanic drivers in NASCAR. He enjoyed some success with the #43 car including a win in the 2014 Coke Zero 400 at Daytona and went on to make the playoffs. When Almirola left RPM after the 2017 season, the team had a void and they looked to Wallace, a young driver with tons of potential and charisma, to continue RPM’s commitment to having a winning team but to also continue their mission of diversity.
Bubba became the first full-time African American driver at the highest level of NASCAR since Wendell Scott retired in 1973.
“To me, it was way overdue,” said Murstein. “The more that I heard about that the more determined Richard and I were, and we wanted to make a shift, so to speak, to a higher gear in the sport. We wanted to also expand the fan base, and show that anyone could excel in NASCAR regardless of his or her skin color.”
“While his second place Daytona finish and third place finish at the Brickyard was a major accomplishment, Richard and I aren’t satisfied. We said we really have to get him into victory lane and show the world that Bubba is more than capable of easily winning at the highest level of motorsports.”
The fact that Murstein is dedicated to diversity is not something new because it’s also been a mission for him with Medallion Financial, a company that was exclusively lending money to women and minority owned companies since the 1980’s when he joined the family business until its IPO in the 1990’s. Upon his arrival, Murstein focused on successfully diversifying the Company and tried to find other niches in terms of lending money to minorities that were overlooked by banks.
His father had the same goal in the 1970’s when he established a MESBIC (Minority Enterprise Small Business Investment Company), licenses received from the small business administration. If a company was able to get this license, the federal government would support you by lending you money if you agreed only to lend it women and minority owned companies.
100% of Medallion’s loans were to that sector, so Murstein looked for other ways to continue with the company’s mission statement.
“I started finding other niches like dry cleaners and laundry mats that were owned by the Asian-American communities and grocery stores that were owned by Korean-Americans,” said Murstein. “It was a perfect fit for us to diversify away from just taxi lending but keep the same goal of lending exclusively to women and minority owned companies. I remember that the rates were not high but the work ethic surely was. These entrepreneurs were excellent credit risks.”
About the time the Company was going public, Murstein approached former New York Governor Mario Cuomo about joining the company’s Board of Directors. Cuomo thought about it for six months or so and then after seeing a story about Medallion and it’s diversified lending in the Wall Street Journal, he called Murstein to give him the good news that he was coming on board.
Murstein as on a conference call when Cuomo called him and wanted to call him back, but Murstein’s assistant said it was an emergency because Cuomo wanted to speak with him. So Murstein took the phone call and the rest is history.
“I’ll be joining your Board of Directors and the reason is because you do sociably responsible lending, but at the same time you are charging low rates and show it can be done properly and efficiently and that’s a rare combination in business,” said Cuomo.
With Cuomo, a Democratic, joining the Board of Directors, Murstein added some political balance by bringing former Connecticut Governor Lowell Weicker, a Republican, on board. Then, Murstein continued to show diversity by convincing Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron to join Medallion’s Board of Directors.
Just like Cuomo, Aaron took some time to look at Medallion and see if it was right fit for him.
“He also took several months to think about it and then the more he learned about our company, the more he liked it,” said Murstein. “The only other Companies he was involved with at the time were the Atlanta Braves and Coca-Cola, so we were honored to have him join us.”
Murstein carried his philosophy of diversity into his next sports venture when he led a group that purchased the Lizards in 2012. Included in that ownership group was Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown who was also an All-American Lacrosse player at Syracuse.
After doing some research and reading that Brown was active with positive social change and had formed an alliance with other athletes like Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell, Murstein was impressed that athletes were taking advantage of their popularity beyond the field of sports.
“They were known the world over for their athletic excellence, but these legends were and are more than just athletes,” said Murstein. “They wanted to help change the world for the better. So, partly because of Jim Brown’s goals in that area, as well as it being a little known fact that he was also one of the world’s best lacrosse players ever, I reached out to him and asked him if he wanted to partner with us when we bought the Lizards. He was happy to do so and has been a friend ever since.”
As he continues his efforts to bring diversity to RPM and NASCAR, Murstein also understands that it takes a strong financial commitment to build a strong team, win races and ultimately compete for a Monster Energy Championship. It takes major resources to have the best possible equipment and crew, so RPM continues to leave no stone unturned in building an elite team.
In Bubba Wallace, they have a driver that has not only brought diversity to the sport but also could be one of the top drivers in the sport. What he needs now is an infrastructure around him to compete and with that also comes another way of RPM making a commitment to diversity.
“I always try and understand our strengths and weaknesses and try to learn from every success and failure,” said Murstein. “I recently reached out to Kyle Busch and had dinner with him in New York City. He has been an exceptional driver in our sport, and I tried to learn how we can improve performance. One of the things he said was unless you have the same type of equipment and resources as everybody else, you’re never going to win constantly no matter how good your driver is. So, over the last year, we’ve looked around for potential new sponsors to the sport.”
To Murstein’s surprise, he learned that out of the hundreds if not thousands of billionaires in the United States, only five of them are African American. One of them is Dave Steward, the Chairman and Founder of World Wide Technology, one of the largest African American owned businesses in the United States.
Richard Petty and the RPM team was able to meet Steward and he expressed an interest in Bubba, RPM, and Victory Junction, the Petty family charity that helps underprivileged children. About two months ago, Steward made a substantial investment. The financial commitment has already had an impact on RPM including Bubba’s recent improved performance.
“Because of Dave Steward, who is an exceptional businessman and person, going forward and into next year we should now be able to give Bubba the type of equipment that would make him competitive and further improve his performance,” said Murstein.
There is still a lot of work to do in terms of building the best car and bringing the best possible people on board to the team. However, that can’t happen overnight, especially in the middle of the current season when cars have already been built and the best people are already in place.
But what is clear is that the step by step improvement of RPM is underway and once this season is over, there will be an opportunity to make changes and improvements.
“You saw the first step we took of improved performance this past Sunday in Indy,” said Murstein. “Hopefully we will continue to improve you the rest of this year and then into 2020. We have the ability to go out and hire the best engineers and spend money on wind tunnel testing and things that will take us to another level.”
Now that RPM has secured a solid financial investment in the team, a plan is in place for not only success, but a continued and increased drive towards diversity. The plan is to have Bubba driving the #43 car and winning races. Another part of the plan is in a few years to have a second car that would also make trips to victory lane.
If Murstein gets his wish, that second car would be driven by a female.
“We’re definitely on the right path,” said Murstein. “That’s our long-term vision, to show diversity in all backgrounds being able to perform at the top level. We are probably the only team in the history of NASCAR to have chosen a full-time Hispanic driver and African American driver. Down the road, a female driver will proudly continue the great historic legacy of RPM. Danica Patrick was a groundbreaker. She was one of the first to do so and our goal is to build on that but take it to another level and end up in victory lane.”
Whether it’s with Richard Petty Motorsports, the New York Lizards or with Medallion Financial, Andrew Murstein has always been focused on diversity and he’s brought that philosophy successfully to each of his investments. With RPM, he’s inching closer to his goal of getting Bubba Wallace to victory lane which would also be a shining moment of diversity for NASCAR as a whole and transcend the sport much like Tiger Woods has done in golf.
Is it rare that you see a successful business person succeed both in the world of business and sports with such an admirable focus of promoting diversity and equality in both. There has been a lot of emphasis on positive change like this recently. However very few people like Murstein have been focused on it and have been doing it successfully for over thirty years. Hopefully more people will take notice and will also strive to make the world a better place, in and beyond the world of sports.