After a year away because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NASCAR Drive for Diversity internship program is back with its 20th class.

When Brandon Thompson arrived at Nashville Superspeedway as an intern in 2003, he admits knowing little about the sport that it regularly hosted. The names of drivers Sterling Marlin and Bobby Hamilton — then contemporary NASCAR stars from his hometown area — were reference points, but the rest was up to him to learn.

“I remember those things,” Thompson recalls, “but I also remember just the openness and warmness that I was welcomed with, just people being able to share their experiences and stories and try to get me up to speed on the background and context for things that were happening not only on the race track but leading up to certain events.”

NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program was just beginning to get off the ground, with a driver development program that launched the following year. It was early still, but Thompson could see the platform’s roots starting to grab hold.

“It was very much in the infant stages of the program, but I think it’s appropriate and important to point out that we were doing that before other sports leagues were focused on that,” says Thompson, now NASCAR’s Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. “I think the time and place when you say infancy is really important there, but yes, it was very early in the game in terms of us getting started on those initiatives, but it was meant to be impactful. One of the things I remember is constantly hearing about how this wasn’t just a ‘make coffee and shuffle papers’ internship, and that was definitely the case.”

From that modest start, NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity initiative has grown to welcome its 20th class this summer. The program was placed on hold during the height of the COVID-19 outbreak last year, but returned with 21 student interns this season — a number that’s pushed the overall total of participants past the 400 mark. There’s special significance to be found for Thompson, who marks the one-year anniversary of his appointment to his current role today — all in the same week that NASCAR returns to Nashville Superspeedway for the first time since 2011.

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The Drive 4 Diversity list is dotted with launched careers, alumni who found full-time footing either with NASCAR, with other companies in the industry, or in other walks of life. Among them is Kat Lee, who transitioned into a role as director of marketing activation with NASCAR, joining the company in 2011 — one year after her experience as an intern with the Human Resources department based in Daytona Beach.

Lee first heard about the D4D program after attending her first NASCAR race in 2009, joining friends on a trip to Atlanta Motor Speedway while a student at the University of Central Florida. The at-track experience piqued her curiosity to find out more about careers in the sport, especially a role that tapped into her field of study — event management, with hospitality as a specialty.

“At the time, I think they just opened a lot of doors in that aspect and just got me exposed to a lot of opportunities and different pieces of the company,” Lee says. “They did a great job of just setting the expectations from a professional work setting, since I was still super-young and it was literally my first real job in an office setting.”

Lee says she can relate to Thompson’s description of an internship free of idle busywork. She was an integral part of the HR group’s talent and acquisitions system during her tenure, participating in the screening and interview processes for prospective employees from start to finish — “probably a lot more than I thought I would ever do in HR,” she notes.

Now she’s giving back to the program, participating in the mentorship opportunities with this year’s class. “It’s just a diverse group of interns every year, which is amazing to see — people with different majors and from all different locations,” Lee says.

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Though their time as interns was several years apart, Lee and Thompson shared the experience of being immersed right away in impactful work. Thompson’s onboarding meant diving headlong into what he called “actual meaningful” projects, actively promoting the Tennessee track’s events by working with area grocery chains, restaurants and media outlets. That led to full-time roles with the sanctioning body within its racing operations group, oversight of the sport’s touring series, managing the integration of the ARCA Menards Series under the NASCAR banner and eventually his current role as an 18-year industry vet.

When he got the call for his current role, it came during a period of great social change for the sport and the country. When he accepted, Thompson became the D4D program’s first graduate to reach NASCAR’s executive level. Thompson hasn’t shuffled papers — not then, not now.

“It was almost surreal is the word I would use,” he says. “But there was a lot of excitement as well, just the fact of … it was a moment of reflection and just realizing how all of the years I’ve spent at the company, throughout the internship program, throughout my first full-time job there, throughout my time in the touring series or throughout my time in racing operations side.

“All of those things kind of worked up to this point but I also knew that there was a large responsibility that was attached to that as well — not only obviously to the company, but to other diverse people in the industry, whether it’s internship participants or just people looking to get into motorsports more broadly, there’s a place and that the programs and initiatives and what we stand for as a sport has to come through so that all people feel welcome in the entire industry. So there’s a lot of responsibility I felt as well.”