In His Own Lane: John Cohen Makes His Mark in NASCAR History
There have only been five Black team owners and a handful of Black drivers in the 74-year history of NASCAR. However, John Cohen, the principal owner of the NY Racing Team, is looking to shift gears and transform the sport into an all-inclusive entity. From street racing to competing in the Daytona 500, NY Racing Team has built a brand based on hard work, defying the odds, and being authentic. EDITION spoke to John Cohen about his passion for making his team and NASCAR household names, transcending the sport, and everything in-between.
Unlike basketball and football, stock car racing isn't a popular sport in the Black community. So, what birthed your interest in the sport?
Growing up, I was always into motorcycles. NYC had – and still has – a big bike following in the 1990s. I used to ride with the Ruff Ryders before they were known as Ruff Ryders. We would travel to the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Philly, so my love developed from my love of motorbikes. It was a natural progression into cars because I'm someone who loves engines and speed.
Speaking of the ‘90s, the drag racing scene was huge in the tri-state area.
It was incredible! In Newark, New Jersey, there was a big spot where people would race at nighttime, and the highway would be blocked off while everybody enjoyed the rallies.
Were those drag races instrumental in your evolution in the sport?
Undoubtedly! It was a natural progression, and I knew I could compete at the highest level.
Allow us to shift gears for a second. Kids worldwide play "That's My Car,” a game in which they point and claim their dream car as it passes by. What was your car?
I used to play the video game Out Run, and a Ferrari Testarossa was always my favorite car. I was also partial to Lamborghinis because of their design.
What would you consider your car now?
A '67 or a '69 Chevrolet Nova or Camaro. I love muscle cars.
NASCAR is historically Southern and, let's be honest, a racist sport. So, has it been a complex ride while maneuvering this space as a Black man from the tri-state?
Good question. When I first got into the sport, a lot of people didn't know who I was, and to this day, people still don't know I'm a NASCAR team owner. I sort of kept it that way because I wanted to build my team, but I would go to tracks, and NASCAR personnel and security would see me and not let me in certain places. They would let others in without credentials but would give me a hard time, and I had to demand my respect. There would be fans that wouldn't let me park my car because they claimed it was "Trump country" and other nonsense like that.
It's 2022 – it's deflating that racism is still this prominent.
Unfortunately, it's the world we live in, but I must maintain my agency as a Black man in any and every space. I will never allow anyone at any track to make me feel small.
It's paramount to be your authentic self at all times. Were you ever perceived differently by other Black people because you aren't participating in “our” sports?
People laughed at me. I reached out to some of my peers to help me reach the next level, and none of them thought I would make it. A lot of people shrugged me off because they didn't believe that NASCAR was for us. And now the sport is embracing us because it has to; society revolves around hip-hop culture, and if everybody doesn't adapt to that, they won't survive.
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Sports and hip-hop are one and the same.
Sports changed the way the world viewed Black people, and hip-hop expedited the deconstruction of a lot of stereotypes, even though ignorant people created their own out of it.
Do you think your involvement in NASCAR can help bring more Black visibility to the product?
With my presence being as genuine as it is, inner-city kids can relate to me, and I take pride in being a representation of them because they'll understand they have room in this space.
Representation matters, but do you think it's enough?
Tennis wasn't always accepting of us, but Venus and Serena changed that. Golf shunned us, but Tiger Woods had us want to learn how to play. So, as long as someone cracks the door open, our people will feel safe and will follow.
That goes back to basketball and football being considered “our” sports now because it wasn't always like that.
The NBA was an all-white league at one point, but Black players are the norm instead of the anomaly now. It takes time, and with NASCAR, I believe the corporation wants to change the way it's perceived.
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What would you say to people who claim driving isn't a sport?
Everybody can't do it, and if they could, they'd have more respect for the endurance and skill it takes to be an elite driver. Everybody plays basketball, but how many players are there in the NBA? Everybody drives, but how many drivers are there in NASCAR?
There's a reason why professional athletes are professional athletes. Greg Biffle, a NASCAR veteran of 20-plus years, drove for your team in the Daytona 500, and that had to be a dream come true. Is there a goal bigger than that?
I want NY Racing Team to become one of, if not the biggest team in the sport within the next five years. When I say biggest, I don't mean in size; I'm talking about stature because of the prestige that winning brings.
We've talked about turning Black people into fans of race car driving, but is bringing in Black drivers a part of your mission?
I'm on the board of the Urban Youth Racing School Foundation in Philadelphia, and I'm hands-on with the development of young Black drivers such as Lavar Scott. And I'm confident that he and others will be top drivers in NASCAR.
You're one of four Black team owners in NASCAR. Have you gentlemen started a fraternity of sorts?
Not necessarily because I'm the only one who's hands-on on a day-to-day basis, my team is fully Black-owned and operated, so I don't have anyone acting as a spokesperson for me.
Look at it this way, Michael Jordan will forever be known as the greatest basketball player ever, Floyd Mayweather will be remembered as 50-0 “Money” Mayweather, and Brad Daugherty, while a fixture in this capacity, is better known as an NBA All-Star. But, when it's all said and done, I'll be known as John Cohen, the NY Racing Team NASCAR owner.