Sam Belnavis, a former NASCAR general manager and team owner who became the first racial minority to serve as the owner of a full-time Cup team, died Wednesday. News of Belnavis' death was shared by NASCAR.com.
Belnavis, an African American who joined Miller Brewing Company in the late 1970s and managed the company's sports marketing department, first broke into NASCAR in the 1980s when he signed NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Bobby Allison to a sponsorship contract. Allison would be sponsored by Miller from 1983 until the end of his career in 1988, winning a Winston Cup Championship and Daytona 500 during that span.
Belnavis would go on to serve in multiple other roles throughout NASCAR, most notably as the co-owner of BelCar Motorsports with Travis Carter. Belnavis' team would field the No. 54 Ford full-time during the 2003 season with Todd Bodine as the driver and sponsorship from the U.S. National Guard. The team scored one top 10 finish, an 8th place run at Pocono Raceway.
Belnavis left the team at the end of the 2003 season for Roush Racing, where he would go on to become the team's chief diversity officer and owner-designate. Belnavis was also integral to the launch of NASCAR's drive for diversity program.
"We are saddened by the passing of Sam Belnavis, a true pioneer in motorsports whose tireless work helped foster an inclusive environment throughout NASCAR," read a statement released by NASCAR. "For more than 30 years, his efforts as a team owner and executive, as well as his work to support the launch of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Program, helped introduce career opportunities in NASCAR to people of color. NASCAR offers its deepest condolences to Sam's friends and family."
Belnavis' impact on stock car racing persists, as NASCAR's Black Employee Resource Group is named the Belnavis Collective in recognition of him. NASCAR states that the Belnavis Collective "will continue to honor him through its mission and goals."
In the two decades since Belnavis owned a Cup Series team, minority investment into the highest levels of stock car racing has and continues to grow. There are currently two Black car owners in the Cup Series, as former NBA All-Stars Michael Jordan and Brad Daugherty serve as the co-owners of 23XI Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing respectively.