Ex-Falcon won't give up his quest

ATLANTA - Terance Mathis didn't bring game-breaking speed or prototypical size to the National Football League as a sixth-round draft pick, but he was willing to outwork everyone to make up the difference.

He's counting on that same determination to succeed in NASCAR.

At 5-foot-7, 177 pounds, the long shot beat the odds to play in 205 games in 13 years in the NFL, including an eight-year stint with the Atlanta Falcons, where he remains their all-time leading receiver in catches (573), yards (7,349) and touchdowns (57). While that work ethic helped him earn trips to the Pro Bowl and Super Bowl XXXIII, it hasn't helped him get a race team up to speed.

For the past two years Mathis has been working the telephones trying to find a sponsor for his Victory Motorsports. He brings star appeal to the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series, as well as the opportunity for the sport to embrace a minority-owned team.

On the surface, it should be an easy sell. A high-profile owner with a chance to break the color barrier in a sport that's trying desperately to chip away at its all-white perception should have Corporate America ready to come aboard. But Mathis, like so many before him, has learned it's not that easy.

"I'm still battling the battle," Mathis said.

"The reason this isn't easy is because unlike other sports, where the whole league makes sure you're on the right path, in NASCAR you're on your own. It needs to be fixed."

In the past four years, several high-profile people from sports and entertainment have talked about joining NASCAR. The sanctioning body has put many of them on display, hoping to give its diversity program some legs. But for the most part, it has turned into a daunting task.

Mathis, for now, is up for the challenge.

"I'm stubborn," he said. "That's how I played my career. I'm going to work my tail off and find a way to make this happen. There have been times when I've decided I can't do this anymore, then I get a phone call or an e-mail from somebody that reminds me this is more important than a race team. We can't close the door on this. I want to make it viable for anyone who wants to come into this sport. I started this thing, and I want to see it to the end."

While Mathis continues to struggle to find funding, Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith, actor/comedians Tommy Davidson, Damon Wayans, Keenan Ivory Wayans, Shawn Wayans and Marlon Wayans will have a car on the track this year. Their No. 06 Ford is scheduled to make its debut in the Busch Series race at Mexico City today.

Others, like Mathis and former Oakland Raiders receiver Tim Brown are still looking.

Athletes and entertainers aren't new to NASCAR. Country singer Marty Robbins used to be a part-time driver, and director Hal Needham and actor Burt Reynolds co-owned Harry Gant's Skoal Bandit for years.

Basketball's Julius Erving and football's Joe Washington co-owned a failed Busch Series team; Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw was a longtime owner in the Busch Series before selling his interest at the end of last year. Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs continues to be one of the most successful car owners in the Nextel Cup and Busch series.

NASCAR's structure makes it different than other sports. The organization is a collection of racetracks, not race teams, that offer a variety of races each week. Independent contractors are welcomed at any race.

Because of that, NASCAR can only offer limited support during the start-up period. It can provide overall demographics, but it doesn't create and share sponsorship leads, said Marcus Jadotte, NASCAR's managing director for public affairs.

In fact, the sanctioning body competes against prospective car owners like Mathis because it's always looking to add to its list of official sponsors. At the season-opening Daytona 500, NASCAR had more than 70 series sponsors.

Reach Don Coble at don.coble.@morris.com.

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