Mike Sales Senior Director of Creative Design, NASCAR

As a boy, Michael T. Sales (B.S. ’93) pencil-traced popular comic book characters onto paper. Later, he started conjuring up Southside Nefertiti, among others, in his own cast of Black comic superheroes. And because he was curious about so many visual things, he’d point the family’s video-camera toward a stormy Georgia sky to see how raindrops appeared in the playback of what he’d recorded.

His parents noticed his gifts. They tolerated them as whims, fanciful. They expected any son of Black strivers—they were educators—to take a practical path toward an eventual, grown-up’s job that could finance a comfortable, middleclass life.

“I didn’t even have the confidence to tell them I wanted to be an artist,” said Sales, NASCAR’s senior director of creative design. “And I didn’t have any examples around me of artists who had been successful. I can’t say they discouraged me but ... .”

Enrolling as an architecture major during his first semester at Howard seemed practical, though he got bored. Fast. His second semester, he switched to the School of Communications. Graduating Howard with a bachelor’s in television production, Sales worked a succession of jobs melding his college savvy with skills he’d been cultivating since boyhood: art director, videographer, online producer/ editor, interactive web developer. Also, a writer, he once penned a magazine article about another slaying of a black man by a police officer, and how North Carolina churches, including his own, were climbing that mountain.

“That article was all of me, over time, learning to express my own voice and validate that,” Sales said.

People of a certain age presume that Sales’ current workplace is a mostly white domain, its handful of breakthrough non-white racers notwithstanding. “I’m old enough and Southern enough to have had my own presumptions about NASCAR,” said Sales, who oversees the graphic and web design team serving every business division at NASCAR.

“Once I got here, I was surprised to find there were far more people of color at NASCAR than I’d expected. There’s an urgency about bringing more diverse folks in to build out this digital space.”

That space also is a corporate one, where the bottom line matters. There, Sales is both a boss and a worker bee. Among other tasks, Sales spent much of 2018 steering a redesign of NASCAR.com.

He oversaw development of NASCAR’s leader board, letting diehard fans track racers’ speed time, lag time and more via computer, while also watching the race on screen.

“As a creative, a project like that gives me more leverage with the business team,” Sales said. “As an African American, from Howard University, I like being able to say, ‘An African American did that.’”

NASCAR appeals to a growing body of blacks, Latinos and others who, for example, are devotees of some of the same Fords and Chevys that racers race. Atlanta rapper Killer Mike, Sales added, “really knows NASCAR. He was at the Daytona 500 this year. We promoted him in social media. But that’s the kind of thing we’re trying to let emerge organically, not with some big splash.”

Sales’ NASCAR favorites include Bubba Wallace, an African American, and Ryan Blaney, who happens to be white. Blaney’s podcast is solid, Sales said. Plus, Blaney is, like Sales, a huge fan of Star Wars.

Even before he joined NASCAR’s payroll seven years ago, Sales was following NASCAR stars such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., son of racing icon Dale Earnhardt Sr. “My stepfather helped integrate the world of basketball in my hometown,” said Sales, a non-athlete born and bred in Columbus, Georgia. “Everybody knew and admired him. My biological dad was class valedictorian, but I was not. Like Dale, I felt an internal pressure to live up to a dad’s legacy.”

When he was a nerdy, artistic teenager struggling to connect with his stepdad, the coach and barrier-busting sportsman, his art teacher, who doubled as a coach, encouraged Sales to show his desire. So, Sales painted his stepfather’s portrait.

“I don’t know if he knew what was going on between us,” Sales said, reflecting. “But I know I worked really hard on that piece. And, when it was done, I was very proud of it. I think it touched my dad, too. Thirty years later, he still has that painting.”

Categories: 

Issue: 

Share: 

“Connecting You to HU” is our goal. Howard alumni truly define this university and reinforce the powerful legacy that is our alma mater.