Ex-NFL star Shawne Merriman says he's taking on a new challenge as the owner of a NASCAR racing team ... telling us he LOVES the sport and wants to inspire black kids to love it too.
TMZ Sports spoke with Merriman who revealed he's part-owner of a NASCAR K&N team ... a regional series used to develop drivers. It's like the minor leagues ... a stepping-stone to get to the majors.
Why NASCAR? SM told us he's a HUGE racing fan, having caught the bug at a race some years ago ... and said he wants to do something to promote his passion to black youth.
"We thought NASCAR would be a huge deal for us, kinda going into a different demographic. There's not a whole lot of minorities looking to be into NASCAR."
Merriman says he thinks once black kids are introduced to the vroom-vroom life -- you might see more of them get involved with NASCAR ... maybe even choose that sport over the NFL or the NBA.
"It's just that exciting!"