IMS president Doug Boles, Penske Entertainment Corp. chief diversity officer Jimmie McMillian and NXG Youth Motorsports president and CEO Rod Reid announce the creation of Force Indy.
INDIANAPOLIS — Roger Penske has earned heaps of praise for how the relatively new owner kept the IndyCar series afloat and got the 2020 season to the finish line amidst a global pandemic, all while investing upwards of $15 million to rejuvenate the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
But Penske has now begun to make the transformative change those closest to the series expected when he announced his landmark purchase in November of last year.
Penske, IMS president Doug Boles, Penske Entertainment Corp. chief diversity officer Jimmie McMillian and NXG Youth Motorsports president and CEO Rod Reid were on hand Thursday at IMS to announce the creation of Force Indy, a race team that will compete in the USF2000 championship, the lowest rung of the Road to Indy ladder system, starting in 2021.
Reid, the team principal who is African American, will focus on hiring and developing Black American men and women mechanics, engineers, drivers and other staff following his years of work with NXG Youth Motorsports, which for more than a decade has helped introduce karting to more than 2,300 students ages 11-15 in under-represented communities.
That program, along with a sit-down with Penske earlier this year, helped set the groundwork for Thursday’s news, which Reid hopes will be the spark IndyCar needs to bring about more diversity in the paddock.
“This is not the first time that we’ve had Black ownership in cars or teams. But I think this is one of the first times we will be able to do something that’s sustainable because of the support and the interest from folks like Roger Penske and the Penske organization,” Reid said. “There hasn’t really been this invitation to the Black community to say, ‘You know what, we want you to come in as fans, enthusiasts, potentially having a career in motorsports.
“I think motorsports can benefit from having all of our community involved in the sport.”
For its first year of operation, Force Indy will operate out of Concord, N.C., as the team receives a year-long mentorship opportunity with Team Penske personnel.
Reid has already begun the hiring process for his team, including three young men who were on hand for Thursday’s news conference. Nadeem Ali, Stewart Kelly and Derek Morris either have local college ties (Ali graduated from Purdue, Kelly from IUPUI) or graduated from the NXG Youth Motorsports program when they were teenagers.
“We’re living, breathing proof that this works,” said Morris, an Indy native who worked for the City of Indianapolis repairing and tuning its police cars before joining Force Indy.
Added Kelly: “We’re ready to make history.”
Force Indy will make its debut during the season-opening weekend at St. Petersburg March 5-7 and will run with a No. 99 car to honor the late Dewey “Rajo Jack” Gatson, who drove a roadster with that number toward the end of his racing career in 1951. Though one of the winningest Black drivers in racing history, Gatson never received the chance to compete in the Indianapolis 500. The team’s sponsorship and driver for its inaugural season will be announced at a later date.
Thursday’s news follows several announcements earlier this year from Penske and IndyCar involving the Race for Equality and Change initiative, first announced in July following the death of African American George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. His death in late May sparked an uprising of a social justice movement in the Black community not seen since the Civil Rights movement decades ago.
But Reid emphasized that this program wasn’t born out of a reaction to that news.
“Back in May, when (there was) so much pain in the country, I think all corporations that had any sensitivity to what’s going on in our world (wanted to make a difference),” Reid said. “There’s a lot of injustice. This just didn’t start happening this year. But I had the pleasure of sitting down with Mr. Penske early on when he took over the property (and) one of the things we talked about was this whole notion of a lot of African Americans not feeling welcome.
“Why is that? Part of it is that invitation. Part of it is that whole notion that we aren’t really here. I think that’s the biggest difference when you talk about how this has a chance to impact.”
In July, Penske pledged $1 million to support internal and external programs to help create change around diversity in the series. Only two Black drivers have competed in the Indy 500 — the first, Willy T. Ribbs, not coming until 1991. This year’s Indy 500 broke a 20-year streak of having at least one woman driver on the grid.
More on IndyCar’s diversity push:
Among other things, the Race for Equality and Change initiative aims to hire a diverse workforce throughout the series, help diversify the driver field from the ladder system, support grassroots youth motorsports programs (like NXG Youth Motorsports), increase the number of minority-owned businesses that contract with IndyCar and IMS and invest and engage more with minority communities.
All those goals, several officials emphasized Thursday, are about growth, not just initial action. And Reid hopes the team he fields in March will look very different in a few years, with the goal of climbing the Road to Indy Ladder. Penske said he hopes to see them on the grid for the Indy 500 in a few years’ time.
In the end, though, Reid and McMillian, who previously served as IMS senior legal counsel and co-chair on the track’s diversity committee, aim to impact more than just the front-facing drivers of the sport. Even the smallest IndyCar teams are built upon dozens — sometimes hundreds — of employees, from HR to communications, as well as folks who work on and drive the car.
A team centered around a goal of diversity, both said, will have a boosted opportunity to bring Black men and women into motorsports who may have never had aspirations of being involved, but who may be experts in other fields. It’s then that word of this team and IndyCar’s work in the social justice arena will best be able to spread, and the series and its fanbase will have a chance to moreso mirror the makeup of the country as a whole.
Force Indy crewmen Nadeem Ali (far left), Stewart Kelly (second from left) and Derek Morris (far right) pose with Roger Penske (center) and Force Indy team principal Rod Reid (second from right) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Thursday. (Photo: Nathan Brown, IndyStar)
“As an African American male, I cannot understate the importance of today,” McMillian said. “As someone who did not grow up with the sport, but fell in love with it over time after being introduced to it by others, this is a pivotal (day). If you look at the sport, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that, despite efforts by others, it still remains largely white. Some of it is because people are not interested in the sport or they’re not interested in coming to the race because they don’t see anyone who culturally looks like them. This is going to be a great step to do that.
“The sport is reaching out to the community, but now you’ve given the community a reason to come to the racetrack and root for a team. This is going to be tremendous in that effect.”
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