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 was brought to tears.
The 83-year-old motorsports legend made his name from Team Penske’s storied successes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Each of those 18 Indianapolis 500 victories can be traced back to that May afternoon in 1951 when a 14-year-old Penske laid eyes on the 2.5-mile oval track for the first time.
It’s a tale he lives to tell, but to hear that other teenagers not only hadn’t had the same opportunities but felt like it wasn’t an experience they were meant to share broke down the normally stoic Penske during a meeting just weeks into his IMS and IndyCar ownership early this year.
“When I took over the leadership, there were a lot of things I understood inside the track, but not outside, and one of those was that Coach (Rod Reid) had spent more than 10 years here with young African American men and women with a go-kart program,” Penske said. “I had no idea about it, to be honest.”
Rod Reid, president and CEO of NXG Youth Motorsports, will serve as team principal of Force Indy, a new USF2000 team aiming to boost diversity in IndyCar as part of the Race for Equality and Change initiative. (Photo: Courtesy of IMS)
That program, NXG Youth Motorsports run by Reid, has introduced motorsports to 2,300 local largely Black youth through go-kart racing and maintenance lessons that took place in IMS parking lots since 2006. For decades more, Reid has worked to introduce Black men and women to a sport that has rarely looked like them. Only two Black men have ever taken the grid for the Indianapolis 500, none since George Mack in 2002.
In many ways, Reid’s program was in a rut. He inspired dozens of new kids each year, but their dreams of working in motorsports would smack into a glass ceiling. Penske, however, discovered something even worse.
“It brought me to tears when Coach Reid told me the kids didn’t think they were allowed in the Speedway,” Penske told IndyStar in an exclusive interview Thursday.
As Penske is known to operate, that fleeting emotion sparked change that led to one of the most important developments in the motorsports world in 2020.
Thursday, Reid, Penske and other Penske Entertainment Corp. officials announced the creation of a USF2000-level open-wheel team to begin competing in 2021 that will target Black men and women from its drivers, mechanics and engineers to its staffers manning accounting, HR and communications.
For its first year, Force Indy will be housed in a Team Penske-owned facility in Concord, N.C., near the team’s Mooresville headquarters to take advantage of a mentorship with personnel of the highly acclaimed race team. Jon Bouslog, who joined Team Penske in 1987 and recently led Acura Team Penske’s back-to-back championships in IMSA’s DPi class, will spearhead the mentorship efforts in North Carolina.
Penske’s vision for it in the short-term is realistic. Starting with a crew of three Black men that were on-hand for Thursday’s announcement – one who had been working on City of Indianapolis police cars and another who presently serves as the crew chief for NXG Youth Motorsports – won’t guarantee instant success by slapping the support of Team Penske behind it. But he has grand dreams.
“In 2023 and ’24, we want to have an African American qualifying for the Indy 500. You can say that, but you’ve got to start the process,” Penske said. “This gives us an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to be part of this surge, this effort on equality and change and the ability to bring something to the sport that’s missing.’”
Development of meaningful change
The emails flooded our inboxes, all these pledges from corporations big and small in late May and early June. The death of George Floyd, a Black man who died at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, sparked protests across the U.S., but it also set off a chain reaction of messages from politicians, business owners and professional sports icons.
Some lived up to their words, whether it was athletes refusing to play until focus was rerouted to what they felt truly mattered, messages pointing toward the injustice on their jerseys or CEOs taking an honest inward look at how their complacency had allowed systemic racism to live on in America.
Other messages lived in news releases only, and for some time, it was unclear what role IndyCar would and should play in the social justice movement.
Ahead of the series’ announcement of its $1 million pledge to kickstart what it calls the Race for Equality and Change initiative centered around a diversity push across the series, IndyStar tried and failed to discuss the social justice movement with a half-dozen prominent drivers and owners across the series. For a predominantly white sport that has had only two Black drivers enter the 500 in 104 years, it reflected members of a sport generally uncomfortable looking itself in the mirror.
NASCAR had begun rallying around its lone Black driver, Bubba Wallace, and banned the Confederate flag from the racetrack. Formula 1’s Black driver and seven-time series champion, Lewis Hamilton, led a rallying cry for change seen and heard around the world. IndyCar, meanwhile, issued its news release announcing its own diversity initiative moments before its July 4 race went live on national television. The initiative drew mixed reactions at the time.
No one doubted Penske’s promise. But it’s reliance on platitudes instead of concrete plans was difficult to rally around in the same manner as other sports. In a summer of sports largely defined by the social justice movement, the topic was rarely touched upon again in the IndyCar limelight until Thursday.
Oct 25, 2020; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Team owner Roger Penske walks toward the cars before the Firestone Grand Prix race on the Streets of St. Petersburg. (Photo: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports)
But Penske works in two ways. It’s how he’s built his billion-dollar fortune in the racing, retail automotive, truck leasing and transportation logistics worlds: Be first, but if you can’t be first, be best in the long run. To him, it was important to have this entire program, minus the driver, buttoned-up before unveiling it, and in this economic climate, that understandably took time.
But what came from that patience amounts to arguably the largest concrete change on the social justice movement in motorsports, the ripple effects of which should be felt for years to come, until ideally, such initiatives are no longer necessary.
Thursday’s announcement is the culmination of a vision Penske managed to carry out, all while saving the series in the short-term and doing his best to set it up for success in the future. Because without the massive platform of the world’s premier race and racetrack, pushes toward progress like this aren’t possible.
“The fact that we own the Speedway and the biggest sporting event in the world, we can use that leverage as a stage to talk about the Race for Equality and Change, and here’s the team we’re going to go forward with,” Penske said. “We’ve got the ability to do that, and I owe it to the industry, the fans and everyone as a person.”
Added IMS president Doug Boles: “We’ve talked a long time about, ‘How do we get more diverse in our sport?’ But what it took was Rod’s passion for the sport and Roger’s attitude of, ‘Let’s not talk about it. Let’s just do it.’”
An ‘invitation to the Black community’
So what will this change look like?
Its ripples should be felt in many ways, starting with the series’ biggest name getting involved in the lowest level of open-wheel racing. At the moment, no full-time IndyCar teams are involved in the Road to Indy outside of Andretti Autosport’s Indy Lights pursuits.
More energy and investment in IndyCar’s feeder series should, hopefully, on its own, provide more opportunities for under-represented groups and drivers that would have been otherwise overlooked.
Reid’s team aims to show growth in a few short years on its own. He hopes the crew he fields in USF2000 in 2023 looks very different from the group he brings to St. Pete next March, either from their advancement with the rest of his program to higher rungs on the Road to Indy ladder or through those mechanics and engineers being poached by other IndyCar programs to work on the biggest stage.
For whatever reason, the well-intentioned words of many haven’t led to many opportunities for many deserving Black men and women in the sport previously.
“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 interest from folks like Roger Penske and the Penske organization,” Reid said. “We’re inviting the Black community to come into motorsports through our efforts with Force Indy, but we’re also inviting the motorsports industry to embrace seeing and having the presence of African Americans and people of color in the pits, in the paddock and in other places in motorsports.
“There hasn’t really been this invitation to the Black community … and if the community doesn’t know about it and aren’t aware of it, not exposed to it, it’s not going to happen.”
That movement may start with a small, youthful team in 2021, but their uniqueness will undoubtedly draw eyes and attention. Maybe it’ll be a young Black teenage math whiz who just happens upon IndyCar but wants to work in accounting, or a Tik Tok fanatic who’s set to be the next social media genius. Visibly, the team will be steered by a presently unknown Black driver, but that same driver may attract kids with more run-of-the-mill career aspirations who are invigorated to join in that same movement. In that way, a Black motorsports team can meet them where they’re at and quickly grow from a small snowball to a hefty avalanche roaring downhill.
At that point, Penske’s once small dream will have become about so much more than racing. His platform will have managed to drive real change never before seen in this sport for an extended period of time.
With continued focus and effort, it may very well be his most lasting legacy. “Roger Penske, the 18-time Indy 500 winning owner” may one day be known as “Roger Penske, the man who helped provide an opportunity for Black men and women to see themselves in IndyCar.”
“As an African American man, I cannot understate the importance of today,” said Jimmie McMillian, Penske Entertainment Corp.’s chief diversity officer. “It shouldn’t surprise anyone that despite efforts by others, this sport still remains largely white. (There’s a) lack of people who have interest in the sport or who apply for positions when they’re available. But there’s also a lack of education.
“People don’t see anyone who culturally looks like them. This is going to be a great step to do that.”
Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.
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