IndyCar inspires black fans, drivers to diversify

Indianapolis – Rod Reed ran a program full of young, black cart racers, who dropped out of a spot due to an epidemic and needed a track to race.

Reid was suggested: Why not dial in the new boss at IMS?

His plea for help to Roger Penske last June – Reid noted the 2,300 children aged 11 to 15 who have gone through more than 15 years of school to find a way into motorsports – were instead a shocking one for the captain. Wala became a revelation.

Yes, the kids at NXG needed a place to learn and hone their craft. But the blooming drivers represented a rare opportunity for a minority group, severely underrepresented in racing, to feel at home inside the 111-year-old speedway.

“We told him what we were about and he was really surprised,” Reid said. “He didn’t know that we existed. The reason we started, especially the idea of ​​exposing the black community at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, surprised him because he said he couldn’t believe people here Don’t feel welcome. I told him, you’re talking years and years ago, when a person of one color couldn’t even go to the speedway. “

Penske, 84, offered NXG space at IMS to resume the program and, essentially, make a fresh start. He helped NXG start a working relationship with Chevrolet, and the program obtained a loan to purchase a truck for its trailer. The conversation with Penske occurred shortly after the death of George Floyd, a catalyst that led to IndyCar’s “Race for Equality and Change” initiative, which supports diversity and inclusivity throughout the industry.

“I think the idea that a group of people wouldn’t feel welcome at a place he bought, and a game he loves, like I do, was not fully understood,” Reid said.

With its racial count similar to NASCAR last year, IndyCar moved to create a more diverse workforce across all levels of a series that had just two black driver races in the Indy 500, its showcase annual event that dates back to 1911. is. Willie T. Ribbs became the first black driver to start the race in 1991 (and again in 1993) and is George Mack in 2002.

“Isn’t it sad, all these years and not another black driver?” Reid said.

Ribbs, 66, who drives this summer for the Superstar Racing Experience Series, said he never cared much for his role as an Indy 500 trailblazer.

“It didn’t matter. I didn’t care,” he said. “Still not. It did not make any sense. I was focused on going fast and trying to win. If you focus on anything other than that time, you will get hurt or killed. “

Programs launched over the past several months have been designed to reach far beyond the cockpit, but an anchor of IndyCar’s plan was the creation of Force Indy, an all-black race team led by Reid that used to race the IndyCar ladder. Competes in the USF2000 Series. Force Indy hired and developed black mechanics, engineers and drivers throughout its team. Miles Rowe, who turns 21 in June, drives for the team and has been pegged as a potential Indy 500 driver.

Jimmy McMillian, chief diversity officer at Penske Entertainment, intended to design a new era in the Open Wheels series as the architect. He said members of the black community living near the IMS have never attended the Indianapolis 500 as any sort of badge of honor. They look closely at one of the game’s most famous locations and don’t really see anyone who looks like them, certainly not on the starting grid.

“We want to make sure that our paddock represents the fan base that we expect,” McMillian said. “My number 1 goal, I think every day, is to get rid of the concept that this is a white game and people are not welcome here.”

Years before Penske assumed the leadership of the series, IndyCar had a diversity committee that worked on recruitment and maintenance for both the series and IMS. While McMillian saw the number of women involved in the corporate side as a positive for the series — about 35% to 40% of the workforce are women — minority makeup “was where we probably struggled.”

“We tried to find out why we were so unbroken in our employee base,” McMillian said.

IndyCar’s solution was an effort to be more aggressive and creative in its outreach efforts – how it finds the best and brightest in urban communities and persuades them to seek careers inside the paddock. Yes, there was more presence on social media and ticket drives, and some general publicity such as working with key stakeholders in the community like the Indianapolis Urban League.

For McMillian, it was a 1-to-1 connection, personal stories that could be shared with children and adults that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was as welcoming to him as any other fan enjoying a pork tenderloin sandwich. Was because the car ran at a speed of 200 mph. race day.

“How successful can you be as a colored person if you don’t see successful people?” McMillian asked. “So it’s telling that story and going to different communities, not only do we want you here, but there are different paths to success for you and your race doesn’t matter. To make it work A wonderful place.”

McMillian changed tires and made oil changes while working at a Bloomington, Indiana, tire dealer in the late 1990s when his colleagues invited him to a NASCAR race at the brickyard. He was immediately in awe of the packed crowds and fast cars on the scene, but the Confederate flag and “South Will Rise Again” T-shirt made him uneasy and raised doubts about pursuing a career in motorsports.

He is now leading the charge of change.

IndyCar did not have a moment like NASCAR last year when Black driver Bubba Wallace eventually banned the Confederate flag from its races and venues, leading the demand for the stock car series.

IndyCar took a look at how NASCAR added minority owners like Michael Jordan and Pitbull, and McMillian said there was more to study from NHRA: The drag racing series has long been a leader in diversity and Has essentially made gender, race – and even social economics. – Non-factors in making a career in motorsports.

This has not always happened in IndyCar.

“I knew that I was not working on a level playing field,” Ribbs said. “I was not getting equal opportunities based on one thing, and not because I could not win. I was not getting support because I was African-American. Meaning of support from corporate America. “

With a few exceptions for drivers born into legacy families, making a career in racing is about sponsorship, cash and connections in the form of talent, and Udham is part of the job. IndyCar took an in-depth look at identifying businesses willing to support developmental teams or help acquire equipment for upcoming events. It also means developing career paths in race for women and minorities in a variety of jobs outside of the cockpit, from race engineers to public relations and sponsorship sales and beyond; Reid is a former member of the Whistle Blowing, yellow-shirted security team.

“Some people say that being a driver in a car is going to make a big difference in the world, but if you listen to Lewis Hamilton, he’s pretty adamant that when he gets out of the car and into the Mercedes paddock , Then not all faces look like him, “McMillian said, referring to the seven-time Formula One champion, who is Black. “His success hasn’t changed him. I have the same concern, quite frankly, that if we were successful enough for IndyCar’s Lewis Hamilton, it wouldn’t be the only thing that really needed to change that game We need what we need.”

IndyCar created incentives for teams and track promoters, who further diversified efforts. NXG students will race the cart in Detroit as part of a pilot program, which could lead to a full-season program in 2022 and plans to expand the program across the country.

NXG, partially funded through Lucas Oil Sponsorship, has not yet sent a student to IndyCar, although there may not be a better time for children to realize that they can succeed in some capacity at IMS .

Penske is engaged at every level and, yes, diversity can be good for the bottom line, but he has taken a pragmatic approach with ideas that can fundamentally change the game.

“He says what can we do, let’s get it done,” McMillian said.

Look around IMS and tangible culture change is happening now. USF 2000, the first rung on the road to IndyCar, ran at IMS during IndyCar Grand Prix weekend, and saw more black fans going to the track than McMillian could remember.

“He said, ‘I didn’t know so many black people came to the races,” he said. “The narrative is now, there’s a lot of black people here. We have to make sure everyone in our community can say, for some reason, ‘I’m on track.'”




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