Roger Penske’s story is centered on building businesses and dominating with his racing teams. He’s a champion team owner, the most successful entrant in the 100-plus years of the Indianapolis 500; and building his massive corporation – worth billions – has defined the Ohioan’s life.
In January, he added a new element to his empire, taking on a stewardship role after purchasing the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and NTT IndyCar Series. Another Penske chapter, an unexpected one that has nothing to do with boardrooms and setup sheets, was unveiled on July 4 with the formation of the new Race for Equality & Change program. It seeks to bring diversity to all the places it is lacking in IndyCar and at IMS.
Seven months after Penske signed the papers on the series and circuit, the 83-year-old made his first public turn towards social activism, seeding the RE&C with $1 million to start the process of developing drivers of color and women to join the all-male, and mostly white world of American open-wheel racing.
Speaking in the days following the program’s unveiling, which came on the heels of international uprisings after the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, Penske offered insights on the motivations behind forming RE&C.
“Recently, I sent a letter to all my associates with my thoughts regarding the tragic events in our country over the last couple of months,” he said. “I wanted to reiterate to them that racism, prejudice, and discrimination have no place in our company. Our team is made up of 60,000 individuals, each one coming from a different background. I think this diversity, quite honestly, is a strength of our team, that’s given us the ability to grow.
“We’ve made great strides to improve diversity within our organization. So, when I said that to our people, and with all the conversations that were taking place externally – and some obviously internally – I said to (IndyCar CEO) Mark Miles and (IMS president) Doug Bowles and (IndyCar president) Jay Frye that we needed to be sure that we were part of change and support.
“It really started back when we adopted a neighborhood called Jefferson Chalmers, which is adjacent to Belle Isle (in Detroit).”
Penske used his company’s benevolent investment in the community adjacent to Belle Isle, where he promotes the annual Dual In Detroit IndyCar event, as the model to use with the RE&C.
“Penske Corporation, and its affiliates committed $1 million a year for five years to change that neighborhood, and our team has been involved in it,” he said. “This was pre-COVID, before the tragedy in Minneapolis. So when we wanted to announce (RE&C), we talked about it: What do we call this fund? It’s easy to say a million dollars, but it’s hard to say what it’s for when you’re talking about a subject matter as complicated and as broad as racial equality. So we said, let’s call it ‘Race for Equality & Change’. I’m committed, and now that we’re the stewards of the Speedway and the Indy Car series, we need to be sure we redouble our efforts.”
Among the greater gifts Penske unknowingly received upon his acquisition of the Speedway was the longstanding involvement of Coach Rod Reid and his NXG Youth Motorsports organization. The grassroots outreach program, which draws in kids from the greater Indianapolis area to sample go karts for the first time inside IMS, offers lessons of team-building; the integrations of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in racing; and vocational possibilities in the sport for kids of color and the underprivileged.
Facilitated under the Nexgeneracers banner in partnership with IMS, Penske points to Coach Reid as the driving force whose expertise will guide IndyCar’s RE&C program.
“Unbeknownst to me, Nexgeneracers were part of a program at the Speedway (for) almost 14 years,” he said. “Coach Reid has been the leader of this, actually bringing young people – when you’re 15 or 16 you’re out – but bringing young kids to the track and using karts to try to bring them to understand about racing, understand about working on cars.
“What hit me probably the most in the last months, since I’ve owned the track, was when he told me that these kids said to him, ‘I’m not sure we’re allowed in that place when we drive by with our families.’ That was an amazing, unfortunate, comment. That meant to me that we’ve got to double our efforts, to be sure that we support Nexgen.”
A recent Nexgeneracers event at IMS featured a surprise videoconference appearance by African-American NASCAR star Bubba Wallace. Penske says another lesson was received by the reaction of the kids who themselves were mostly African-American.
“In fact, we were able to hook Bubba up with that group and they had their first event at the Speedway,” he continued. “And it’s interesting: As broad as we think we are in racing, in NASCAR and IndyCar, Coach Reid said only a few of the kids even knew who he was. So that just shows you where we are as an industry and connecting diversity.”
As the 104th Indy 500 gets underway with 33 male drivers, and the majority representing similar ancestry, Penske views the growth and mobility of RE&C with Coach Reid as the key pillar of diversity to develop.
“We’ve committed, to be sure the (Nexgeneracers) equipment he has is going to be better,” he said. “We’re going to provide him a building that he can work out of. We’re going to take our dollars and pave an area that they can call a track. And we’re going to build a model there that not only teaches the kids about driving a go kart, but also how to work on them. We want to be able to communicate what the difference is with an Indy car.
“So I want to ask the teams – I haven’t done this yet – but I want to get our (IndyCar) teams, the owners and the teams in Indianapolis and including ourselves, we could adopt one of these kids and maybe he or she becomes an apprentice at the 2021 Indy 500, where they could work for the team for that month. Think about that. Their parents would understand that they were able to come in the track and be part of the most historic event in racing forever. So that’s point number one.
“Point number two, I think: It’s mobile. We talked about, can we take this same venture and bring it to Detroit because of our relationship with Belle Isle and Belle Isle Park? We’ve got the perfect spot there. This is not a racing showcase. Maybe racing is the catalyst, it’s the epicenter of what we’re doing; but it’s more about development for these kids in the future. This leads them into a STEM program. So these are things that we’re looking at.”
The RE&C took its first formal steps late last month when Myles Rowe, a young African-American college student and talented junior open-wheel racer spotted by 2018 Indy 500 winner Will Power, tested on the IMS road course. After the successful outing, Penske signaled his intent to continue developing Rowe’s abilities on the Road To Indy ladder system.
And while Rowe is the initiative’s starting point, addressing the shortage of women and other drivers of color is part of the program’s future. Separate from bringing diversity to IndyCar’s driver ranks, the RE&C plan named five additional pillars to achieve in the years ahead. Fostering diversity among IndyCar’s team ownership base, within the staff at IndyCar and IMS, and among its purchasing decisions with businesses related to the series and circuit, serve as Penske’s expansive mission statement.
Although building and implementing the majority of Penske’s RE&C goals will likely have to wait until the later in the year, the man known as ‘The Captain’ is anxious to see more of his words turned into tangible actions. Applying the Jefferson Chalmers renovation template to IndyCar’s hometown of Speedway, Indiana, fits the criteria.
“We want to take a neighborhood that’s contiguous to the Speedway, move into a neighborhood, and help in some way to create an environment where families can see the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and care about the people that live around that racetrack,” he said. “There are so many different things that we can do and we’re planning on doing. I can tell you that this is not just idle talk. It’s absolutely top of mind as far as I’m concerned.”
As a business owner and peerless racing team owner, Penske’s immense legacy is secured. From both arenas, the ‘Penske Perfect’ and ‘Effort Equals Results’ sayings have driven his employees to greatness in established areas.
With the RE&C, Penske has another opportunity to grow his legacy, but unlike racing and business, there’s no proven formula to follow. To succeed, he’ll have to create something without the benefit of a proper road map in open-wheel competition.
Of all that he’s done over the last 51 years at Indy, winning with the RE&C could be his greatest challenge and his most meaningful contribution. Looking at the field of 33 a few years from now, and on pit lane among the crews, and in owners’ meetings, will provide the answers as to whether Penske’s call for inclusivity and change were ably met.
“I think with that, we have a very good program,” he said. “I know from our sponsors and other people that we’re going to be able to put together a legacy that can follow this Nexgen team and Coach Reid’s vision for the future. That will be part of my commitment – along with our team of people who are involved in Indy going forward.”