PRUETT: With Force Indy, IndyCar is turning diversity talk into action

Chris Owens/IndyCar

PRUETT: With Force Indy, IndyCar is turning diversity talk into action

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PRUETT: With Force Indy, IndyCar is turning diversity talk into action

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In Roger Penske’s world, the adage ‘effort equals results’ is recited like a Sunday hymn. It’s the pledge, made by thousands of employees to work tirelessly in pursuit of excellence, that drives Penske’s business and racing endeavors.

Countless dollars and victories amassed over seven decades suggest The Captain’s formula is a winner. But effort alone wasn’t going create a roadmap on how to develop a nuanced diversity initiative like his new Race For Equality & Change program. Announced in early July, the RE&C was conceptual, at best, with little that could be confused for tangible plans and actions.

Five months later, Penske has something real to offer.

He’s bankrolled the formation of a new Road To Indy team, Force Indy, to give African American drivers and crew members a place to develop their craft and move up the open-wheel ladder. Hopefully, eventually, they’ll reach IndyCar. And after buying brand-new USF2000 cars, supplying a transporter, and apportioning some of Penske’s IndyCar-level staff to create make Force Indy a reality, it’s come with a respectable price tag.

Penske’s outlay of funding and personnel adds credence to how important the RE&C happens to be for the new owner of the NTT IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And it’s the first of many initiatives on the subject they intend to unveil.

Rod Reid, head of the RE&C-affiliated NXG Youth Motorsports initiative, has been appointed as the leader and de facto team owner of a racing program designed to address the wide-scale absence of people of color and women in the open-wheel workforce. Outside of his longstanding efforts at the grassroots level, he’ll have a number of case studies to draw from.

Rod Reid’s NXG Youth Motorsports initiative has worked to give youth from underrepresented communities the opportunities to use motorsport to apply STEM skills and develop life skills, and that mission is being carried into the Road to Indy via Force Indy. Image by Chris Owens

The concept of creating a team for the sole purpose of bringing diversity and opportunity to a racing series isn’t new, but Force Indy is the first of its kind in many years. In the 1990s, drivers Dave Rosenblum and Peter Farrell formed the Inner City Youth Racing Team, campaigning a Saturn in the former Firehawk Endurance Series with a crew made up of kids who inspired the ICY name. In the early 2000s, auto manufacturer Dodge would expand upon the crew-development theme by funding a NASCAR Truck Series entry and adding an African American driver, Indy 500 pioneer Willy T. Ribbs, in what would soon evolve into NASCAR’s Drive For Diversity program.

On a similar timeline, the late Don Panoz established the Women’s Global GT Series to support his American Le Mans Series, and more recently, a motivated group led by Catherine Bond Muir formed the W Series to address the systemic lack of professional women racers in the sport.

Standing upon the foundation built by others, Penske Corporation president Bud Denker says waiting for the problem to fix itself in IndyCar became indefensible.

“Well, if we do that, we’re going to be in the same situation we found ourselves in for decades, a lot of talk, a lot of discussion, but lack of action,” he told RACER. “Now that we’re owners of IndyCar and the Speedway, we have an obligation, as we said in our (RE&C) announcement over July 4th weekend, that there are a number of pillars that we’re going to be focused on from who we hire, who we contract with, what the teams will look like in the future, who we contract with and spend money with, and then importantly, what happens on the racetrack.

“Also, what happens off the track is what we’re working on that extends far beyond just a driver. In fact, we’ve already hired three people in the Indianapolis area that are now on board this organization – two mechanics and an engineer from Purdue University, in fact. One (of the mechanics) was actually working for the city of Indianapolis, fixing all their cars downtown. The other has been involved in drifting. Two of the three people we’ve hired have gone through Rod’s NXG Racers to come up through those ranks.”

(Left to right) Stu Kelly, Nadeem Ali and Derek Morris have already been recruited to fill mechanic and engineering roles with the fledgling team. Image via IndyCar

Denker points to the familiar story of first-time exposure to the sport as being the catalyst for the response they’ve seen with NXG and the RE&C.

“Being part of Rod’s program, that’s where they got the bug, and look what’s happening now,” he continued. “One guy went into STEM and now they’re actually working for a race team, so we thought that we needed to take this by the horns and put something together and structure it with Rod Reid. We’re talking to more people to hire, and there’s more to come. Give us another month or so and we’re going to hit you again with something big. I can’t say what it is, but it’s going to be something significant.”

At 83 years of age, racing’s most powerful owner is playing the long game, and it starts with modernizing IndyCar from the inside through the RE&C. If it’s successful, in time, it could look more like the most popular sports where the players and fans represent a more accurate depiction of the American experiment.

“Team Penske is going to mentor the Force Indy group, going to nurture them, bring them on board, and the future is this team is going to be running out of Indianapolis in the future, on its own,” Penske said. “This is designed to be a self-fulfilling program, and we’ll help them get it going, teach them, and mentor them so it can be run on its own very soon. This is something tangible to start, and by gosh, we’re just getting started.”

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