Rod Reid got exactly what he was hoping for with the return of Ernie Francis Jr for a second season of Indy Lights and the elevation of Myles Rowe to the USF Pro 2000 presented by Cooper Tires series through the Force Indy program he leads.
Francis Jr made steady progress on his Indy Lights debut, but with a bare minimum of open-wheel experience beneath the seven-time Trans Am champion, 2022 was never going to be about podiums and wins for the talented Floridian. Expectations have risen, however, with Reid’s relocation of Force Indy’s Indy Lights effort from a standalone operation to one that’s now run by the reigning series champions at HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing.
For Rowe, who led the USF2000 championship for most of the year and finished second in the standings to Michael d’Orlando, the only direction was up. Through Roger Penske’s Race for Equality & Change initiative that funds Force Indy’s efforts, Rowe will stay with Pabst Racing and take on a stacked USF Pro 2000 field.
Beyond Force Indy’s drivers, Reid’s accelerated the learning curve for the team of African American mechanics who started with the program in 2021. As relative newcomers to open-wheel racing, the group is shifting to work within HMD Motorsports where their training and education on Francis Jr’s car with the defending title winners should open the door to IndyCar in the coming years.
It’s here where Reid sees great potential within Force Indy and the RFE&C program as a whole. On Penske’s side, there’s a significant desire to see Francis Jr and/or Rowe in the Indianapolis 500, and together, the endeavor is getting closer to achieving its core purpose of sending mechanics, crew members, and drivers to the NTT IndyCar Series.
“In my relationship early on with Roger Penske, I said, ‘This is how I see the world in terms of motorsports and it not having that inclusion and diversity,’ and he shared with me that we want to do this program that’s more inclusive, and perhaps we can work together,” Reid tells RACER.
“I had the NXG Youth Motorsports program where I work with kids from 11 years old to about 16 who learn and develop through karting, and four years ago, I created a program called Path to Pro and that came from simply wondering how I can get kids targeted towards college or tech school that could then feed motorsports. So that’s really my motivation.
“Then when we came together, Roger said, ‘I would love to see an African American again in the 500,’ and I said, ‘I would love that too, and I would actually love to see a team or at least a group of African Americans that are skilled and ready to go up the ladder with them.’ And that’s what we continue to work on together.”
Drivers tend to develop at similar rates on the junior open-wheel ladder, but there’s no specific timeline for crew members as some reach the sport with no background in the sport while others arrive at an advanced stage with years of experience gained in amateur racing. It means that some of Force Indy’s crew members could get to IndyCar before Francis Jr and Rowe and others could follow behind their drivers later in the decade.
Altogether, and without a guarantee the Force Indy program will be funded in perpetuity, Reid is trying to accelerate everyone involved with the program to take that final step to IndyCar as soon as possible.
“The one thing that has been a bit of a challenge, honestly, is the timeframe,” he says. “There is a timestamp on this from the standpoint that both Roger and IndyCar would like to see things happen faster. I think we all would. Also, when you talk about the kind of dollars that you have to spend for development, you have to be very efficient. So I think there’s been that soft battle between my intention of developing these young drivers as well as our crew, and the pressure to move them forward.
“You’ve seen it with us going from USF2000 to Indy Lights. This was like climbing Mount Everest, for us. And I think the crew were up to the challenge. But there was so much to learn. And it sounds cliche, but we didn’t even know how the series operated and what some of the nuances on that particular car were. We had some help from teams that will give you a few little pointers here and there, but mostly, these are the things you find out when you get there. And when you’re also trying to develop new drivers and crew, it’s a lot. And it takes time.”
Reid takes pride in how quickly some of Force Indy’s crew members have adapted to new careers in professional auto racing.
“Most of the people around me were never in racing,” he says. “They had the skills and the knowledge for motors and cars coming from the real world, and some maybe had a background with amateur drifting or stock cars, but the biggest thing they had was the book smarts.
“As a group, when we went to Indy Lights, they said, ‘Let me study this,’ and we printed out the mechanical book from Dallara, put all the sheets in a big thick binder and they went through it page by page until they really understood this car. Those are the kinds of things I’m the most proud of because I could see their hunger right away to get into this new car for us. They’re wanting to figure it out immediately on their own, and their eagerness is what’s driving them to learn as fast as they have been.”
Next on Reid’s to-do list is to secure a long runway for Force Indy. Getting the team’s current drivers and crew to IndyCar is the immediate goal; making sure there’s a second class, and a third, and more that come behind today’s group is the bigger solution Reid’s contemplating for the RFE&C.
“How can this become a sustainable model?” he says. “That’s what I’m working on now. I have a database of kids who may not have the financial wherewithal — who’ve hit the ‘green wall’ — and simply don’t have the money to get here. I’ve had a lot of kids come up to me who’ve said they want to drive or get involved in other aspects of racing, and so I created a database to get their information so I can then guide them. You know, one kid is 22 years old, and I said, ‘Let’s look at Plan A, B, and C. If your Plan A is to be a race car driver, let’s understand the obstacles and the money you’ll need.
“Then we look at some kids who are 13, 14, 15, and wanting to join the USF Juniors series. Maybe they can’t get there because they lack the family money. I would love for this sport to be judged on talent versus pay-to-play, but since it isn’t, the only way that’s going to happen is through creating scholarships. So going forward, if you say, ‘What is the biggest challenge for me and what am I doing?’ I’m looking for scholarship creation. So that we can do it at the high school and college level through building a fund.
“So if a kid says, ‘Hey, I want to be a mechanic in motorsports,’ we can come back and say, ‘Here are three schools you might want to consider, let me see what your grades are in school, and if you’re achieving there, you apply for a scholarship and maybe we can help you with that school.’ That’s my mission. That’s real change. I love racing and I love winning, but that’s going to be the win for me as I look forward. Ernie and Myles are going to be my flag bearers, but really, it’s that Path to Pro for these kids that can make the biggest change.”