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Startup open-wheel race team a pipeline for Blacks in motorsports
Force Indy aims to add talent from Concord shop
 
Published Tuesday, January 5, 2021 12:00 pm
by Herbert L. White

PHOTO | CHRIS OWENS
Rod Reid, director of Force Indy, speaks at a November press conference announcing the initiative in Indianapolis, Indiana. Force Indy will be headquartered in Concord for its first year in the USF 2000 championship, the first rung on the Indycar racing ladder.

Rod Reid’s road to the Indianapolis 500 starts near Charlotte.


Reid is founding race director of Force Indy, a race team created by the IndyCar Series and headquartered in Concord. The team has a singular purpose: build a pipeline for African American talent to open-wheel racing’s top level as drivers, engineers and office personnel.


“I’m talking about having people that look like me in all positions of the race team,” said Reid, who also runs NXG Motorsports, a mentorship and education program for Black youth at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “Ownership, of course. The driver – everybody likes the Black driver, if you will – but mechanics and engineers and others in the paddock and in the garage and in the office.”


Force Indy is the result of a conversation between Reid and Roger Penske, owner of IMS and the IndyCar Series, North America’s top open-wheel league. Upon buying the speedway in 2019, Penske had no idea NXG existed but was intrigued by what the program represents and asked Reid, who owned a race team in the 1980s, to help expand IndyCar’s talent pool. The result is IndyCar’s Race for Equality & Change initiative to recruit and develop a diverse workforce.


“What we were doing on the local level certainly could apply to a national program,” Reid said. “[Penske] got pretty excited about what we’re doing, and he said, ‘you know I’d really like to support that program. …So, what is it that is your dream, what’s your vision?’ I said I would love one day to have a team that was predominantly black.”


Said Penske: “When the IMS and IndyCar acquisition happened a year ago, I was pleased to learn of the work Rod Reid was doing. To lend our support to an effort like this is a natural. Together, we’ll work to not only get this new team off the ground but continue to support it and its mission as it continues down a path to compete at the top level.”


Force Indy will compete in the USF 2000 championship, the first step on the North American open-wheel ladder. If all goes well, the team will move up to Indy Pro 2000, then Indy Lights and graduate to IndyCar, which contests the world’s biggest single-day sporting event, the Indy 500.


“Rod is a passionate leader and talented team builder who has demonstrated a fundamental commitment to equality and opportunity in our sport,” IMS President Doug Boles said. “IMS has been privileged to be a partner with Rod and NXG for more than a decade, and we know he’ll bring the same commitment and drive for excellence to Force Indy.”


Force Indy will debut at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 5 with the No. 99 car as a salute to Dewey “Rajo Jack” Gatson, an African American racer who drove a roadster with that number toward the end of his career in 1951. Gatson, one of the winningest Black drivers and mechanics in racing history, was turned away from the Indianapolis 500 on multiple occasions because of his skin color. That won’t be the case with Reid’s squad.


“I’m still vetting drivers right now I want someone young that can grow with us,” he said. “There is some of talent out there I want to help develop, but I’m looking long term. I’m looking three, four or five years, which is forever and racing to still be out here so that, you give me a call say ‘hey Rod what’s going on’ a year from now I don’t want you to hear well you know we tried. I want to be able to report you know what we’ve done well, performed well, maybe we’ve even won some races.”


Force Indy will be an all-Black outfit, from the yet-to-be determined driver, pit crew, race engineers and office staff. While driver opportunities are in short supply even for talented candidates, the initiative will expand opportunities beyond the cockpit.


Force Indy will spend the 2021 campaign in Concord with access to mentors and expertise from Team Penske, a global racing franchise that has won a record 18 Indianapolis 500s and 16 IndyCar championships in addition to its role as a major player in sports car and stock car racing. The goal is to spend a year in North Carolina before relocating to Indianapolis, which is where most of the open-wheel shops are located.


“The intent is to get back to Indy, which is the open-wheel sports capital of the world, and we want to be based here so we’ll be back here at the end of the season. We just wanted to get that tutelage from Team Penske while we were down there.”


There’s history with Black participation in racing despite the limitations of economic and social barriers. Willy T. Ribbs and George Mack raced Indy cars while actor Bill Cosby, Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Walter Payton and entrepreneur Marc Laidler owned teams.


Lewis Hamilton won his seventh Formula 1 world championship in 2020 and owns the career race victories record with 95. Wendell Scott, the first – and only – Black driver to win in NASCAR’s top division, is a member of the stock car racing hall of fame. Bubba Wallace is signed with Michael Jordan’s new Cup Series team, which debuts this year.


NASCAR has its own diversity initiative, but Force Indy is created specifically to prepare African Americans for careers on and off the track. It’s also a vehicle to encourage Blacks to take a rooting interest in the team’s success, and ultimately, an industry whose past has been less than equitable or accessible to the Black community.


“Force Indy is as much about racing and winning and I don’t want to de-emphasize that because that’s what I’m all about,” he said. “It is as much about welcoming. When we talk about inclusion and all the catch words, I think for me it’s invitation. If I can have you and your brother and sister and mom and aunt and uncle go ‘you know what, there’s a Black team, maybe we can follow them and see what they’re into in this sport,’ that becomes an entree, that becomes an opportunity for us to get involved in the sport.”


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