Note: INDYCAR.com is celebrating Black History Month with a series of content throughout February.
The men and women of Force Indy, a second-year race team tackling the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship for the first time this season, understand they face a tall order to be competitive at the season-opening event Feb. 25-27 in St. Petersburg, Florida.
But team principal Rod Reid insists there is one overriding objective as Penske Entertainment’s “Race for Equality & Change” initiative arrives on its biggest stage yet this season.
“We want to win races,” Reid said at last week’s introduction of Ernie Francis Jr. as Force Indy’s driver for 2022. “I want to make sure everybody understands that as we sit here and we talk about programs for diversity and inclusion, (winning) is a goal.
“I think if we do that then we become role models for all.”
Reid, Francis and all of those involved with “Race for Equality & Change” strive for inclusion in motorsports, and it’s fitting that Indy Lights begins this season during Black History Month.
In Francis, Force Indy has a 24-year-old Haitian-American driver whose motorsports resume epitomizes success. The native of Davie, Florida, has won 47 races and seven class championships in a record-setting Trans Am Series career. Last year, Francis won a nationally televised race in Tony Stewart’s Superstar Racing Experience (SRX), and he finished second to Stewart in the overall point standings against the likes of INDYCAR SERIES legends Paul Tracy, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, plus former NASCAR champions Bobby Labonte and Bill Elliott.
In Reid, Force Indy has more than 40 years of motorsports management experience, which is why it wasn’t surprising that a victory was achieved last year in the team’s first USF2000 Presented by Cooper Tires season. Myles Rowe won a race at New Jersey Motorsports Park.
Jimmie McMillian, Penske Entertainment’s chief diversity officer, said the people and their effort in fielding the No. 99 car is a winning combination.
“When you put Ernie in the car, you look at what the team was able to accomplish last year, you take Rod’s experience, you start saying, ‘Whoa, these guys can really go out and make some noise this year,’” he said. “That gets people excited. That’s what we want.”
INDYCAR’s move to include Indy Lights in more NTT INDYCAR SERIES activities, including paddock proximity during race weekends, this season will help put competitors like Force Indy more in the spotlight, and they figure to shine.
“Now we’re going to be on a stage where we can expose our communities – plural – to all of the racing, not just Indy Lights (but) also INDYCAR so (the fans) can learn,” Reid said. “I think it’s a win-win for everybody.”
Like Reid, Francis believes the surest way to captivate people is to succeed on the track. He also thinks it is important to use his platform as a race car driver to engage with young race fans of color.
“Being from a Haitian-American background, I look different than most of the other drivers out there, (and) I notice that when I go to the racetrack,” he said. “Kids will naturally want to come talk to me, see me at the racetrack. They always want to know how I got started. I really enjoy talking to kids about that.
“I’ll have their parents messaging me on Instagram just trying to find out more information. I sent them pictures, send them out stuff. I understand that the younger generation definitely looks up to me as a driver.”
McMillian said the success of “Race for Equality & Change” also can be measured in the increased diversity of those working in the sport, and the results were evident to him during last year’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
“As I walked up and down (pit road), I saw members of the Force Indy team working on (INDYCAR) teams in the ‘500,’” he said. “These are folks who started out in (Reid’s) NXG Youth Motorsports as go-kart racers, learned STEM concepts.
“At one time they weren’t considered (by) the teams; now they are working (with them).”