NXG Youth Motorsports and co-founder Rod Reid have worked overtime for more than 15 years to try to create opportunities for minority students and underrepresented communities with the goal of helping them land in open-wheel racing and the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
This year, Reid’s goal took a step further as the Force Indy team elevated to Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires with driver Ernie Francis Jr.
While that step gives Force Indy more attention, resources and potential, it also is the realization of Reid’s central mission for NXG: to create science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) opportunities for minorities within racing and not just on the racetrack.
Force Indy isn’t just the driver or Reid, who is the team principal. It takes a crew to make this team come to life on the racetrack, and two of the people who lead this crew and build Indy Lights cars are Derrick Morris and Stu Kelly, both graduates of NXG Youth Motorsports.
Morris, 28, helps lead the crew at the track and wrench the car, including for this weekend’s Indy Lights Grand Prix of Indianapolis doubleheader on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. For him, NXG was a monumental experience that guided him to where he is now.
“It changed my life,” Morris said. “It was the foundation of who I am today. It gave me a sense of direction. I don't come from money or anything. I grew up (in Indy), born and raised, wanting to get into motorsports but didn't know how. And (Reid) opened that door for me to step into motorsports and gave me something to strive for.”
Morris first came to NXG wanting to be a race car driver. But when that didn’t pan out, the education aspect of NXG Youth Motorsports, which includes class sessions that help educate kids on STEM-related topics, piqued his interest.
It inspired him to go to University of Northern Ohio for its High Performance Motorsports program, where he learned the ins and outs of vehicle dynamics. He also got a degree in business with the goal of affording himself multiple opportunities in life.
Kelly, meanwhile, was introduced to NXG at age 13 through a family friend who though it would be a good program for him to get involved. He attended his first event and fell in love with what the program had to offer.
Like his co-worker Morris, with whom he works on Francis’ No. 99 car with each race weekend, NXG inspired Kelly to further his education at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). He studied motorsports engineering first, and then leadership and technology toward the end of his time in college.
“NXG means really everything in every accomplishment I've made so far in my life,” said Kelly, 29. “It was a foundation for me, and it got me started and interested in motorsports. It introduced me to careers like what I have today.”
Working for a race team is a dream come true for Morris and Kelly, and the importance of what they’re doing is not lost on them as Force Indy is an integral part of Penske Entertainment’s Race for Equality & Change initiative that works to provide more opportunities for minorities and women in INDYCAR.
“It's special to know that what we do affects more than just us and the performance of the car,” Kelly said. “We know we're doing this as a community and we're doing this for the community as a part of the Race for Equality & Change, part of the history of NXG.
“You know, we are people that people in NXG can look up to and say, ‘Hey, you know, maybe that's something I can do one day.’ So for us, it's a lot more than just working on a car. We're doing it for the community, as well.”
Morris is happy to lead the crew that is helping elevate Francis toward the front of the field – his best finish in two Indy Lights races is seventh at the season opener in St. Petersburg. And while Francis is showing millions of young boys and girls of color that they, too, can be race car drivers, Morris is proud he is also showing there is a place for minorities at all levels of INDYCAR.
“It means a lot,” Morris said. “It makes me feel a little bit old, I'm not going to lie. But it definitely makes me proud of the sacrifices I made throughout the years to be looked at in that manner. And they see the sacrifice work.”
Morris and Kelly are the gold standard of NXG: Proof that those early summer mornings in the IMS parking lot and the education that must come before the fun part of driving go-karts is worth it. Proof that NXG Youth Motorsports produces results.
Reid is quick to acknowledge that Morris and Kelly are just two members of a larger team that will help put the No. 99 on track for Indy Lights Race 1 Friday, May 13 at 5:35 p.m. (ET) and Saturday, May 14 at 1:20 p.m. (ET), with both races live on Peacock Premium.
But while Morris and Kelly are two great examples of what NXG Youth Motorsports can create, these two men are just the beginning of what Reid hopes is a long lineage of NXG graduates that make their way to Indy Lights and the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.