As Juneteenth celebrations are ramping up all across the United States this weekend in honor of the June 19 federal holiday, the INDYCAR industry is reflecting on the important meaning of this day and the impactful message it conveys.
Last year, President Joe Biden signed legislation declaring Juneteenth the nation’s 11th annual federal holiday. With awareness surrounding Juneteenth continuing to increase, this significant day and its purposeful meaning will certainly be on the minds of those within the INDYCAR paddock.
Juneteenth has been an annual holiday in the United States since the late 1800s in recognition of the end of slavery in the United States. On June 19, 1865, enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, were informed of their freedom and that the Civil War had ended. This fully put into effect the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued on Jan. 1, 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln.
“On the personal side, I’m glad people are recognizing it,” said Rod Reid, team principal of Force Indy, an African American-led team competing in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires. “I think it’s important to have holidays and special days to recognize events that are important in the United States. I think it should be especially important to all Americans that we no longer as a country have slavery.”
Jimmie McMillian, chief diversity officer and senior corporate counsel of Penske Entertainment, said that as an African American man, Juneteenth is a representation of what the United States stands for.
“It’s really about freedom,” McMillian said. “It’s about this country meeting the promise of its laws and purpose. It also symbolizes what can happen when part of our country lags behind the intent of the government. I think it’s yet another exclamation point on our national agreement that slavery has no place and that we reject that part of our history and we celebrate we moved beyond it.”
Since Force Indy’s inception in the fall of 2020, it has served as a pipeline for African Americans into North American open-wheel racing. The team debuted last year in USF2000 before transitioning to Indy Lights this season.
The team has already developed multiple drivers and crew members that hope to reach the NTT INDYCAR SERIES one day. Force Indy has several crew members that are graduates of NXG Youth Motorsports, an experiential academy for life-skill development focused on minority students from underrepresented communities that was started by Reid.
McMillian said honoring African American drivers, crew members, marketers, sales people and more that work in the INDYCAR industry this weekend is important, but he’s proud of the fact that it has also transitioned into a season-long acknowledgement of promise thanks to Penske Entertainment’s Race for Equality & Change initiative.
“I think it’s obvious throughout the season,” McMillian said. “We get caught up in the holiday, but it’s about the whole year. The entire Race for Equality & Change is a microscope on what Juneteenth means.
“It’s about the season, what’s next, members of NXG in the pits at the Indy 500. It means from that day of being declared free, we have climbed ourselves into an open-wheel car. We are going to climb ourselves to the top of racing. I believe that is possible. It’s a symbol of what can be accomplished.”
To the point of both Reid and McMillian, they see Juneteenth and the Race for Equality & Change as similar, because both are ways that this country is working to build awareness and create inclusive environments.
The Race for Equality & Change is closing in on the two-year mark, when Penske Entertainment announced the initiative July 4, 2020, with core concepts including to recruit and develop a diverse workforce throughout INDYCAR and IMS, diversify INDYCAR competition, invest in minority communities and much more.
Numerous steps have been taken since then, including naming McMillian chief diversity officer, the rise of Force Indy first to USF2000 and now to Indy Lights, female-led Paretta Autosport competing in the Indy 500 and other NTT INDYCAR SERIES races, IMS forming a partnership with Indy Pride, Inc., and much more.
Reid said that he has felt a palpable excitement as the INDYCAR industry embraces the Race for Equality & Change and its impact, just as the country does with Juneteenth this weekend.
“My experience has been that people are excited that the sport has been making a concerted effort to be inclusive, which it has not done before,” Reid said. “I think it has been much more welcoming. I think people are excited about the opportunity to spread the sport to more, in particular, African Americans and women.”
For McMillian, the Race for Equality & Change has been filled with positive steps, but he believes the initiative is far from complete.
“I think about all of us are trying to heal from the wound that was slavery and the division that it caused,” McMillian said. “We’re constantly on a path to heal those wounds and heal a sore that exists. The Race for Equality & Change is an effort to heal those wounds as they manifested in motorsports, intentionally or unintentionally. We’re healing those wounds, and we’re doing it together.
“The goal is to make this a better world. I think that’s how the Race for Equality & Change connects to Juneteenth. Is says this is a step of analyzing and realizing there was hurt and harm, and we’re going to fix it. Juneteenth commands that from everyone.”