Note: This is part of a series of feature stories celebrating Black History Month in February.
Ernie Francis Jr. is leading the charge in the “Race for Equality & Change.”
An initiative announced by Penske Entertainment Corp. in July 2020 with the goal for growing diversity throughout all levels in INDYCAR and at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Francis stepped up to the challenge last year as a rookie in INDY NXT by Firestone with Force Indy.
“It's awesome to be a part of that, and it's something that you sit back and you think it's part of a bigger picture of what the goal of the program is,” said Francis, 25. “We all have our individual goals, whether it's me driving the cars, whether it's our mechanics, team principals, everybody involved with the program. Everybody has their individual goals, but we're all working toward something bigger, which is just trying to make motorsport more inclusive for everybody.”
Traveling to the various cities as part of the racing schedule, Francis often noticed when talking to kids in the community within 10 minutes of the racetrack, they would either not be aware of racing nearby or not feel welcome.
“That's something that we're trying to change, and we've seen a lot of change with that last year,” he said. “We had kids coming out to the racetrack, showing them around the paddock, showing them our cars. It's pretty cool to know that not only am I getting to drive these incredible cars and have this awesome opportunity, but we're also changing the face of motorsport a little bit and changing some of the way that people look at motorsport, especially in that younger generation.”
South Florida native Francis grew up around the racetrack. The early years were spent watching his dad race before shutting his own visor and torching the track in a go-kart. The racetrack “felt like home” as he continued to grow within motorsports, earning several accolades along the way, including becoming a seven-time class champion in the Trans Am Series (2014-20). He earned 47 career victories, which are the most of any driver in Trans Am history. His 24 wins in the premier TA category trail only Paul Gentilozzi (31), Mark Donohue (29) and Tommy Kendall (28).
“I think no matter what, who you are when you're at the racetrack, when you put your helmet on, you get behind the wheel, it doesn't matter what race you are, what gender you are, everybody has the same goals out there on the track,” Francis said. “And I don't think that should differentiate how you see somebody based on what they look like or anything, so I've always felt really at home at the racetrack. I felt like somewhere where I felt really comfortable, and I think it's just because it's been all my life. I've grown up around it, and it's all I really know.”
Looking ahead, Francis is preparing to get behind the wheel of the No. 99 HMD Motorsports with Force Indy Dallara for a second consecutive season in INDY NXT. There are already reasons for optimism after a strong offseason, too, which saw Francis use his experience and his new spot with HMD Motorsports to end up third-quickest in the Chris Griffis Memorial Test last fall at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
Force Indy was a single-car team last year. This year, Francis is part of a nine-driver lineup with HMD, which won the drivers’ title last year with Linus Lundqvist.
“Yeah, it's incredibly exciting,” Francis said. “Going into this year, big Year 2, a ton of experience last year that I learned racing throughout the season. We didn't really have everything we needed to be as competitive as we know we could have been. So, it made it difficult, made it tough on me mentally, as well.
“But this offseason, big changes with the program, partnering with HMD seemed to get us what we needed; to have teammates to have the data, and the resources to put together the program where we know that we should be. And we've seen it in the offseason testing, and it's super exciting because now I feel like I have that opportunity and it comes down on me to make it happen on the track.”
While there is still a full INDY NXT season ahead, climbing to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES is still very much the goal for Francis. While there are numerous influences he’s recognized while being a visible part of the “Race for Equality & Change,” he’s especially proud of his connection with one group.
“I think one of the big things that I'd want to carry on with me would be how we reach out to this younger generation,” Francis said. “I think it's really cool. We've done it at Detroit. We did it at St. Pete. A few races last year where before the race weekend we'd go to some of these schools and I'd go talk to some of these kids and really just be able to try and connect with them and show them what I'm doing in my life and how I got to where I'm at, and you just see their eyes light up a little bit because it's something that some of them will dream about doing and want to do.
“It just helps give them more hope to go after those dreams and try to try to accomplish that. Regardless of if they want to be a race car driver or whatever they want to accomplish in life, it just helps them see somebody else doing it, and it gives them a goal to chase after. I think that's something that this program does very well, and that's something that I want to continue on doing when I do make it to INDYCAR.”