IndyCar courting black fans, drivers and crews to diversify

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Willy T. Ribbs, the first black rider to race in the Indy 500 in 1991, and only the second all-time black rider, attends the 2018 race (Reuters)

INDIANAPOLIS – Rod Reid ran a program filled with young black kart racers excluded from a venue due to the pandemic and in need of a track to run.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway had spent millions on modernizing the historic property around the same time last year, when the coronavirus had a firm grip on the country. There was no guarantee – even if the doors were open – that there would be room for NXG Youth Motorsports usual place to teach kids STEM lessons in a makeshift classroom in the paddock, or for their drivers to run around the cone-lined course in a parking lot.

The suggestion was made to Reid: why not call the new boss of the speedway?

His appeal for help last June to Roger Penske – Reid noted the 2,300 children aged 11 to 15 who have been through school for more than 15 years in search of a path to motorsport – instead turned into a surprising revelation for the captain.

Yes, the kids at NXG needed a place to learn and hone their craft. But the booming riders also represented a rare chance for a seriously under-represented minority group in racing to feel at home indoors. the sprawling, 111-year-old speedway.

“We told him what we were talking about and he was really surprised,” said Reid. “He didn’t know we existed. The reason we started, especially the idea of ​​exposing the black community at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, surprised him as he said he couldn’t believe people didn’t feel welcome. here. I told him, you talk about years, years and years, when a person of color couldn’t even go on the speedway.

Penske, 84, offered IMS an NXG space to take over the program and, essentially, a fresh start. He helped NXG start a working relationship with Chevrolet, and the program secured loans to purchase a truck for its trailer. Discussions with Penske came soon after George Floyd’s death, a catalyst which partly led to IndyCar Race for Equality and Change Initiative support diversity and inclusiveness across the industry.

“I think the idea that a group of people wouldn’t feel welcome in a place he bought and a sport he loves, like me, makes absolutely no sense to him,” said Reid.

“How successful could you be as a person of color if you don’t see successful people? So it’s telling that story and going to different communities to say, not only do we want you to be here, but there are different paths to success for you, and your race doesn’t matter. It’s a great place to work. “

Much like NASCAR dealt with its own racial calculation last year, IndyCar set out to create a more diverse workforce across all levels of a series that only had two black drivers racing in the Indy. 500, his annual demonstration event which dates back to 1911. Willy T Ribbs, who became the first black driver to start the race in 1991 (and again in 1993), and George Mack in 2002 are.

“Isn’t it sad all these years and not another black pilot?” Reid said.

Ribbs, 66, who drives for the Superstar Racing Experience series this summer, said he never cared much about his role as the Indy 500 pioneer.

“It didn’t matter. I didn’t care,” he said. “Still not. It didn’t mean anything. I was focused on going fast and trying to win. If you focused on anything other than that when you were there you were going to be injured or killed.

Programs launched in recent months are designed to go way beyond the cockpit, but an anchor of IndyCar’s plan has been the creation of Force Indy, an all-black racing team led by Reid who competes in the IndyCar USF2000 Series scale. Force Indy has hired and developed Mechanics, Engineers and Black pilots throughout its team. Myles Rowe, who turns 21 in June, drives for the team and has been classified as a potential Indy 500 driver.

Jimmie McMillian, Director of Diversity at Penske Entertainment, is the architect intends to design a new era in the open wheel series. He said members of the black community who live near the IMS consider never having attended an Indianapolis 500 as a sort of badge of honor. They take a close look at one of the sport’s most famous venues and don’t really see anyone like them, certainly not on the starting grid.

“We want to make sure our paddock represents the fan base that we hope to have,” said McMillian. “My # 1 goal, I think every day, is to get rid of the concept that this is a white sport and that people are not welcome here.”

Years before Penske took over as helm of the series, IndyCar had a diversity committee that worked on recruiting and retaining both the series and the IMS. While McMillian watched the number of women involved on the business side as a positive point for the series – around 35% to 40% of the workforce are women – the minority composition “was probably where we struggled”.

“We tried to figure out why we were so monolithic in our employee base,” McMillian said.

IndyCar’s solution was an attempt to become more aggressive and creative in its outreach efforts – how to find the best and brightest in urban communities and persuade them to seek careers in the paddock. Yes, there was a greater presence on social media and ticket drives, and some of the usual promotional incentives such as working with key community stakeholders such as the Indianapolis Urban League.

For McMillian, it was the 1 to 1 connection, the personal stories that could be shared with kids and adults alike that Indianapolis Motor Speedway was as welcoming to them as any fan enjoying a pork tenderloin sandwich as the cars were going at 200 mph on race day.

“How successful could you be as a person of color if you don’t see successful people?” McMillian asked. “So it’s telling that story and going to different communities to say, not only do we want you to be here, but there are different paths to success for you and your race doesn’t matter. It’s a great place to work. “

“I knew I was not treating equally. I wasn’t getting the same opportunities on the basis of one thing, and not because I couldn’t win. I wasn’t getting support because I was African American. Support the meaning of American business. – Willy T. Ribbs, who raced at Indy in 1991 and 1993

McMillian changed tires and did oil changes at a tire dealership in Bloomington, Indiana in the late 1990s when his colleagues invited him to a NASCAR race at the Brickyard. He was instantly impressed by the crowded crowds and fast cars – but Confederate flags and ‘South Will Rise Again’ t-shirts made him uncomfortable and cast doubt on pursuing a career in the sport. automobile.

He is now leading a charge for change.

IndyCar didn’t necessarily have a moment like NASCAR last year when Black Driver Bubba Wallace led the demand for the production car series to ultimately ban the Confederate flag of its races and sites.

IndyCar kept an eye on how NASCAR added minority owners like Michael Jordan and Pitbull, and McMillian said there was still more for the NHRA to study: The drag racing series has long been a leader in diversity and has essentially made gender, race – and even socio-economics – non-factors in pursuing a career in motorsport.

This hasn’t always been the case in IndyCar.

“I knew I wasn’t treating on an equal footing,” Ribbs said. “I wasn’t getting the same opportunities on the basis of one thing, and not because I couldn’t win. I wasn’t getting support because I was African American. Support the meaning of American business. “

With a few exceptions for drivers born into legacy families, pursuing a racing career is as much about sponsorship, money and connections as it is talent, and the excitement is part of the job. IndyCar took a closer look at identifying companies willing to support development teams or help secure equipment for upcoming programs. It also means developing a racing career path for women and minorities in a variety of jobs outside the cockpit ranging from racing engineers to public relations and sponsorship sales and beyond; Reid is a former member of the yellow shirt security team who denounces whistleblowers.

“Some people say having a driver in a car is going to make all the difference in the world, but if you listen to Lewis Hamilton he is very adamant that when he gets out of the car and goes to the Mercedes paddock, not all faces look like him, “said McMillian, referring to the seven-time Formula 1 champion, who is black.” His success did not change that. I have the same concern, quite frankly, that if we were successful enough to have IndyCar’s Lewis Hamilton, that alone wouldn’t be what we need to really make the change we need in the sport.

IndyCar created incentives for teams and track promoters who pushed diversity efforts. NXG students will ride go-karts in Detroit as part of a pilot program that could lead to a full season schedule in 2022, and program expansion is planned across the country.

NXG, funded in part by sponsorship from Lucas Oil, has yet to send a student to IndyCar, although there might not be a better time for kids to feel capable of succeeding in a some extent to IMS.

Penske is committed at all levels and yes diversity can be good for results, but he took a hands-on approach with ideas that could spark fundamental change in the sport.

“He says, what can we do, let’s go,” McMillian said.

Look around IMS and a tangible culture change is happening. The USF2000, the first rung on the IndyCar road, raced at the IMS over the IndyCar Grand Prix weekend, and more black fans seemed to be visiting the track and watching the race than McMillian could remember. .

“They said, ‘I didn’t know there were so many black people coming to the races,’ he said. “The story now is that there are a lot of black people here. We need to make sure that everyone in our community, for one reason or another, can say, “I’ve been on the trail”. “

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Online: https://apnews.com/hub/indycar



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