In the 1930’s African American driver Charlie Wiggins submitted an entry for the Indianapolis 500. It was rejected, not because of his ability. Wiggins was a multiple winner of the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. The 500 would not have a driver of color until 1991.
Today, a new era of diversity begins at IMS, thanks to efforts from Roger Penske and Rod Reid, who introduced Force Indy to the media today.
Reid laid out his mission early in today’s press conference.
“I kind of see this two ways. One is that we are inviting the black community to come into motorsports through our effort as Force Indy. We are also inviting the motorsports industry to embrace seeing and having the presence of African Americans and people of color in the pits, in the paddock, in other places in motorsports.
I want to be very, very clear that we are about diversity. We are about more than just me as a principal and the drivers. As a matter of fact, one of our core projects that we’ve engaged in in terms of putting this team together is to make sure that we have those positions like mechanics and engineers and others in the mix.”
With the support of Team Penske, Reid, the CEO of NXG Motorsports, will field a car in the 2021 USF2000 series, the first step on the Road to Indy. Reid has spent 40 years in motorsport helping people of color succeed in the sport. Reid believes the mentoring of Team Penske will be a significant boost to the team in its first year.
Jimmie McMillan, Penske Entertainment Chief Diversity Officer, said, “This is very pivotal for the Race for Equality and Change that we are undergoing right now. I could tell you under our leadership, certainly under Roger Penske, but also under Mark Miles, Bud Denker, Doug Boles, Allison Melangton, Jay Frye, we are all committed to changing this sport. It is an everyday laser focus on what we can do to move the needle.”
McMillan added,”As an African American male, I cannot understate the importance of today. Someone who did not grow up with the sport, but grew to fall in love with the sport over time and over being introduced to it by others. I have strived to spread that love to other African Americans, people of color. This is a pivotal morning.”
The car will carry number 99. Reid explained the significance of that number.
“It’s so important for us to know where we’ve come from. There’s a lot of history. African Americans have been in motorsports ever since the beginning of the car, the sport itself.
A gentleman in the 1920s by the name of Dewey Gaston, he went by the nickname Rajo Jack. He actually ran No. 33 for a lot of years, was very, very successful with that number.
He was staging a comeback in the early ’50s, late ’40s. He brought a car that he thought would be extremely successful. That car was a big block engine, thought he was going to put it up front. It was No. 99. He was never able to win in that car. I think he finished the best with like a fourth in one of his races. Then he stopped.
I thought it would be fitting for us to take on that heritage and use the No. 99 to move forward. With the help of the Penske organization, ourself, we wanted to put No. 99 in the winner’s circle.”
Reid expects members of his team to eventually find jobs with other teams in the Indycar paddock. He never speaks just of drivers, but always talks of mechanics, engineers, and people on the business side of the sport. Reid indicated that the team plans to move up the Road to Indy ladder to land in Indycar in the future.
A driver has not been selected as yet. Reid said they are looking for someone who fits their criteria.
“I can tell you there’s a lot of talent out there. There are a lot of deserving drivers. Our goal is to sit down and make a decision and choose one of them that we think fit our criteria.
Very quickly, that criteria includes being an American, it includes being someone that has been given an opportunity to go from karts to cars as part of that transition. We’re also looking for someone that is youthful and can grow with us as we start to develop our team.
Probably the most important thing is they’ve got to fit what our mission is. We’re really all about the full team. This is not just about the driver, as you’ve heard from everyone here.”
There is a lot of speculation that Myles Rowe, who tested with a USF 2000 team last month is the prime candidate, but Reid was noncommittal. Neither would he rule out a female driver.
Unlike the Indianapolis 500 drives of Will T. Ribbs and George Mack, which were essentially one off ventures, Reid is looking at a long term sustainable model to infuse diversity throughout Indycar.
The support from the top should give Force Indy the foundation to succeed. I’m sure Charlie Wiggins is smiling today.