Rod Reid can remember the very moment that his racing dream to get an African-American into the 1988 Indianapolis 500 died on its feet. The Lola IndyCar he and his friend, associate and driver Charles Lloyd Wilson were trying to enter, came spluttering to a halt in the pitlane…
“When we went to do our IndyCar test, we literally got screwed,” he says. “I mean, the car was not prepared, two of the gears weren’t even working.
“The owner said: ‘Well, we’ll get you back out here soon.’ And that soon has never happened…”
It was a breaking point. After years of working up to the attempt, of racing in front of fans waving Confederate flags and treated as outsiders, Reid and Wilson left the sport.
But the flame didn’t go out and, a decade later, it was burning with even greater intensity.
The pair set up a racing school for underprivileged children of ethnic minority backgrounds in Indiana. Now, Reid isn’t aiming to get just one African-American to Indy – he wants a whole team.
In partnership with Roger Penske, it looks like the dream might just become a reality. Their new all African-American race outfit, Force Indy, makes its debut in the American junior single-seater category USF2000 this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park.
The team will be competing in the full 18-round championship, with an African-American driver backed by black mechanics, Nadeem Ali, Stuart Kelly, and Derrick Morris
Penske signed up to the project after a persuasive pitch from Reid, that was not just groundbreaking for IndyCar, but motor sport as a whole.
“I said ‘I would love to lead an effort that would be inclusive of young men and women of color, of every strata, at every position on the team, have that be consistent and build up to IndyCar,” said Reid.
“[Roger Penske] said it was a great idea and agreed to support and provide the mentoring and tutelage for us to do it.”
The pair decided it was best for the fledgeling team to start at the bottom of the US single-seater ladder, in USF2000 (the US equivalent of the Formula 4). The team is included in IndyCar’s new ‘Race for Equality and Change’ initiative, a $1m fund to “fuel internal and external programs and initiatives that will create fundamental change”.
“The idea is actually to be, and these are my words, a sort of pipeline to promote motor sport on the higher level. So maybe if I train a mechanic, engineer, someone in PR, they could then go to work with a Ganassi or an Andretti or other teams.”
Inevitably, much of the attention will be on the man behind the wheel: the face of Force Indy is a 20-year-old karting champion whose talent shone just when it mattered — not that he knew it at the time.
“Roger Penske told me Will Power was out at one of the go kart tracks in Charlotte,” says Reid. “Will was running behind this kid, and he couldn’t pass him. And he said, ‘Wow, this kid is really good!’ So he and the karter, Myles Rowe, became acquainted.”
Rowe’s karting dice with Power was two years ago, and the African-American had subsequently entered college. Rowe was summoned from his classes to test a USF2000 for Force Indy – he didn’t disappoint.
“After not having been in a car for quite a while, it was extremely impressive,” says Reid. “He was half a second of the USF2000 regulars from last season. I was like ‘This kid’s got some skills!’
“You can’t deny the fact that motorsport has lack of inclusion and underrepresentation”
It wasn’t just Rowe’s driving abilities that stood out to Reid.
“He’s a creative individual. He’s a strong, independent thinker, and expresses himself well. So I like that. And I especially like the fact that he had a plan B, with college, in his life.
“So when I saw that, I said ‘This is a person that can think 360 degrees.’”
Leading an ambitious team with its sights set on IndyCar is just the start for Rowe, who Reid hopes will become an inspiration to ethnic minority children, encouraging more to dream of racing.
There also remains the thorny subject of prejudice in racing.
“When we announced the team for Sunday, I got a tweet from somebody said ‘Why don’t you just stick to basketball?’” says Reid. “Okay, this is in 2020! So that just goes to show you that racism is still alive and well. No-one can deny it.”
Reid encountered the racial divide as soon as he moved from the East Coast to Indianapolis as a child.
“The Indy 500 was all the rage on the radio,” he says. People talked about watching the race and having parties, but most people of colour, you know – the black folks – we didn’t go to the race. My family, we would listen to it and barbecue, but that was about it. You would see results on television, but I wanted to actually be there.
“Then, at 17 years old, I had an opportunity to become part of the, the Speedway’s ‘Yellow Shirts’ team, who would make sure people don’t hurt themselves and pick up the trash.
“It was a minimum wage job, but I took it gladly and got the chance to see my first 500. I just thought it was the coolest thing in the world – I was hooked.”
Fast-forward a few years and Reid was one of the only African-Americans working at an advertising firm in the city. As a result, any black clients were directed towards himself,.
“We had a client that was an oil company, a black-owned business here in Indianapolis,” Reid says. “The client called me one day and said, ‘We want you to review this request for sponsorship that we got from a racecar driver.’ His name was Charles Lloyd Wilson.
“I came back with my conclusion that it did not make financial sense for the company to sponsor this young man, unless the business owner wanted to do it personally – and he didn’t.
“And so I decided at that time that I would go help Charles look for money.”
Thus Reid and Wilson started on a journey, one which ultimately turn into a lifetime’s vocation.
“In 1984, we finally got some dollars to go racing, and Wilson did Formula Ford. From there, I was able to garner some money from Budweiser, we started a team and ran it in Super Vee.
“I managed that team. We didn’t have a whole lot of money to do the whole season, so we ran a partial season. I then raised some money to go to an IndyCar test.”
Reid and Wilson had scaled the U.S. motorsport ladder in an incredibly short space of time, with little to no experience and no support.
“I’m in my 20s and I’m learning about this industry without having any mentors or background,” Reid remembers. “Wilson and I both were just doing it from grassroots, so to speak – and he was a great driver.
“The part that became most meaningful to me was how we were woefully underfunded. Then we had the other layer of being unique – there just weren’t very many other blacks in the sport.”
Memories of prejudice and discrimination are still stuck fast in Reid’s mind.
“When we were running Super V, we would go down to different events,” he says. “I might go to a stock car race or an IndyCar race and you got Confederate Flags being waved there. People looking at you like you’re crazy. You know: ‘Why are you here?’
“Black kids don’t know racing like they know basketball, baseball, football – it’s not in our culture.”
“You can’t deny the fact that motor sports had and to some degree [still] has a great deal of racism, and I would just say a lack of inclusion and underrepresentation.”
Despite being up against it, the money that the resourceful Reid was enough to get them to the Indycar test. However, the rapid rise was about to come to a shuddering halt.
“We took some money to a team to be prepared and practice for Indy in 1988.
“To get a licence to run in the car, you had to demonstrate your ability in front of an official. So we set a test up for him to come and observe.
“We literally got screwed,” he says. “The car was not prepared, two of the gears weren’t even working.
“First and fourth weren’t operating. All Wilson could do was just throw it in fifth and run around as best he could, and so we couldn’t officially get a license or official certificate to run the 500.
“The owner said ‘We’ll get you back out here soon.’ And that soon has never happened – to this day. We were never able to and we paid a lot of money.
You can still detect the pain of the experience in Reid’s voice now.
“I learned a lot of lessons. Number one, don’t pay up front for something you don’t get. And then number two, you know, you just start to sort of mistrust what folks do.”
So stung were the pair, they decided to leave motorsport altogether.
“Charles went to become an engineer for Amtrak and I built my design business. We still both went to races together [as spectators], but shied away from IndyCar because of the bad taste in our mouth because of that experience.”
Racing is often a lifetime’s addiction though, and after a decade out of the sport Reid and Wilson found themselves pulled back in – with a more benevolent mission.
“We said, ‘You know what, let’s use what we’ve learned in motorsports, and help teach kids.’
“We had both worked at Skip Barber racing school. He was an instructor and I did a one side promotion for them in the late ‘80s.
‘In 2000, we bought a stock car, with the idea that would get a young boy or girl and teach him [how to race it].
However, the same lack of interest in African-Americans taking on the racing world became apparent once more. Rather than deter the pair, this time it inspired them.
“We started and got in a young man in our stock car, we realized that there was still such a gap,” Reid recalls.
“Mainly because [black] kids don’t know racing like they know basketball, baseball, football – it’s not in our culture.
The racing team, therefore, morphed into a racing school.
“We started Nexgeneracers [NXG] – for the next generation of racers. Today, it’s focused on bringing kids of colour to motor sports using karting. We provide everything for an 11-year-old to come and learn how to drive a go kart.
“What we now have [at the school], it’s threefold: we tie into not only using karting as a life skill and motor skill development tool, but also as a STEM education application, then [leading to] access to [relevant] careers.
“Our whole impetus was to get IndyCar and the motor sports community into the black community.”
Nexgeneracers has since become a fixture at the Indianapolis Speedway, but it wasn’t always an easy partnership.
“We have been at the speedway for all those years, we use the parking lot for our race course. We would talk to the speedway about, ‘Hey, why don’t you have these kids shadow different teams and different folks in racing?’ And we got a lot of pushback throughout the years.”
That widespread indifference has now given way to an intention to initiate change for the better. Whilst this has come in an atmosphere charged by last year’s Black Lives Matter movement, IndyCar and the Indianapolis Speedway needed someone to help lead the way. It found that in its new owner – Roger Penske.
The positive attitude had lasting and profound effects for Reid upon his first meeting with Penske.
“When he found out that we had been at Speedway for all these years he said ‘Well, I understand that we’re partners,’” recalls Reid.
‘I said “How so?’ And he says, ‘Well, you’ve been out here and I only just bought this track!’
“I only went to find out if he would allow us to stay there, now that he owned it. He did more than that.
“He embraced it and said: ‘Let’s move forward with supporting NXG in a more meaningful way, and being able to bridge that gap between the community and the sport.
“We found out that we both had the same ultimate goal: to get more blacks involved in motor sports and see a black driver at Indy on a consistent basis.”
The result is Force Indy.
With the support of Penske, the business acumen of Reid and the driving talent of Myles Rowe, the team looks to have a promising future. Its co-founder is looking to keep his feet on the ground and stay mindful that ‘results’ are not just seen on the track.
“I don’t want to get ahead of myself because there’s so much scrutiny on us,” he says. “I want to be able to perform at the level in which our team has the ability. The first three positions we hired were not the driver. That was on purpose you know, to give young people a shot and say, ‘Okay, let’s gel as a team and perform well. We’re all building together’
If the team progresses in the right way, Reid wants to see lasting effects on African-American society and culture.
“There are literally thousands if not millions of young black boys, who are dreaming of being LeBron James,” Reid comments.
“They may be four foot six, in their mind they’re six foot four – but they have a LeBron James, a Stephen Curry, you can go all the way down the list of people that they can aspire to be. They can start to do the work ethic and the understanding to get there.”
Black people and others from ethnic minority backgrounds currently only have one such role model in motor sport: Lewis Hamilton. It might take a while, but Rod Reid, Roger Penske and Force Indy aim to change that, starting this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park.