Where is the next Black racing driver coming from?

US Motor Racing News

Lewis Hamilton is fighting for another F1 title and Bubba Wallace has won in NASCAR, but what about the next generation of Black — and female — racers? asks Preston Lerner

Myles Rowe holds the US flag after winning USF2000 in New Jersey

Myles Rowe won in USF2000 this year but is struggling to fund a second season

Road to Indy

British fans of American football may have noticed stories last week about Las Vegas Raiders coach Jon Gruden, who was forced to resign in disgrace after the publication of emails filled with his racist, misogynist and homophobic comments – a trifecta of casual bigotry.

Most observers were shocked but not surprised, as the expression goes. Yes, on the institutional level, the National Football League has positioned itself as a steadfast proponent of diversity. But everybody knows that the NFL is, at a granular level, a bastion of old-school mores where gays and women are tolerated at best and shunned at worst.

Seeing the six officially approved social justice slogans printed on NFL helmets (“Black Lives Matter”, “Stop Hate” etc.) made me think about all “End Racism” signage prominently displayed at Formula 1 meetings these days. Love the messaging. But it seems like little more than lip service in a paddock where black faces – much less women – are conspicuously light on the ground.

Of course, at least F1 has a Black superstar in Lewis Hamilton. Here in the States, since the retirement of Danica Patrick, racing is a club limited almost exclusively to white males.

Bubba Wallace after winning in Talladega NASCAR 2021

Wallace became the first Black NASCAR winner for 58 years

NASCAR

NASCAR, where Confederate flags – a potent symbol of the nation’s long and ugly embrace of slavery – were commonplace until being outlawed last year, justifiably took a victory lap after Bubba Wallace scored a somewhat fortunate win earlier this month in the rain-shortened YellaWood 500 at Talladega. By taking the chequered flag, Wallace became the first African-American win a top-level NASCAR race since Wendell Scott in 1963.

But no Black drivers appear to be following in Wallace’s footsteps. By far the most successful graduate of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program is Kyle Larson, who qualified for the initiative on the marginal basis that his mother is Japanese-American. Ironically, Larson was suspended for nine months last year after using the n-word while livestreaming an iRacing race.

The last African-American to race in the Indianapolis 500 was George Mack, back in 2002. I was there that year, writing a story about Bump Day – the final day of qualifying, when the pressure ratchets up to brutal intensity. I remember being impressed when the little-known Mack calmly bumped his way into the field while nearly a dozen other drivers, with much more impressive pedigrees, failed to make the show.

Mack parlayed his success at Indy into one full IRL season in a tiny, underfunded, Black-owned team. After that, he never raced again. Today, he runs an auto repair shop in Long Beach, a stone’s throw from the street circuit he’s never had a chance to race on.

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Indy has been more hospitable to female drivers, starting with Janet Guthrie in 1977. Patrick – who twice led the 500 – Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher were longtime fixtures at the Speedway, and in 2013, there were no fewer than four women in the field. In 2010, I attended the race to follow Simona de Silvestro, who claimed Rookie of the Year honours.

At the time, I was convinced that de Silvestro was a star in the making. She was fresh-faced, fearless and exuberant. Oh, and she was also fast. Three years later, she finished second on merit in the Indy car race at Houston. Yet at the end of the 2013 season, despite lots of blather about needing more women in the sport, de Silvestro couldn’t find a ride.

I used to think that what it was going to take to upend the status quo was the emergence of a woman or a Black driver who was a generational talent – somebody so successful that he or she transcended identity politics. But Lewis Hamilton blew that theory out of the water. Despite 100 F1 wins and seven world driving championships, Hamilton hasn’t inspired a sea change in racing. He’s hardly caused a ripple. If his example has proved anything, it’s that there’s always room for a winner. If there’s an alien from Alpha Centauri with multiple genders and sexualities who could put a car on the pole at Monaco, you can be sure they would have an F1 contract in a minute. But most drivers aren’t Lewis Hamilton, and all things being equal, owners inevitably choose to go with the easy conventional choice, i.e. a white male, rather than taking a flyer on a somebody who looks different from them.

“Even the Avengers – you need all of them if you want to accomplish something.”

So maybe change has to come from the top down. Shortly after buying the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Roger Penske – the most powerful figure in American motorsports – created the Race for Equality & Change initiative, which helped underwrite the creation of the Black-owned Force Indy Cooper Tires USF2000 team.

Myles Rowe, a 21-year-old African-American whose promising career had stalled three years earlier when he ran out of money, was hired as the driver. This past year, he soldiered through an up-and-down season in the highly competitive series before scoring a storybook win in August at New Jersey Motorsports Park, where he came from ninth on a greasy track before executing a daring pass of champion-to-be Kiko Porto for the lead two corners from the finish.

“I knew I couldn’t mess up a single pass because the races are so short, so I focused on hitting every mark,” Rowe says. “That last lap, I was really scared I was going to spin the car. Every millisecond counted. If I’d been an inch, inch-and-a-half, farther back, Kiko probably would have cut across me, and I wouldn’t have been able to make the pass.”

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Rowe’s win – the first for an African-American in a race run under Indy car sanction – generated a tremendous amount of media attention. But at the end of the year, he returned to college and is now struggling to put together funding for a second season in USF2000. Meanwhile, the Race for Equality & Change helped bring Silvestro back to the Indy 500 this year in a team owned by Beth Paretta, but this, too, turned out to be a one-and-done proposition.

“The thing is, it’s not a one-man job. I mean, Roger can’t change the world alone,” Rowe says, sounding far wiser than his years or experience would suggest. “Even the Avengers – you need all of them if you want to accomplish something.”

If racing existed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, screenwriters could quickly flip the script on a century of discrimination. But in the real world, alas, change is a long time coming.