What’s next for the Race For Equality & Change program?
The formation of Penske Entertainment’s Race For Equality & Change program is approaching its third anniversary.
Created in the wake of George Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020, Roger Penske and his leadership team created the RFE&C with a mission to address the lack of diversity within North American open-wheel racing and to broaden the NTT IndyCar Series’ and Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s hiring and business engagement practices.
Progress has been made, without question, but where is the RFE&C headed?
It’s marquee Force Indy program, launched in 2021, introduced Myles Rowe (pictured above with Roger Penske and Rod Reid) to the USF Championships by Cooper Tires where the college student from Georgia won a race, and in his second season run by Pabst Racing, Rowe won five races and finished runner-up in the USF2000 series, validating the faith and investment demonstrated through the RFE&C.
Stepping up to the series now known as Indy NXT by Firestone, Force Indy introduced seven-time Trans-Am champion Ernie Francis Jr to the top step of the junior open-wheel ladder in 2022, and in 2023, the Floridian and the Force Indy effort have been transferred under the HMD Motorsports tent while Rowe and Pabst Racing have moved up to USF Pro 2000 where they lead the championship on the strength of three wins from six races.
Ernie Francis Jr. transitioned to open-wheel racing from Trans-Am. James Black/Penske Entertainment
Of the two Force Indy-backed drivers, Rowe has established himself as a remarkable talent on the rise while Francis Jr, a newcomer to open-wheel racing, has a slightly longer trajectory ahead in his quest to reach IndyCar. Speaking with Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles, plans are in place to continue with both drivers as they ascend towards the RFE&C’s most visible goal.
“The first thing I’d say is with respect to the Race For Equality & Change and Myles and Ernie, one of Roger’s initial aspirations was to find a way to get one or more diverse drivers ready to qualify for the Indy 500,” Miles told RACER. “So I can’t say that happens for one or the other next year, and I can’t say it wouldn’t. But it’s an obvious next step when they’re ready. And we’ll be excited about that.”
The next item explored with Miles was whether the RFE&C’s Force Indy program is meant to continue with new drivers after Rowe and Francis Jr reach their ultimate destinations.
“What we’ve tried to communicate about all parts of the program is that it’ll never end,” he said. “This has got to become a way of life. This is what we need to be. But as to your question, I don’t know for sure, but I can’t imagine that we won’t keep finding ways to give legs up, on a targeted basis, to where we think we can have the biggest impact and hopefully keep growing momentum.”
Under the RFE&C banner, Penske Entertainment also aligned itself with Beth Paretta’s Paretta Autosport IndyCar team in 2021, helping the women-led program to compete in its first Indy 500. After seeking and finding the sponsorship to return, Paretta completed a multi-race program last year in partnership with Ed Carpenter Racing, but the team has been absent from the grid so far this season, unable as yet to find a competitive partner to make use of the funding she’s found.
If there’s been one ongoing criticism of the RFE&C, it has been the absence of a sustained effort to identify and support women racers in the same sustained manner as Rowe and Francis Jr. As Miles reveals, there could be a new televised component to RFE&C activities to address the matter.
The RFE&C has also aligned itself with Beth Paretta’s team. Jake Galstad/Motorsport Images
“With respect to women, we’re talking with a group that is a major Hollywood studio that wants to do a reality-type competition series and we’ve talked to them half a dozen or more times,” he said. “Their concept is that they would identify young women drivers who are already quite engaged, but obviously are not yet near the top. They would have a fantastic budget and they’d work with one of our solid teams and they would conduct a series of competitions. And there’s obviously no guarantees. But if any of them show they’ve got the stuff, then that would lead to a qualifying opportunity.
“Now, you can imagine how skeptical many of us were about the idea that you could manufacture a process that would get you to the point where [IndyCar president] Jay Frye would say, yeah, they’re approved to get a license so they can try to qualify, but these people are very engaged and they have a serious budget. They’ve studied this, they know something about it in the first instance, and I think it’s if it can be done, there, they and their approach have a chance of doing it. So that could be something that would be conspicuous. And not just as an entertainment thing, but as the development of new female driving talent.”
Shifting from the off-track aspects of the RFE&C, Miles spoke to the growth Penske Entertainment has made in nearly three years with hiring, spending, and job placement within the IndyCar.
“For us, an emphasis has always been on being the right kind of organization with Penske Entertainment,” he said. “We’ve worked really hard at it, and we’re a long way from where we want to be, but more than 40 percent of our hires last year were people from diverse backgrounds. Our spending with diverse vendors and suppliers and the like is nowhere near the total that I wish it were, but it’s increased meaningfully–more than doubled a couple times since we started this.
“In Indianapolis, we’re engaged with the Urban League, 100 Black Men, and other similar organizations, and we’re doing what we can to support them. And that also opens channels for recruiting. We’re trying to develop programs with the [IndyCar] teams using our job portal with the teams where it’s more seamless so that every time they have an opening, we find a way to get in front of these organizations to present those opportunities to candidates. We’re trying to help infuse the team talent pipeline, which is foundational for us.”