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Penske a step closer to having Black driver in Indy 500 – IndyStar

Force Indy owner Roger Penske‘s dream is still some ways away. But he and his team are officially one step closer to putting a Black driver in the Indianapolis 500.
The team announced Thursday morning that it will enter the 2022 Indy Lights championship with Haitian-American driver Ernie Francis Jr. behind the wheel of its No. 99 car.
“This is probably one of the biggest steps that I’ve taken in my career,” Francis said. This is just an incredible opportunity for me. If you told me a year ago that I’d be competing in the Indy Lights series, I would’ve never believed you.”
The Florida native joins Force Indy after securing three wins in his single season in the Formula Regional Americas Championship, as well as placing second in the first season of the Superstar Racing Experience (SRX). 
The 24-year-old Francis spent much of his career racing in the Trans Am series, where he was a seven-time class champion and currently holds the record for most career wins of any driver in Trans Am series history with 47. 
“This last year was a lot of different racing for me,” Francis said. “Formula racing, Trans Am, and then diving into the SRX series, trying out some dirt ovals and short ovals there. And then my first races in open-wheel racing in the FR America series. So I really got my feet wet in all different kinds of backgrounds of racing, and was lucky enough to win a race in every series I competed in last year. We’ve done a lot of testing now and are feeling pretty ready for this Indy Lights series.”
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Force Indy appointed Francis as the face of its next step just five months after a previous Black driver, 21-year-old Myles Rowe, delivered Force Indy’s first USF2000 series at New Jersey Motorsports Park in late August. Rowe, who remains a driver in the USF2000, became the first Black driver to win in the series. But management was certain that they didn’t want the success to end there.
“It’s exciting for us,” president and CEO of Penske Entertainment Corp. Mark Miles said. “It was July of ’20 when we announced what was coined the ‘Race for Equality and Change,’ and we wanted folks to know for us, it wasn’t a thing, it was a constant thing. It was the way we want to be as an organization and as a group that can foster and celebrate diversity in our business, in racing and our communities in general.” 
Now, just over a year after team principal Rod Reid announced the start of Force Indy and its initiative to hire men and women of color, the team is just that much closer to elevating a Black driver to the highest level of open-wheel racing. If the group’s progress over the past year is any indicator of the future, Force Indy could see Francis in shape to race in the Indy 500 as soon as 2023 or 2024. 
Chief Diversity officer of Penske Jimmie McMillian called the hiring of Francis and the team’s elevation “inspiring.” He noted the remarkable change the team has made in a short time, and the pipeline that the team has created between young Black individuals who have expressed an interest in the sport and the Indy Car platform.
“What will live with me the most is on Indy 500 Sunday last year, as I walked up and down the pits, I saw members of the Force Indy team who were working in the pits on other teams who were in the 500,” McMillian said. “And these are folks who started out in NXG Youth Motorsports as go-kart racers and learned STEM concepts, and at one point in time weren’t even considered for these teams.”
As for now, Force Indy is looking to settle in and further that pipeline by elevating Francis and possibly pushing him to that next level.
“It definitely has sunk in a little bit,” Francis said when asked about being one step closer to racing in the Indy 500. “Every time I come to this place, it’s just so incredible driving through the gates and you see the pagoda, you see the grandstands, and to think that there’s a shot that I could race out there one day and that it could be a reality is really incredible.”

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