Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Does Tony Stewart IndyCar have his own Bubba Wallace gift wrapped?

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The Kevin Harvick and Chase Elliott drama made people quickly forget that Bubba Wallace had won the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs just six days earlier in Talladega. Wallace’s groundbreaking triumph brought racing back to the sport, this time in a positive way. Now an IndyCar team is on its way to a breakthrough of its own, and it may have Tony Stewart to thank.


Wendell Scott was the first in 1963, and now Bubba Wallace is the second black driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series race. Contrast that with the history of open wheel driving in this country. Only two blacks, Willy T. Ribbs (1991) and George Mack (2002), even came close to racing in the Indianapolis 500.


IndyCar clearly has a long way to go to bring diversity to its racing brand, but a prominent team is eager to break into this division.


Teams and manufacturers have been collaborating since 2010 on the Road to Indy Ladder program designed to guide aspiring IndyCar drivers through the system, first in F2000 racing, followed by Indy Pro 2000 and then Indy Lights. IndyCar, the great racetrack, is the series above it.


In late 2020, Roger Penske announced that the Force Indy team, supported by Penske, is committed to helping a black driver develop the skills and experience that will lead to qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 by 2024 at the latest, early 2023.


The Indianapolis Star reported that Force Indy Ernie Francis Jr.


Francis, 23, is already a multiple Trans-Am series champion, but received relatively little attention from casual fans until Tony Stewart, the co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, brought Francis for the SRX last summer, consisting of the NASCAR / IROC hybrid from six races. Francis won one of the SRX races while facing players like Helio Castroneves and Paul Tracy, finishing second in the season standings behind Stewart.


Castroneves is one of those drivers Penske probably hopes Francis can one day emulate. He won the Indianapolis 500 three times for Team Penske and again this spring for Meyer Shank Racing.


Wallace is certainly a role model too. Wallace won six NASCAR truck series races from 2013 to 2015, battled for a while in the Xfinity and Cup series, and finally reached Talladega this month towards the end of his first season with the new 23XI Racing team, the Michael Jordan has started the winning track.


Ernie Francis Jr. has done much of his races so far from the Breathless Racing Team, his family’s shop. Road to Indy and Penske’s interest is sure to give a boost beyond what Tony Stewart may have given.


It’s a big leap from Trans-Am and SRX to open wheel racing, but Indianapolis newspaper reported that Francis will test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this month before finishing the 18-race Formula Regional Americas series. He won his first open wheel race in Mid-Ohio earlier that summer and has since taken two more victories at Virginia International Raceway.


Myles Rowe drove the No. 99 Force Indy USF2000 car this season, scooping one win and six top 10 finishes. He’ll likely end up with a different team in 2022, so it’s up to Francis to take the team and a key diversity initiative to the next level.


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