ST. PETERSBURG — Near the end of his visit with students at Academy Prep Center on Thursday, Indy Lights rookie Ernie Francis fielded a big question: What’s it like being a Black race car driver?
“When my helmet’s on, I’m just another race car driver,” Francis said. “It doesn’t matter what I look like or where I’m from. When I’m on the track, I’m just trying to be the best race car driver I can be.”
But off the track, it does matter. That’s why the Haitian American was speaking to a room full of children at the predominantly Black school a day before he was to suit up at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
It matters because Francis didn’t see many American drivers who looked like him as he was growing up in Davie.
“I’ve been kind of forging my own path as I go and trying to make it happen,” said Francis, 24.
That path he has driven is unconventional. He started in go-karts at age 4 and cars at 15. His first race as a professional was in the Pirelli World Challenge at the 2013 Grand Prix. He finished 39th in the 42-car field. Francis didn’t think he’d ever get back to this track.
But he kept going his own way. He won seven class championships in the Trans Am Series and a record 47 races in it. He competed in the Superstar Racing Experience (SRX) series last year and won a race, beating a field that included Tony Stewart, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan.
His success led to a call from IndyCar Series owner Roger Penske, who wanted Francis to get involved in IndyCar’s Race for Equality and Change initiative. Though IndyCar’s paddock is diverse in some ways — its last three series champions were from Spain, New Zealand and Tennessee — it has stagnated in others. It hasn’t had a full-time Black driver in 20 years or a female driver racing regularly since 2013. The initiative aims to change that and diversify its workforce across all levels.
Francis’ team, Force Indy, is a major part of that. Its team principal is Rod Reid, whose original shot at pursuing IndyCar stalled years ago. Reid told students Thursday it was because he and his driver were treated differently because they were Black.
“That made it very difficult for us to continue in racing,” Reid said. “Several years later, we decided: Why should we be defeated? We really should help motorsports become much more inclusive.”
Reid started a nonprofit, NXG Youth Motorsports, to give children from diverse backgrounds a chance to experience racing. In December 2020, that led to the formation of Force Indy, a feeder-series team that focuses on hiring people of color in every role, including mechanics, engineers and other support staffers. At least two crew members who will work on his No. 99 car this weekend started in Reid’s nonprofit as kids.
“As the years go on, the fans that are out here racing get older and older,” Francis said. “We need to get the younger generation into motorsports, especially that younger, diverse background of kids that really doesn’t see anybody that looks like them racing out there.”
Now they can, in an opportunity Francis never envisioned. Before Penske called, Francis thought NASCAR was his most realistic big-time option. IndyCar wasn’t on his radar.
But nine years after starting his professional career at the Grand Prix, Francis is back in a ride backed by racing heavyweight Team Penske, in a top feeder series with realistic hopes of joining the IndyCar field in a few years.
“It really shows you can achieve your dreams,” Francis said. “You’ve just got to work hard at it, and it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you look like. You can go out there and make it happen.”
Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
Friday-Sunday, downtown. Track is at First Street S and Fifth Avenue S.
Main race: Noon Sunday TV: NBC
More info: For details on tickets, parking, event schedule and more, visit gpstpete.com.