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Penske president on the urgency of the Race for Equality & Change

Bud Denker, president of Penske Corporation, says that motorsport must be inclusive, not exclusive, to improve its appeal, particularly to youth.

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Penske president on the urgency of the Race for Equality & Change

Last weekend, Penske Entertainment Corp. announced an injection of funding and corporate support for IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s “Race for Equality & Change” initiative that was announced in July.

The NXG Youth Motorsports Inc., a non-profit charitable organization established by Coach Rod Reid in Indiana more than a dozen years ago, introduces its participants, who are 11-16 years old, to career opportunities within motorsports, including engineering, marketing and management. It also provides extensive on-track karting experience.

The organization has Lucas Oil as its title sponsor and has now received more than $500,000 in funds and in-kind contributions from other organizations including Penske Entertainment Corp., LifeSecure Insurance and Snap-On. It will now also have a permanent garage at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and there will be and increasing number of students taking part each year.

In the wake of these announcements, Denker told Motorsport.com that this program is vital to attracting youth of all backgrounds to motorsport.

“At Penske Corporation, we have 60,000 people employed around the world,” he explained, “and overseeing human resources is one of my duties, to ensure they’re well taken care of by our organization and that we understand their needs. So diversity and inclusion is something that’s been important to us as an organization for decades – well before the end of May and the tragic death of George Floyd occurred.

“So this has been on our radar, it’s the way we do business. We sell to diverse cultures and there’s a need for our workforce to represent those cultures.

“Well, the same thing is true at the Speedway. The alignment that we’ve had with Coach Rod Reid and the NXG Youth Motorsports program fits right into our programming of what we want to do with youth, what we want to do with education and what we want to do with development. This guy’s been here for more than 12 years with this program and I admit I didn’t know about it until we bought the Speedway. Over 1000 young adults have gone through the program.

“I was down there for the last two weekends to watch these youths go through two hours of classroom on Saturday, two hours of classroom on Sunday, and then they’re driving go-karts for two hours.

“The karting is the shiny penny! But the STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] education is just as important. These kids learn what a radius is, what an apex is, what a contact patch is, and how it’s affected by underinflated or overinflated tires… Without this program, is a youth from an underprivileged background going to learn and understand these things in his or her traditional education setting? Or without this program, are these youths necessarily going to be inside this beautiful Speedway? The answer to both, I think, is a resounding ‘No’.

“So now, with this program having reached over 1000 kids, we’re going to expand it, so that not just 150 kids go through the program each year. Why can’t it be 250 or even more than that? So the announcement last weekend was about more corporate support, more Penske Entertainment support, of hiring resources, buying NXG all-new go-karts, giving them a garage at the Speedway for the first time, equipping them with over $300,000-worth of Snap-on tools, compressors, and so on… That’s the kind of commitment we’re making to help change our community here and that is what I’m most proud of.”

Denker believes such moves are crucial to increasing interest in racing among teenagers to help ensure its future prosperity.

“I think we have to foster a love of racing from an early age," he said, "and the best way to do that is developing their understanding whereby they appreciate what they’re seeing and understanding they can be part of the sport.

“A couple of years ago, Rod invited his class and their parents to the Speedway to sit in the grandstands for the Indy 500. They were excited to come but as the second pace lap started, some of the kids said, ‘This is boring, they look so slow!’ Now, we can laugh at that, but they were serious – they had just never seen a race before, so didn’t know what happened once the pace car pulled off. So we have to do a better job of marketing and getting fresh eyeballs on the product beforehand so they know what the sport’s about when they attend in person. That education will grow into appreciation.”

Disturbingly, Denker said he has even encountered people who once assumed they weren’t welcome at motorsport events.

“Some of them don’t think they even have a right to be there,” he said. “To give you an example, at the NXG event the week before last, I asked one of the moms why her son was there. She said, ‘I learned about the program from another mom with a son here, and my son was heading down the wrong path, hanging out with the wrong people. And so I pushed and shoved and made him come here, and once he’d been here once, he wanted to come back to the next class, and the next and the next… And that was last year. Now he’s here for a second year.’

“So this lady was basically explaining to me how her son is on a different trajectory to what he was before. But this next part may bring a tear to your eye, as it did to mine. She said: ‘I didn’t know we were allowed to come in here.’ I asked, ‘What do you mean?’ She replied, ‘Well, there are fences here, there are guards here, and those guards have badges…’

“I had the same reaction as you just did – ‘Wow.’ Basically, it just brought the point home that for anyone who wasn’t brought up with motorsports as part of their lives, racing has perhaps come across as exclusive, not inclusive. That hit me hard. I said to myself and others, ‘We can do better than that, can’t we?’ And that is exactly what we are aiming for.”

Like Coach Reid, Denker and of course Roger Penske himself, another important figure in the Race for Equality & Change will be Jimmie McMillian, named chief diversity officer for Penske Entertainment.

“Jimmie’s been with us for a number of years as our assistant chief counsel,” said Denker. “He was a lawyer here in town, and we did work with Jimmie’s firm, outside legal counsel work, and we liked him and his passion for the sport so much that we offered him a job long before Penske Entertainment came aboard.

“Jimmie has two boys that are going through the NXG program and he’s been on the board, he understands the program, he’s passionate about motorsport, passionate about the fact that we can do more from an ethnicity standpoint, a diversity standpoint and he will help be our moral compass.

“He will ensure that things are not just talked about – they actually get done. He’s got great energy, and great motivation and a good heart.

“This is a diverse organization, this is an inclusive organization, and it needs to be seen that way, and so Jimmie is the man who’ll help us do that.”

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Series IndyCar
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Author David Malsher-Lopez
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