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Francis Jr. to race Indy Lights, eyes spot in IndyCar

FILE - Ernie Francis Jr. is introduced before an SRX Series auto race Saturday, July 17, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. Ernie Francis Jr. has been hired to...

FILE - Ernie Francis Jr. is introduced before an SRX Series auto race Saturday, July 17, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. Ernie Francis Jr. has been hired to...

Ernie Francis Jr., the driver who earned national recognition when he won a race in Tony Stewart's summer all-star series, has been hired to drive in Indy Lights this season in a move that could promote him into IndyCar as part of the series' Race for Equality & Change initiative.

Francis is a Florida native of Haitian descent who has been fast-tracked in IndyCar's ladder system. The 24-year-old will attempt to work his way through IndyCar's feeder program to become the first Black driver in America's top open-wheel series since George Mack in 2002.

“This is an incredible opportunity,” Francis said. “After getting a taste last year and beginning to learn what open-wheel racing is all about, I found myself wanting more," Francis said. "Open-wheel cars are incredible to drive. To know that I’ll continue my education with Force Indy and only one step away from the IndyCar Series makes this unbelievably special. I cannot wait to get started.”

Force Indy is backed by Penske, owner of both Indianapolis Motor Speedway and several race teams, which has made a push to add diversity to the series since taking ownership of the landmark track in 2020. A Team Penske-backed effort led to Simona de Silvestro racing in last year's Indy 500 for an all-female team.

Francis won three races last year in his lone season in the Formula Regional Americas Championship. He finished second in the overall standings in the inaugural season of Stewart's Superstar Racing Experience with a breakout win at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park.

He's a seven-time class champion in the Trans Am Series from 2014 through 2020. Francis won 47 career races, most in Trans Am history.

Force Indy was launched in late 2020 by former racing team manager Rod Reid. The team was created with a focus on hiring men and women of color, including mechanics, engineers, staffers and drivers.

Force Indy competed last season in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship with driver Myles Rowe, who won a race at New Jersey Motorsports Park.

“Being able to finish our first season with a win showed what this team is capable of doing,” Reid said. “We want to thank Myles, who will always be a member of the Force Indy race team, and will continue to offer assistance and mentorship as he pursues another season in USF2000. I could not be more thrilled to promote our group to Indy Lights... with Ernie Francis Jr. His work ethic and history of success speak for itself.”

Team Penske will continue to offer mentorship for Force Indy. The Race for Equality & Change program aims to recruit and develop a diverse workforce throughout all levels of IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“I was pleased to learn that Ernie would be driving for Force Indy in 2022,” Roger Penske said. “As someone who has a history in Trans Am, I know the type of skillset that comes from that series. Ernie will be a wonderful addition to Indy Lights."

Force Indy will make its Indy Lights series debut in St. Petersburg, Florida, during IndyCar's season-opening weekend next month. The team will continue to use the No. 99 in honor of the late Dewey “Rajo Jack” Gatson, who drove a roadster with that number toward the end of his career in 1951.

Gatson was one of the winningest Black drivers and mechanics in racing, but never had an opportunity to race the Indy 500.

“We remain very fortunate to have Team Penske offer its guidance and mentorship,” Reid said. “I have been in and around the sport for 40 years. Force Indy remains a labor of love, and our goals are unchanged — focusing on diversity with an eye toward competing in the IndyCar Series, in honor of Rajo Jack, and the Indianapolis 500.”

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Updated : 2022-05-18 15:49 GMT+08:00