On a snowy February afternoon, Myles Rowe met up with some friends to go sledding in Central Park. Like many young men his age, the 20-year-old Pace University student is an avid skateboarder. For him, slushing through the snow is a nice twist on an activity he loves.
You could hardly tell from his easygoing demeanor that Rowe recently found himself on center stage in a sport with few African Americans. Indeed, he’s taking the pressure and attention in stride. On Feb. 9, Force Indy, a new IndyCar team, named Rowe as its first driver in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship for the 2021 season. The team was created to develop talented drivers of color and to bring diversity into other areas of motorsports: engineering, mechanics, marketing, as well as a myriad of lucrative back office positions.
“It’s a huge blessing,” Rowe, a Powder Springs, Ga. native, told BET. “I’m grateful for this opportunity.”
He’s now on a journey in a sport with a heavily white, Southern fanbase that has a long history of hostility toward Black drivers and spectators. That racist attitude is deep rooted among many in motorsport’s legions of fans.
Many of them in 2015 declined a NASCAR request to stop displaying their Confederate flags in the aftermath of a white supremacist murdering nine Black churchgoers in Charleston.
Even as NASCAR and IndyCar, there’s a difference, joined a wave of corporate diversity and inclusion efforts after the police killing of George Floyd, there was some pushback against NASCAR’s ban of the Confederate Battle flags.
Many Black racing fans still avoid the racetracks but hope change will come soon.
Homage to Black pioneers
When Rowe hits the racetrack in April for his first team Force Indy race, he will drive car No. 99, with a red tail, in honor of the Tuskegee Airmen, the nation’s first squadron of African American pilots who flew combat missions during World War II.
“It’s an honor. The Tuskegee Airmen are an inspiration to me,” said Rowe, whose bucket list includes taking flying lessons.
The tail number also honors the late Dewey “Rajo Jack” Gatson, who drove a roadster with the No. 99. He was a pioneering Black driver who raced in the 1930s but was prevented from competing in the Indianapolis 500 because of his race.
Rowe is starting his professional racing journey to the Indy 500 at the USF2000 level, the bottom rung of a ladder system that leads to the top rank in the IndyCar series. IndyCar has sort of a minor league baseball system in which drivers must improve their skills to reach the big league.
He’s figured out a way to manage the pressure from the high hopes and expectations of his success.
“You have to take it step-by-step,” he said in explaining the philosophy behind his approach. “It’s all about steady progression in life. If there’s no progression, no growth, you are not going to succeed. You’ll remain stagnant.”
Smitten early by the racing bug
Rowe recalled sitting on a couch at age 4 watching golf on TV with his dad. His father, an avid golfer, would impatiently channel surf when a commercial came on. At one point, he landed on a racing event. The young Rowe was riveted by the speed and skill of the drivers making hairpin turns.
“It was over after that. Golf was out of my head, and I wanted to become a racer,” he said.
From the start, his parents, who owned a wine shop in Smyrna, Ga., were supportive of their son’s passion for car racing. He recalled sitting in the back office of the shop endlessly watching episodes of Speed Racer cartoons and the movie on DVD.
By age 12, he started racing, winning several indoor and outdoor karting events. “I was a dreamer and still am. I wanted to be in Formula 1 (which has the fastest cars in the world) and the best at it, at the top levels,” he said. “I had my goals set high.”
IndyCar announced its diversity program called Race for Equity and Change in July. A $1 million fund supports its efforts to recruit and develop a diverse workforce.
Roger Penske, the 84-year-old, 18-time Indianapolis 500 champion, fuels the effort.
He’s a billionaire who built his fortune from the truck leasing, retail automotive and transportation logistics industries. He owns Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS), NTT IndyCar Series and IMS Productions.
After announcing the formation of Force Indy in December 2020, numerous applications started pouring in from drivers. They were vetted in a private selection process. Team principal Rod Reid told BET that he wanted a Black driver who could represent their brand. Rowe brought special qualities to the table.
“Number one, Myles has a natural ability to apply what he learns on the track,” said Reid who also runs NXG Youth Motorsports, a development program that has introduced more than 2,300 mostly Black youth to racing, engineering and mechanics.
He added, “Number two, Myles is creative, a right brain person. He is innovative and disciplined in using creativity in a balanced way.”
Also important to Reid is that Rowe was one of the only candidates who had a “plan B and plan C in case a career in driving doesn’t work out.”
Passion for filmmaking and photography
When he’s not on the racetracks, Rowe is busy working on his other career choice. He’s a second semester junior film studies major at Pace University’s New York City campus. Originally, he wanted to major in cinematography, but he would have to take courses outside the city, at the school’s Pleasantville, N.Y. campus.
“I want to be the man behind the camera,” he explained. “I have a really good eye for things. The camera really calls out to me.”
He decided to stay in the city where he could easily collaborate on projects with other creatives. Those projects include two cinematographer gigs with filmmaker with Matt Hennion, including a 30-minute short film expected to release shortly.
He draws inspiration from Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, who “have a vision, and make their films without concern about what others think if they don’t get their vision.”
His creative passions are expanding toward photography where he’s discovered a love for still images and taking fashion photos.
Ready, set, go: preparing for 2021 season
With the new driving season almost underway, Rowe is getting deeper into his personal training regiment, a mix of yoga, push-ups, sit-ups and other basic exercises. He does multiple workouts throughout the day, which he believes helps him to get stronger, fast.
He’s also big on meditation, which helps to improve his senses.
“A big part of racing is being in touch with your senses,” he explained. “I do a lot of meditation. It helps me to sense the energy around me and the energy in the car.”
As he prepares to march steadily toward the top ranks of motorsports, Rowe recognizes that he will become a role model for the next generation of Black kids with dream of becoming a racecar driver.
“It was really helpful for me see to Lewis Hamilton coming up and doing all the wonderful things he did,” Rowe said. “That’s when I did the research and found out this is something I could possibly do.”