Setting the pace
Rodney Reid exposes youth to racing careers through Nexgeneracers
By Rebecca R. Bibbs
Not even old enough to have a driver’s license, the tweens and teens pull on their black-and-gray, body-hugging racing uniforms and pop the helmets with the edgy black and silver designs onto their heads.
Lucas Oil/Nexgeneracers Youth Motorsports (NXG) co-founder and director Rodney Reid watches as these young people shimmy behind the wheels of the organization’s 12 silver-colored go-karts in preparation for the next race.
"Nexgeneracers was born out of frustration,” he said. “It was that the motorsports industry was not diverse. It was extremely difficult to get in at any level whether you were racing as a driver or behind the scenes.”
Those who raced in the NXGrand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last September are among the 600 children over seven years who, against the odds, have developed an unlikely love of motorsports thanks to NXG.
Reid said he believes African-Americans buy a disproportionate number of vehicles in comparison to their opportunities within the automobile and motorsports industries. He hopes that love of racing by his students will recoup some of the billions spent by translating into careers for some.
“We like everything around it, but we can’t get into the professional ranks for the sport,” he lamented. NXG students don’t all have to become racecar drivers, Reid added. They can be engineers, pit crew members or trainers.
Though they live in the “Racing Capital of the World,” many inner-city children – some living only a couple of blocks from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – never have been inside the gates or exposed to motorsports. Reid is on a mission to change that.
The starting line
Reid started life in 1954 in Atlantic City, N.J., the middle of three children born to Robert Reid, a cabinetmaker turned carpet layer from Philadelphia, Pa., and his wife Adelaide, a school teacher from Louisa County, Va. In the mid-1960s, the family moved to Indianapolis, where Robert Reid, who started his career as a cabinetmaker, found work laying carpet.
“Once you’re doing that, some of the people in the church say, ‘Oh I need my carpet laid.’ So I guess he thought it was the land of opportunity,” Reid said. His mother, who had a bachelor’s degree from Virginia State University, went on to earn a master’s degree at Butler University and secured a teaching position in Indianapolis Public Schools.
Reid admits initially being less than enthusiastic about the move.
“I just thought I’d died and fallen off the face of the Earth,” he said.
Part of the issue, Reid said, was the culture shock of landing in a primarily Black neighborhood at 28th Street and Capitol Avenue.
“Even in our neighborhood in Atlantic City, with not having a lot of money, it was very diverse,” he said. The lack of diversity in the Circle City was underscored at IPS School 36 and when he was among the first students
bused to Arlington High School in 1968, Reid said.
“When I went to Arlington, my class integrated the school,” he said. “The white kids staged a walkout.”
All the clubs were white. Because there was no Black representation on the Student Council and there was no way for
them to express their concerns, Reid helped start a Human Relations Council his sophomore year. He was elected moderator
and held that position for three years.
“The Student Council wasn’t going to listen to any of the
issues we thought we had,” he said.
The school’s administration wasn’t any more agreeable.“They said, ‘You can’t have any exclusive clubs.’ And our argument was, ‘Every club here was exclusive,’” Reid said.
But a great deal had changed by the time Reid, who also ran track and played football, graduated in 1972.
“We got a lot done. By the time we were seniors, we ended up having Black cheerleaders. That was a big deal because the lady who was over the Black cheerleaders wouldn’t even let the Black girls try out,” he said. “It was amazing to have that four-year turnaround.”
The Black students also weren’t encouraged in educational attainment, Reid said. He had a counselor who tried to steer all the Black students toward vocational rather than academic classes.
“He said, ‘You guys don’t have what it takes to go to college,’” Reid said. “My mom saw my schedule and said,‘Where’s your math?’”
Reid said his high school integration experience was repeated when he entered Purdue University to study architectural engineering technology. Expecting to attend a historically Black college or university, he applied to Howard and Hampton universities. But he also was accepted at Ball State and Purdue.
However a recruiter’s visit to Arlington armed with information about Purdue’s Minorities in Engineering program turned the tide.
“They said, ‘You know, you should go to a name school,’” Reid said.
As a boy, Reid enjoyed drawing cars and airplanes. His bent toward design was solidified in the eighth grade when he took a shop class taught by a professional draftsman, whose name he doesn’t recall.
“He brought in one of his drawings one day. I think it was a jet engine or something. I thought it was the coolest thing that he drew these engines,” he said.
But Reid was impressed by more than the drawings. Though the women in his family were educated librarians and teachers, his father had achieved only a seventh-grade education, and until that point, Reid said, the only example of men’s work to which he had been exposed was blue collar.“That was a white collar job to be sitting at a drawing board with a white shirt and tie,” he said. “A white-collar job seemed unattainable. It had allure.”
In high school, he took every mechanical drawing and drafting class offered.
Reid earned an associate’s degree and like many young people changed his educational focus, switching to civil engineering. But over time, he became more involved in drawing and less involved in engineering.
For a year, Reid worked as a junior tool designer for Detroit Diesel Allison’s Division of General Motors before becoming a design drafter for Howard, Needles, Tammen and Bergendoff, now known as HNTB.
In addition to drawing, Reid gravitated toward entrepreneurship. He recalls photos of himself as a child, dressed up and pretending to conduct business on the phone.
“My mother marked on the picture, ‘You must have been thinking about your first business,’” he said, laughing. As soon as he was able at age 12, Reid said, he landed a route delivering The Indianapolis Star and The Indianapolis News.
“I was one of the youngest paperboys on that Capitol Avenue. I thought that was cool. Let me make some money,” he said.
At age 17, Reid acquired an Amway distributorship.“That lasted a short while. I didn’t know a lot of people, and you need to know a lot of people to make Amway work,” he said.
At 19, Reid partnered with Ellis Woolridge, now director of marketing for Woolridge Impact Marketing Group, to start TL Enterprises, a Central Indiana oil additive distributorship.“We lost our shirt,” the serial entrepreneur said. “We rolled that into the first full business I had that was Designology.” Established in 1976 with Ira Jones and John Hurst, now art director for the Indianapolis Recorder and the Indiana Minority Business Magazine, Designology, one of the first Black agencies in Indianapolis, also folded.
Always one to persevere, however, Reid finally struck gold
when he established RLR Associates in 1988. In 1986, Reid learned he would become a father and decided it was time to stop “playing at business.”
“It was kind of pivotal for me because my daughter was born, and I needed to figure out something else,” he said. Reid turned to his bucket list, the 10 things he really wanted to achieve in business.
“I thought ‘I’ll go down the list, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll
go to the next one,’” he said.
For his first client, Reid did interior design for a restaurant and retail environments at the Bazaar, Keystone at the Crossing. He went on to do some signage for local strip malls.“My work got noticed by local developers,” he said. “Architects always needed someone who understood graphics and could create graphics.”
Before long, Reid had developed a niche with property owners, developers and architects.
As a large signature project, Reid and his company worked on a temporary installation with the Tuskegee Institute titled“ African Americans in Agriculture” for Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. Museum officials were so impressed, RLR was one of about a dozen design companies given $10,000 and invited to propose a design for a permanent Junior Achievement exhibit explaining to an audience in grades five through seven how a business works.
“We won. We really knocked it out of the park,” he said of the two-year project.
Today, RLR specializes in what Reid calls “environmental graphic design,” such as the signage and other wayfinding strategies that help sports fans find their seats at Conseco Fieldhouse, to understand the exhibits in a museum or to control behavior by telling people not to litter or to smoke.
“You take that for granted, and you don’t even pay attention to it. But it’s strategic,” he said. “These branded environments are designed to deliver a lot of different things. There’s a psychology to it.
“It’s where architecture and advertising meet,” he continued.
“It’s where I could bring together what I learned in architecture and the graphics arts, which I learned by doing it.”
We’re giving them exposure
to opportunities. I continue to drive deeper and deeper into that. So now I have a real passion for what racing is and what it can do as an occupation, especially beyond being a driver.”
Entrepreneur Michael Smith
Though his career moved away from designing cars and airplanes, Reid developed a recreational interest in the motorsports industry. Enamored of the Indianapolis 500,
he volunteered as a Yellow Shirt at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“Racecars are nothing but vehicles that fly on the ground instead of the air,” he said.
At one point, Speedway officials asked how they could attract more minorities to the race.
“You have to reach out to them just like you do to the white community,” Reid answered. “There’s no history here, no culture. And how do I know you really want me here and not just my money?” The late Charles L. Wilson started his racing career with go-kart racing. He went professional, driving Formula Fords, Pro Mazda, Pro Super Vee, late model stock cars and USAC midgets. After serving as a test driver for the Dick Simon IndyCar racing team in the 1980s, the Crispus Attucks High School graduate became a driving instructor for the Skip Barber Racing School, Fast Company, Jim Russell Racing School and Drivetech Stock Car Racing School.
The NXG co-founders met when Reid was asked as a marketing expert by L.H. Smith Oil Co. whether a sponsorship of Wilson as a racecar driver would be a good return on investment.
Though Reid advised against that particular sponsorship, he went on to help Wilson seek national sponsorship.“He would have been the first Black to race at Indy if we could have gotten it done before Willie T. Ribbs,” Reid said.“Charles had it all, but he just didn’t get the shot. Charles was there, but he didn’t get the nod.”
Reid soon figured out however, that auto racing actually has little to do with talent or sponsorship.
“Racing is a rich man’s playground, just like golf used to be, and still is to a degree … It goes back to the adage of who you know, who knows you and who puts money behind you,” he said. “The car is only about 30 percent of the equation for the success.”
That remains a source of frustration for Reid, who invests about $100,000 a year in the Nexgeneracers program, which costs $615 per child per weekend to operate, though families are asked to pay $150. Aside from his signature sponsor, Lucas Oil, and some smaller donors, it’s challenging to get anyone to sponsor the program.
“I would love to do it where it doesn’t cost the kids a dime,” he said.
And with aging equipment, Reid said he could use 12 new go-karts and engaged volunteers. In addition, he has students who could qualify for additional training and certification but need sponsors to help cover fees.
“I have only three people who will put money into it because it’s a tangible asset,” he said. “You get the same writeoff from sponsorship as you do from a charitable gift.”
Aside from preparing the students for when they take their actual driving test to get an operator’s license, NXG reinforces science, technology, engineering and math, which educators and business leaders insist are important to the state’s survival. Students learn about physics, calculate fuel needs and learn about speed efficiencies.
The pit crew
Entrepreneur Michael Smith ran into Reid at professional functions, and the two have engaged in joint projects.“When you look at the range of work he’s done professionally, you will see the professionalism in it,” said Smith, who now lives in Maryland.
But in 1999, Reid approached Smith with his plan to start Nexgeneracers.
“We’re giving them exposure to opportunities,” Smith said.“I continue to drive deeper and deeper into that. So now I have a real passion for what racing is and what it can do as an occupation, especially beyond being a driver.
“It opened my eyes from a professional standpoint, not only
from a recreational standpoint but also from a professional standpoint.”
Tracy Barnes, president of the IT company ENTEP, became acquainted with Reid in 1998 when he was looking for IT assistance for his graphic arts business.
“It’s grown into so much more than that,” Barnes said. Reid, whom he describes as knowledgeable, driven and level-headed, became a mentor and a friend. Just as he was able to help Reid with his business, Reid helped Barnes, who at the time worked full-time at Butler University and parttime on his own enterprise, take the plunge and make ENTEP his full-time job.
“He was very instrumental in helping me get started and making it happen,” he said.
The best piece of advice he received from Reid, Barnes said,
was to learn how to play the game when it comes to securing government contracts, the bread and butter of many businesses.“We do so much in government contracting, and it is a big game,” Barnes said.
Their friendship also led Barnes to sign up his son D.J. Barnes to participate in Nexgeneracers for several years. The program, Barnes said, helped D.J. prepare to get his driver’s license by understanding vehicles, their response time and dynamics.
”It’s made him a lot more aware of what the vehicle should be doing in addition to what he should be doing.”