PRUETT: The Myles Rowe conundrum

PRUETT: The Myles Rowe conundrum

Unless $175,000 can be found, Myles Rowe’s season is over on Saturday. It’s the sum the USF2000 championship leader needs to raise on order to complete the year with the Pabst Racing team. Talk about a bizarre situation.

Rowe’s year was meant to end after the last event at Barber Motorsports Park where he earned pole position and won Saturday’s USF2000 race and placed fourth in Round 2 on Sunday. From four races held this year, Rowe’s won two and left Barber with his name atop the USF2000 drivers’ standings.

Fortunately, some extra funding was found to get Rowe and his No. 22 Pabst car to the next event this weekend on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, but once the doubleheader is done, the 21-year-old college student is facing another abrupt end to his time on the Road To Indy. And, possibly, the end to a burgeoning career as a race car driver, all before it’s had a chance to flourish. That would be a shame.

Rowe’s story is a good one: Spotted at a karting event by Team Penske’s Will Power, the brainy kid from Georgia caught the IndyCar champion’s eye as a talent in need of an opportunity. Brought to the attention of his boss Roger Penske, Power was instrumental in Rowe’s signing as the first driver representing Penske’s Race For Equality & Change initiative in 2021. As a rookie with years of rust to overcome, he won one USF2000 race for the Force Indy team bankrolled by Penske.

The next move was unexpected, as Penske dropped the Race For Equality & Change USF2000 program during the off-season and moved the team to Indy Lights with a new driver, Ernie Francis Jr.

Out of a ride after his first full season of any kind on the Road To Indy, Rowe turned to creating a GoFundMe account in the hopes of raising the $400,000 or so needed to continue in the series. Although Penske isn’t the kind of person to acknowledge it, The Captain is known to be the anonymous donor who contributed $200,000 to Rowe’s GFM account shortly after it went live.

To date, it’s crept up to $209,000, but with a hard crash in the first race of the year, a big chunk of the budget was consumed to get the No. 22 car back in working order. It leaves Rowe and team owner Augie Pabst, who agreed to run Rowe for as long as the funding lasted, in a strange position. They’re the most successful entry in the USF2000 series in 2022, and yet they’ve reached the point where the money has run out and Rowe’s preparing to bid farewell to the Road To Indy.

In all the decades I’ve been directly involved with junior open-wheel racing as a mechanic or engineer – and for the last 16 years as a member of the racing media – I’m struggling to recall a similar situation where a championship leader is readying to say goodbye before we’ve gotten through the month of May. And to Pabst’s considerable credit, he’s spent some of his own money and made major sacrifices to give Rowe a fighting chance to continue.

It’s rare for any team owner to sign a driver with an incomplete budget, but Pabst saw something special in Rowe and has been rewarded with a 50-percent win rate by his driver. The question here is whether there are others in the extended IndyCar paddock who are willing to join Pabst in the fight to keep Rowe’s story going and see if he can develop into a champion.

Rowe has delivered on the faith that’s been shown in him so far, but without additional backing he won’t have many more opportunities to showcase his potential. Image by Road to Indy

As a multi-talented Black kid from Atlanta whose brief foray into racing stalled while in his teens, Rowe was the perfect fit for Penske’s then-new diversity program. In need of a second chance, Power saw everything the RE&C program was meant to represent in Rowe; Penske agreed, and off they went.

As a rookie with Force Indy in 2021, Rowe was the brand-new face of Penske’s diversity initiative and he’ll readily acknowledge that if it weren’t for his race, he wouldn’t have driven for Roger Penske. One year later, Rowe’s changed the conversation, erased any notion that he’s nothing more than a diversity hire. And that’s where the perception regarding his place in the sport needs to evolve.

We don’t yet know if he’s the next Kyle Kirkwood, but we do know that just like Rowe, the rookie IndyCar sensation also won two of the first four USF2000 races in his 2018 championship season. At this early juncture, there’s no way to tell if Rowe has the same level of extreme talent as Kirkwood, but we can be sure we’ll never find out if Rowe exits the Road To Indy in a few days’ time.

Combining all he spent last year and again in privately covering half of this year’s budget, Penske’s put forth a lot of money to get Rowe to where he is today. And as much as I’d like to keep barking at R.P. to contribute another $175,000 to secure Rowe’s season, it’s time for others to step in and step up. So where will the solution be found?

Rowe’s dad Wayne is an accountant and his mom Renee is the COO of a human resources consulting and staffing company; together, they’ve worked hard and sacrificed all they can to get their eldest son through Pace University in New York where he’s ready to graduate with a degree in film making. And Penske, for what it’s worth, has spent all he’s going to spend.

Of the 10 full-time IndyCar teams, one, via its owner who also happens to own the series, has taken action to reach down and pull Rowe up to the bottom rung on the Road To Indy. Rowe, in kind, has proven he was worthy of the opportunity by becoming a three-time race winner. It’s makes me wonder if the other nine teams recognize the opportunity to take the baton from Penske. So far, no additional hands have been extended from the IndyCar paddock to the Pabst Racing team on Rowe’s behalf.

One friend called who wanted to help Rowe by asking if I knew how to contact LeBron James. There have been similar suggestions made about getting seven-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton connected with Rowe to intercede and function as his financial Santa Claus.

Yet again, this is where the conversation needs to change. The kid isn’t in need of handouts or being saved by famous people; he’s deserving of being treated like any other young open-wheel talent that could be racing and winning for bigger teams in the future.

As much as I love the idea of wealthy Black athletes coming to Rowe’s rescue, I’d rather hear about IndyCar teams and their sponsors taking action because the kid is fast, smart, and a proven winner. If those attributes aren’t what we’re meant to uplift and protect in this sport, why the hell would the next Myles Rowe, Josef Newgarden or Pato O’Ward waste their time trying to get to IndyCar?