Racing 101: IndyCar sponsors Belle Isle classroom for Detroit youth

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

When the IndyCar circus roars on to Belle Isle this June, it will expand its tent to include Detroit youth.

The open-wheel racing series is partnering with NXG Youth Motorsports, an experiential academy for life-skill development, with the goal of increasing minority participation in motorsport — and, by extension, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education.

The Indianapolis-based NXG first partnered with IndyCar last fall as part of the race series’ Race for Equality and Change initiative. Bloomfield Hills-based Penske Entertainment Corp. took over IndyCar last year.

Ethan Kent, 13, (right) will participate in the NXG Youth Motorsports classroom on Belle Isle June 5-6. NXG is partnering with IndyCar to attract more minority, urban youth to motorsport. Cal Sharp (left) is a NXG instructor.

NXG will host its first Detroit program on Belle Isle June 5-6, the weekend before the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear. Combining in-class learning with on-track go-kart time, the eight-hour program is open to kids ages 11-15 with a focus on teaching STEM via motorsport.

“We offer a bridge between IndyCar and the urban community. It’s an ideal way to get kids from surrounding areas an introduction into racing as a whole,” said Rod Reid, NXG co-founder and chief instructor. “We want to expose kids to the myriad of career opportunities in motorsport.”

The NXG program joins a widening array of Detroit-based youth programs with the intent of using elite, international sports as a classroom to broaden student horizons. Other successful urban programs include Midnight Golf, Detroit Horse Power (equestrian learning), Downtown Boxing Gym and Racquet Up Detroit.

NXG follows in the footsteps of national programs like Racquet Up, which was founded in Boston in the 1990s. Ten years ago, Racquet Up introduced Detroit youth to another sport, squash, that has helped hone students' competitive and classroom skills. A 12-month, three-day a week out-of-school program, it has been a college pipeline for more than 100 Detroit youth.

NXG’s initial Detroit ambitions are more modest as it targets 20 Detroit-area kids for its immersive June weekend program. Founder Reid said the program will intentionally start small to ensure a 2-to-1 student-to- teacher ratio. With the lessons learned, he hopes minority pupils will be inspired to tackle more STEM learning as well as motorsports. Over time, Reid says he hopes the program will be able to offer more go-kart events at Detroit venues.

Building a thriving program in Indy for 15 years, NXG has connected with thousands of Indiana youth. With local corporate sponsorship from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan enabling free enrollment, the program hopes to touch a new generation of Detroit youth.

Youth like Detroiter Ethan Kent, 13, who is looking forward to the June program on Belle Isle.

“This event will help me. I’ve never put on a driver suit before,” said Ethan. “I hope to get into cars more and make a career out of racing.”

He and his peers will take MA100, an entry-level course, in conjunction with flogging go-karts around the Detroit Grand Prix paddock — the same paddock that will host the IndyCar Dual in Detroit a week later, June 11-13. NXG students and their families will be invited to the races.

Post-Detroit GP, students can advance to other courses through the course of the year. The classes progressively introduce boys and girls to go-kart racing fundamentals — driving techniques, mechanical equipment understanding, self-control — that are transferable to daily life. One lesson, for example — “Pressure Points” — uses tire pressure to teach life lessons about peer pressure.

NXG’s curriculum aligns with middle and high school academic standards in science and math-related subjects. 

“The shiny object here is the go-kart,” said Detroit GP chairman and Penske Corp. president Bud Denker. “Students go through two hours of STEM education to be part of two hours of driving a go-kart. It helps drive learning back into the classroom.”

Denker and his Penske team have been active in reaching out to area schools. Schools have been a foundation stone for Racquet Up’s squash program as well. Five city schools — three charters and two public schools — have helped connect families and their children with the program.

“NXG opens opportunities to youngsters like Ethan and others who want to take this path,” said Matthew Maxey, a Ford engineer and instructor with NXG. “Motorsports is not super-accessible like basketball. This program allows you to learn how to access a go-kart and work on it and maybe give someone a career path.”

Denker pointed to two mechanics on an F2000 team — a racing feeder series to IndyCar — that grew up in NXG’s Indianapolis program. They were inspired by their time there.

“NXG makes a connection to motorsports and STEM education for people that otherwise would not have this opportunity,” he said. 

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.