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Myles Rowe has proven his passion and skill to advance in open-wheel racing

The 22-year-old narrowly missed becoming the second Black driver to win a single-seater, open-wheel racing series

Myles Rowe could almost taste it.

After a grueling seven months of doing battle in an auto racing league called USF 2000 — the first step on the way to IndyCar, the premier series of open-wheel racing in America — the Atlanta native entered the season finale Sept. 3 in Portland, Oregon, with one hand on the championship trophy. Three more races were all that separated him from becoming the only Black driver besides Formula One’s Lewis Hamilton to win a championship in a major single-seater open-wheel racing series. And this was barely two years after Rowe, 22, thought his racing days were over.

In the days leading up to this historic opportunity, and in just his second year driving in USF2000, Rowe said, “The meaning of it really began to settle in.” Rowe seemed poised to close the deal when he finished runner-up in the weekend’s second race to hold onto a six-point lead in the standings over his Pabst Racing teammate Jace Denmark.

But disaster struck in the final. A challenger hit Denmark from behind when he was in the lead. Rowe, who was following just behind him, punctured a tire and his car was damaged after he swerved to avoid the collision. In a flash, Denmark’s title hopes were effectively ruined, and Rowe sank from third place to 15th. Altogether, six cars were damaged.

Though Rowe would wage a magnificent comeback to finish fifth, the effort wasn’t enough to hold back another title challenger named Michael d’Orlando, who started the day seven points behind Rowe. D’Orlando went on to win that last race and the USF2000 championship. His margin of victory over Rowe in the final standings was a measly six points.

Now, Rowe can only wonder what might’ve been if that big collision hadn’t happened.

“Unfortunately, that was where the championship was lost,” he said. “I would’ve come out no lower than fourth. I was looking at coming out of it in second or third place and definitely had the speed to win.”

Myles Rowe started in USF2000 racing with Force Indy, a Black-run expansion team.

Barnett Photography

History and bragging rights weren’t the only things at stake for Rowe in this championship. There was also a $407,000 racing scholarship package to advance to the Indy Pro 2000 series (the next step up in open-wheel racing) in 2023. That goes to d’Orlando now. But Rowe didn’t go home empty-handed. For finishing second in the final USF2000 standings, he received $20,000 in scholarships for 2023 — which could also go toward a move up. And after the season Rowe had, there’s no doubt he’s ready.

After becoming the first Black driver to win an IndyCar-sanctioned race in August 2021 in New Jersey, Rowe won five more times this season. Overall, he finished in the top three nine times in 18 races while logging more fastest race laps than any of his rivals. He yielded those impressive results while under considerable pressure to perform.

Last year, Rowe started in USF2000 racing with Force Indy, an expansion team run by a Black former advertising executive named Rod Reid, whom IndyCar chief Roger Penske tapped to pave an on-ramp into the sport for Black drivers. After Force Indy’s strong opening, Penske pushed Reid to shift focus and compete two levels higher in the Indy Lights series. But not only was Rowe still too green to make that jump, the higher cost of Indy Lights meant that Reid wouldn’t have the funding to back Rowe for another USF2000 in 2023.

But Rowe had already lost time on his racing career when he ran out of money to keep going. While Rowe launched a GoFundMe campaign that raised nearly $250,000, Reid solicited more financial help from Penske. But the 85-year-old racing magnate was only willing to part with few hundred thousand dollars, enough to float Rowe for three races. To get more funding, Rowe would have to prove himself.

Relocated to Pabst Racing, a Wisconsin outfit that was in a three-year championship drought, Rowe entered USF2000’s season-opening doubleheader in St. Petersburg, Florida, with little room for error and even less for self-doubt.

“It definitely added a level of pressure, but I like to think it didn’t really affect me at all,” he said. “Racing is a sport that’s about being able to perform under pressure completely and be able to clear that out of your head. Being in that situation of possibly losing my career a few years ago, I think it was good training as far as how to respond to pressure.”

He could’ve easily caved in after finishing 18th in the first race. Instead, he not only rallied to win the second race but finished atop the podium again two months later in Birmingham, Alabama. That helped nudge Rowe into the top four in the standings heading into Indianapolis, the biggest date on the American open-wheel racing calendar. And by that point, Penske and Reid had no choice but to dig a little deeper into their pockets.

“That’s when I went over and said, ‘Look, man, I’m gonna pull this money out of my budget as well as what Penske was gonna put into it,’ ” Reid said. “Next thing you know, Myles has got the rest of the season taken care of.”

Myles Rowe (second from left) holds the USF2000 second-place trophy at Portland International Speedway, poses with (from left to right) his father, Wayne Rowe, brother Christian and mother, Renee Rowe.

As he eased into the points lead and managed it to the final race on Sept. 1, it was hard not to take stock of how far Rowe had come.

A year ago, he entered the series after having not raced for three years. The bulk of his experience had been in go-karts; USF2000 cars, proper single-seater machines, are much heavier and more powerful. Rowe also had to learn the tracks on the series, as well as his fellow competitors. That’s a lot to put on any young driver’s shoulders, let alone one who was also hustling to finish college at New York’s Pace University. (His degree in film and screen studies helped set him up with a part-time gig developing content for an Indianapolis-based marketing agency that does a lot of work in racing, giving him more opportunities to go to the track and get in front of potential sponsors.)

Rowe may have fallen short of toasting to his first major racing championship, but he helped Pabst Racing break that drought and capture a team title. He’s winning on and off the track.

Rowe was repeatedly recognized for his achievements at last weekend’s USF2000 year-end banquet in Portland, Oregon, flanked by his parents, his brother, three aunts, an uncle, and a friend of the family who was a former patron of the wine shop his parents sold to keep Rowe’s racing career on track. Yet, he wasn’t really basking in his big moment.

At one point during the banquet he leaned over to Reid and said, “Rod, I wish I was racing tomorrow.”

Said Reid: “I just love that. He’s that hungry. You can’t make someone have that.”

As for what comes next, all signs point to Rowe stepping up a level. Though still quite young in life, Rowe doesn’t have much more time to tarry in the minors.

“That’s definitely in the very back of my mind,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I can only go as fast as my budget and skill can go.”

The happiest ending to his season may have been spoiled, but it hasn’t left Rowe with a bitter taste. It has him thirsting for more.

A former Sports Illustrated staff writer, Andrew Lawrence's award-winning writing appears in The Guardian, Men's Health, Car and Driver and other publications. Follow him on Twitter: @by_drew.