A Magna One-on-One Interview with Jimmie McMillian, Senior Corporate Counsel of Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Matlock in a Race Car: Attorney Jimmie McMillian’s Ride from Corporate Counsel to the Indy 500
It’s only proper that Jimmie McMillian starts off our interview while talking from a car.
The chief diversity officer and senior corporate counsel for Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) is not in a race car but a Chevrolet Tahoe: He and other employees get a new Chevy every year given that GM is a Speedway sponsor.
(McMillian explains that at first, he wanted more money instead of the car. Now he enjoys it after realizing he doesn’t have to deal with upkeep, maintenance, etc.)
McMillian is only driving, talking and video calling for a quick minute from the real-life town of Speedway, Indiana to his office. But the real-life journey McMillian has taken to get to this corporate position is a more complicated story involving gunfire, law school and now racetracks.
Magna: Your childhood is a story in and of itself.
McMillian: I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the “Wild 100s.”
A news clip I found explains that Wild 100s comes from the three-digit streets in the Roseland neighborhood and recounts a typical scene:
One night in Roseland, young gang members were on guard for a carload of rivals they expected to drive by and shoot at them.
One just turned 21. If the enemy gang succeeds, his adulthood won’t last long.
When I was 15, my best friend got killed in a drive by. But I never wavered from wanting to be an attorney. I loved history, reading, and documentaries. I loved learning about people and systems and problems that have been overcome through time.
I liked to talk and would quote the longest verses in the Bible. I liked to advocate: I’m not afraid to stand up for a position.
I also watched a lot of Matlock [the television show about an attorney]. That show probably made a lot of lawyers.
Did everyone you knew growing up think you should be an attorney?
They thought I should be an attorney or pastor. But I knew I could never be a pastor: I like women too much.
What was your schooling like?
I went to a gifted school, got high school credits in 7th and 8th grade, and decided to enroll in Michigan State University at age 16. Why Michigan State? I had a family member who was a dean there. Also, because it was so green. I had never seen that much grass in my life.
Then real life intruded on your university schooling.
My father had an alcohol problem. There was lots of domestic violence. My father threatened to shoot me in the dorm, and I had to hide out in Detroit. All I had was the shirt on my back. My stepbrother, who was at Indiana University Bloomington, got me out and I enrolled in Indiana University.
Things didn’t end there. I listened to a podcast about overcoming odds that mentioned the time you were told: “Your dad just shot your mom; you’ve got to go back [to college].”
When I was at IU, my father shot my mother three times. She survived. And that did not derail me from wanting to be an attorney.
It was your job at Firestone while in college that would eventually lead you into the world of race cars.
The guys I worked with would razz me: Well, Black people don’t know about racing. So, they took me to the Brickyard 400, and I was hooked.
But you have recounted in interviews how it was still a jarring experience given the Confederate flags and “South will rise again” T-shirts you saw at the racetrack.
It’s all about the company of the people you’re in. I was with White people who had my best interests at heart. And I knew they would not bring me anywhere where I would be hurt, and they would not let me be hurt.
And that aspect of the crowd didn’t sour you on racing as a whole?
Having been an African American who went to a majority white institution, you learn to become desensitized to people and symbols of hate. I understand that if I am going to be in a certain space, I am going to see Dixie flags unless I close my eyes.
Also, your perception may not be the perception of other people. Some will argue that the Confederate flags do not mean, “I hate Black people.”
We can disagree on that, but you can also show me what you mean by your actions. We all learn to overlook certain things we see or hear. If I don’t hear you out on your intent and see how it matches your actions, I could be wrong.
Still, there are many things that are unacceptable: Walk in here with a KKK hood, and we got a problem.
I ask people, why do you want the South to rise again? Some people will have an economic response when you think it will be a social response. Some people will give you a Biblical response when you expect a political response.
People might say, I wear this “South will rise again” T-shirt because my uncle wore it, not because I am opposed to the LGBTQ lifestyle.
Someone in Alabama may not be opposed to LGBTQ. They just may not have met an LGBTQ person before. Or realized they met one before.
If we all yell and scream at each other, we won’t hear each other and have peace.
And being a leader means being able to see two sides of a story.
You finished your undergrad and law degrees at IU and went on to become a partner at the powerhouse Indianapolis law firm, Barnes and Thornburg.
But in 2016 you made the switch to become Senior Corporate Counsel for Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Then in 2020, the George Floyd killing and protests, occurred and you took on a second job at IMS: Chief Diversity Officer.
What are your goals for diversity?
We want to internally recruit, promote and retain diverse employees, based on race, gender, and physical disabilities and we want to reflect our communities. For example, we want to make sure we are working with individuals in the communities in which we race. Engage with minority and women enterprises. You can’t expect people to invest as fans if you don’t invest in them as a people.
But I think retention is the most difficult part. Organizations bring a lot of diversity in, but leadership ends up looking the same. The change you want will not be there, for example, if high paying jobs are not given to diverse people. You are also sending a message that college is not the way out. So, there has to be a payoff at the end. That is where we have failed in so many ways.
How are you going to do that?
Mentorship and advocacy are two things. You want to make people feel attached to formal or informal mentors and advocates. Listening to them as to what they need. Give them a platform and voice. Explain there is a succession plan for them in the company.
Sometimes people – or someone in a leadership position – will look at someone else and say they don’t have that “It” quality that makes them a leader.
But that “It” quality is defined by looking at oneself. So, if someone looks different, you figure that person cannot be a leader.
We need to rethink what is required to be a leader. For example: A company may think it needs conservative, thoughtful, and calm leadership. But maybe it doesn’t.
IMS has youth programs too.
We are creating pipeline opportunities for entry into the sport through programs that engage people in engineering, marketing, art, catering, music, facilities: all the things that go into running a motor sports event.
You’ve got the technology that goes into cars. Video production to produce a show that features motor sports. The vast array that goes into it.
We even have a golf course. We are getting kids involved in turf management.
We’ve got a program with the National Society of Black engineers at Purdue involving go karting. We’ve got a paid internship – with housing – for students of color.
We have other outreach such as bilingual signage.
This month, we’ve got 10,000 new fans from the community who have never been here but who live in Indianapolis: The speedway actually sits in a historic Black neighborhood. We tell people they can use the facility for their gala because this track belongs to you as well as the community.
It’s all about creating a pipeline into our sport so people start saying, “This is for me.”
You’ve got two full-time jobs. How do you manage them?
Sometimes well. Sometimes not. My calendar is my friend and my enemy. But really, I manage them because I’m passionate about both of them.
You have been gracious in providing outreach to Magna Legal Services.
Magna rep Lee Diamondstein gave me a call about five years ago to help him make inroads into the Indiana market. Lee is a great guy and since then, I have been attending Magna’s awesome events and conferences in Vegas, Miami, and Atlantic City. I’ve served on panels. I’ve had fun and been making connections with other attorneys.
My days as a litigator are thankfully few and far between so, I have not had the need for Magna’s other services like jury selection, knock on wood. But I would hire them for that if I needed to.
I’ll return to a question we started out with. What do you want to be when you grow up?
The best father and husband that I could possibly be in the world. Growing up with my situation, I want my kids to tell an entirely different story than the one I have to tell.