Good Tuesday morning Obots!
Today’s featured legends in the world of motorsports are Charles Wiggins and Wendell Scott.
Charles Wiggins was born and raised in Indianapolis, one of the hotbeds of American auto racing, but at the time – the 1920s – a city with a deeply-divided ethnic population. Despite the heavy presence of the Ku Klux Klan and racial barriers of the day, Wiggins was one of the first African-Americans to take a keen interest auto racing. Wiggins was a master mechanic who dreamed of some day running in the world famous but white-only “Indy 500.”
In 1924, a group of African-American business men, and civic leaders, led by William Rucker and two white businessmen, Oscar Shilling and Harry Earl, came together with the purpose of forming a racing league whereby men of color, which were barred from racing with their Caucasian counterparts, could participate in the sport of automobile racing. Thus, the Colored Speedway Association began.
On August 2, 1924, the first annual “Gold and Glory” sweepstakes was held at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis. The sweepstakes was a 100-mile race with 28 of the best African-American drivers competing from all over the Midwest. The races quickly became popular and within five years, promoters from across the country had created a barnstorming tour called the “Gold and Glory” circuit with races in cities including Atlanta, Chicago, Dayton, Detroit, Fort Worth (Texas), and Los Angeles.
Wiggins was instrumental in the Gold and Glory evolution which attracted the attention of national news agencies as well as thousands of spectators coast to coast. Wiggins was a four-time champion on the sweepstakes, a distinction that earned him the title “the Negro Speed King.”
One of Wiggins’ most harrowing experiences as a race car driver was in 1928 when he was driving the pre-race qualifying lap at the Kentucky Speedway in Louisville, Kentucky. A mob of white fans broke through the protective fence around the track to protest the inclusion of Wiggins in what was considered a “white only” racing venue. Police officers held back the mob and race officials ordered the Kentucky militia to arrest Wiggins for his own safety. The police quickly took Wiggins away and held him in a jail cell until nightfall, when he slipped out of town.
A horrific crash in 1936, in which Wiggins’ right leg had to be amputated, cut short his racing career. Although his injury caused intense pain throughout the rest of Wiggins’ life, he continued to train young mechanics and crusade for increased rights for African Americans in auto racing.
Auto racing historian Joe Freeman noted: “The fact that Charlie was able to overcome not only very obvious and clear racial prejudice, and not only to succeed in his business, but to succeed as an independent businessman, to rise certainly to the top of the black racing league, and eventually to advise some of the top racers in Indianapolis, he had to be a man who was very strong internally, and a heck of a guy.”
The next great name in the pantheon of black racing stars was Wendell Oliver Scott born in 1921.
Scott was one of the first African-Americans to thrive and win on the NASCAR circuit, and was the subject of the Richard Prior film “Greased Lightning.” And like Wiggins, Scott was subjected to intense prejudice, but persevered to become one of the stars of the oval track.
His first driving job was as a taxi driver. Later, he hauled illegal whiskey, an occupation that called for skills as both a high-performance mechanic and a fearless driver. Scott would go on to win 120 races in lower divisions and in 1959 won state championships in his classes. In 1961, he was able to pull together enough money to field a car on NASCAR’s top-level Grand National circuit, later renamed the Winston Cup series.
Scott raced in nearly 500 races in NASCAR’s top division from 1961 through the early 1970s. Racing on a shoestring, he finished in the top ten 147 times. On December 1, 1963, he won his only major race, a 100-mile event on a half-mile track in Jacksonville, Florida, but Scott was denied the opportunity to celebrate in victory circle. NASCAR officials said a scoring error was responsible for allowing another driver to accept the winner’s trophy. Scott doubted that explanation. “Everybody in the place knew I had won the race,” he said years later, “but the promoters and NASCAR officials didn’t want me out there kissing beauty queens or accepting awards.” (It would take 47 years for NASCAR to present him the trophy, though he had died by that time.)
In 1973, he suffered severe injuries in a race at Talladega, Alabama and only raced a few times afterward. Wendell Scott passed away in 1990, but his legacy hasn’t been forgotten.
Read more about Charles Wiggins and Wendell Scott and the trials of being black in the auto racing world, here.