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EARLY AUTO race drivers were an especially courageous lot. They drove fragile yet awkward automobiles at impressive speeds under the most deadly conditions. Even more courageous were the relatively few African-Americans, called “colored” in those days, who combined the challenges of motor racing with segregation in daily life, sometime encounters with the Ku Klux Klan and outright prohibition from many motorsports events.
The book and PBS documentary For Gold & Glory tell the story in detail, and what a tale it is. By the 1920s, dirt tracks, many sharing fairground horse racing venues, were testing grounds for mechanically minded—and brave—young men. Like aviation, auto racing was slow to admit women and especially slow in admitting people of color.
For example, there was an unwritten, but enforced, rule prohibiting blacks from participating in the Indianapolis 500. In fact, black spectators were restricted to a small “colored only” portion of the Indy grandstands between Turns 1 and 2.
Indiana at the time was fertile ground for the Ku Klux Klan seeking “white gentile Americans of Protestant heritage.” At its 1925 peak, Klan membership comprised an estimated 30 percent of Indiana white males. This included Governor Edward L. Jackson who served from 1925 to 1929.
In 1924, black racing enthusiasts and white colleagues formed the Colored Speedway Association. Its inaugural event, held on the Indianapolis State Fairgrounds one-mile dirt track, was part of the city’s Emancipation Day Celebration, August 2, 1924. This 100-mile event was advertised in black newspapers throughout the Midwest as “the only event staged exclusively for Men of our Race.”
One entrant from St. Louis towed his race car by a rope behind his Model T Ford. At the other extreme, “Wild Bill” Jefferies drove a $12,000 Frontenac Ford (its value around $170,000 in today’s cash).
More than 12,000 people saw 15 drivers compete. Only three cars finished the 100 laps; overall, though, the event was a great success. Its winner was Malcolm Hannon, an Indianapolis chauffeur by trade, driving a 1923 Indy 500 car.
The Colored Speedway Association continued for 12 years until the Great Depression forced its demise. A biography of Charlie Wiggins, one of the series’ most successful drivers, is a principal theme of Gold & Glory. Wiggins was an auto mechanic who won the 1926 event, placed second in 1929 and won back-to-back Gold & Glory Championships in 1931 and 1932.
Along the way, Charlie also became known as the Negro Speed King, had a run-in with the Ku Klux Klan in Kentucky and at one point had gofer help from a kid named Johnny Dillinger. Yes, that Dillinger.
Because of his mechanical ken, Charlie was offered a place on Indy racer Bill Cummings’ pit crew in 1934. However, AAA officials wouldn’t go along, so a ploy was concocted. Charlie took a job as a janitor at the speedway (one of the few occupations opened to blacks there). During the day, he’d sweep floors and tidy up the Cummings garage. After hours, he’d wrench as a valued team member.
In 1934, Bill Cummings drove his Boyle Valve Special to an Indy 500 victory. Charlie Wiggins cheered from the “colored only” grandstand.
Another tale of the Colored Speedway Association era is Grease Monkey, by Steven G. Percifield and Herschel W. Gulley, 2010. This is a historical novel based on the life of Herschel B. Gulley, author Gulley’s father. Herschel B. was an Indiana farm kid who became a nationally recognized dirt-track driver—and whose best friend, mechanic and business partner was a black man. Charlie Wiggins also makes a cameo appearance. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015