On Saturday, May 14, D.C. native Bill Lester broke boundaries by becoming the first African American driver to win a Grand-Am Road Racing event (teaming with Jordan Taylor for the victory). Almost poetically, Lester, who graced the April 2004 cover of Black Enterprise, achieved this milestone victory at the famed Virginia Motorsports Park, which is located in the hometown of Wendell Scott, the first and only Black winner of a NASCAR Cup Series race back in 1963.
In a sport that’s traditionally White and Southern, Black racecar drivers are still seen by some as an anomaly—although history has proven otherwise. Dating back as far as the early 1900s, people of color have been making considerable contributions to the sport. In celebration of Lester’s recent triumph, BlackEnterprise.com highlights a few other trailblazing African Americans on the racetrack.
A pioneer of Blacks on the racetrack, Wiggins fought racial segregation in the sport in the early 1900s. Repeatedly denied from the Indianapolis 500, Wiggins and other Black drivers formed their own racing association and competed among themselves. Dubbed “The Negro Speed King,” Charlie won three of the first six races of the Gold & Glory Sweepstakes, an annual 100-mile speed race for Black driver. A skilled mechanic, Wiggins was asked by “Wild Bill” Cummings, a top White AAA competitor, to serve in his pit crew for the Indianapolis 500. Due to the Raceway’s strict rules of segregation, he was officially hired as a janitor, while secretly tuning up Cummings’ car for the race, which he won.
During the 1936 Gold & Glory Sweepstakes, Charlie was involved in a 13-car wreck that resulted in his right leg being amputated—abruptly ending his racing career, as well as the future of the all-Black event, which lost its biggest star. Despite his injury Wiggins continued to fight the segregationist practices of the American Automobile Association while also training young Black mechanics until his death in 1979 at the age of 82.
Willie T. Ribbs
In his first year of competition, Ribbs won the Dunlop Championship. He went on to race Formula Atlantic cars, winning the pole in the Long Beach Formula Atlantic race in 1982. The following year, he won five races in the Sports Car Club of America Trans-Am Series, earning Pro Rookie of the Year honors. Ribbs is also credited as being the first African American to drive a Formula One car when he tested for the Brabham team in Portugal in 1986. Four years later, he joined the CART circuit in a car partially funded by African American racing executive Sam Belnavis and comedian Bill Cosby. Ribbs had two top 10 events that season, and, in 1991, he became the first African American to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.
Most notably, Mack is the second African American (after Willy T. Ribbs) to drive in the Indianapolis 500. He made the record books in 2002, finishing the race in 17th place. Currently retired, Mack inspired his brother, Lloyd, who followed in his footsteps to pick up the sport. The younger Mack has won two national karting championships and five California state championships of his own.
Scott was not only the first African-American to compete in NASCAR, he was also the first to own his own team. Competing in nearly 500 races in NASCAR’s top division— from 1961 through the early 1970s—he finished in the top 10 147 times. In 1977, Scott’s compelling story of overcoming racism to excel in his sport was brought to the big screen in Greased Lightening, which starred Richard Pryor as the lead.
Leonard W. Miller
An accomplished racer and pioneer, Miller was also the founder of the Black American Racers Association (BARA). Started in 1972, BARA had as many as 5,000 members across 20 states at one point. Miller was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1976. During the mid-90s he and his son Leonard would form the Miller Racing Group, which led the father on son to the record books when, in 2005, their team won a NASCAR track championship—a first for African American owners.
The daughter of a racecar driver, Lyons is as talented behind the wheel as she is beautiful. As the first African American female to race professionally in the National Hot Rod Association Pro Stock series, she’s made waves from the start. During her first NHRA season opener in 2005, she beat third place winner from the year before. An avid automotive junkie, Lyons also owns Cole Muscle Cars, a muscle car restoration shop. Earlier this year she extended her visibility as the only female engine expert on the SPEED Channel’s new automotive reality show, Car Warriors.
Born to a Black father and White mother, British-born Hamilton has been tearing up the track at record speed. At just 26-years old he has set, or matched, a slew of Formula One records, including most consecutive podiums from debut race (9), most consecutive podiums for a British driver (9), youngest driver to lead the World Championship (at age 22), most wins in a debut season (4), and most points in a debut season (109). He’s fast, he’s furious, he’s only just begun.