A long but little-known legacy of blacks in racing
By MIKE MULHERN
The story of Wendell Scott is well known among racing fans, as is that of Willy T. Ribbs and Bill Lester.
Some might even recall Charlie Scott, who in 1956 drove for the legendary Carl Kiekhaefer and was the first black man to drive in a NASCAR race.
But the history of blacks in auto racing began with Charlie Wiggins in the 1920s.
There is a much longer history of blacks in racing than is widely realized, even in the black community. And bringing that history out is part of the curriculum at Anthony Martin's Urban Youth Racing School.
Wiggins, a black racing star from 1924 to 1936, is part of that history, and his story was just included in a new documentary about black racers that made its debut in June at the National Press Club in Washington.
"That's one of the first things we teach here," Martin said. "We teach them about Charlie Wiggins, and William Rucker, who founded the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes. So it's funny to us that it's just now in the news, because we've been teaching that for seven years here, and testing our kids on that.
"But we understand we are changing a culture.
"The kids' parents are getting involved, too, and they're telling their friends ... and it's like, 'Wow.'"
Michelle Kuilan, Martin's director of operations, says that this novel center-city program "is reaching a critical mass.
"It's not just about changing a culture, it's about changing a whole generation," she said. "Now you have to school their parents, too. Most blacks don't realize there is a history in racing."
An April race that circled the famed Philadelphia Art Museum may have been a turning point, in several ways.
"That was the first race in Philadelphia since the 1950s," Kuilan said. "The city let us shut those streets down for that race."
Red Bull, as part of its search for an American Formula One candidate, sponsored that race, the Grand Prix of Philadelphia, for 20 UYRS drivers ages 13-17 in 125 cc karts, with the top three advancing to a Boston "playoff" race.
Jason Simmons won the race, which caught the eye of Jack Roush, the NASCAR car owner, who sent Sam Belnavis to check out the talent. Roush will have Simmons in Legends cars this year, "and if he does well in Legends, Jack wants to put him in Late Models," Martin said.
Roush "wants to build a pipeline to our school," Martin said. "And John Bickford (Jeff Gordon's stepfather and business associate) is doing the same thing, trying to build a pipeline between us and Hendrick Motorsports."
In fact, there is a growing racing connection between Philadelphia and Charlotte, N.C.. Leon Simmons, Jason's year-older brother, at 18, started with Martin six years ago and wants to be a driver, though he hasn't raced since last summer because he has been at University of North Carolina-Charlotte.
His parents bought him a racer two years ago, "and I can't wait to get back in the seat this summer," Leon said. "I'm still just trying to earn my racing stripes. I'm just trying to work my way up so one day I can get an ARCA deal, or a truck deal, or maybe even a Busch deal.
"Sometimes I sit back and think about how Kyle Busch was racing at 18, and here I am 18 and wonder how I would do racing a truck. But I'm in school, and that's my priority, getting my degree in mechanical engineering."
The need to move to the South is a major hurdle, Martin said.
"Some of our kids have been faced with having to move to Charlotte to be closer to the racing world, and that's quite a transition for a kid from urban Philly," Martin said. "It's tough.
"But our kids are understanding it's way beyond just driving a race car. Even though our program in Philadelphia is very popular, eventually you've got to go to where the action is, and the action is in Charlotte."
Or maybe Las Vegas, where Brendan Gaughan has his race shop.
Gaughan has been one of the school's strongest supporters, perhaps because of his time on John Thompson's Georgetown basketball teams, which gives him some insight into the culture - and which certainly keeps him up on the hip-hop stars.
"... Brendan told our kids 'As soon as you become better wrenchers, I'll take you to Vegas and hire you. I'm looking for good mechanics right now.'"
NASCAR drivers are adding an important element to the UYRS program.
"Mentoring is so important for these kids, a major part of it," Martin said. "Brendan comes in for everything we do; he even came in last Christmas to talk with the kids. Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch - obviously Bill Lester.
"Brian Vickers even came by in March for our awards banquet. The NASCAR drivers know who we are and support the kids, and show the kids what they had to do to get to where they are."
The North Philly kids can be a tough sell, Martin said.
"Urban kids have got to touch it and taste it, or it means nothing," he said. "And it's hard to do that with racing. But when Brian Vickers (21) comes in, he's close to their age, and they can relate to him.
"Kurt Busch too - he came right here and talked to the kids, his peers basically. The kids are like 'Wow. OK.'"
- Contact Mike Mulhern at mmulhern(at)wsjournal.com.