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Minter: The Drive To Diversify Began Many Years Ago

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, August 6 2009
Ben Muckle took the checkered flag in Georgia race circa 1950. (Photo courtesy the Muckle famil collection)

Ben Muckle took the checkered flag in Georgia race circa 1950. (Photo courtesy the Muckle family collection)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer

NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program has plugged along for several years, with some positive results. Still the sport’s participants and fans remain predominately white.

Black Americans have played roles in NASCAR over the years, but rarely in starring spots.

Wendell Scott, the long-time Cup campaigner from Danville, Va., is the name that comes up most often.

Today, the search for the best athletes to service cars on pit road has brought some diversity to pit crews.

Dion Williams, a former linebacker at Wake Forest, is one of the faces of color on pit road these days. He’s the rear tire carrier on Mark Martin’s No. 5 Chevrolet, as well as being a mechanic on the car during the week. Since being introduced to NASCAR, he’s become interested in the mechanical aspect of the sport and one day hopes to advance to a car chief’s or possibly a crew chief’s position.

The Atlanta native also has launched his own informal drive for diversity program, inviting large numbers of family and friends to come to Atlanta Motor Speedway to watch him perform and to catch the races on TV elsewhere.

That’s a dramatic change from his younger days growing up in the Atlanta suburb of Stone Mountain.

“Atlanta Motor Speedway was 45 minutes from where I lived and I never knew it existed,” he said. “If the race came on TV, I’d change the channel.”

His only connection to NASCAR as a youngster was that he liked the colors of a Jeff Gordon racing jacket. Last year he was on Gordon’s pit crew.

An invitation to a North Carolina short track led to a job in NASCAR, and now Williams is a major player and a proponent of bringing more people of color into the sport.

Ironically, he never knew until being informed by a reporter that back in the day, a black racing league operated within a few miles of his boyhood home.

It was called the Atlanta Stock Car Club. Its members were among the sport’s earliest pioneers. From the late 1940s to the mid-50s, they traveled across the Southeast, running modified flat-head Fords on dusty dirt tracks to cheers of hundreds – if not thousands – of fans.

Sadly, their existence was poorly documented. Only an occasional article in Speed Age magazines or the Atlanta Daily World tells the story of a truly unique part of American history.

The driving members of the Club included the twin Muckle brothers, Ben and George, Richard “Red” Kines, Arthur “The Decatur Express” Avery, Robert “Juckie” Lewis, James “Suicide” Lacey, Joe Daniels and Charlie Scott, who earned his place in NASCAR history by being the first black driver to race in the division now known as Sprint Cup.

Scott, no relation to Wendell Scott, drove a Carl Kiekhaefer-owned Chrysler on the beach at Daytona in 1956, finishing 19th in a race won by his teammate and fellow Atlantan Tim Flock.

But the Atlanta Stock Car Club had been thriving long before that, even before the formation of NASCAR in 1948.

The earliest black races were for motorcycle riders like 1945 and 1946 Thomaston Speedway champion Bill Thompson, C.S. Cherry and Bill Goar, also a promoter in those days.

Soon the racers were driving cars, and promoters were capitalizing on the new idea.

Members of the club promoted races and arranged bus service to the tracks from downtown Atlanta pick-up points. That made it convenient and safe in the Jim Crow days for fans to travel to the outlying race tracks.

Women drivers were a part of the show as well. The roster of female drivers includes names like Cora Miller, Delphine Lewis, “Lett” Hill and Marian Thompson.

June Harris, the daughter of the late Ben Muckle, said in an interview several years ago that even though her father died in 1958 when she was just two years old, she shares his love of racing.

“I’m told that when I was a baby my daddy always sat me in the seat of his race car while he worked on it,” Harris said. “I’ve always been proud of what he was about, and I’m a fan of NASCAR racing today.”

“I guess it’s inherited.”

White promoters from that era also got in on the action. The late Roy Shoemaker, who promoted races at the old Peach Bowl Speedway in Atlanta, regularly submitted newspaper ads and stories encouraging blacks to attend races at his track.

Harvey Jones, a long-time racing mechanic who was recently inducted into the Georgia Automobile Racing Hall of Fame, said several black drivers used engines he built to win numerous races.

But the successes of the black drivers never led to national recognition, and they have been largely forgotten over the years.

By the mid 1950s, black racing disappeared from the scene. Most cite the increasing cost of racing, but there were other causes.

Mike Bell, a noted racing historian, theorizes that the changing attitudes brought about by the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, which struck down the “separate but equal” policies on schools, were a big factor in the demise of separate stock car races.

“It all died then,” he said. “There are no records to be found after that.”

But, Bell said, the lack of recognition today doesn’t mean the accomplishments of the early black racers should be discounted.

“Those black drivers from the 40s and 50s could have been just as good as the whites if they’d had a chance,” Bell said. “Their main problem was that they were just too far ahead of their time.”

– Rick Minter can be reached at rminter@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, August 6 2009
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