The Black American Racers fought for equity in auto racing
“The recognition of the Smithsonian collecting these artifacts gives us even more motivation to move forward and still try to get the word out to accomplish something in auto racing.”
— Leonard T. "Lenny" Miller
As an African American auto racer who navigated the ranks of the predominately white sport from the late 1960s through the early 2000s, Leonard “Len” Miller Sr. was constantly challenged by the systemic racism inherent in the sport. In interviews and his own writings, Miller stressed how discrimination, resiliency, and a desire for equity shaped his professional career—both on and off the track. Through the objects donated to the museum by Miller and his son, we can tell his unique story, offering a window into Miller’s decades-long campaign to carve out a place for Black racers.
Miller’s experiences echoed the experiences of Black racers throughout the 1900s. In the 1920s, Black drivers were banned from competing against white drivers, forcing African American racers to form the Colored Speedway Association (CSA) in 1924. It wasn’t until 1947 that the American Automobile Association (AAA), the sanctioning body for auto racing, gave the first license to Black driver Joie Ray. Another Black driver, Wendell Scott, is often credited with breaking the color barrier in NASCAR, winning at Jacksonville in 1963, but earlier racers Elias Bowie and Charlie Scott entered NASCAR races in 1955 and 1956, respectively. These early pioneers slowly paved the way for Miller and his fellow Black racers.
As Miller was achieving some success on the drag racing circuit in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and the Northeast in the late 1960s, he had a goal: leading an all-Black racing team (consisting of an owner, mechanic, crew, and driver). This was something that had never been done before. His first roadblock? Raising the large sum of money needed to even get his team’s car on the track so he could continue racing. In an oral history with the Mercer Museum in July 2015, Miller recounted one of his earlier efforts to secure funding:
“In 1969, Schmidt’s Beer decided that they were going to give people an opportunity to write proposals on how they could help Schmidt’s beer sell better in the region and the top four would get five thousand dollars each. . . . So right away I wrote a winning proposal, they found out I was Black, and they said, no we’re not going to give you this sponsorship because [motions]. It was racial, it was racial politics. . . . After winning [our race] Schmidt’s Beer said, ‘Oh, we didn’t know you were that good, we should have given you the sponsorship’ because they got no value out of the sponsorships that they had. This is the racial politics that goes on all the time, to this very day.”
Despite these rejections, Miller persisted, and he was eventually able to form a racing team. While trying to acquire funds for his team to enter the Indianapolis 500, Miller pursued many wealthy Black entrepreneurs, athletes, and businessmen. Yet he had to wade through more rejections. He later recalled that he was often given the excuse that, “[a] Black could never qualify for the Indy 500, and they weren’t going to waste any of their money trying to do the impossible.” Fortunately, Miller did eventually convince some donors to support the team and, with their backing, he inched closer to his goal. In 1972 he became the first Black team owner to enter a car in the Indy 500. Miller’s car, driven by white driver John Mahler, finished a respectable 22nd in that year’s race.
Buoyed by that success, Miller created the Black American Racers Association (BARA) in 1973, which incorporated as Black American Racers Inc. (BAR) later that year. In his book, Silent Thunder: Breaking Through Cultural, Racial, and Class Barriers in Motorsports, Miller explains some of his aspirations for BAR, telling readers that BAR’s goals were “to publish a yearbook, to create a Black American Racers Day at a drag racing facility, and to raise the visibility of Black contributions to motorsports. Also, to recognize those corporations that contributed to the development of Black racing and racers.”
Miller and BAR’s other founders were quickly reminded that the corporate world of sponsorships could be just as treacherous to navigate as the racetrack. In 1973, fresh from their success at the Indy 500, BAR met with the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company to discuss a possible sponsorship by Viceroy cigarettes. The meeting did not go well; the company offered BAR only half the money typically given to a white racing team. In response, Miller asked the company reps, “If a race motor costs $24,000 on average for a white sponsored team, how can a black team build the same motor for $12,000?” Miller’s words broke through to the representatives. They relented and offered BAR the normal rate, and Miller’s team had their sponsor for 1974.
BAR struggled to secure more sponsors in the years that followed. Approaching the vice president of Pep Boys, an automotive supply company, Miller relates:
“The Vice President said he had the colored market sewn up and didn’t have to reach the Black community for anything, and that he was interested only in increasing the white market share. ‘I’m not afraid of the NAACP or any other civil rights groups picketing or boycotting our stores, because the poor Blacks are going to buy our products anyhow. They need to get to work.’”
The general economic downturn of the 1970s made it hard for Miller and his team to hold onto the few sponsors they did have. In 1975 Viceroy’s struggles with sales forced management to lay off workers. When word got out that the company was still spending money sponsoring a Black racing team, employees threatened to strike, believing that the money could be better used rehiring laid-off employees. Forced to make a choice, management sided with the workers and ended BAR’s sponsorship. Miller felt the company’s capitulation “pushed Black racing development back 20 years.”
Despite these setbacks, Miller and BAR continued racing—and winning—into the early 1980s. At this time, Miller switched from Indy series races to NASCAR, in part due to monetary reasons, but also in response to NASCAR’s growing popularity. On the track, they still had to grapple with overt racism from fans and track owners, who insulted them with racist slurs and, at key moments, refused to acknowledge their victories. Although BAR’s car won the New Jersey Sportsman’s race in 1980, a victory that qualified them to compete in the New York State Fair’s race later that year, track officials denied them the win. Miller recalled how the raceway's owner hurled racial slurs at him, refusing him the opportunity to "represent our track." Slurs came from the crowd as well, as white fans chanted against BAR's victory.
These constant assaults exhausted Miller and his BAR teammates, and the organization ended up disbanding in 1981. After taking a short break from racing, Miller returned to the sport, forming BDM Racing Inc. in 1989 with two other Black entrepreneurs, race car builder Bruce Driver and contractor Herb Jones. Racial pride had always been a centerpiece of BAR’s branding, but with their new organization, Miller and his cofounders decided to chart a new course. As Miller explains, “The idea was to move away from advertising that gives importance to racial identification. With the country becoming more conservative, the name Black American Racers, Inc. was now becoming a liability.”
Although BDM Racing Inc. enjoyed some moderate success in the Northeast racing circuit during the early 1990s, Miller’s son Leonard “Lenny” Jr., now a part of the organization, thought that a move to the South would benefit the team. In 1994 the Millers formed the Miller Racing Group (MRG) and continued their attack on NASCAR’s tireless racial bias.
Lenny Miller Jr. picked up where his father left off. He examines the story of NASCAR’s corporate sponsorship bias in his own book, Racing While Black: How an African American Stock Car Team Made Its Mark on NASCAR. As he recalled, during a meeting about MRG’s pilot NASCAR program, a Black GM executive warned, “[T]here aren’t black folks around this environment, you’re dealing with good ol’ boys. It’s dangerous.” In 2000, NASCAR started its Diversity Council to provide internships for minorities through all levels of racing. Although the organization did provide connections with potential sponsors, Len recounts:
“The Diversity Council never included Miller Racing in its master plan. In fact, many of its programs, most notably 2004’s ballyhooed Drive For diversity campaign, lured black drivers away from our teams and placed them with white-owned teams.”
MRG did land Dr. Pepper as their sponsor and had brief success in the 2nd tier of NASCAR’s circuit. MRG won the Coastal Plains Speedway championship in 2001, becoming the first Black owned team to win a NASCAR track championship since NASCAR's inception in 1948. After winning, Leonard Sr. told his son:
“Wendell Scott was declared a winner in 1963, but he wasn’t awarded a trophy until all the fans were long gone. In 2001, we’re going home as winners with our trophy in front of the fans. We’re starting to make some progress.”
The Millers and other early Black pioneers of racing experienced bigotry on many fronts, and these barriers made it almost impossible for them to secure a place in their chosen sport. Despite the Millers’ ultimate victories on the track and their positive impact on the profession, they were still burdened by a lack of funding and support from governing officials, which eventually convinced them to leave racing altogether. Their last three years of racing at Old Dominion Speedway were the most satisfying for the Millers. In Lenny Miller’s book Racing While Black, he described what his team experienced on the raceway during those final years:
“From the grandstands to the pits, there wasn’t a rebel flag in sight. The attempt at an inclusive atmosphere worked, as families of all shades and backgrounds sat alongside each other on Saturday nights and cheered on their favorite drivers.”
The experiences of the Millers and other Black racers raise important questions about how sports can address past harm and achieve equity, and about who is responsible for driving those changes. As the quote above suggests, strides are being made. Diversity programs for drivers in NASCAR and other leagues are a start, but with a significant number of officials and fans holding onto a "good ole boy" mentality, auto racing has a long way to go before all Black racing teams are readily accepted into the mainstream of motorsports.
Jane Rogers is a curator in the Division of Cultural and Community Life.