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The Black American Racers Association Walked So Force Indy Could Run


Illustration for article titled The Black American Racers Association Walked So Force Indy Could Run

Photo: Smithsonian

Back in 1972, four men developed something called the Black American Racers Association. Leonard W. Miller, Ron Hines, Eugene Gadson, and Charles Singleton recognized that the accomplishments of Black racers in automotive and racing fields were criminally ignored when considering the scope of racing history. BARA wanted to give those members of the racing community their time in the spotlight—and to help develop future Black talent in motorsport.

Black racers were often barred from competing in high-level racing events; there were generally unwritten “gentlemen’s rules” that dictated only white men should be allowed to participate. Despite that, drivers like Rajo Jack, Wendell Scott, Joie Ray, and Elias Bowdry (among others) managed to not only get on the track but show their worth as competitors. But in an era where racing coverage was slim and folks didn’t have access to a world of information at their fingertips, these men didn’t earn much more than local recognition.

BARA’s membership fee at the time was about $10 (but a lifetime membership was $100), and at one point, the organization is said to have had 5,000 members. The goal was to use that money to do what BARA could for Black racers, be it field teams, offer a bit of sponsorship, and essentially prime the next generation of Black success.

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In 2017, though, the organization got the broad recognition it couldn’t quite nab during its tenure; a massive donation meant the Smithsonian National Museum of American History could host a collection. From Smithsonian Magazine:

The donation consisted of ephemera used during the team’s early history, beginning in the early 1970s and ending in 2006. From Miller’s racing awards and trophies to a vibrant, yellow jacket and other memorabilia, the collection holds items that offer an exclusive look at the turbulent and sometimes dangerous path these racers pioneered.

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Leonard W. Miller recounted in that same article how animosity grew toward BARA. White folks weren’t terribly keen on desegregating their sport. The Black community didn’t want Miller and co. to keep agonizing the members of a “white man’s sport.”

Unfortunately, the organization wasn’t long lived. BARA ceased operation in 1978. Member Tommy Thompson died in a race that year, and it put a damper on the organization. And while Miller continued entering drivers into stock car events, BARA remained dormant, and interest faded.

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Other organizations dedicated to increasing Black participation in racing have popped up since then, like the African American Racers Association, but one of the most promising efforts so far has been Force Indy, the all-Black USF2000 team fielded by Roger Penske. The team may not be embedded in a high level of motorsport, but its goal of running an entirely black team—from engineers to drivers to media personnel—can trace its roots back to BARA. And it’s a damn good thing to see.

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