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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

For Gold and Glory: Charlie Wiggins and the African-American Racing Car Circuit by Todd Gould

For racing fans of any stripe and any color

Published in 2007 by Indiana University Press

Todd Gould has written a number of articles and books on Indiana business and history. With For Gold and Glory: Charlie Wiggins and the African-American Racing Car Circuit he has addressed a fascinating time in racing history and Indiana history as well.

The main focus is Charlie Wiggins, an African-American auto mechanic originally from Evansville, Indiana who moved to Indianapolis in 1922 to take advantage of the bustling (yet segregated) cultural and business climate around Indiana Avenue. At the same time, several Indianapolis businessmen (both black and white) are looking into starting up the Colored Speedway Association (CSA), a racing division for Blacks that was to be modeled after Negro League Baseball. The hope was to demonstrate that African-Americans were fully capable of driving high-performance racecars and create a groundswell that would cause the American Automobile Association, the main sanctioning body of most races back then, to de-segregate big-time auto racing. Their main goal would be to race in the hometown Indy 500.
Charlie Wiggins (1897-1979)

The title, Gold and Glory, comes from the name of an annual race, the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes started by the CSA at the 1 mile dirt track at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis. This one mile dirt track hosted 10 'Gold and Glory' 100 mile races. Charlie Wiggins won 4 of them and earned the nickname 'Negro Speed King' in race cars of his own design and manufacture.

Gould tells about the active role the KKK played in Indiana politics in the 1920s and does a nice bit of 'parallel lives' biography with Klan leader D.C. Stephenson and Charlie Wiggins for about 50 pages in the book. He also tells about the mini-Harlem Renaissance that occurred in Indianapolis in the 1920s and the cultural life of Indy's near west-side. He also ties in a lot of basic history of the early days of auto racing - of the dangers and pitfalls of dirt track racing, of mechanics building cars in their garages, of having to tow your race car with a rope and having a young apprentice steer it while it was being towed, of race tracks being built in the middle of a cornfield for a one day event, and so on.

Gould tells the story of the CSA, Charlie Wiggins and the racial politics of the time in a near-seamless fashion. He ties it all together and leaves the reader a bit amazed. Amazed at how far we have come politically, amazed at the changes that have taken place in racing (long gone are the days of a big-time racer building his own car in his spare time) and heartened by the fact that racing really knows no color. While the sport was strictly segregated by rule, every racer and race fan knows that every advantage has to be pursued in order to win - white teams helped black teams and black teams helped white teams. Why? Because regardless of color, racers are a group unto themselves.

This is a must read for all auto racing fans, but especially for fans of the Indy 500.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on March 31, 2006.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: For Gold and Glory: Charlie Wiggins and the African-American Racing Car Circuit

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