“Negro Speed King” Charlie Wiggins’ History was Nearly “Eraced”

This is part of an eight-story series about Black men and women who have impacted the U.S. auto industry.

Long forgotten, there’s likely only one reason Charlie Wiggins isn’t as familiar a name as Al Unser, A.J. Foyt or Mario Andretti: the color of his skin.

Charlie-Wiggins-black-racer-mechanic
Charlie Wiggins was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame for his impact on racing.

The son of a coal miner, Charlie Wiggins was a force to be reckoned with during the early days of auto racing, but he was never quite able to reach the pinnacle of the sport because of the rules of his day. When he tried to tried to enter the 1920 Indianapolis 500 — which many thought he could win — he was turned down because he was black.

“He was a strong, passionate man who, until now, had been erased from automotive history,” said Ed Welburn, the auto industry’s first black head of design — for General Motors. Welburn is now working on a documentary about Wiggins’ life.

From shining shoes to fixing cars

Born on July 15, 1897, Charles Edwin Wiggins was forced to leave school at the age of 11. His mother died two years earlier and he needed to earn money to help support his father and two younger siblings. Limited in what he could do, Wiggins started shining shoes outside a car dealership near his home in Evansville, Indiana. Whenever business was slow, he’d stand by the open doors of the service department and watch.

Despite the fact that everyone at the dealership was white, Wiggins convinced the owner to bring him on as an apprentice mechanic. It helped that World War I was underway and the dealership struggled to find employees. Within a few years, Wiggins was promoted to lead technician.

At the age of 25, Wiggins moved to the state capital, Indianapolis, eventually buying a repair shop in the black community. Fascinated by racing, he began building a car of his own, the Wiggins Special, using parts scavenged from junkyards.

Gold and Glory

In 1925, he entered it in the “Gold and Glory Sweepstakes,” a 100-mile race that was the flagship event of the Colored Speedway Association.

Chuck Wiggins race pic
Wiggins built his own car to compete in races, which he dominated.

“This auto race will be recognized throughout the length and breadth of the land as the single greatest sports event to be staged annually by coloured people,” wrote Frank Young, one of the most celebrated motorsports writers of the day.  

Motorsports writer Dale Drinnon put it into broader perspective, declaring the Sweepstakes the “moral equivalent” of the Indianapolis 500.

In his first time out, Wiggins quickly found himself running with the leaders until he was knocked out of the race by an engine failure. The following year, with a new engine of his own design under the hood, Wiggins won the Gold and Glory by two full laps. And he became the force to be reckoned with on the CSA circuit, winning seven of the series’ nine events that year. He was soon to become known as the “Negro Speed King.”

In the face of Jim Crow

The Colored Speedway Association was the motorsports equivalent of the Negro Baseball League and produced its own crop of racers who, in later decades might have dominated events like the Indy 500.

Wiggins was an outspoken critic of the Jim Crow policies that dominated the era’s motorsports programs. But that, in turn, put a target on his back. He was attacked “on a number of occasions” by the Ku Klux Klan, according to the Historic Racing Association, and had his garage damaged.

Gold and Glory race
The Gold and Glory championship took place on a dirt track at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. (Photo Credit: Indiana Historical Society)

When white racer Harley McQuinn borrowed the Wiggins Special for a race, Wiggins agreed — but only if he could drive the car during practice to get it set up properly. “When the fans realised a black man was driving, they overran the pits and threatened to lynch Charlie. For his safety the Kentucky Militia arrested him for ‘speeding,’” notes the Historic Racing website.

His career on the track ended in disaster during the same event that had put Wiggins on the map. During the 1936 Gold and Glory race, another driver lost control during the second lap, triggering a 13-car pileup. Wiggins injuries cost him his right eye and the amputation of his left leg.

Behind the scenes

But Wiggins wasn’t ready to give up. Two years earlier he found his way onto the legendary “Brickyard,” the home of the Indy 500, when Bill Cummings entered the race. At the time, blacks weren’t even allowed to join the pit crew, so the Boyle Products team officially listed Wiggins as its janitor. But those who walked by the team’s garage couldn’t help but notice that it was Wiggins working as lead mechanic. Cummings narrowly won the race after leading for 57 laps.

It wouldn’t be until 1991 that a black driver, Willy T. Ribbs, would crack the race barrier and enter the Indianapolis 500.

NACTOY Trophy with Welburn
Former GM Chief Designer Ed Welburn is leading the effort to produce a documentary about Wiggins. It’s titled “Eracer.”

Wiggins continued working as a mechanic until late in his life, though he was in constant pain from his injuries. Medical bills ate up most of his savings. Married at 17, Wiggins and wife, Roberta, had three children, though all died in their infancy. But he raised another type of family, mentoring young black racers until his death at 81 on March 11, 1979.

Almost forgotten

Wiggins was buried in an unmarked grave at Crown Hill Cemetery and might have been forgotten — like many of the great black athletes from the pre-Civil Rights era.

His achievements have been resurrected by a recent book and, after a campaign by Welburn and others, the racer was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame during a ceremony last July, alongside Mong-Koo Chung, the longtime Hyundai chairman, comedian and car collector-extreme Jay Leno, and Helene Rother, one of the industry’s first female designers. The AHF also honored C.R. Patterson and son, Frederick, the founders of the country’s first — and so far only — black-owned automobile company.

Wiggins could receive even more attention in the coming years. Welburn said he was “excited and, at the same time, deeply saddened” when he learned about Wiggins, adding he “had to bring” the driver’s life to the screen. Work on the documentary, “Eraced,” is set to begin this year.

“This is an important story that needs to be told,” Penske Entertainment Corp.’s Chief Diversity Officer Willie McMillian said in a statement celebrating Wiggins’ induction into the AHF. “Charlie was a great race car driver and inspirational person whose racing career was sadly impacted by the bigotry and prejudice of the world around him. We’re looking forward to shedding light on Charlie and (wife) Roberta’s extraordinary achievements and take pride in ensuring that this true tale of remarkable racing achievements comes to life.”

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