Celebrating Black Talent in Professional Auto Racing: What Does it Take to Succeed?

Antron Brown
Formula One F1 – Portuguese Grand Prix – Algarve International Circuit, Portimao, Portugal – October 25, 2020 Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton celebrates after winning the race Pool via REUTERS/Jose Sena Goulao

Is this the year that Black racers become mainstream talents, rather than circulating on the fringe of the racing community? There are quite a few talented drivers in the sport – beyond seven-time Formula One World Champion Lewis Hamilton – who merit a second, third, fourth or even fifth look as they make their collective charges to the front of every grid.

Hamilton, of course, is the best known among outstanding Black drivers, the British knight finally receiving recognition from the UK’s royal family for his outstanding contributions to the sport. Who would have thought the child that McLaren’s Ron Dennis recognized for his talent early on would eclipse Michael Schumacher’s records and stand on the precipice of being the most successful F1 driver of all time?

Watching what Schumacher did with his Ferrari team, as Hamilton came through the ranks, the younger driver realized that it took more than driving exceptionally well to earn championships. Like Schumacher before him, Lewis Hamilton took the Mercedes-AMG team and melded it to to help him succeed in his quest for race wins and championships. That’s his team, not Toto Wolff’s or anyone else’s. He fashioned a squad that would go to the ends of the earth to help him, just as Michael Schumacher did with Ferrari.

What’s troubling is that Lewis Hamilton stands alone in his achievements. There isn’t another young Black racer in the pipeline to take on F1. Hamilton’s ridiculed for his fashion by those who are likely jealous of his talents, but it all comes across as rote bias. Hamilton’s work to engage more people of color and to end biases due to skin color have resonated with Formula One but still manage to pique those that don’t want to see a Black racer succeed at the pinnacle of motorsport.

Bubba Wallace
Bubba Wallace

It’s a bit early to think that Bubba Wallace is learning the same strictures in NASCAR as Hamilton has in F1, as he embarks on his second season with 23XI Racing, the team owned by NBA legend Michael Jordan and by NASCAR Cup Series standout Denny Hamlin. By earning his first victory with the team at Talladega last fall, Wallace established that this is his team and he’s ready to succeed with them. His confidence level at last weekend’s 44th annual NASCAR Busch Light Clash at The Coliseum in Los Angeles was palpable.

There were 13 drivers who didn’t make the main event, including former champions Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski. Wallace was part and parcel of that main event; everyone knew he was there. True, he finished 18th in the No. 23 DoorDash Toyota and was four laps down from the leaders on a quarter-mile racetrack, but that was after much bumping, banging and very close quarters. He dealt with a tire rubbing and there was smoke trailing after both East and West turns. Wallace raced well simply to get into the show; he started 20th and made up two spots; team co-owner Hamlin’s issues relegated him to the final, 23rd finishing position.

It’s significant that Michael Jordan is involved in this team; many Black superstars have had their involvement in racing teams but it’s clear that Jordan believes this squad has the goods to move forward and succeed in a very tough sport. Walter Payton at one time was part of INDYCAR’s Dale Coyne Racing and tried his hand at the sport. No doubt it was the competition that called him; no doubt it’s the competition that called Jordan, but the basketball hero definitely has a better business acumen that did Payton.

Of course before Bubba there was Wendell Scott. And there was Bill Lester, who has competed in IMSA, winning a GT race at Virginia International Raceway, as well as competing in NASCAR’s Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series. Lester raced for more than a decade in NASCAR and IMSA, is trained as an electrical engineer and computer scientist, but never gave up on his childhood dream of racing. His book, “Winning in Reverse” was released in February of 2021. And is now in its second printing, confirming that Bill’s story resonates with readers.

Right now there isn’t a Black racer in INDYCAR but there soon could be, as Ernie Francis Jr begins his Indy Lights career in 2022. The most successful Trans-Am driver of all time, with his seven championships, Francis was tabbed by Black-run Force Indy to lead that team into the Indy Lights arena and, perhaps, into INDYCAR. This 24-year-old has been successful in every aspect of the sport he loves; his victory in the new SRX Series this past summer made many in the industry sit up and take notice. Maybe that’s how he got the ride with Force Indy?

While Myles Rowe won for Force Indy in the USF2000 series at New Jersey Motorsports Park last August, there have been only two Black racers, to date, who have competed in the Indianapolis 500 in its more than 100 years. Willy T Ribbs was first and is widely known for his 1991 start in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, while George Mack followed 11 years later, in 2002. In the paddock, one can find a few Black mechanics and helpers and, at Indy, there are some Black yellow shirt security agents. Under the supervision of Roger Penske, INDYCAR is trying, quite hard, to be more inclusive.

Antron Brown
Antron Brown

Many say that race cars are color- and gender-blind. The car doesn’t know if it’s a man, woman, someone who’s Black, White, Asian or Latin-based behind the wheel. That’s certainly the case for Antron Brown, who pretty much stumbled into Top Fuel racing after racking up wins in Pro Stock Motorcycle, first with backing from Black football player Troy Vincent and then with Don Schumacher Racing. The three Top Fuel championships Brown achieved came with Don Schumacher Racing and he has been successful in every year he’s raced with The Don.

Antron's 2022 car
Antron’s 2022 car

This year will be very different for Brown, who announced the formation of Antron Brown Motorsports – AB Motorsports – just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Lousy timing, perhaps, but gave Brown an extra year to make certain he’d formulated his team for success. The fact that his entire Brian Corradi- and Mark Oswald-led crew came with him and that his primary sponsor at DSR, Matco Tools, is along for the ride, speaks volumes. Brown has added Summit Racing Equipment in a multi-year agreement, with that red, white and blue logo featured on the canopy sides of his Matco Tools/Lucas Oil/Toyota dragster. Not well known is the fact that Summit’s been with Brown from his start in the NHRA’s Jr. Dragster program.

Brown’s long-term goals for his eponymous team is to “help and support other teams to achieve their goals. If we all grow, the sport grows together,” he has said. He’d like to see AB Motorsports become a multi-car organization once it is fully established. After making technical strides to the close of the 2021 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series campaign, Brown is focused this year on staying competitive in what looks to be a very thick field in Top Fuel.

Tom Hammonds
Tom Hammonds

While Brown was still contesting Pro Stock Motorcycle, the Pro Stock car class had former hoops standout Tom Hammonds competing in the mid-2000s. While he wasn’t as successful as he’d hoped Hammonds still competes, albeit not in NHRA competition. And who can forget Reggie Flowers’ success on motorcycles, racing with prosthetics after losing both legs below the knee in an electrical accident?

All black drag racers owe a measure of their successes to Malcolm Durham, No. 48 in NHRA’s Top 50 Drivers of All Time. Durham started racing in the 1950s with a 255-horsepower 1956 Chevy. Nicknamed “Strip Blazer” for his 1963 Chevy Impala of the same name, Durham was one of the more successful racers of his day.

Will there be more successful Black racers in the primary series contested in the United States? That depends on whether they can use the templates of the drivers named above to gain financial backing because, as we all know, racing doesn’t run on fuel, oil or any other consumables; it requires money.

About Anne Proffit 1248 Articles
Anne Proffit traces her love of racing - in particular drag racing - to her childhood days in Philadelphia, where Atco Dragway, Englishtown and Maple Grove Raceway were destinations just made for her. As a diversion, she was the first editor of IMSA’s Arrow newsletter, and now writes about and photographs sports cars, Indy cars, Formula 1, MotoGP, NASCAR, Formula Drift, Red Bull Global Rallycross - in addition to her first love of NHRA drag racing. A specialty is a particular admiration for the people that build and tune drag racing engines.