From the Archives: Remembering Racing Pioneer Charlie Wiggins
Before Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, and Willie T. Ribbs, there was a racecar driver dubbed “The Negro Speed King.”
Editor’s Note: The Indianapolis 500 wasn’t the only local race that rose to national prominence in the first quarter of the 20th century. Barred from the segregated event throughout the 1920s, black Indianapolis residents established a grand racing tradition of their own, the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes. This 100-lap, 100-mile dash for the checkered flag attracted dozens of talented drivers and thousands of fans to the Indiana State Fairgrounds, and for spectacle nearly rivaled its crosstown counterpart at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
By decisively winning the 1926 Gold and Glory Sweepstakes, Charlie Wiggins, a humble mechanic from Indy’s south side, earned the nickname “The Negro Speed King”—almost 65 years before Willie T. Ribbs would become the first black driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. In 2003, a nationally airing PBS documentary highlighted Wiggins’s achievements, and Todd Gould, who completed the research for the film, traced the legacy of the Sweepstakes’ four-time champion and greatest driver in a book published the same year, For Gold & Glory: Charlie Wiggins and the African-American Racing Car Circuit (Indiana University Press), excerpted here:
The faint rumble of thunder could still be heard in the distance. The summer storm that had pounded Indianapolis for 10 long hours throughout the night and early morning of August 7, 1926, was now subsiding. By 6:00 a.m. the last of the dark, rolling clouds had disappeared over the horizon, giving way to brilliant, pink-orange sunlight.
In the middle of a sweltering summer, the rain brought cool relief to the 15,000 African-American auto racing fans who had gathered at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. For nearly a week, they had been coming from across an eight-state region to witness the third annual running of the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes. While a lucky few found lodging in the city, most camped out near the track and weathered the storms and the oppressive heat.
Southside garage owner Charlie Wiggins felt he had something to prove that day. For three years Charlie had tweaked and tuned his racecar, the Wiggins Special, to near perfection. Lap after lap, he had made test runs at Walnut Gardens Speedway. Every part of the car had been carefully crafted to fit tightly and run smoothly. He had rebuilt the engine and had retooled the chassis. His oil tank held his own special mixture of motor oil and castor oil. His fuel tank was loaded with a low-grade airplane fuel.
As the morning sunlight streamed through the windows of the shop, Charlie gazed intently over every part and joint one final time. Lost in concentration, he almost did not hear a car horn honking outside the building. Sitting outside was his brother Lawrence, who had traveled from Evansville to watch him compete. Hopping out of an old Model T that Charlie had rebuilt for him, Lawrence helped his older brother push the Wiggins Special out of the garage. Together they carefully tied a rope to the front bumper of the racecar. Then they towed it behind the Model T 40 blocks north to the Indiana State Fairgrounds track.
The two entered the main gates of the Indiana State Fairgrounds complex and made their way to the track with the Wiggins Special in tow. Charlie was surprised to see the large number of drivers and mechanics who had gathered in the pit area. There were 59 drivers, a new Gold and Glory Sweepstakes record. All crowded into the small outdoor garage area. A nervous energy saturated the atmosphere as mechanics worked frantically on last-minute adjustments to their cars. All knew that only 20 would survive the qualifying rounds and advance to the main event. Charlie backed his brother’s Model T into the pit area and wedged his racecar into a small space provided for him by race officials. Then he lifted the hood of his Wiggins Special and began to run through his final technical checks.
As the temperature began to rise, steam hovered thick above hundreds of puddles, turning the speedway into a muggy sauna. The growing crowds, decked out in their finery, stepped carefully around the muddy spots near the ticket booth. Black veterans of the Great War wore their dress uniforms and stood at attention in the stands as a military band played patriotic numbers in a pre-race tribute. Leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who had arrived the night before from New York City, were seated alongside race officials and wore colorful ribbons bestowed on all special guests of the 1926 Gold and Glory Sweepstakes.
Chicago Defender journalist Frank Young served as the grand marshal of a special parade held prior to the big race. In the grandstand, he was seated next to members of the Chicago American Giants and the Indianapolis ABCs, two well known Negro National League baseball teams. Team owners had agreed to postpone a double-header originally scheduled for that day. Barnstorming stunt pilots performed aerial acrobatics, followed by music from the Atlanta Gospel Chorus.
Gamblers in the crowd were taking bets on the drivers. Bobby Wallace—a black Hamilton County native who was able to train unnoticed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway because of his light complexion—was a two-to-one favorite to repeat as Gold and Glory champion, having already captured one award at the Roby Speedway in northern Indiana earlier in the year. Bill Jeffries and Malcolm Hannon, the two fastest qualifiers in the preliminary heats, were also frequently picked by gamblers to capture the checkered flag.
Virtually no one noticed Charlie Wiggins. The southside mechanic and second-year competitor finished eighth in the early qualifying rounds. His Wiggins Special, the gold car built completely by his own hands and painted with a proud 23, seemed a homely creation in comparison to the powerful Indy 500–tested machines driven by competitors such as Jeffries, Bill Bottoms, and Malcolm Hannon. On a lark, Charlie painted on the side of his car a caricature of Felix the Cat, one of his favorite comic-strip characters. The sight of the cartoon cat on the side of his racer caused other drivers to dub his car “the Black Cat.” Charlie liked the name, and it stuck. Names for Charlie were as colorful as they were for his cars. The newspapers called him “Wee Charlie,” noting that his tiny stature had required him to construct a special chassis that extended the pedals and lifted the seat, so that he could guide his machine with greater ease. Bill Jeffries reportedly scoffed at Charlie’s car as the two pulled their racers to the starting line for the beginning of the showdown.
The green flag dropped. The engines roared. The adrenaline flowed. And the race was on. “Wild Bill” Jeffries, in a pure white Fronty Ford with a bold number 1 painted on the side, stormed to an early lead. The crowd sent up an enthusiastic roar. Drivers reacted to the cheers and gunned their engines at full power. Twenty high-revving, piston-pounding engines roared past the grandstand.
Charlie Wiggins kept a steady pace. Two, then five, then eight drivers passed him as he established a position on the inside of the track, just a few seconds behind the pack.
By the fortieth lap, Charlie had fallen to 10th place. And yet he continued to drive patiently … so patiently. For 12 long months Charlie had been hiding an engineering secret that he felt would ultimately give him the advantage over his fellow competitors. His secret was about to be revealed to the crowd and to the rest of the field.
Sixty laps—60 miles—into the hundred-lap race, Bill Jeffries still maintained the lead. But a sudden cheer from the Indianapolis crowd caused “Wild Bill” to look back. Charlie Wiggins, who at one time had been nearly a lap behind, was now gaining on Chicago’s premier black driving talent. For 10 laps the two drivers battled for the top spot. By lap 70, Jeffries held only a slim, one-car-length lead. In the fourth turn, Charlie finally revved his engine to full power. He overtook “Wild Bill” right in front of the grandstand. Thousands of spectators screamed.
The Chicago driver soon began to fall behind Charlie. Looking down at his gas gauge, Jeffries realized how Charlie was able to gain so much ground on the competition. Charlie had built his engine to run on a more efficient mixture of oil and airplane fuel. While other drivers needed pit stops to refuel, Charlie’s engine could go the entire distance—100 long, hot, grueling miles—without ever stopping for fuel or oil. In lap 75, Jeffries’s hard driving finally forced him into the pits for refueling. He was five laps behind Charlie by the time he reentered the track. Charlie had outmaneuvered his opponents by out-engineering them.
By the 90th lap, Charlie had coasted to an easy lead. A valiant effort by Bill Jeffries helped him gain three laps on the field, causing the crowd to stir near the finish. But in the end, Charlie Wiggins cruised across the finish line two laps ahead of Jeffries and the rest of the field to capture the 1926 Gold and Glory Sweepstakes championship. Despite efforts to restrain the crowd, police officers were unable to stop dozens of overly enthusiastic spectators from storming onto the track to congratulate their hometown hero. The Chicago Defender reported, “A wild burst of applause greeted Wiggins from his home towners, some of whom lost their heads and broke like a bunch of wild steers, women and men, running across the track, despite the yells from the cooler heads, warning them of the impending danger of getting killed, as Carter, Jeffries, Smith, and Dawson were still in the race for second, third and fourth place honors.”
Race officials remembered the deaths of two men at the Hawthorne Speedway in Chicago in 1924 in similar circumstances. Thinking quickly, Colored Speedway Association official Harry Earl grabbed the checkered flag and ran toward the fourth turn, waving the banner frantically. He successfully stopped all the remaining cars before they reached the crowd, and awarded each driver a finishing place exactly as they stood at the time he stopped the race. Second-place honors went to Ben Carter, who had led Bill Jeffries by only two seconds.
The winner’s circle was a melee of excited activity. Charlie and his wife, Roberta, smiled as photographers snapped pictures of the couple posed in Charlie’s car with the championship trophy perched on the hood. The Indianapolis Recorder noted, “Charles Wiggins, driving his own make of racing automobile, a Wiggins Special, never going to the pits for gas, water, nor oil, never stopping for tire changes and driving a steady race, won the third annual Gold and Glory Sweepstakes, which carries besides the beautiful silver cup and the large cash prize, the national dirt track championship for 100 miles. Needless to say, Indianapolis went wild, because one of her own drivers won, and also because the one that won had built his own iron steed.”
“There was a dance that night at Trinity Hall. Charlie was the man of the hour,” recalled Al Warren, a former Gold and Glory driver and friend of Wiggins’s. “They put posters up all over Indiana Avenue. Everywhere you’d go, you’d see Charlie’s picture with the title ‘National Champion.’ He was a local boy, the guy everyone in the neighborhood knew. His victory was like a victory for all of us. We could all relate to it and whoop it up, just like we’d done it ourselves.”
This excerpt originally appeared in the May 2003 issue of IM. Copies of For Gold & Glory: Charlie Wiggins and the African-American Racing Car Circuit (Indiana University Press, 2003) are available for purchase at IUPress.Indiana.edu.