To celebrate our new paperback edition of Racing While Black: How an African-American Stock Car Team Made Its Mark on NASCAR by Leonard T. Miller and Andrew Simon, published today, we're proud to share the brand new introduction by Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation and author of The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World, publishing with The New Press in September 2021.
Introduction by Dave Zirin
The story you are about to read in Racing While Black: How an African-American Stock Car Team Made Its Mark on NASCAR by Leonard T. Miller and Andy Simon is the continuation of Silent Thunder: Breaking Through Cultural, Racial, and Class Barriers in Motorsports by Lenny’s father, Black Sports Hall of Famer Leonard W. Miller. Those words, “silent thunder,” apply to both father and son. Leonard T. Miller, as one would expect from someone familiar with high-speed stock cars, keeps his cool while telling stories that shake the earth. And Lenny Jr. continues the story in that same epic style, keeping his cool in the face of near-constant adversity. Check out the cover portrait of the two of them with the car they started out with, and the joy, innocence, and optimism apparent on both their faces, father and son, each hopeful for the journey ahead.
In this book, you will learn of a Black driver who was purposely crashed into and whose life was endangered because his white opponent said, “I’ll never let a n****r beat me in any race.” You will learn about the Millers’ win at Coastal Plains Speedway in Jacksonville, North Carolina—a win that almost sparked a race riot.
You will also learn about the highly racialized but ever so vital world of sponsorships. So much about financial survival in the racing world revolves around the brands that adorn cars, and competition for them can be as brutal as any race. For the Millers, the journey toward sponsorships, because of racism, has been filled with more pitfalls than the Daytona 500. When it appeared that they were going to land General Motors, the GM executive facilitating the deal wanted his name to remain secret. Another GM exec tried to warn the Millers off racing, saying, “There aren’t black folks around this environment. You’re dealing with good ol’ boys. It’s dangerous.” This wasn’t in some Jim Crow past. It was the 1990s.
You will also learn how, when they did get the GM sponsorship, it was for a piddling $25,000. The executives at GM treated the Millers and their driver Chris Woods more like they were part of a minstrel show than a serious racing team. They even wanted to dress Chris Woods up as kind of a Black Dale Earnhardt.
Then toward the end of the book, you’ll learn of their triumph in securing sponsorship by Dr. Pepper. That, however, took the efforts of none other than Rev. Jesse Jackson. It took a civil rights intervention just to get the Millers their due.
Yet, as you read, you’ll see that once they achieved their goals and literally changed the complexion of NASCAR racing, both their drivers quit on them, then Dr. Pepper walked away, and finally NASCAR dropped its diversity initiative. They were back to square one, but they never gave up, and their tenacity in the face of racism is the spine of what you are about to read.
When NASCAR’s Bubba Wallace drove his stock car in 2020 with the words “Black Lives Matter” emblazoned along the side, it was a staggering development at the collision of sports and politics. In the aftermath of the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, we saw athletes protest in the worlds of basketball, baseball, soccer, tennis, and even hockey. But in none of those sports—not even the country club sport of tennis—was it as bracing as when Bubba Wallace, a Black American, decided to bring this slogan and sentiment into the world of NASCAR.
The reasons should be obvious to anyone who has even a passing interest in sports. There are few athletic endeavors as conservative, as white, or as Dixie-southern as NASCAR. A competitor like Bubba Wallace is making a political statement through his very existence by even taking to the track. By driving with that slogan, Wallace was doing nothing less than challenging NASCAR to reckon with itself.
But Bubba Wallace has done far more than just drive his car with a slogan. He was central to a campaign to further confront the sport’s Dixie roots, compelling NASCAR to remove the Confederate flag from its racing venues. There are few symbols more identified with NASCAR than the Stars and Bars. To see the sport finally assent to history and call for its removal was a shock to the system, as if pizza parlors were being removed from New York City.
In a statement as astonishing and unexpected as anything we’ve seen in sports since maybe 1947, the racing league said,
The presence of the confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry. Bringing people together around a love for racing and the community that it creates is what makes our fans and sport special. The display of the Confederate flag will be prohibited from all NASCAR events and properties.
We should be perfectly clear about what this represents. This about-face against decades of history in what has been a citadel of white supremacy only took place because of the mass movements in the streets for Black lives. As Confederate monuments toppled around the country, NASCAR decided to do by choice what ultimately—through the loss of sponsors and targeted protest—would have been done for them. It also happened because Bubba Wallace—as well as white drivers acting in solidarity—challenged the organization to make the flag a relic of its history instead of a defining logo.
That NASCAR even became this exemplar of a white, deeply conservative sport is extremely at odds with the origins of race car driving in this country. NASCAR has its roots with bootleggers who were juicing up their engines to outrun the cops and the Ku Klux Klan, many of whom were interchangeable. The Klan were strong believers in prohibition (and ready to enforce it with violence), often people with political and financial power in their communities, and the stock car bootleggers were true rebels. Not in the traitorous Confederate sense, but in the style of rabble-rousing nonconformity. The KKK and the police wanted to bring them to heel, but the bootleggers were having none of it. The original stock car drivers, one could certainly argue, had more in common with the white folks in the streets in the summer of 2020 calling for Black lives to matter than they did with the seething, backward-liking, Confederate-flag-waving Trump supporters who have been the backbone of NASCAR’s business for so many decades.
The bootlegging history of stock car racing is just one part of a hidden history of a sport only now coming to grips with its recent history, a history soaked in white supremacy. NASCAR grew to astounding heights first during the Black Freedom Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and then reached an entirely new level of financial and international success in the 1990s, for a time capturing ratings second only to those of football. Its growth was a reaction to “mainstream” sports like baseball, basketball, and football. These sports—as opportunities opened up—became centered around Black and brown athletes and, albeit with glacially slow progress, Black coaches and executives. This was NASCAR’s time to shine.
But NASCAR also grew in a climate that was shifting the tectonic plates of this country well beyond the sports world. As Black people claimed more political power in this country, and as the modern right wing grew in size and influence, NASCAR became an oasis of whiteness. Its business model depended upon it. As one NASCAR official said, “We have a collection of personalities that people can relate to. They don’t seem to be genetic freaks. The 370-pound football linemen, seven-foot-six basketball centers and steroid-pumped home-run hitters look nothing like anyone the average couch potato has ever encountered. Meanwhile, NASCAR drivers look like the guy next door.” Depends on where you live, I suppose.
And yet there has always been this nagging counter-history—a people’s history—of stock car racing that neither whitewashes the past nor ignores the trailblazers like Leonard T. and Lenny W., who did the hard work early on that decades later delivered us to Bubba Wallace feeling like he could assert his humanity in hostile environs. Critical to understanding that history are the incisive perspective and rollicking story of Leonard T. Miller and his efforts as a Black American to start a NASCAR team.
Racing While Black is critical to our understanding of the present of not only NASCAR but our whole sports world. It gives a view of NASCAR from an angle unseen and unknown to the wider world of either auto racing or sports in general. If you want to understand NASCAR in its holistic entirety, if you want to understand what racism looks like in the modern sports world, and if you want to understand this curious sport, from the undeniable adrenaline to the dirty underbelly, here is where you start.
Featuring a new introduction by David Zirin
Starting a NASCAR team is hard work. Starting a NASCAR team as an African American is even harder. These are just a few of the lessons learned by Leonard T. Miller during his decade and a half of running an auto racing program. Fueled by more than the desire to win, Miller made it his goal to create opportunities for black drivers in the vastly white, Southern world of NASCAR. Racing While Black chronicles the travails of selling marketing plans to skeptics and scraping by on the thinnest of budgets, as well as the triumphs of speeding to victory and changing the way racing fans view skin color. With his father—former drag racer and longtime team owner Leonard W. Miller—along for the ride, Miller journeys from the short tracks of the Carolinas to the boardrooms of the "Big Three" automakers to find out that his toughest race may be winning over the human race.
“...the exhilarating and fascinating story of how the Miller Racing Group, an auto-racing team started by Leonard's father, Leonard W. Miller, became the first black-owned team to win a NASCAR track championship. Miller and Simon give you a firsthand account of all the wins and losses that come with creating a racing team, along with the extreme prejudices that minorities must overcome just to make it to the track. We follow Miller as he searches for sponsors and tries to find engine and part suppliers that won't give him sub-part equipment just because he's black. We get to see the pressure that goes along with being the only black people in an all-white world. Even more importantly, the book is a call for a better system of getting young blacks and other minorities into the world of auto racing.” —Complex
“You don't have to have motor oil running through your veins to savor the rich slice of contemporary Americana that Miller and Simon serve up—an unlikely team's journey through the grimy garages and cool corporate offices where one of the nation's fastest-growing spectator sport actually gets played. And if you are a racing freak, this is a book that tells secrets, names names and exposes the divisions that still constrict the sport.” —Amy Argetsinger, The Washington Post
"This book will help readers understand why NASCAR, unlike other major sports, remains all-white at its top level... An illuminating, action-packed journey through a little-known chapter in our country's racial history.” —Brian Donovan, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of Hard Driving: The American Odyssey of NASCAR's First Black Driver
“Making it to the big leagues of American motorsports is a nearly impossible climb. As we learn from Mr. Miller, when you're an African-American, that climb becomes Mt. Everest. That's what makes this account so important.” —Ryan McGee, ESPN