There’s a tendency for motorsport fans to acknowledge that racing has historically discriminated against minorities but to not fully understand what, exactly, it takes for a person of color to break into the sport. We know there will be racism, yes, and poor treatment at the track. But Racing While Black: How an African-American Stock Car Team Made Its Mark on NASCAR by Leonard T. Miller highlights just what a fruitless task it can be from the ownership and sponsorship side of things.
Father Leonard W. Miller and son Leonard T. Miller both grew up entrenched in motorsport, so the decision to form a racing team together seemed like a no-brainer. In fact, it seemed like something they almost needed to do as a way to prove to the general motorsport community that Black men were more than capable of operating a successful team. There is, after all, a serious gap between being a driver and being the person who coordinates getting the car on track every day.
One of the first efforts at professional racing for the Millers came at Concord in North Carolina, where they attempted to broach the stock car racing scene in a notorious white-only town and track. Despite hardships and a whole lot of money being shelled out from the Millers’ personal pockets, they began to find both consistency and success.
There was just one problem. To continue operating and growing as intended, they’d need sponsorship money.
Racing While Black is one of the few books I’ve read that gave me a palpable sense of anxiety and frustration, not because of the telling of the story but because there was never really a happy ending. The Miller family was constantly seeking sponsorship and, once they were said to have it, chasing down the money that never materialized. There were so many promising meetings that never amounted to anything, and so many people who assured the Millers that big money would be forthcoming — only for those people to either leave their position, leaving the Millers high and dry, or for those people to be unable to convince their superiors that this black-owned race team was worth investing in.
And then, when things seemed to be going good, there would be other problems. Drivers who had stuck with the Millers through the worst of times would fail to show up for races, or quit, and never speak to them again, leaving the team to scramble to find an adequate driver or risk losing their shot at the big leagues in NASCAR. Crew members would let power go to their heads and start demanding that they drive the car themselves.
It was an exhausting read, but that’s the point. It was an exhausting effort for the Millers, who didn’t want to let their collective dream of fielding a NASCAR team go up in smoke.
To top it all off, the Millers’ effort eventually fizzled out because NASCAR, which had previously expressed interest in aiding a black-owned team get to the track, introduced the Drive for Diversity program. While it was a way of evaluating talent from people of color, it also essentially phased out anything but drivers, which included Miller Racing. Instead of using the program as a way to bring in more Black talent in all aspects of life, it turned Black drivers off of joining the Miller team, not when NASCAR was calling. And other series, like CART, used Miller Racing as a way to bolster its image of diversity without ever offering anything to the team in return.
It’s not a happy book, but it’s an important one. As several folks told the Millers throughout the book, they probably wouldn’t get a happy ending, but they’d pave the way for the next Black folks on the road to NASCAR. That largely seems to be what happened here. The Millers were able to build off of the work of men like Rajo Jack and Charlie Wiggins, able to get another step farther in the racing game. And they, in turn, enabled the next generation of Black drivers to have their shot in motorsport without so many people turning up their noses. That, in and of itself, is a win — but there’s still the sadness that comes with wanting to have been able to achieve more.