ON THIS DAY | Hall of Famer Charlie Wiggins Was Born — Petersen Automotive Museum



By: Ian Cooper-Smith

On July 15, 1897, Charlie Wiggins was born to a working class family in Evansville Indiana, where he spent his childhood shining shoes and working on cars in a local auto repair shop in the early 1900s. It was said that even at a young age, Wiggins could identify the make and model of cars simply by the sounds they made as they passed by. He would go on to make history defying discriminatory racial laws and forging a path for African Americans in the Motor racing industry.

During the Great War (1914-1918) as his fellow white workers were drafted into the armed forces, Wiggins rose to the position of chief mechanic before moving to Indiana in 1922 as part of the Great Migration (1910-1970) where he purchased his own garage and began pursuing a career in motor racing. During his time as a mechanic, Wiggins decided to build his own race car which he nicknamed “the Wiggins Special.” Forbidden from participating in the segregated Indy 500 on account of his race, Wiggins and other African American drivers formed their own racing league: “The Colored Speedway Association” (CSA) 1924 – 1936. In their first debut race in 1924, they drew a fan base of approximately 12,000. Although he kept up with the frontrunners in his first race, he ended the event with engine failure, however, determined to win, Wiggins entered a full CSA season in 1926. During the 1926 season, he won the Gold and Glory race decidedly by two laps, partly thanks to his uniquely fuel-efficient engine that he had engineered to run on a combination of engine oil and Avgas, an aviation fuel used in aircraft. 

Over the course of his racing career, Charlie Wiggins was crowned champion four times driving hand-me-down junkyard Indy cars he built himself. His dominance during this period was such that popular media outlets dubbed him the “Negro Speed King.” In 1934, Wiggins’ reputation as a racer and a mechanic landed him a spot on the Boyle Products race team in the 1934 Indianapolis 500. The raceway’s rigid segregation laws relegated Wiggins to a janitorial role, however, to get around the laws, Wiggins agreed to sweep and clean during the day, then work with the pit crew preparing the car at night. That year the Boyle Products race team under Bill Cummings won the Indy 500, however, despite playing a crucial role in engineering the winning car, Wiggins was not allowed to stand in Victory Lane with his fellow crewmates. Two years later his racing career came to a tragic end when he was caught up in a 13 car collision at the 1936 Gold and Glory event, he sustained serious injuries that resulted in the amputation of his right leg and the loss of his right eye. Wiggins never fully recovered from his injuries, but nonetheless continued repairing and building cars for the next 40 years. He subsequently used his fame as a platform to speak out against segregation in motor racing and the American Automobile Association, this quickly made him a target of the Ku Klux Klan. Throughout his career Klan members damaged his garage and attacked him on a number of occasions, however, Wiggins was not deterred and remained steadfast in his pursuit of equity and black excellence in racing until his death in 1972.


Charlie Wiggins | Automotive Hall of Fame, www.automotivehalloffame.org/honoree/charlie-wiggins/.



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