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Atlanta racers were racial pioneers

IF YOU GO

What: Sixth NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony

When: Jan. 30

Where: Charlotte, N.C.

Inductees: Bill Elliott, Fred Lorenzen, Wendell Scott, Joe Weatherly and Rex White

Admission: Ticket range are $45 for general induction ceremony seats

Next month, the late Wendell Scott, a pioneering NASCAR driver from Danville, Va., will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C.

Scott was the first black driver to compete regularly in NASCAR’s elite division. He ran 495 races from 1961-73, winning once, at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Fla., on Dec. 1, 1963.

While Scott’s career and his accomplishments are well-known to most in the racing world, the same can’t be said for the black racers who preceded him.

Their story is all but forgotten.

Their organization was called the Atlanta Stock Car Club. From the late 1940s through the mid-50s, the league of black drivers raced at their home track in Lithonia and also at tracks across the Southeast, including in Calhoun, Jefferson, Augusta, Thomaston and Chattanooga, Tenn.

The star drivers included the Muckle brothers, George and Ben, Richard “Red” Kines, Charlie Scott, Arthur “The Decatur Express” Avery, Robert “Juckie” Lewis, James “Suicide” Lacey and Joe Daniels.

They raced in front of grandstands packed with several thousand black fans even before NASCAR was formed in 1948. They also ran in front of white fans at times, but the races almost always were segregated as far as the drivers who raced.

The exploits of the black racers weren’t widely publicized at the time, but they were well-documented in the pages of the Atlanta Daily World, a newspaper for Atlanta’s blacks. The paper also carried advertisements for and stories about races at predominately white tracks such as Atlanta’s Peach Bowl, where the promoters welcomed black fans throughout that track’s existence.

The racers got prominent play in the Daily World.

A victory by Red Kines in a Sunday afternoon race at Thomaston in August 1947 was the lead story on the next day’s sports page.

The story reported that Kines, a former football star at Washington High and a U.S. Postal Service employee, drove a ’39 Ford known as the “Burger Special No. 1” to victory.

Racing historian Mike Bell from Decatur is among the few who know the full history of black stock-car racing.

Bell, as a 17-year-old, was in the infield at Jacksonville to witness Scott’s historic win. He also has done extensive research on the Atlanta Stock Car Club.

Bell said the early black drivers were plenty talented, even if their equipment often wasn’t equal to their skills.

He pointed out that Atlanta Stock Car Club member Charlie Scott, no relation to Wendell Scott, rode his racing talents into the history books as the first black to compete in the series now known as Sprint Cup. In 1956, Scott drove a Chrysler owned by Carl Kiekhaefer, the dominant car owner of that era, in the sport’s biggest race of the year — on the beach-road course at Daytona. He started 19th and finished 14th in a field of 80. Scott’s teammates that day were Tim and Fonty Flock, Buck Baker and Speedy Thompson — all major stars of that era.

“There are a lot of people who believed Charlie Scott was the best of the black racers,” Bell said.

Despite the fast start, and the potential of drivers such as the Muckle brothers and Charlie Scott, the black racing league faded away in the late 1950s after a strong 10-year run.

Bell believes the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, which struck down the “separate but equal” policies on schools, was a factor in the demise of racially separate racing.

“That’s when it all died,” he said.

And as an historian, Bell finds it unfortunate and frustrating that a group of brave pioneers blazed a trail only to see that trail lost to time.

“Those guys did a heck of a lot for little recognition at the time, and they’re still not getting any recognition today,” he said. “And that’s a shame.”