He possessed an uncommon talent, as attested to by his era’s most eminent racers, and captured dozens of racing victories, yet Charlie Wiggins is virtually unknown today.
Wiggins never got the chance to display his considerable ability against the best because, like Satchel Paige in baseball, he came along at a time when he was restricted by his race.
Tagged the “Negro Speed King” by the press, Charles Edwin Wiggins was born in Evansville, Ind., in 1897. When he was 11 years old, he encountered a life-altering event when his mother died.
Kids then were expected to carry their own weight and when his coalminer father couldn’t support Wiggins and his siblings, he struck out on his own. He opened a shoeshine stand outside the Benninghoff and Noland Garage and soon became enamored with the cars, the mechanics and the noisy work in the shop.
Whenever he got a break from shining shoes, he’d shyly stick his head in the door and observe. He got braver and eventually became so popular with the mechanics that he was hired as an apprentice.
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Making the most of the opportunity, Wiggins worked his way up to lead mechanic with a crew of white mechanics working for him — a unique situation for that time.
In 1917, he moved to Indianapolis to secure more lucrative employment. He found a job in a shop and gained such a reputation that when the owner retired, he sold the business to Wiggins.
Auto racing captivated Wiggins. Regrettably, there was little opportunity because African-Americans and whites didn’t mix in most endeavors, including auto racing.
In 1924, however, a group of businessmen/sportsmen formed the Colored Speedway Ass’n, a circuit intended solely for African-American drivers. Wiggins wanted in.
Having little money, he gathered spare pieces and junkyard parts, and with a lot of ingenuity Wiggins cobbled together a little car with which he dominated the CSA.
Just how good was he compared to the AAA stars of that time? In October 1927, he won a 100-mile dirt track race in Quakertown, Pa., at 81.6 mph. A week earlier, 1926 Indianapolis 500 winner Frank Lockhart, driving the best Miller money could buy, set a dirt-track record of 82.8 mph. Wiggins was a mere one mph slower in his homebuilt Wiggins Special.
Wiggins attracted so much attention to the CSA that a group of Indianapolis businessmen created a 100-mile championship event with a large purse to take advantage of the CSA’s popularity.
The inaugural Gold and Glory Sweepstakes was run before a sold-out crowd at the famed Indiana State Fairgrounds mile in 1924, attracting 60 cars from all over the country.
Wiggins didn’t have his car ready for the event but entered the second running of the race and won the third Gold and Glory in 1926. Displaying his mechanical ingenuity, he developed a fuel mixture so potent that at the finish he was two laps ahead of second place.
Wiggins won three more G&Gs. His renown grew to the point that racing’s best took notice. Harry McQuinn, 1934 Indianapolis 500 winner Bill Cummings, Babe Stapp and Bob Carey all admired his uncanny talent behind the wheel, and many called on him to help prepare their cars.
They recognized that Wiggins could compete on their level, but even they couldn’t scale the racial barriers of that time.
McQuinn once asked Wiggins if he could borrow one of his cars to compete at a race in Louisville. Wiggins agreed, with one condition. He asked to warm up the car beforehand.
Unable to compete against the leading drivers, Wiggins at least wanted to experience running on one of their tracks. McQuinn readily agreed, but when spectators saw an African-American driver in the car there was a near riot.
Wiggins’ last race was the 1936 Gold and Glory Sweepstakes. He was involved in a 13-car accident that cost him his right leg and his right eye.
His story is a bittersweet one. Unable to compete at the highest level as he so longed to do, he still doggedly pursued racing and capitalized on the few opportunities made available to him.
His efforts inspired others to chase their own dreams despite the severe odds they might encounter.
“Race on,” he would tell them. And Charlie Wiggins did.