Volkswagen Group of America celebrates Black American racers
Pictured l to r: Leonard T. Miller, son of Leonard W. Miller; Dr. Benjamin Chavis, Jr., the president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association; Machelle Williams, the senior director of Diversity and Corporate Social Responsibility for VWGoA; Leonard W. Miller, founder of the Black American Racers; and Ernest Green, civil rights icon and one of the “Little Rock Nine” pose for a photo with the Super Vee. (Volkswagen Group of America)
By Darcy Kohn
In celebration of the contributions of African Americans in auto racing, the Volkswagen Group of America (VWGoA) welcomed the Black American Racers (BAR) to Volkswagen’s headquarters in Herndon, Va., for an inspiring “Lunch and Learn” and the reveal of the team’s newly-refurbished Formula Super Vee race car.
Leonard W. Miller, the first African American motorsport owner to have a team compete in the Indianapolis 500, was among the special guests at the event. Miller’s BAR team was founded in 1972, the same year he began the Black American Racers Association (BARA) to give recognition to African American racing drivers, mechanics, car owners and sponsors of African Americans in motorsports.
Miller’s racing team fielded cars for African American driver Benny Scott in the Volkswagen Gold Cup Super Vee Series throughout the mid-1970s. During its heyday, BAR was ranked within the top 60 racing teams in the world.
Machelle Williams, the senior director of Diversity and Corporate Social Responsibility for the Volkswagen Group of America, kicked off the program, welcoming colleagues and BAR guests to the “Lunch and Learn.” Sean Maynard, the consumer events coordinator for Volkswagen Marketing, followed with a brief history of African American racing in the U.S. and discussed Volkswagen’s involvement.
“It was so inspiring to hear the story of these automotive pioneers, and to know that Volkswagen was a part of their groundbreaking achievement was especially rewarding,” Williams said.
Leonard W. Miller headlined the “Lunch and Learn” and told incredible stories from his racing days, discussed the inspiration behind his work, and relived the day when Benny Scott be-came the first African American driver to set the fastest qualifying time in a professional auto race—putting his Formula Super Vee on pole at Laguna Seca in 1975.
“The experience today was a historic one because this is the first time in my life that a major automotive corporation has acknowledged our achievements as a race team,” Miller said. “The story behind the team, in our VW-powered car, has never been told before and I was honored to join Volkswagen employees, along with my BAR colleagues, friends and family, to unveil the beautifully restored Black American Racers Super Vee, thanks to Volkswagen.”
Ernest Green, civil rights icon and one of the “Little Rock Nine,” also attended the event and spoke to Volkswagen employees about the Civil Rights Movement and the role African American racing played during the time. The Little Rock Nine refers to a group of nine Black students who were barred from entering an all-White high school in Little Rock, Ark., following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring segregation unconstitutional in public schools. After Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called in the state National Guard to prevent the nine students from entering the building on the first day of school, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered federal troops to escort the “Little Rock Nine” into school.
“You don’t know when you’re doing something that you’re making a mark on history,” Green said. “You’re simply there trying to win races and do the very best you can. And then you look back on it, like the folks here at Volkswagen did and Leonard did, and you’re a part of history.”
During the program, attendees also heard from Mark Gessler, the president of the Historic Vehicle Association (HVA), who discussed the exhaustive search Volkswagen and HVA conducted to find the original Super Vee race car driven by Benny Scott and the car’s importance in automotive history. Leonard T. Miller, son of BARA founder Leonard W. Miller, also previewed the new documentary, out later this year, that will tell the story of the Black American Racers and include original racing footage of the famous Super Vee. The film is based on Leonard W. Miller’s book, “Silent Thunder: Breaking Through Cultural, Racial, and Class Barriers in Motorsports.”
After the speakers, the Volkswagen Experiential Marketing team revealed the newly-refurbished Super Vee, parked in the VW Showroom. The car’s restoration was completed in two months, with every detail matching the car raced during the 1975 season. The restoration team used old race footage and rare photographs to carefully complete the project.
At the conclusion of the “Lunch and Learn,” attendees also had the opportunity to win copies of Miller’s book, “Silent Thunder: Breaking Through Cultural, Racial, and Class Barriers in Motorsports.”