March 2, 2010
… Bechtel paints an excellent portrait of these colorful racers and their Scotch-Irish culture, in which Rebel flags are not rare. So why on Earth were Leonard W. Miller, founder of Miller Racing, and his son, Leonard T. Miller — successful, educated members of the black elite — obsessed with NASCAR racing? It’s a question that perplexed their fellow African Americans, who regarded their quest as “a suicide mission into the country’s deepest pockets of racism.”
We discover in Leonard T. Miller’s moving memoir, “Racing While Black,” that socially, the Millers were notches above the other drivers. “At uppity African-American cocktail parties I sometimes attended with my father,” Miller writes, “guests couldn’t understand why we would invest thousands of dollars into something that could be destroyed in a moment’s notice.”
Although Miller and his father were anomalies, they loved stock cars as much as the next good ol’ boy. “Auto racing is in my blood,” writes Miller, who graduated from Morehouse College and is a commercial airline pilot. “I was drawn to the ear-piercing clamor, the cottony trains of exhaust, and the smell of rubber being singed by the asphalt.” His father had fallen in love with cars as a mechanic in the Army at Fort Bragg, where he felt a sense of camaraderie with his fellow soldiers that transcended race.
Many of the wild men from Bechtel’s book reappear here, but we encounter another side of racing. We meet Tom Rice, a black stock-car driver with NASCAR aspirations, who always took pains not to sit too close to Crystal, his white wife. Tom and Crystal, an “outstanding mechanic,” shared the Millers’ dream.
… Ultimately, however, the sponsorships were not enough for the Millers to attain their dream. Several potential supporters were afraid to ally themselves with an African American outfit. … Despite it all, Miller has written a generous book.