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The Changing Color of Racing

25 Jan, 2006 By: Erik Gruenwedel

One would be hard-pressed to find an African-American driver on the starting line at NASCAR's opening weekend of the 2006 Nextel Cup season in Daytona, Fla., next month.

But not for long. Bill Lester, an engineering graduate from UC Berkeley and former project manager at Hewlett-Packard, is competing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck series — a springboard to the Nextel Cup. Lester and black racing legends Charlie Wiggins, Joie Ray and Wendell Scott figure prominently in Black Wheels, which streets Feb. 7 ($14.99 DVD) from Razor Digital Entertainment.

Wheels is directed and narrated by venerable TV actor Tim Reid (“WKRP in Cincinnati,” “Frank's Place,” “Sister Sister” and “Simon & Simon”). It was created by producer Byron Hunter, who got idea after spending time with Lester. Subsequent research uncovered the fact that there were 20 African-American racecar drivers during the years of the Great Depression. Wheels aired originally on “Legacy of the People,” Reid's syndicated TV show that focuses on forgotten people of color throughout history. He hopes the Black Wheels DVD will gain more exposure for the series.

“We are always seeking stories mainstream history has either ignored or doesn't know much about,” said Reid, who self-financed the project. “And the history of blacks and auto racing is one such story. We know of one movie, Greased Lightning [with Richard Pryor] about [Wendell Scott], and that's about it.”

Reid said not much has been written or documented about the 80-year history of black auto racing in the United States and black racers' struggle to get recognized by NASCAR and other auto racing organizations.

The video highlights several black drivers who are active in the NASCAR circuit, which is broken down into several levels. Many of the drivers were recruited through NASCAR's Drive to Diversity program.

“There are several drivers who are amazing, and I figure to see them competing at the top level in the next few years,” Reid said.

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