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Charlie Wiggins, all but forgotten legend of auto racing
|Written by SETH GRUNDHOEFER, Madison Courier|
|Monday, 05 March 2012 14:45|
MADISON, Ind. (AP) – Not long after the running of the first Indianapolis 500, a less-known racing event in Indiana made its way to the starting line. The event was called the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes, an exclusively African American event that began as a 100-mile race on a dirt track at the Indiana state fairgrounds.
The race, which eventually became a national event, began in the 1920s and ended in the mid-1930s. But for decades, the history of the race was unknown. The old trophies and pictures had been stuffed away in boxes, and the heroic feats and stories of the young drivers were known only by close family members.
Todd Gould, the writer and producer of the documentary For Gold and Glory, spoke about working to uncover the details behind the historic event last week at the Village Lights Bookstore. The speech was the final Black History Month lecture sponsored by local organizations and businesses.
The film, which has received eight Emmys, premiered in 2003. Gould published a book under the same title.
The book and film chronicle the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes and the life of Charlie Wiggins, a shoe shiner turned auto mechanic. During the age of escalating segregation, Wiggins ran an auto repair shop in Indianapolis and later became a race car builder and driver in the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes. At the time, black and white drivers were not allowed to race in the same league.
Gould found Wiggins' name after receiving a tip from a driver's relative and researching countless articles published in black newspapers of the time. The story opened up even more after Gould tracked down and interviewed Wiggins' wife, Roberta, and a relative who attended the races.
Through the interviews, Gould discovered the story of not only a top driver and mechanic in the African American circuit, but one who was respected by Indianapolis 500 drivers of the era. In some cases, many early Indy drivers considered Wiggins one of the best mechanics around, he said.
"He was so well-known and respected that noted Indianapolis 500 drivers began coming around and hanging out with this guy," Gould said. "And he would actually advise them on how to build their cars. In fact, the 1934 Indy 500 champion, Bill Cummins, credited Charlie for building what he called the 'Wiggins Special' to help him win the race."
The Gold and Glory Sweepstakes lasted until 1936, when during a race several drivers were involved in a devastating crash shortly after the opening flag. Wiggins was critically injured, losing a leg.
"That was not only Charlie's last race, it was the last race for the circuit as well," Gould said. "So we don't know how much longer it could have gone or who the next Charlie Wiggins might have been. Or who knows, maybe in 10 years, we could have seen something like what Jackie Robinson did in baseball."
After his racing career, Wiggins fashioned himself a wooden leg and continued to work on cars until his death in 1979. Wiggins died penniless and was buried in an unmarked grave.
Shortly after the documentary premiered, it caught the attention of historians across the nation. As a result, Gould said, an anonymous donor provided $10,000 for a headstone and statue for Wiggins, who is buried at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis. In addition, many of the old trophies and photos uncovered during the filming of the documentary were donated to area museums.
"That's where they belong," Gould said. "I was really excited and happy for the families and that we could help find the story and help preserve it."
Todd Gould's book For Gold and Glory is available from Indiana University Press, www.iupress.indiana.edu or phone 800-842-6796.
Copyright 2012 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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|Last Updated on Monday, 05 March 2012 17:08|