Heavyweight Champ at IMS Stirs Controversy

Heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, the first African-American to hold that title, was a controversial figure in America in the early 20th Century. After beating up on all comers (including Jim Jeffries dubbed "The Great White Hope" the former boxing champion that came out of retirement to challenge Johnson in an unsuccessful effort in 1910) Johnson was scorned by virtually all of white America. Mortified that a black man could reign supreme over white athletes was unbearable for a nation that could only be considered openly racist in 1910.
I have made a study of Johnson, especially since I realized that he took an interest in auto racing during this period. Uncommonly wealthy for a black man at the time, Johnson had the money to acquire fast automobiles and enjoyed hot rodding through towns in the country. He began to believe he had what it took to be a race driver and one example of this is attempt to enter the September 1910 race meet at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as discussed in this article from the July 21, 1910 Indianapolis News.
In this article Carl Fisher - who many believe to be an uncommonly enlightened man when it came to race relations - was entertaining the idea of making an exhibition run by Johnson part of the card of events in September. This met with immediate protest from Buick drivers Louis Chevrolet and Bob Burman, both expressing the view that they would never share the same track with Johnson. They threatened to boycott if Johnson was allowed to drive.
Interestingly, the entire Buick team boycotted the September meet, but not because of Johnson. After being disqualified after the fact from the July races and having all their results - which included several race wins and even more speed records - nullified, Buick decided not to show. The article isn't even as long as what I have written here, but it is a tiny window into a darker era. Facts like these take the luster off nostalgia for a simpler time.
Johnson did make one brief foray into auto racing in an unsanctioned match race against Barney Oldfield on the Sheepshead Bay dirt track - not to be confused with the board plank speedway constructed in 1915. Oldfield easily disposed of the enthusiastic but inexperienced pugilist. Film of the contest survives today.

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