Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Leonard W. Miller and the Black American Racers Association

February 1, 2022 Archive Insight

American auto racing traditionally has been a white, male activity. In the early 20th century, people of color were outright banned from participating in several series. After those bans were lifted, Black drivers like Wendell Scott still faced discrimination from some fans and officials, and even from some of their fellow competitors.

Several racers fought intolerance by forming their own sanctioning bodies and sponsoring their own contests. Others worked within the existing system. They created associations to support marginalized drivers and teams, and to recognize the achievements of groundbreaking Black racers who had come before. Few people did as much for the cause as Leonard W. Miller, racing team owner and co-founder of the Black American Racers Association.

Page with text and image of car
Leonard Miller became a lifelong gearhead after working on his parents’ 1937 Ford. / THF91674

Leonard Miller was born in 1934 and raised in suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He traced his love of automobiles to his parents’ 1937 Ford. As a boy, Miller devoted countless hours to hot rodding the car—tweaking the engine in pursuit of a few more horsepower and a little more speed. His considerable mechanical skills grew even more in the late 1950s when he served in an automotive support company in the U.S. Army.

Miller’s interest in automobiles remained a lifelong passion. As a co-owner of Vanguard Racing, he entered a car in the 1972 Indianapolis 500. White driver John Mahler piloted the #31 car for the Vanguard team, but a broken piston forced him out of the race after 99 laps. Regardless of the results, Miller made history that day—Vanguard was the first Black-owned team to compete in the Indy 500. (It would be another 19 years before Willy T. Ribbs became the first Black driver to race in the 500.)

In 1973 Miller formed a new team, Black American Racers (BAR), with headquarters in New Jersey near Miller’s consulting firm. Over the next few years, and with African American drivers Benny Scott and Tommy Thompson added to the team, BAR raced in Formula 5000 and Formula Super Vee competitions. Miller obtained a corporate sponsorship and began planning a return to the Indianapolis 500 with Black American Racers.

Man in jumpsuit leans against trunk of racecar, with other people and cars in the background
Wendell Scott co-founded the Black American Racers Association with Leonard Miller. As the first Black driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series race, Scott knew the hardships that Miller fought. / THF147632

At the same time, Leonard W. Miller championed Black racers everywhere. Together with Ron Hines, Wendell Scott, and Malcolm Durham, Miller formed the Black American Racers Association (BARA) in 1973. BARA provided support and recognition for African American drivers, mechanics, and car owners in all forms of auto racing. The organization had nearly 5,000 members at its peak. BARA celebrated Black racing history too, and it published a review of past achievements in its Black American Racers Association Yearbook in 1974. In recognition of Miller’s efforts and achievements, he was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1976—along with BAR driver Benny Scott.

Just when Miller’s dream for a return to Indy seemed within reach, his sponsor ended its racing activities after the 1975 season. Miller was unable to attract new sponsorship dollars. Then in 1978, Tommy Thompson died from injuries he suffered in a crash at Trenton International Speedway. Thompson’s death left Miller and the Black American Racers Association heartbroken, and the organization never really recovered. BARA disbanded in 1981.

Illustration of man in blue jumpsuit wearing American flag face mask with hand over heart, above illustration of black race car; also contains text
Current racers like Bubba Wallace continue Leonard Miller’s work to diversify the sport. / THF146999

Leonard W. Miller himself ultimately rebounded. He formed Miller Racing Group with his son, Leonard T. Miller, in 1994. The new team competed in NASCAR events through 2006. The elder Miller slowed down just long enough to recount his incredible journey in his autobiography, Silent Thunder: Breaking Through Cultural, Racial, and Class Barriers in Motor Sports, published in 2004. Miller received additional recognition for his work when the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History acquired much of his Black American Racers memorabilia in 2016.

Leonard Miller represents the best in American auto racing. He wasn’t just driven to win; he was determined to build a better and more inclusive sport.


Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

entrepreneurship, cars, race car drivers, Driven to Win, racing, by Matt Anderson, African American history

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