Who was Rajo Jack? 

At the NASCAR race at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Feb. 6, and presumably at other NASCAR races in February, there was a sign board with pictures of Black pioneers who played parts in the sanctioning body’s history during Black History Month. 

There are pictures of Elias Bowie, who was the first Black man to compete in a NASCAR race when he competed in the Grand National race at Bay Meadows in 1955. There is Charlie Scott, who raced on the Daytona Beach Course in 1956. The most accomplished and recognized Black NASCAR racer is Wendell Scott, who won a Grand National race in 1964 and is featured on the display. There were drivers including Willy T. Ribbs and Bill Lester pictured. And, of course, the Black driver who is still making waves in NASCAR is Bubba Wallace is prominently displayed.

What the display is missing is the first Black man to enter a NASCAR race, Rajo Jack. 

A champion stock car driver long before NASCAR was created by Bill France and a group of promoters and drivers in 1948, Rajo Jack won championship stock car races in the 1930s on the West Coast. 

Contrary to the narrative NASCAR puts forward, stock car racing existed as far back as 1934 on the West Coast and had significant popularity at tracks like Silvergate Speedway (currently Seaworld), Oakland Speedway and Mines Field (now Los Angeles International Airport). In the south, stock car racing rose to prominence by moonshiners trying to outrun revenuers, but over a decade before, race car drivers were racing stock cars on dirt and asphalt tracks. 

Who was Rajo Jack? 

His birth name was Dewey Gatson, though he went by plenty of others. He won sprint car, stock car and midget races on the West Coast from the 1930s through the 1950s. Rajo Jack was the first Black professional race car driver. 

He won races against Indy 500 winners, but could never compete at Indianapolis Motor Speedway because the American Automobile Association’s Contest Board banned any driver who was not a white man from competing in races it sanctioned for most of its history. 

But in its early days, NASCAR was willing to give a chance to anyone who would show up with a car that was legal. 

Rajo Jack was in the pits of the NASCAR Grand National Race at Carrell Speedway in Gardena, California for the May 30, 1954 race trying to get a ride, according to NASCAR official Ken Clapp. Rajo apparently had some level of success. Rajo Jack entered the NASCAR Grand National race at Bay Meadows later that season. When it came race day, August 22, Rajo didn’t show up, however.

“I would remember that, especially because he was Black,” recalled Hershel McGriff, who won the Bay Meadows race from the pole position.

Rajo Jack again entered another NASCAR race, this time for the new NASCAR Pacific Coast Late Model Series May 29, 1955 at Gardena Stadium in a 1952 Ford. But he didn’t compete in that race, either. A couple months later, Bowie competed at Bay Meadows and became the first. 

By that time period, he was nearing 50 years old, but telling people he was 57. Rajo Jack was far past his prime, which was between 1934 and 1936. But he was still the first Black man to enter a NASCAR race.

Rajo Jack died less than a year later, February 27, 1956 of a heart attack. He was inducted in the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame 2003.

Article by Bill Poehler the author of The Brown Bullet: Rajo Jack’s Drive to Integrate Auto Racing.

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