A rodder, racer and racial hero

It’s never been easy to make motorsports your life’s work. It was even harder when you were trying to do it during the Great Depression, and with the built-in disadvantage of not having been born white. That was the dilemma that confronted the man born in eastern Texas as Dewey Gatson in 1905. His family migrated to the West Coast, where Gatson worked as a carnival roustabout before his innate skill with automobile mechanics was discovered. In Los Angeles, Gatson fell in with the first generation of California hot rodders, a loose community that embraced Asians, Latinos and African-Americans like Gatson, who began racing under the pseudonym “Jack DeSoto.” When the early speed manufacturer Joe Jagersberger made Gatson the West Coast distributor of his famed Rajo cylinder head for early Fords, Gatson became forever known as Rajo Jack. He is a seminal, though largely unknown, figure in African-American sports history. Finally, there’s an excellent book that tells Rajo Jack’s full story.

By every objective measure, Rajo Jack had the right stuff to make the big time. This new biography, The Brown Bullet, published by Chicago Review Press, demonstrates painfully that in the 1930s, that wasn’t enough. Authored by Bill Poehler, an award-winning journalist at the Statesman Journal of Salem, Oregon, the 288-page hardcover closely examines the reality that because of his race, Rajo Jack was denied the opportunity to participate at the pinnacle of American racing. During those years, the premier sanctioning body in the United States was the American Automobile Association, which barred African-Americans from participating its its circuit of races, which culminated with the Indianapolis 500. If he’d had the chance to qualify at Indy, there’s a good chance Rajo Jack would have made the show, nearly 60 years before Willy T. Ribbs became the first black driver in the world’s most fabled race in 1991. The tale of Rajo Jack, who was fatally stricken while driving a truck in 1956, has parallels with that of Charlie Wiggins, an Indianapolis mechanic and hardcore racer who organized a circuit for black drivers after he too was denied entry at the Brickyard. Rajo Jack made his name driving on dirt in “outlaw” fairgrounds races, surviving several harrowing crashes. Today, he is enshrined in both the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Iowa, and in the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame. The book, likely one of the most essential works of racing history to be published this year, retails for $28.99 and is also available in Mobipocket, PDF and EPUB formats.

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