Book shines a light on Portland's racial auto racing history
The legend of Rajo (Rah-Joe) Jack is well known in Portland's older auto racing circles. Jack was an African-American racer who started driving in Portland as a teenager in the 1920s, and continued to race around the western United States through the mid-1950s.
"The Brown Bullet: Rajo Jack's Drive to Integrate Auto Racing" is a new book covering Jack's life and career. The 259-page biography was extensively researched and written by Salem Statesman-Journal reporter Bill Poehler, who is himself a racing driver.
"I couldn't let the story of Rajo Jack go untold," Poehler said. "I was determined to tell the story of [his] life as thoroughly as possible."
In the course of his career, Jack faced deep-seated racism. As was typical in the era, Jack overcame social obstacles using a variety of tactics. Ultimately, he won acceptance and respect from many of his contemporaries, but never achieved the success he should have enjoyed.
"I'll never forget [Rajo Jack]," said 1952 Indianapolis 500 winner Troy Ruttman. "Classed as the greatest negro driver in the history of auto racing, Rajo was a mighty patient guy. He'd answer my questions, each and every one I'd throw at him."
The story of Jack's life also brings significant Portland history into the light. Rajo Jack was born in East Texas and named Dewey Gatson by his parents. Fleeing Texas to escape Jim Crow at age 15, Jack made his way to Portland where he discovered he had a knack for cars and racing. In the book, Poehler describes how this eager teenager gained access to segregated auto racing events by claiming to be a Portuguese immigrant named Jack De Soto.
Soon after, Jack was hired as the Portland dealer for "Rajo" aftermarket engine parts, and took the brand's name as his own. Working in the booming motorcar industry of the 1920s, Jack soon found his way into the driver's seat and into a career that delivered victories on track and frustration in his pursuit of a grand dream: to race in the Indianapolis 500.
"The reason Rajo Jack never raced at Indy wasn't a lack of skill," Poehler stated, "it was the color of his skin."
To gather the basic data for the book, Poehler spent years doing research in libraries from Portland to California, Texas, and Oklahoma. The result is the first comprehensive account of Jack's career and his often-troubled personal life, as well as a hard look at the racial practices of the period.
Poehler's book is an engaging read, presenting Jack as a resourceful and talented man driven by hope and a deep love for his chosen career. However, Poehler does not ignore the many injustices visited on Jack along the way, nor does he soft-pedal the toll that decades of struggle took on the man. This book is an honest look at one remarkable man's career in the difficult, dangerous, and gritty world of auto racing in the first half of the 20th century.
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