Salem, OR — Following our news about Tuesday’s release of The Brown Bullet: Rajo Jack’s Drive to Integrate Auto Racing, we talked in depth with author Bill Poehler about his drive to tell the 1920s racer’s story.
BP: My father, Jack Poehler, had a collection of thousands of books and magazines, some dating back to the early 1900s. I have a clear memory of sitting in the back of a classroom in high school, reading an article about Rajo Jack in one of my father’s Secrets of Speed Society magazines. My father left his collection to me when he died in 2016. While sorting to see what I wanted to keep and what I would donate, I decided to save everything that had any reference to Rajo Jack or Hershel McGriff. A few months later, I decided to write the book about Rajo. It took much more research, including trips to five states, to find the rest of the source material, but my father’s collection served as the base. As I went through his collection, I found notes he had written in the margins or tucked into pages. Every time I found one, I realized how much I miss him.
BP: My father was involved in racing before I was born, including driving, as a media member and as an official. He worked for promoter Don Basile (formerly J.C. Agajanian’s right-hand man) at South Bay Speedway in Chula Vista, California when I was born. Growing up, my father took me to many, many races. I saw Steve Kinser compete at Cottage Grove Speedway, Greg Biffle at Portland Speedway, Hershel McGriff at Portland International Raceway, and Kasey Kahne at Willamette Speedway.
I always wanted to drive race cars, which I have from time to time, but not well. What I’m best at is being a crew member on dirt sprint cars, late models and dwarf cars, focusing on setting them up. I’ve helped drivers Gary Davis, Robert O’Neill and Britton Donahoo win races and championships as a crew member, and I love doing it. All I ask is that after they win a main event, I get to drive the car back to the pits after the victory lane celebration. I’ve become a refuge for stray race cars, mostly dwarf cars, and always seem to be in the process of rebuilding and selling one.
BP: I always knew auto racing was one of the least diverse sports, but what surprised me was how the institutional racism from the early 1910s has carried over to today. Even now, there are few faces at a race — be it drivers, crew members or spectators — who aren’t white. Had that been different in Rajo Jack’s time, and he had been allowed to race in the Indy 500 and other major AAA races, there might be far more diversity in racing today. What complicated my research was the amount of disinformation that Rajo Jack perpetuated. I found threads, including him saying in an interview that he was the illegitimate son of a white state senator, which were made up. Those stories Rajo spun made it more difficult to find out who he really was and what he actually did.