Smallwood Brothers to be inducted into drag racing Hall of Fame

Published 5:31 pm Wednesday, October 4, 2017

From “Little Washington” to the “Big Apple,” the Smallwood Brothers — Wilbert and the late James Smallwood — made a name for themselves back in the day.

A dream turned into an amateur career in the streets. After owning the amateur circuit, Wilbert Smallwood became the first African-American to win a professional drag race. The legacy of the Smallwood Brothers has earned them an induction into the 2017 East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame class.

Their career started in 1965, but Smallwood’s love for cars goes back so much further. His father detailed cars. He’d bring his work home for Smallwood to help out.

Summer bus rides up to New York would be spent identifying the make and model of cars that passed by on the highways. Researching cars became practice for their eventual careers in drag racing.

The Smallwood Brothers moved to New York when Wilbert was 17 years old. The thrill of being in the car when his uncle would test his Impala’s speed did it for them.

“There was a show that came on TV called ‘Route 66,’” Smallwood said. “They drove all around the country and had to do odd jobs to keep going. They would race for money. That’s where we got the idea from, and we pursued that. We were 8 and 9 years old.

“If you put two minds together, each one pulling its own load, you can’t stop it. You cannot stop it. You’d have to kill them to stop them. Me and my brother, we could finish each other’s sentences. We were that close. And we were determined.”

He was right. The Smallwood Brothers wouldn’t be stopped. They were able to acquire an automobile through a friend of a friend. It was 425 horsepower and 200 pounds lighter than the car they used early on.

“Lightness means faster. We got that, and we were undefeated,” Smallwood said.

Supremacy on the streets is what allowed the Smallwood Brothers to ascend to the professional ranks. They believed it was their destiny to be so popular and so good that, one day, they wouldn’t be able to get a race.

When that day came, and someone backed out of the race, the Smallwood Brothers were itching for a race. There happened to be an open competition pro-stock race. James tried to talk Wilbert out of it because he knew that as soon as their times were displayed to the public, their amateur career would be done.

“I was anxious because I wanted to show off,” Smallwood said. “I guess it was destiny that I won out. … I won that race in nine seconds. Our street racing time was up because everyone knew we were flying.”

That was it. The Smallwood Brothers had entered an entirely different world. And they loved it.

“When they first taught me how to drive a professional race car, I was tripped out. Everything was about my comfort and safety,” Smallwood said. He was used to having to adjust himself to the car and “hang on for dear life.”

“They would move anything around in that car to fit me. … When me and my brother were out there with our cars, we did everything we could to make it faster. Safety wasn’t even on the menu.”

Professional racing brought on a brand new mindset. The Smallwood Brothers were just as dominant on pro tracks as they were on the streets. From the northeast up to Canada and all over the United States, the Smallwood Brothers broke records across North America.

And that’s the tale of “Wicked Wil” and his brother James, the Smallwood Brothers. Wilbert Smallwood’s story didn’t end when his racing career did, though. Smallwood believes he was quite selfish back in his younger days. Smallwood has now dedicated himself to God and become a preacher.

“When I look back I give all the glory and praise to God,” Smallwood said. “When you become a selfless person, then God blesses and multiplies everything you put your hands to.”

The famed drag racer has turned his auto shop into a place of worship. He listens to what God has to say to him. He’s no longer racing, but he still drives the message of God to anyone who will listen to him.

Wilbert Smallwood is putting the finishing touches on his life story, titled “From the Streets, to the Script, to the Pulpit.” Its release is set for this month and can be found on Amazon.