On Saturday, January 18, 2020, Mark Lowrey made history winning the “I” Feature during the 34th Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Lowrey is one of the very few African-American drivers in motorsports. Although the racer has faced what many people recognize as substantial racial barriers, he has never stopped trying new elements of circle track racing. Such was the case at the Chili Bowl.
With minimal dirt track experience, Lowrey held off veteran dirt track drivers Casey Shuman, Jason Martin, and Alex Sewell, to become the first African-American driver ever to win a Feature at the Chili Bowl. For Lowrey, it was merely another win. Granted, it was a big stage to win on, but the experienced driver knew when helmets go on, nobody sees race or gender … just another competitor.
However, Lowrey’s feature win was a bigger deal to many of us in the media, especially those with a background in history. Present-day Tulsa is a modern metropolis represented by people from all walks of life. A blue-collar town with contemporary values; Tulsa is the envy of many midwest cities, but the town came from a very different place in history.
Watch Lowrey’s historic race win here:
Tulsa’s Checkered Past
In the roaring ‘20s, racial segregation was prominent in America, but Tulsa’s Greenwood District stood out from the rest of the country. All black businesses were located in the Greenwood District, an area commonly called the Black Wall Street. The district began to show its affluence as it became a center of African-American commerce.
As racial tensions grew to a boiling point, the city braced for a spark that would ignite the powder keg. That spark came with a 19-year-old black man who was accused of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old white girl. The district erupted in one of the most violent race riots in United States history, which left hundreds of people dead and millions of dollars in damages done. It took decades for the city to heal after the “Tulsa Race Massacre.”
The city rezoned and made other efforts to prevent the Greenwood District from gaining that level of prominence again. Currently, the second-largest in Oklahoma and 45th most populous city in the United States, Tulsa is a fully integrated city. Mark Lowrey’s historic race win in Tulsa highlights a new period in the city’s history.
Lowrey currently lives in Concord, North Carolina works in the financial industry as a cybersecurity professional. A degreed professional with a Bachelor of Art in Software and Information Systems, he has always sought a career in racing. Preferably, behind the wheel.
Lowrey raced in the high-profile All-Star Truck Series (ARTS), where he was awarded the 2003 Rookie of the Year title before moving up to the NASCAR Truck Series. Even with the NASCAR diversity program, minority drivers have found it challenging to get sponsorship, primarily due to the public’s idea of what a NASCAR driver should look like. His NASCAR Truck opportunity dried up with the lack of sponsorship money in a declining economy.
Battling through those preconceived notions, Lowery has accepted positions as a driving instructor and sought out any open circle track seat to hone his skills. This has brought him to the world of dirt track racing. With limited dirt circle track time under his belt, Lowery found eager partners in the Woodlands Autosports team and committed to running in the 2020 Chili Bowl Nationals.
Winning was the only option. – Mark Lowrey
“When I decided to pursue racing for a living 14 years ago, I regarded what being the first African American would mean in a sport that historically has not had many people of color compete,” said Lowrey. “I accepted the fact I would hear words that offend or hurt, looks of disgust, and perhaps some drivers wanting to harm me on track. However, I did not think about what could occur when we start to find success.”
In His Words
Success is precisely what the team found at the 34th Annual Chili Bowl Nationals. We’ll let Mark’s words tell the story:
“Our team, Woodland Autosport (WA) raced on Wednesday, January 15, 2020. If we won, we’d be locked into the main event Saturday night. However, our inability to drive the car in on the wall (literally right rear tire on the wall) put us deep into elimination rounds, or what is known as the “alphabet soup” for Saturday.”
“On Saturday, known as ‘Championship day’ at the event, our Woodland Autosport team started Fourth in one of the two I Features. The Feature races are broken into two Features for each alphabet character. This year the number of entries required the promoters to start with the letter U. Racers would have to finish in the top positions in order to move up to a starting position at the rear of the next [highest letter] Feature race.”
“In our heat race, we had to finish in the top-five to move up into one of the two H Feature races. We were starting on the inside of the second row in position #3 of the first I Feature. Winning was the only option for a better transfer spot in the H Feature. The green flag dropped, and we took the lead on lap two of the ten-lap race. Defending against the multiple slide-jobs and other attempts to pass, by other competitors, our yellow and black #8W Woodland Autosport USAC Midget crossed the finish line first. The broadcasters realized the significance of the win, and explained to the viewers that I was the first African-American driver to win a feature at the Chili Bowl.”
… the team packed up, and we began to make our way back home. – Mark Lowrey
“At the time, we were more absorbed with the next race and hot off our win in the I Feature, we transferred to the first H Feature, starting 11th. By the second lap, we were in Fifth (a transfer spot to the G Feature), working on Fourth, when the right rear tire started losing air. We fell back to Ninth by the end of the ten-lap race, missing the transfer spot. Our racing was done, so the team packed up, and we began to make our way back home.”
After He Got Home
Like any racer, Lowrey returned home, relaxed, then watched a replay of the TV coverage with his wife. The announcer’s voice struck his heart with a sense of overwhelming pride as the words pierced the air. “Lowrey” … “diversity” … “African-American driver” … “you don’t see that” … “win at the Chili Bowl.”
With a sense of disbelief and pride, he imagined how others who had paved the way had felt. “It gave me goosebumps,” he said. The team hopes Lowrey’s win will provide more opportunities for the driver and his race team. The barriers and challenges have been frustrating, but the racer inside the man keeps striving to make it all work. “It has been difficult, but on the other hand, the role model, pioneer, race car driver, athlete, friend, son, father, and the husband I am will work harder for continued success.”
“To be the seed of inspiration, in anyone who has always watched from the outside wanting to participate in something, is a level of success I will not try to measure. Instead, I am sitting back with a smile knowing how great we — humans that is — can be, when we are given a chance,” he said, as we concluded our conversation. His name is Mark C. Lowrey, and we’re committed to bringing his continuing story to our readers. Look for upcoming articles from Mark, and follow the rest of his journey with us.
Mark wanted to thank these great people who continue to help make it all work: Ann Lowrey, Richard Woodland, Troy Cline, Rich Woodland, Andy Stapp, Patrick Woodland, Brad Noffsinger, Robert Woodland, Nick Drake, Brian Tyler, Joey Stapp, Razz Barlow, Sammy Stapp, Cathy Woodland, Bob Szymczak, Sleeveless Steve, Marc Dailey, Tonya Clarkson, and Kris Vangilder.