Leroy “Buster” Payne was doing “outlaw” races in the early 1950s on his Harley-Davidson around the Philadelphia area when Ray Texter (grandfather of AMA flat track racers Cory and Shayna Texter) said something to Buster he thought he’d never hear.
“Ray invited my dad to race an AMA race,” explained Buster Payne’s son Lawrence Payne. “That’s how he got started doing those.”
Nothing unusual about one motorcycle racer inviting fellow rider to come to a particular event, except for one thing – Buster Payne was black. Up to that time black riders hadn’t been welcomed in AMA sanctioned events before. Payne, along with other black riders, had been racing for years in so called outlaw events, non-AMA sanctioned, yet open to all. Payne was one of the stars of the outlaw races. When Texter told Buster he’d really like him to race in an AMA event it was a big deal.
It’s not clear if the AMA deliberately kept black riders out of its ranks – Lawrence Payne said it might have been promoters who rejected black entries – whatever the case attitudes started changing in the early 1950s and for the first time top African-American riders where quietly being invited to participate in AMA races.
Payne, didn’t realize it at the time, but he was one of the pioneering African-American riders who broke the color barrier in AMA racing. He and his fellow African-American riders paved the way for future riders like James Stewart. While he continued to suffer discrimination outside the racetrack, Lawrence says his dad was largely treated well by his fellow racers.
“Al Wilcox came up and welcomed my dad to one of his first AMA races,” Lawrence recalls. “Al said he wanted to race against the best riders and he counted dad among the best from our area. That really made dad feel good.”
Records are still being examined, but it appears that Buster Payne was the first African-American rider to earn an expert license and in 1953 the first to race in an AMA Grand National event. He raced many of the nationals of the era such as Langhorne, Laconia, Windber and others.
I meet with Buster Payne’s family this weekend. I talked with his son Lawrence, his daughter Loretta, his wife (also named Loretta) and his nephew, Leon Austin, who Buster also got into racing. It was a true pleasure to meet with the family of this racing pioneer who passed away in 1980. I hope to detail Buster’s story in the near future.
I especially want to thank Harley-Davidson for backing this research on the history of African-American motorcycle racers.