Wendell Scott: NASCAR’s unsung speedway barrier breaker

Scott blazed a trail - both literally and figuratively - in an environment that was, arguably, more hostile than many of his forebears...

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When you consider the long and distinguished list of African-American pioneers in this country, Wendell Scott is probably not the first name that rolls off the tongue. But Scott blazed a trail – both literally and figuratively – in an environment that was, arguably, more hostile than many of his forebears. Scott was the first African-American stock car racer, and the only one in NASCAR for virtually all his career.

Over more than two decades, Scott competed in hundreds of races, and raced in NASCAR’s top circuit from 1961 through the early 1970’s. He remains to this day the only African-American to win a major race, and finished in the top ten 147 times during his years competing in NASCAR’s top division.

Scott, a product of segregated Danville, Virginia, developed his speed addiction at a young age. His first driving job was behind the wheel of a cab. He later graduated to running moonshine, a job that helped hone his blossoming skills as both a driver and mechanic. When an area race promoter looking for a good angle asked the town police who had accrued the most speeding tickets, the long arm of the law pointed decisively to Wendell Scott, and a storied racing career was born

Richard Pryor once said of his 1977 movie, Greased Lightning, in which he portrayed Scott: “It’s a fun-time kind of movie… There won’t be any wrath-against-the-world stuff in this movie.” Yet in many ways, Scott had to accept that he would ply his trade with the deck stacked squarely against him.

“I don’t think anyone else could have done what he did in racing,” his son Franklin says today. Franklin, who along with his siblings and mother made up the bulk of his father’s road crew, recalls: “We had to carry extra gas cans with us because the gas stations would have the ‘Whites Only’ signs up, or shut down the pumps when we pulled up. We didn’t know where we were going to sleep. We didn’t know where we were going to eat…most times we had a white person traveling with us and would send him to get our food.”

Conditions did not improve much once on the track. It’s difficult to picture a more dangerous environment in sport than the racetrack, and other drivers routinely targeted Scott. In 1962, Scott shattered the track record in Savannah, Georgia held by Jack Smith.

Smith made Scott his constant mark afterwords. “Daddy was not a violent man,” Franklin says, “And he was very careful with his family around, but he’d had all he could take.” When Scott showed Smith the pistol he carried with him for protection, Smith backed off.

And when Scott took the checkered flag at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, the second-place, white driver was declared the winner. Scott protested and the decision was reversed, but he was not entirely appeased. “Everybody in the place knew I had won the race,” he would say years later, “but the promoters and NASCAR officials didn’t want me out there kissing any beauty queens or accepting any awards.”

That Scott was able to compete at the sport’s highest level, given the lack of sponsorship money and other advantages his competitors enjoyed, was an incredible feat. “He had so many sandcastles built for him,” says Franklin. “But he had an innate ability to drive a car.”

Despite the hardships of the road and vagabond existence the Scott’s led on weekends, it was very much a family affair. With his track earnings and garage back home, Wendell and his wife Mary somehow managed to put six children through college. The tuition was hard earned. Franklin and his brothers helped out as the pit crew. Sisters Sybil and Deborah were the scorekeepers. Mary drove the truck and did the cooking. “On Monday mornings we were always back in time for school, even if we drove all night,” says Sybil. “It was amazing.”

In 1973 a terrible wreck at Talladega, Alabama left Scott laid up in the hospital with serious injuries. Contrary to some accounts, Scott did race after that, though never again on the top circuit. “My mother would have been a lot more comfortable without him out there,” says Sybil, “but Daddy was his own man.”

Sybil recalls the time the family spent in Madison, Georgia during the filming of Greased Lightning, on which her father consulted: “Richard was dating Pam Grier at the time, and one night they had us over for dinner. The relationship (between Pryor and Scott) was great. Richard was a humorist, but he was also a very serious person…Daddy felt Richard did a very good job portraying him.”

Well before the movie was made, Scott had a sense of his own place in history. Says Franklin: “I’ll never forget my father saying to us: ‘One day they’re gonna right a book about me.’”

Franklin also says his father was disappointed – though not bitter, that more minorities did not follow in his footsteps. Indeed, you can count one hand the number of African-Americans who have competed at the sport’s highest level since Scott retired.

Bill Lester is the torch bearer for African-Americans in NASCAR today, and a familiar strand runs through his DNA: “Cars and speed were my passion,” Lester has said.

Lester took a vastly different path to racing than did most drivers he competes against. He owns a degree in electrical engineering and computer science, and worked for many years for the Hewlett-Packard Company before deciding to pursue racing full time. Like Scott, Lester supported a family during those years, while pursuing his first love on the weekends. Even with the barriers Scott had broken down decades beforehand, things did not come easy for Lester. “I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth nor had the opportunities that others were afforded,” Lester told Starworks Motorsport in a earlier this month. “I had to basically do it the hard way… find a job that paid enough money for me to buy my own race car.”

Still, Lester is well aware that Scott’s career has benefited his own. He told* Starworks: “There’s no question things have changed in the last 50 years. Have they changed and progressed enough? Definitely not. There’s no question that if I had won a race, I would definitely have been able to go to Victory Circle and spray the champagne, something he did not have the luxury to do.”

Lester has cited another African-American driver, Willy T. Ribbs, as someone he admired and who has supported his career. His appreciation for Wendell Scott’s accomplishments came more slowly. Says Sybil: “Bill didn’t know a lot about my Dad when he first started out in NASCAR, but he and our family have a very good relationship.” Sybil got a chance to work with Lester on an urban youth racing league that NASCAR supported, and says NASCAR does not get the credit it deserves for its efforts to diversify.

NASCAR has taken considerable heat over the years for its failure to incorporate more minorities amongst its ranks, but its diversity initiatives cited by Sybil Scott would undoubtedly be applauded by her father today.

“My father didn’t believe in ‘can’t.’ He didn’t believe in ‘never,’” says Franklin. “They didn’t make but one Wendell Scott.”