Why NASCAR Maverick Wendell Scott's Battle With Bigotry Is As Relevant As Ever

In 1963, Scott became the first person of colour to win a race in NASCAR
21:00, 03 Jul 2020

It is less than two weeks after the assassination of John F Kennedy. On the dirt oval at the Jacksonville Speedway Park in Florida, a Chevrolet provokes the chequered flag to wave as, after 202 laps and one hour and 42 minutes of competitive racing, the car crosses the finish line in first.

The driver of the Chevrolet indeed received his winner’s check. He however did not receive his trophy. Nor was he announced to the tens of thousands of people in attendance that he was a victor. It was stated over the tannoy to spectators that Buck Baker - the man in second - was the champion.

Why? For no other reason than that the winning driver of the Chevrolet, Wendell Scott, was black.

Scott, had just become the first person of colour to win a race in America’s most popular motorsport. Baker, in the silver spot, was a white driver. It was only later, when fans had left the Speedway that the result was rectified and Scott was proclaimed the winner of the race.

That victory on December 1, 1963 should have been historic - heroic, even. Instead it served as a perpetual reminder over the racism and bigotry that exists within the United States of America, and poisons the lifeblood of the National Association of Stock Car NASCAR.

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It would be exactly 50 years before another driver of African American heritage would win a race in one of NASCAR’s national series.

Scott was born on August 29, 1921 in Danville, Virginia. He learned the auto mechanic trade from his father, served in the US Army during World War II, and opened an auto repair shop following the conflict. This eventually led him to start competing in the Danville races which were run by a group called the Dixie Circuit, an early regional racing rival to NASCAR. In the widely detested and reviled Jim Crow era, black people were still not allowed to race in NASCAR. 

After being incessantly rejected for a NASCAR licence due to his race, he finally gained one in 1953, and competed in his first sportsman-class race at Daytona Beach on February 19, 1954 in a ‘38 Ford.

He had persuaded Mike Poston, a NASCAR steward, to grant him a licence during an event at Richmond Speedway the year before. After success on the track, the Progress-Index declared Scott ‘the leading coloured driver in the nation’. He spent almost nine years at the regional level before moving up to the Grand National division in 1961. 

Across his entire career Scott competed in 495 Grand National races, with 147 top-10 finishes, but faced constant hostility, from organisers, promoters, and fellow drivers, irked so much when he would beat them they’d slam into the rear of his vehicle, post-race, angered that a black man could do such a thing.

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Wendell Scott retired after an accident in 1973. He died of cancer in 1990 and 25 years later was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. In 1977, a film, Greased Lightning, based on Scott’s life and achievements was produced, with legendary comedian Richard Pryor playing the role of the pioneering driver.

A pioneer - a person who begins or helps develop something new and prepares the way for others to follow (Merriam-Webster). 

But it has been hard for people of colour to follow Scott onto the granite oval. Almost 50 years since his last competitive race, and 30 years after his death, Scott remains the only African-American driver to win a race at NASCAR’s top level and one of only two, along with Darrell ‘Bubba’ Wallace Jr., to win a race in a NASCAR national series event.

Darrell ‘Bubba’ Wallace Jr.
Darrell ‘Bubba’ Wallace Jr.
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That win in Florida should have been a breakthrough event, helping to smash the racial barrier in the encouraging of a plethora of talented drivers from all ethnicities to participate.

But yet, as of July 2020, his family haven’t even received the 1963 Jacksonville 200 trophy.

Franklin Scott and Wendell Scott Jr., sons of Wendell Scott at the NASCAR Hall Of Fame
Franklin Scott and Wendell Scott Jr., sons of Wendell Scott at the NASCAR Hall Of Fame