Remembering: Wendell Scott

August 29, 1921 – December 23, 1990

2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame Inductee

When Wendell Oliver Scott, of Danville, VA, was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2015, it marked the end of a long journey by the Scott family to see the driver given the respect that he deserved for his accomplishments. Unfortunately, the moment came 25 years too late for Scott himself to see it.

When I was young, I had seen the film Greased Lightning. In fact, I watched it several times because HBO would run films over and over during the course of a month.  The 1977 film was based on Scott’s life and, in true Hollywood fashion, took a lot of liberty with the facts to produce an entertaining story that could be told in under two hours.

Everything I knew about Scott at the time came from this film, and it was one of my favorites because it combined two things that I really liked: auto racing and Richard Pryor, who portrayed Scott in the movie.

Several years later, I was accepted to Averett College which is located in Scott’s hometown of Danville.  Asked to find a story of local interest for journalism class, I wondered if I could find out more about the real Wendell Scott.

A quick check of the local phone book confirmed that Scott was indeed alive and well, still living in Danville and running a local garage. A few phone calls later, and we had set up a time for a brief meeting and interview.

I wasn’t quite sure how we were going to be received, but Mr. Scott seemed pleased that two young preppy kids from the college were interested in his story. As we looked through scrapbooks containing photographs and newspaper clippings, I could feel in his words the passion that still burned for the sport that he had retired from some thirteen years earlier.

I took it upon myself over the next several years to learn all I could about Wendell Scott, and separate the fact from the Hollywood fiction.

Scott’s interest in automobiles came at an early age, as his father worked as a mechanic. He would often help his father in the garage, and learned the craft.

Scott served in the U.S. Army, stationed in Europe during World War II.  After the war, Scott returned home to Danville, scraped up his savings and opened a garage. Like many of the early NASCAR greats, Scott supplemented his income with the dangerous occupation of running illegal moonshine.

Scott would often spend weekends at the Danville Fairgrounds, watching the stock-car drivers of the Dixie circuit, dreaming of racing himself. Because Scott lived in the highly-segregated American South in the pre-civil rights era, the idea of competing was out of the question.

It was in 1952 when the local promoter, Martin Rogers, came up with the gimmick of putting a black driver on the track, hoping to draw bigger crowds. Having outrun local police several times, Scott was well-known as a fast driver, and he was approached with this possibility.

Scott’s first race was on May 23, 1952. He started 13th, and had worked his way through the field into fifth place when his car quite literally began to fall apart, not having been properly modified for the beating it would take on a dirt oval.

Despite the inauspicious debut, the determination to make a career in racing was ignited in Wendell Scott.  He raced constantly on the Dixie circuit, sometimes as much as five times a week. On June 4th, he would win for the first time, in a 10-lap heat race on the red clay track in Lynchburg.

Scott longed to get onto the NASCAR circuit, but he was repeatedly denied permission to enter based on his skin color.  This didn’t prevent Scott from bringing his car to the track. On more than one occasion, he was told that he may enter his car if he could find a white driver. This was an option that Scott flatly refused.

Scott continued on the Dixie circuit, and the ‘colored-only’ grandstand began to fill up with fans that cheered him on. He persevered despite dealing with racial slurs, having trash flung at him, occasional sabotage to his racecar, and even death threats.

Along the way, he kept winning on the track, and also winning over some of the white fans, who cheered for him because of his skill behind the wheel in a substandard race car.

He also won the respect of many of his fellow competitors. By racing with him all the time, they realized that, underneath it all, he was just like them: a blue-collar, hard working racer.  Some of Scott’s competitors would actually act as his bodyguards in tense situations.

Scott also had a couple of creative ways to make friends such as loading up with more spare parts than he actually needed. Loaning a fellow driver an occasional shock spring, fan belt, or radiator hose went a long way towards not getting knocked around on the track. He also realized that keeping a dozen or so bottles of high-quality Virginia moonshine in the trunk of his tow vehicle made him pretty popular once the racing had concluded for the night.

For his part, Scott never felt, at the time, that he was a trailblazer, nor did he feel he was taking a stand against segregation. He just wanted to race.

And race, he did. Because short-track record-keeping in the 1950s was virtually nonexistent, its hard to report Scott’s exact statistics on the Dixie Circuit, but he can certainly be credited with 100-120 feature and heat-race wins during this time.

Still excluded from entering NASCAR-sanctioned events, Scott approached Mike Poston, a track Steward at the Richmond Raceway. Poston was a lower-level official, but he did have the authority to grant NASCAR licenses. Poston knew of Scott’s reputation in Virginia, and risked the ire of the sanctioning body by granting the driver a NASCAR license in 1953.

This was done without the consent or knowledge of Bill France, but to France’s credit he did not take any action to revoke the license.  The last thing France wanted to do was embroil his growing racing empire in a racial debate, but he also never envisioned a black driver on his race tracks.

This had little to do with France’s personal viewpoints, and everything to do with his business associations with Southern track promoters and political affiliations with people like Alabama governor, George Wallace, a large proponent of segregation.

Privately, France welcomed Scott to NASCAR, on one occasion giving him money out of his own pocket when a track promoter refused to pay Scott the fifteen dollars in tow money that was promised to all of the participants.

France also took harsh actions against driver that deliberately would try to wreck Scott.

France assured Scott, “You are a NASCAR member now, you will not be treated any differently than the others.”

Publicly, however, France did nothing to draw attention to the fact that he had a black driver in his Series. Whereas Jackie Robinson had drawn national attention in baseball a few years earlier, Scott quietly went about the business of racing in NASCAR’s minor league events.

Still running in the Dixie circuit, Scott raced in NASCAR primarily in Virginia and North Carolina. He took several wins and became the first African-American state-wide NASCAR Champion in 1959. He rarely ventured into the deep South, but he did race on the old 4 mile beach front circuit in Daytona.

The struggles on the track were exacerbated by troubles at home. Scott, and his wife Mary, had six children crammed into their modest home in Danville.  Oftentimes, Scott’s grueling racing schedule kept him from his primary job of running the garage. The prize money from the race track was sometimes only enough to get the car ready for the next race, leaving little to go towards the bills.

The moonshine business continued to supplement the family budget, as Scott’s older sons, Wendell Jr. and Frank, served as pit crew on race days. Money was tight, but Scott was intent on continuing racing. This sometimes caused very tense moments at the household.

In 1961, Scott made the move into NASCAR’s premier division, Grand National (now Sprint Cup).  The Series was growing, as factory teams were seeing the value of winning on Sunday, selling on Monday.

Taking the next step up the ladder lead to more problems as he began to race in areas where he was unknown. He was greeted with boos, jeers, and racial slurs at many racetracks, but Scott was very used to this by now.

Scott was turned away at the gate at Charlotte, with a fabricated excuse that his car looked ‘too scruffy’ for a super-speedway race.  His entry at Darlington was rejected and returned with no explanation.

Despite the earlier promise that he would be treated equally, Bill France did nothing to intervene on Scott’s behalf. He was able to race at Charlotte in October, with no incident, but Darlington continued to refuse his entry.

At Bristol, Scott and his two sons were denied lodging, and had to sleep in an open field, where they were nearly attacked by a bear.

Scott completed 23 Grand National races in 1961, taking five top-ten finishes along the way. Under today’s system, he would have won Rookie of the Year hands-down, but the award was more discretionary at the time. The award was given to a white driver, Woody Wilson, who had only competed in five races, and finished nine positions behind Scott in the season standings.

Again, this was a case of Bill France trying desperately not to call attention to Scott as he continued to make friendships and form alliances with various southern politicians.

Scott’s skill behind the wheel in a third-rate, independent car should have garnered him a factory ride, or at the very least, sponsorship and support from one of the manufacturers. The Darlington exclusion, however, made this possibility problematic, as the Southern 500 was a high profile event on the NASCAR schedule.

Scott considered suing Darlington track president, Joe Colvin, for interfering with his livelihood. France begged him not to rock the boat. Scott, fearing further exclusions, dropped the issue for the time being.

Scott would not be allowed to race at Darlington until 1964. This decision had nothing to do with any intervention from France, or a change in attitude from Colvin. The Civil Rights Act, signed into law by President Johnson, forced Colvin to begrudgingly allow Scott to race.

Scott continued in Grand National for several years, attempting to compete with much-better funded teams with factory support. Now, in his early forties, Scott was competing against much younger drivers, but he persevered.

One of Scott’s good friends and benefactors was Ned Jarrett, who would help Scott out with parts or tires, and oftentimes would sell him last year’s race car at a bargain-basement price.

As racial tensions were boiling over in various parts of the country, Scott found the discrimination to worsen. He came close to being beaten to death in Birmingham, and found similar hostile situations in Atlanta and Augusta, GA. He towed his car cross-country to compete in Riverside, CA, only to be denied the $150.00 appearance money.

December 1, 1963 should have been Scott’s shining moment in the sun, but instead, it is a moment of agonizing pain.

Scott arrived at the half-mile dirt oval in Jacksonville, FL intent on running an aggressive race. The horsepower advantage of the factory cars was nullified in this type of setting. With Ford executives in attendance, Scott hoped he could capitalize.

During the event, Scott went on a tear, lapping the entire field twice. He had removed all four shock absorbers, which made the car incredibly unstable, but devilishly fast.

Holding on until the final lap, Scott crossed the line expecting the checkered flag. It didn’t wave. He came around again, and still no checkered flag. The third time by, the flag waved, but not for Wendell Scott.

Buck Baker was declared the winner, despite being two laps down.

A furious Scott confronted race officials, who assured him that Baker had won the race. Several hours later, the officials let Scott know that a scoring error had been made.  They paid him the much-needed $1000.00 in prize money, hoping that he would go away quietly.

Scott recalled years later, “Everybody in that place, the promoters, NASCAR and all of the fans, knew I won that race. They wanted Buck Baker to kiss that beauty queen, and not me. They wanted everybody away from the track before they would declare me the winner.”

Do you remember the scene in the movie where Cleavon Little’s character, PeeWee, brings Scott the trophy at a family picnic a few days later?

That was a Hollywood feel-good moment that never happened. It would be two years before NASCAR officially acknowledged the win in the record books. The Scott family was presented with the trophy in 2010: 47 years after the race, and 20 years after Scott’s death.

Scott continued racing amassing 147 top-ten finishes in 495 Grand National starts. His best overall points finish came in 1966 when he finished sixth in the standings.

Scott was badly injured in a crash at Talladega in 1973.  It was a multi-car pile-up, and at the time, it was deemed the ‘worst crash in NASCAR history’ setting the stage for what would become known at Talladega as ‘the big-one’ in years to come.

Remember the scene in the movie where Scott returns from injuries, enters the big race, and wins in a car with three lug nuts missing?

Another fabricated Hollywood happy ending. In actuality, the multiple injuries to Scott, now 52 years old, had taken their toll, and he hung up his helmet.

While he would enter the occasional local short-track event following retirement, he returned to running the family garage full-time, and his racing career was essentially over.

Scott passed away quietly at home in 1990 following a bout with spinal cancer. He was 69 years old.

While racing certainly hadn’t made Scott a wealthy man, he was able to keep a roof over his family’s head, and send all of his children to college.

Scott was entered into the Virginia Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2000. He was honored with a historical marker in his hometown of Danville in 2013.

The Wendell Scott Foundation was set up in his name and the organization continues to provide scholarships, educational opportunities, job-skill training and mentoring services to at-risk, under-served youths and teens.

The Wendell Scott Trailblazer Award is presented annually to a diverse or female driver in the NASCAR Whelan All-American Series.

He was first considered for NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in 2012, and was inducted in 2015.

His story serves as great inspiration to young drivers attempting to begin a career in a sport that still lacks a great deal of diversity.

Indeed, history has been kind to Wendell Scott. Today, his accomplishments against the odds are viewed in the correct historical context, and he is spoken of with the utmost respect.

It’s a shame that he wasn’t alive to enjoy it.

Image: BPRW

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A life-long racing enthusiast, Santoroski attended his first live race in 1978, the Formula One Grand Prix of the United States at Watkins Glen. Following graduation from Averett College, Santoroski covered the CART series through the 1990s and 2000s for CART Pages and Race Family Motorsports in addition to freelance writing for various print and web sources. He produces a variety of current and historical content for Motorsports Tribune and serves as the host for the weekly radio broadcast,Drafting the Circuits,

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