Wendell Scott was a pioneer in the sport of auto racing as the first Black full-time driver on the NASCAR circuit. Acting as a driver and his own mechanic he gained the admiration of fans and fellow drivers through his grit and determination to be successful in a sport deeply-entrenched in the Jim Crow south.
Wendell Oliver Scott was born in Danville, Virginia on August 29, 1921. His father, William, worked as a driver and mechanic for two well-to-do white families in town. William was known throughout the community for his fast and daring driving. He moved his wife Martha, Wendell and his three daughters up to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, just ahead of the Great Depression and took a job at the Studebaker plant as a foreman. Unfortunately, William was a compulsive gambler and the stress of his gambling their money away caused Wendell’s parents to split up. His mother, a schoolteacher, took the children to Louisville, Kentucky to live with her relatives. The stress of the breakup and the move affected Wendell deeply and he developed a stuttering problem. Martha eventually moved the family back to Danville to look after her ailing mother.
Wendell had a very light complexion and blue eyes, and as such many white people did not realize that he was Black. He was not immune to the ill effects of racism, however. He seemed destined to follow in his father’s shoes, racing white kids on his bicycle or on roller skates. He was the only Black kid in his town with a bicycle and it helped him to achieve a certain level of status. Because of the depression, even children were looked upon to help to contribute to the family’s financial situation. Wendell played his part, working various jobs. He was able to save some money and bought his first car for $15.00.
He dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade and took a job as a bricklayer. He quit that job but did not want to work in the two main industries in Danville; the cotton mills and the tobacco-processing plants. His feeling was that the plants were too much like prison where you were locked behind the gates until your time was done. Instead he wanted to work for himself and began working as a taxi driver.
He ran into his first brush with the law in 1942, arrested with two acquaintances and charged with stealing and selling motor oil. He pled guilty to petty larceny and was sentenced to 60 days on a prison farm. While driving his taxi one day he picked up a fare. She was a pretty girl named Mary Belle Coles and he would work to charm her for years and the two got married on July 10, 1944. He had been drafted into the military the year earlier after the outbreak of World War II, and was assigned to the 3116th Quartermaster Service Company which travelled with General George Patton’s Third Army, serving as a mechanic. After the war, he contemplated moving to California to get away from the racial discrimination he faced in Danville but changed his mind when he was hired by a local funeral home. The owner, James Hughes, enticed him by building a shop for him to work as a automobile mechanic.
Scott had problems with a business partner who ran up debts and then accidentally burned up a customers automobile and much of the garage. In need of money to pay off all of the resulting debts, Wendell began driving shipments of moonshine throughout the county (as did many fellow Nascar drivers-to-be, including Buck Baker, Junior Johnson and the Flock Brothers, Fonty, Bob and Tim). He would buy the moonshine at one price and then drive it to his customers whom he charged twice as much as he paid for it, therefore netting 100% profit. Doing so put him at great risk, not only for being arrested or shot by police trying to catch him, but also being fingered by business rivals or other criminals looking to receive a leaner sentence. He was caught on occasion but was usually able to outrun the police or simply ditch the car and run away from them on foot. He was able to talk his way out of a jail sentence on one occasion but was finally caught and tried for running moonshine in 1949 and was sentenced to three years probation. Despite his sentence, he continued on with his moonshine deliveries knowing that he was still the most artful and fastest driver in the area. He would use much of his proceeds from running liquor to enhance his automobiles, not only to handle the rigors of running back roads at high speeds, but also to accommodate more containers. He would meet the still operators in various locations and during his runs he was often pursued at high speeds by police officers. On some occasions they would get close enough to him to blow out his tires with a shotgun. He always tended to escape, often jumping out of the car and leaving the liquor behind. Eventually the stress started getting to him and he began developing ulcers, a condition that would plague him the rest of his life.
His belief in his driving skills made him take note when a number of drivers headed to Danville to compete in stock car races. Wendell would attend the races, sitting in the “Colored” section and assessing the talent of the drivers. He felt that he could outrun these drivers but the sport was segregated. The Danville races were part of what was known as the Dixie Circuit. It was one of the smaller circuits that had a NASCAR tie-in. Because Danville’s population was too poor to buy a lot of tickets for the races, the Dixie Circuit tried out a gimmick to attract fans – a Black driver to compete in the race. After asking around town about a Black driver who could drive very fast, the sponsors were tipped off by the police about Wendell’s driving prowess. Scott recalled that the police told the promoter that he “ought to talk to that darkie they’d been chasing over the back roads hauling liquor.” Thus on May 23, 1952, Wendell brought one of his best moonshine-running cars to the track and became one of the first Black stock car racers in the south. His first race was unsuccessful as his car broke down but he immediately knew that he wanted to pursue racing as a profession.
His dreams were dashed, however, as he tried to enter the next two NASCAR races, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and in High Point, North Carolina. At Winston-Salem he towed a 1939 Cadillac limousine down to race it. Because of his fair skin, the track official thought he was white but as some of his Black friends began to congregate around him, they realized he was Black. He was told by track officials that he couldn’t race because he was Black and it left Scott in tears. The same occurred a week later in High Point, with the officials instead offering to let a white driver drive his car (which Wendell declined). Nevertheless, he refused to give up on his passion and continued to race on the Dixie Circuit and other small non-NASCAR circuits. Two weeks later, Wendell won an amateur class short heat race which set in stone his determination to succeed in the sport.
Despite his enthusiasm and skill, racing was not easy for Scott as he faced numerous obstacles. Fans derided him on almost every lap and white drivers often did everything they could to wreck him, knowing that in the era of Jim Crow, he wouldn’t dare retaliate. Eventually however, as fans got used to him competing, many of them began admiring his driving skill, as did many of the other drivers. They saw that he was hard-working and wanted to win races rather than make a racial statement and he won many of them over. Articles about him began to appear in local newspapers, especially after he began winning races. Eventually, the others drivers couldn’t help but gain respect for Wendell. They would see him after his car broke down down climb out of the car, jack it up himself and climb under it with a flashlight in his mouth, working to fix it and then jump back in the car and re-enter the race. He never complained and just wanted a chance to win. Two drivers in particular supported Scott. Earl Brooks and Buck Drummond befriended Wendell and stood up for him when he faced unfair treatment. After a promoter refused to pay Scott after he won the feature race at the Zion Crossroads, Drummond confronted the promoter saying that he would “die for him right here.” The promoter gave in an paid Wendell and he never had a problem at the track again. On other occasions, the racial hostility caused Wendell to fight his way out of a crowd, but Brooks stood by his side, ready to fight for him.
Success in small-time racing was one thing. Racing in the big-time time meant racing in NASCAR. Having been rejected previously in his attempts to race for stock cars biggest organization, Scott quietly towed his car to the old Richmond Speedway and requested a a NASCAR license from Mike Poston, the track steward. Poston was not a decision maker for NASCAR and did not consult with anybody at the organization’s headquarters in Daytona Beach, Florida. Instead he just asked Scott if he knew what he was getting into and granted him the license. NASCAR officials were furious, but after the race had been concluded, there was nothing they could do about it.
Scott was not the first Black stock car driver. Black drivers raced in other areas of the country since before the first World War and there were some Black-only races held in the south in the 1940’s. Charlie Wiggins, often referred to as “The Negro Speed King,” was so highly thought of that a white driver, “Wild Bill” Cummings, asked him to serve in his pit crew for the Indianapolis 500. Because of racially restrictive rules on the track, Wiggins was officially listed as a janitor. Wiggins would eventually win the the 1926 Gold and Glory Sweepstakes race and would become the first Black driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. Elias Bowie ran in the Grand National Series race at the Bay Meadows Speedway on July 31, 1955 in San Mateo, CA finishing 28th out of 34 cars. Joseph “Joie” Ray was the first African American licensed by the American Automobile Association and raced throughout the midwest in AAA, USAC, CSRA and other organizations. Rajo Jack drove in the California Auto Racing Association and the American Racing Association in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Charlie Scott (no relation) raced in the 1956 Daytona Beach road course, finishing in 19th place, earning $75.00. Nevertheless, Wendell Scott was at the doorstep of taking on drivers and fans in the Jim Crow south, an act that could literally cost him his life.
Scott began racing on a regular basis in NASCAR and in 1954 finally met with Bill France, the co-owner of the organization. It was common at that time at NASCAR races for drivers who didn’t finish in the money to get “gas money” from the track promoter so as to make it home after the event. Although the promoter at the Lynchburg Speedway in Raleigh, North Carolina had given gas money to most of the other drivers he refused to do the same to Scott. Wendell approached France and France immediately took cash out of his pocket, assuring Wendell that the color of his skin didn’t matter and that “You’re a NASCAR member, and as of now you will always be treated as a NASCAR member.” In another incident, Scott won a race, besting a white driver named Ward McDonald. McDonald was furious to lose to a Black man and smashed his car into Wendell’s, eventually pushing him onto the infield. McDonald began climbing out of his car, ready to attack Wendell. In his situation, Scott knew that he couldn’t fight a white driver in front of a racially hostile audience. Fortunately, Earl Brooks had been watching the race and ran over to McDonald’s car, pulled him out and beat him up, saving Scott from a difficult predicament. Soon thereafter, Bill France warned drivers that he would suspend anyone who intentionally wrecked Scott.
Wendell hoped that France’s words would ring true as he continued competing. As he began to finish well in his races, Scott began getting attention from the media and was thrilled to find other drivers praising him. NASCAR Hall of Fame member Joe Weatherly was quoted as saying that Scott was “one of the best drivers he has ever seen.” He finished 1954 ranked number 19 in points standing out of the 1,935 drivers competing that year. Two years later he finished sixth in the Sportsman standing in Virginia and 14th nationally.
Wendell was often forced to take a different approach to racing, not only competing against his fellow drivers but also the reality of his situation. Because he had such a small budget, he would often lay back in races, not racing hard for the win but instead racing well enough to finish respectably, in order to earn enough money just to get himself home. For someone with his competitiveness this was difficult, but it allowed him to continue to compete. Despite this, he continued to improve in the overall standings, finishing third in the Virginia standings in 1957.
In 1959 he won the NASCAR Sportsman championship for the state of Virginia and qualified to race in a preliminary race at the new Daytona International Speedway. On the first lap of the race a huge pileup occurred, taking out at least 36 cars including Wendell’s which rolled over several times, smashing the front windshield. Scott, though without a spare windshield, was undeterred. After several minutes of scratching his head and thinking, he pushed out the rear windshield and fitted it as best he could in the front windshield. Eventually, he re-entered the race, but suffered a blown engine. For Scott, however, participating in the race was a huge achievement.
His hard work paid off as he won a number of races and was rewarded with a championship as NASCAR gave him the title for the Sportsman class for stock cars in the state of Virginia, finishing sixth nationally in the points standings. In 1961 he was finally elevated to NASCAR’s highest division, the Grand National series. At this level, Scott would race against the best stock car drivers in the world on a weekly basis. Unlike most of the drivers at this level, Wendell did not have a sponsor or a real pit crew, often having to make mechanical adjustments to the car himself. This did not diminish his determination, however, as he was excited for the opportunity to race among the best.
In his first season on the Grand National circuit, Wendell performed well enough to be considered the best rookie driver in 1961, based on his points and finishes. Instead, Bill France awarded the Rookie of the Year award to Woodie Wilson. Wilson, although driving a better car than Scott, scored only one top ten finish, having only completed in five races. Scott, on the other hand, finished in the top ten five times and qualified in the front row once, finishing nine positions higher in the point standings than Wilson. Being denied the Rookie of the Year award cost Scott more than just a trophy or the $1,500.00 that went with it, but also the sponsorship opportunities that likely would have followed. NASCAR historian Gene Granger declared that “Wendell Scott won it hands-down… If you want to talk about where Wendell really got screwed, he should have been Rookie of the Year. He really got screwed out of that. There’s no doubt in my mind there was a conspiracy…. They did not want a Black man to get it.”
1962 would see Ford, Chrysler and General Motors spending money as sponsors of several drivers. Wendell knew that if he could get a company to sponsor him, he could be a true contender with a real race car under him. Many contended that the companies never looked to sponsor him because he had not fared well enough on the track. That assertion came to an end on July 20, 1962 at the Savannah Speedway in Georgia when he set not only the fastest qualifying time of the day, but had also set the track record. While Wendell and his sons (Wendell Jr., and Frank would help out in the pits when school was out) thought this would gain him even more respect from the drivers, they were surprised by a general undercurrent of unhappiness over his achievement. Wendell, Jr. would later say that he believed that the drivers tolerated Wendell on the track so long as he knew his place and did not try to really achieve something. He said that they reacted in a way that conveyed the notion that “It’s okay if you do fairly well sometimes, but don’t do this to us.” Jack Smith, one of the better Grand National drivers promised Wendell that he was going to wreck him despite a NASCAR official threatening to disqualify anyone who did so. Scott led several laps but his engine blew, knocking him out of the race. Afterward, all-time great Joe Weatherly walked over to Scott and said “Wendell, I just came over to apologize for the rest of these stupid sons of bitches.”
The frustration from these instances caused considerable stress on him, contributing mightily to the ulcers which continued to plague him. Unable to answer back to his white tormentors, he often took his frustration out on his sons. For Scott, whose 1962 season should be remembered for his achievements, was instead highlighted by another incident with Jack Smith who openly displayed his hostility towards Wendell, defiantly wrecking him despite NASCAR’s warnings. This harassment continued all season, costing Wendell precious time and money having to repair his car. Finally things reached a breaking point in Valdosta, Georgia. During the pace laps as their cars ran alongside one another, Smith kept pointing his finger at Scott, letting Wendell know that he planned to wreck him. Scott pointed back at Smith, not with his finger, but instead with a pistol. Smith slammed on the brakes and dropped back a few spots. Months later Wendell told Smith to his face that if Smith tried to wreck him again that Wendell would kill him. From then on, Wendell said “I never had no more trouble out of him.”
Despite NASCAR’s promises that he would be treated fairly, Wendell was routinely denied the opportunity to race at Darlington Raceway. Bob Colvin, the track owner and good friend of Bill France simply stated that the entry forms for the race contained wording proclaiming that he had the right to refuse entry to anyone.
Wendell finished the season with 19 top-ten finishes out of 41 races, including four top-fives and went into 1963 in good shape for the season ahead. He purchased a 1962 Chevrolet from Ned Jarrett, one of the drivers who treated him fairly. It was the best car he had ever driven and he was very upbeat. His improvement and new car did not change the fact that he was a Black man in the racist south. One night in Georgia, Scott’s tow truck broke down across the street from a truck stop which displayed a sign that “White Only.” Wendell pulled on his cap to conceal his hair and because of his light complexion attempted to pass himself as white to the tough looking white men that approached them menacingly. Addressing his sons with racial slurs, he coaxed the white good old boys to help him to repair the tow truck. In their good favor for knowing how to “handle them n!ggers,” the men helped him to fix the truck and sent him on his way. Such was a demonstration of the lengths he had to go just to survive in the south.
His third year would prove to be a breakthrough for him. He finished in fifteenth place in the points standings for the year, but his most remarkable accomplishment took place on December 1, 1963 in Jacksonville, Florida. Wendell had qualified in the 15th position for the start of the race. During the qualifying run he saw that the track was in poor condition and deteriorating quickly with potholes and ruts everywhere. He realized that these would cause him to bounce and slide around the track so he decided to to take a big risk and make a huge gamble. He removed one of the two shock absorbers from each wheel. This would cause the car to remain grounded instead of bouncing off of the ground. His gamble paid off after the start of the race and eventually he began picking off competitors one by one. His car was able to handle better than anyone else and as some had to drive to the pits for repairs, others just watched as Wendell passed them by. The handling of his car allowed him to negate the advantage others driver had because of the horsepower of their factory-sponsored cars. Ned Jarrett and Richard Petty battled ahead of Scott who was running ahead of Buck Baker. Jarrett suffered damage to a wheel leaving Petty ahead with 25 laps left. Petty, one of the greatest racers in the sport then suffered damage to his steering arm and Wendell took advantage and flew past him into first place. When he glanced at the scoreboard to verify that he was in first place, Wendell only saw that the scoreboard was blank. He continued around the oval until what should have been the last lap. As he raced across the finish line, he saw that the checkered flag had not been waved so he continued around for a second time and this time it was waved – but not for Scott. The NASCAR official waved the flag for Buck Baker, declaring him the victor with Jack Smith finishing second and Scott finishing third.
Behind the scenes, as Wendell was seen racing near or in the lead, everyone, from members of the press to drivers whose cars had been knocked out of the race had asked one another “What if Wendell wins?” It seems that the NASCAR officials had just decided that he wouldn’t win, proclaiming Baker the winner, presenting him a trophy along with the traditional kiss from the local beauty queen. Scott protested the decision, arguing that everyone in attendance knew that he had beaten both Baker and Smith (both of whom were two laps down to Scott). After two hours of discussion, NASCAR officials sheepishly declared Wendell the winner, blaming the confusion on a “scoring error.” For years afterwards, NASCAR fans, officials and drivers argued over what really happened, but the general conclusion was that track officials were mortified of the possibility of Wendell Scott winning the race and getting the traditional kiss from a young, white beauty queen. NASCAR officials continued to claim that it was honest mistake but others at the track knew better. Even Margaret Baker, Buck Baker’s wife and his official scorer said “I knew that Wendell had won it before they even checked the card… Everyone knew that Wendell had won, except Buck.” NASCAR historian Mike Bell said that track owner Julian Klein admitted to Bell’s father that “I wasn’t about to give that man the trophy and let him kiss the trophy queen… I’d probably have had a riot at the race track if I had.” In what should have been one of the greatest days of his life, Scott was once again reminded that no matter how successful he was, he was still just a Black man in a white man’s sport. Instead of a shiny trophy to signify his monumental victory, Scott instead was presented a cheap hunk of wood the next week, while Buck Baker kept the real one.
Ned Jarrett was among the racers who had been a friend to Wendell and Ned had finished 1963 in fourth place in the standings, securing his spot as one of the true superstars in the sport. He was courted by the Ford Motor Company and while he was speaking with Ford executive Lee Iacocca, Ned made a bold suggestion. Ford, he said, should put Wendell Scott in a Ford sponsored automobile for the 1964 season. Jarrett opined that a successful Wendell Scott would provide greater advertising exposure for Ford among Blacks. Jarrett said that in the right car, Wendell “could run with anybody out there.” Ned had planted a seed with Ford but he did not tell Wendell about the conversation in case nothing should come of it. Scott, however, was busy trying to obtain sponsorship on his own. He tirelessly wrote to the major car companies, imploring them to give him a chance. He even contacted well to do Black business owners, trying to get introductions to influential auto executives. In May of 1964 it seemed to have paid off when he received a phone call late one night from a NSACAR official telling him that a Ford stock car was waiting for him at a racing shop in Charlotte, North Carolina. The shop was the Holman-Moody shop which was very influential in NASCAR and critical to the Ford’s success within the promotion. When Scott drove to Charlotte to claim the car, however, his heart dropped. The car was a 1963 Ford that had been left in a field and had many of its part pulled out of it. Ford, it seemed, did want to support him, but was leery about it becoming known that the company was sponsoring a Black man during the days of Jim Crow.
For Scott, this would become a way of life for him in NASCAR. He often had to beg other drivers or teams for spare parts and was aided by Richard Petty, Ned Jarrett, the Wood brothers, Holman-Moody and others whom had become his friends over the years. He had almost no budget and had to spend the whole week repairing his car in order to run it on the weekend. He was involved in racing from sun up ’til sun down everyday of the week and he could only ponder “what if?” What if he had sponsorship and could afford a professional pit crew? What if he could employ professional mechanics to work on the car during the week, leaving him to rest and prepare for the next race? What if he could race anywhere without worrying about death threats or still be denied access to major raceways, such as Darlington? Most importantly, what if he could get one of the car companies to put him in a modern souped up race car allowing him to run with the same equipment as the other great drivers on the tour?
In 1964, Scott finally got his opportunity to race at the Darlington Raceway. The Civil Right Act of 1964 had been passed and it would have been a federal violation to refuse to allow him to enter the race. Knowing that the owner of the track, Bob Colvin, would look for anyway to keep him from racing, Wendell and his friends took the car apart and put it back together so it would look nice and shiny for the officials. The officials, however, had other ideas in mind. They required Scott to disassemble the engine and then moved up the deadline for him to take the required driving test for new drivers at the track. A driver had to show that he could drive the track at 120 mile per hours in order to enter the race. Because they had forced him to take the engine apart, he did not have enough time to put it back together in order to take the test. Instead he had to borrow another competitors shabby car which he got up to 116 mph on the first lap but it blew an engine before he could complete a second lap. He was thus denied entry to the race despite the fact that several other “rookies” failed to exceed 120 mph during their test but were still permitted into the race. That this could happen to a driver who was in ninth place in points at the time would seem to boggle the mind, but for Scott, this was the kind of barrier that he had faced throughout his career. He finished the year in 12th place in the standings (he dropped two places by not running at Darlington). He competed in 56 races with eight top-five finishes, 25 top-tens and one win (although his victory in Jacksonville occurred in December 1963, it counted towards his 1964 season).
The 1965 season saw Wendell gaining in popularity around the circuit. He was often cheered during pre-race ceremonies as loudly as the top drivers. He also found growing support amongst other drivers and teams, particularly the Holman-Moody and Wood Brothers operations. Leonard Wood often invited Wendell to his shop in Stuart, Virginia where Scott could pick through free used parts. Wendell knew, however, that there were often brand new parts mixed in, some engineered to exactly the specifications that Scott needed for his car. The next year was much of the same as he purchased (or was given) a 1965 Galaxy with a 427 engine by Holman-Moody. The car was crumpled up after having been wrecked during a practice lap and Scott took it back to Danville where he hammered it back into shape in time for the 1966 Daytona 500. One way or another Wendell was able to get onto the track and stay competitive, garnering a sixth place finish in points for the season. He scored 17 top-ten finishes, including three top-fives.
The respect from his peers resonated what Wendell had been telling anybody who would listen – he could do great things if only he had a top flight car. NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson weighed in saying “Wendell’s driving ability was as good as anybody’s out there. He just never had a good enough car to prove it.” Now, after his best season in NASCAR, Scott hoped again that the major motor companies would get behind him with a sponsorship, but he was disappointed once again when Ford declined to back him saying that the company had decided not to sponsor any driver over forty years of age. Nonetheless, the company continued to sponsor 41 year old Darel Dieringer who drove for the Junior Johnson team.
At this point in his career, Wendell knew that backing from one of the car companies would not be coming his way. He would remain an independent owner and as such had to reassess his priorities on the racetrack. To race aggressively would have invited danger and risk to his car and thus he began driving more conservatively in order to finish each race, collect prize money and move on to the next town. He was caught in a Catch-22. Drive for the win and possibly wreck the car and miss the following races or finish back in the pack and have people question his driving skills and worthiness for sponsorship. Thus was the compromise he was forced to make. As Richard Petty said, without a good car “he had to make do with what he had.”
Another barrier for Scott was with tires. For years, Goodyear had an unofficial policy of giving free tires to an independent driver who finished in the top ten but they refused to ever give tires to Wendell. Even worse for Wendell was the fact that Goodyear refused to extend him credit for tires when it extended credit to rookie drivers with only a months experience. He would eventually switch to Firestones.
Bill Gazaway served as NASCAR’s technical director during the late 1960’s. He often cited Wendell’s cars as not having a nice appearance. It is true that Wendell’s cars were often battered and bruised but Gazaway often forced Wendell to miss practice time on the track in order to making the cars appearance look nicer. Gazaway went to further lengths to irritate Scott, however. Before one race one of Gazaway’s subordinates informed Wendell that his sons (Frank and Wendell, Jr. were working as his pit crew that day) would have to shave off their beards or Wendell would not be allowed to race. When Richard Petty heard about this he went with Wendell to speak to Gazaway. Most of his pit crew had beards and Petty declared that none of them were going to shave their beards and that he would be racing that day. Gazaway relented and NASCAR officials later confirmed that no policy exists in reference to beards.
Eventually age, the wear and tear of the racing life and poor performing cars took their toll and Wendell’s performances began to decline. By 1971 he was often relegated to consolation races. In Atlanta he ended up in Victory Lane, his first win since Jacksonville in 1963. He finished the year with only four top ten finishes and finished 19th in the points standings.
1972 did not start out any better for him. In his first race at Martinsville he finished 64 laps behind the race winner Richard Petty. Earlier in the day, however, Scott was approached by racing mogul Richard Howard who asked Wendell how he would like to drive a Junior Johnson car in the upcoming World 600 race. Wendell jumped at the opportunity but it was really just a publicity stunt. Instead of a real “Junior Johnson car” (which meant a car that was likely to win), Howard purchased something mediocre and had the Johnson team paint it and spruce it up. The car broke down midway through the race and Scott’s day was over. Later, Howard and Johnson would acknowledge that Scott’s car wasn’t what he had been promised. Junior explained that they wanted to put Wendell in the best car possible but had ultimately run out of time. Banjo Matthews, one of the top car builders working for Johnson said, however, “Typical n!gger – you’d give him something, and you’d look again, and it would be all wore out.” For Scott, things often had not changed much in the course of 15 years.
In 1973, most figured that the time had come for Wendell Scott to give up and walk away from the sport of racing, but Wendell instead decided to double down. After years of mortgaging his house again and again and again, he borrowed every dollar he could and used the money to buy a Holman-Moody built Mercury. It was by far the best car Wendell had ever had the opportunity to drive. The car would be raced at the Talledega 500 one of the fastest tracks on the NASCAR circuit. Many of the drivers and race officials worried about the size of the field, but Bill France wanted the race to be a spectacle and wanted 60 cars in the race. Tuning problems had caused him to qualify in 58th place but the Wood Brothers and David Pearson helped to retune the car and upon the start of the race Scott exploded past the cars ahead of him, passing 18 cars on the first lap. In lap 10, however, a 21 car pileup would almost cost Scott his life. His Mercury was hit by another car on the infield. The car was totaled and so was Scott’s body. He suffered broken ribs, a broken leg as well as a knee injury and injuries to his forearm and kidney. One driver told his son Frank that Wendell was dead and by the looks of his body and chunks of his flesh inside the car, he probably should have been. Wendell spent 13 days in a hospital in Alabama and 19 days in a hospital in Danville. After the race, realizing that he should never have allowed so many cars in the field that day, Bill France handed out checks to compensate those whose cars were wrecked. While some were given upwards of $10,000.00, he sent the Scotts a check for $1,500.00. A local tire company donated a check for $500.00 to the family and local organizers did a fundraiser that brought in a couple of hundreds of dollars. Finally, Richard Petty sent Wendell a check for $500.00, reducing Scott to tears. To his dismay, Wendell said that no one else from the NASCAR family gave him a dime. Incredibly, Wendell drove in three more races in 1973. In his final race he drove his car from a 38th place start to a 12th place finish. He turned the racing over to Wendell, Jr., but despite receiving some accolades, the younger man knew that he did not have the talent that his father did.
Wendell Scott died from prostrate cancer on December 23, 1990 at the age of 69. At his funeral, his friend and competitor Ned Jarrett said “I don’t know of any man in the sport that worked any harder than he did or accomplished more than he did with what he had… He built a lot of respect… More important, he helped to open many minds and hearts… He was not as fortunate as some of us as to the type of equipment he had to drive. But he went out there and toiled and made it work and won – not only won races but won the hearts of people around the world.”
In looking at Wendell’s career one must keep in mind the context of the disadvantages that he faced. In a lily white southern sport, he not only had to prepare himself and his car to the best of his ability and to protect himself against other drivers who wanted to wreck him, but he also had to worry about just making it home safely, with the race track and the roads home filled with people who might want to do him or his sons harm. He not only had to drive knowing that he had mortgaged his house several times just to keep on racing but knowing that he might drive hundreds of miles only to be turned away from the track. He not only had to approach car companies with hat in hand begging for sponsorship opportunities, but also had to endure being called n!gger by fans, officials and other drivers. He didn’t have a team owner or commissioner standing behind him with support as did Jackie Robinson. While Bill France said that he supported him, the fact that Scott was forced to endure the inequities that he did, including being denied entrance to Darlington Raceway, showed that he was a man on his own.
After his passing, Wendell Scott received numerous honors. Greased Lightening, a movie starring Richard Pryor was based loosely on his life. A street in his home town was named after him and he was inducted into the International Motor Sports Hall of Fame in 1999 and well as many other regional Halls of Fame. In what would likely be what he would considered his highest tribute, Wendell Scott was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on January 30, 2015. Even this honor is shrouded in controversy with many decrying that he simply did not have the credentials in terms of wins to deserve such an honor. Such criticism chooses to ignore the fact that he did not have the same opportunities to compete fairly, and instead did so in spite of the road hazards placed in his way throughout his career. While others enjoyed careers racing at high speeds around racetracks in gleaming, high-horsepower machines, Wendell Scott was forced to endure a career where he was perpetually driving under the caution flag.
Hard Driving: The Wendell Scott Story by Brian Donovan
Wendell Scott – Wikipedia page – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wendell_Scott
The Wendell Scott Foundation – http://www.wendellscott.org/
Wendell Scott – NASCAR profile – http://www.nascar.com/en_us/news-media/articles/hall-of-fame/nascar-hall-of-fame-wendell-scott.html
History of African-Americans in NASCAR – http://nascar.about.com/od/drivers/a/africanamerican.htm
Black Race Car Legend Wendell Scott – http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/black-race-car-legend-wendell-o-scott