The story below is an excerpt from our Sept./Oct. 2015 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
The man who fought battles based on the color of his skin for all his racing days is part of the NASCAR Hall of Fame class of 2015.
Wendell O. Scott, a Danville, Virginia, native, sped into stock car history back in 1962. He was the first African-American to win a Grand National—or NASCAR premier series—event. He had started 15th in the 100-mile feature race at Speedway Park, a half-mile dirt track in Jacksonville, Florida. Not bad for a mechanic and independent cab driver who was 30 before he began racing and used his cab to run moonshine off hours.
But Scott didn’t get the trophy that day—and got the win only in a way. The story goes that Scott passed Richard Petty, who was struggling with a damaged car, and took the lead with 25 laps remaining. He expected to see a checkered flag waving as he crossed the finish line in his #34. But no flag—and no flag the second time he crossed the line.
Buck Baker, a white driver who was running second and two laps behind, took the flag and the win that afternoon. Baker, also a former moonshine runner, was good, tough and a fan favorite. He was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2013.
While Baker was accepting the trophy in the winner’s circle, Scott and his team were protesting the call. Hours after the race ended, when the stands had emptied, track officials awarded prize money to Scott, but there was no trophy and certainly no kiss from a white trophy girl.
They blamed a scoring error—but many suspected something else.
Ned Jarrett, veteran driver, broadcaster and Hall of Famer: “Scoring back in those days was primitive but it was the best we had and there were some honest mistakes. There was not that much controversy about the win at the time and Buck Baker kept the trophy. Unfortunately, back then Wendell’s race was not looked upon in the right way and he didn’t impose his race on anyone. But he wouldn’t back down. He stood his ground and made it work.”
47 YEARS LATER
The Jacksonville race would stand as Scott’s only NASCAR career win. Earlier he had won more than 100 local races. Then in 13 years and 495 starts in NASCAR premier series competition, he earned 20 top-five and 147 top-10 finishes—but no other wins. In 2010, 47 years after the Jacksonville win, race officials finally presented a replica trophy to Scott’s family.
And five years after that, in 2015, Scott was the first African-American inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was one of five drivers in the class of 2015, but Scott missed the ceremony. He passed away December 23, 1990.
There are fans who believe the honor had been too long coming—and there are others who believed it would never happen. But they all know that his induction recognizes a truly unique character in NASCAR history.
That two-foot-tall silver Jacksonville trophy gleams in the family home on Wendell Scott Drive in Danville. Plaques, photos, awards and other mementoes of his career fill the house. Most of the Scott children—seven of them—grew up in this snug cottage with the stonework porch pillars.
His youngest daughter, Sybil Scott, a supervisor for Juvenile Detention Department of the Danville Police Department, bites back any bitterness.
“Daddy wasn’t bitter and didn’t like anger around him,” she says. “The climate at the time held him back. If he had been white he would have had the opportunities to get what he needed to do what he could do. There were people who could have helped him but were uncomfortable doing that. He was disappointed and frustrated but rarely angry—he had an even temperament.”
MAKING DO AND WINNING RESPECT
Jarrett first met Scott when they competed in a Sportsman/Modified race at the Chinese Corner track in Norfolk, Virginia.
“Wendell did more to win with what he had to do it with than anyone else I’ve known,” Jarrett says. “He was racing to support his family and I respected him for that.”
Not long before the Jacksonville race, when Jarrett switched from Chevies to Fords, he sold his blue ’61 Chevy Bel Air coupe to Scott, who hauled it from Jarrett’s home in Newton, North Carolina back to Danville on an open trailer.
“I had led a good portion of the Jacksonville race but I was driving a borrowed car from Holman-Moody (race team and race car manufacturer),” Jarrett says. “I ran it with our wheels and the wheel patterns were off—didn’t match. I was in the pits twice and lost six laps and came in seventh or eighth but I was tickled to death that Wendell won in that Bel Air.”
“Wendell was a hard worker and a very humble man and, occasionally, we had extra parts and could share with him,” agrees Glen Wood (he was Glenn before he arbitrarily dropped an N a number of years ago), another NASCAR Hall of Famer. “Since he raced mostly Ford cars and was a fellow Virginia native, we were happy to help him.”
“ Wendell Scott was an individual ahead of his time as far as racing goes—there were no other colored drivers,” says Junior Johnson, another NASCAR Hall of Famer. “He didn’t have a lot of money to put into his cars but you could not have found a finer person than Wendell. He was a normal person with very few resources but he and his boys were so energetic. Ned (Jarrett) and I tried to do a lot for him—with tires, wheels, whatever—but it was not a pity thing. It was something you wanted to do if you knew Wendell and his family.
“One time we were racing at some former ball park in New York and while we were all at the track some kids broke into the pit area and stole whatever they could,” Johnson adds. “The rest of us had put things in our trucks but since Wendell carried everything in his car, he had left his things in the pit area. When he got done racing he didn’t have a thing and he and his family were supposed to travel with us all to more races in Canada from there. So we helped out to get him what he needed.”