Humpy Wheeler, former president of Charlotte Motor Speedway and a man who has been involved in virtually every aspect of stock car racing over a decades-long career, calls Wendell Scott “the Jackie Robinson of NASCAR.”
Although Scott wasn’t the first black driver to race at the top levels of NASCAR (Joie Ray carries that distinction), he was the most prominent – and, through more than 60 years of the Sprint Cup Series, the only winner.
Scott didn’t put up racing numbers comparable to those that Robinson totaled in major league baseball, but Scott was persistent in the face of degrading and often blatant racism. He raced in the Cup series from 1961 to 1973, scored 20 top-five finishes and finished in the top 10 in the point standings four straight years from 1966 to 1969. He probably would have raced longer, but his career effectively was ended by a brutal crash at Talladega Superspeedway in 1973.
Scott, a Danville, VA native who died in 1990, is one of five new nominees for the list voters will consider next month when they choose five new members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. If elected, Scott would become the hall’s first black honoree.
Scott raced against the wind for much of his career. A standout on short tracks in Virginia in Sportsman and late models cars, he won the 1959 Virginia state championship. Off track, he drove a taxi and was one of that group of fast drivers who supplemented their incomes by running moonshine.
In 1961, he jumped into Cup (then Grand National) racing, trying to make his way in a sport that was virtually all white.
It was no easy road.
Purely by coincidence, Scott made his way into the top level of stock car racing at about the same time the Civil Rights era was heating up in the United States. It was a time of vast social change, although that change came to many parts of the South at a much slower pace. Scott and his family, the members of which traveled with him virtually everywhere he raced, experienced the harsh realities of racism first-hand.
In the early days of his NASCAR career, Scott’s entries weren’t accepted at some tracks, and he and his family often weren’t welcome at nearby hotels and restaurants. His family members recall more than a few weekends when they made their own sandwiches for “picnics” because restaurants in race towns denied them service.
But, perhaps by his perseverance and drive, Scott carved out respect.
“I remember a race at the Spartanburg (SC) Fairgrounds back in the mid-’60s,” Wheeler said. “Wendell flipped his car in practice. He didn’t have enough money to do anything from that point on. Four or five drivers got their hats and went in the grandstand – and I didn’t see anything but white faces up there – and raised almost $3,000 for him. I think that showed what a lot of the fans thought of him.”
The pinnacle of Scott’s career came early – on Dec. 1, 1963, at Jacksonville (FL) Speedway, a half-mile dirt track. Scott won the race – his only Cup win, but it wasn’t that simple.
NASCAR veteran Buck Baker took the checkered flag as the apparent winner of the race. Scott later said he lapped Baker three times and that he was far out front at the end of the race. The trophy went to Baker, Scott said, because officials were concerned about the ramifications if a black driver kissed the white race queen in victory lane ceremonies. Scott later said he had no intentions of kissing the queen.
Hours after Baker’s victory celebration, NASCAR reversed its decision and gave the win to Scott. The things he missed? The appreciation of the fans and the trophy.
Martinsville (VA) Speedway president Clay Earles, then a field representative for NASCAR, later arranged to award a trophy to Scott.
What should have been Scott’s signal achievement instead was awash in the racism of the day.
“It was one of the worst experiences of his life,” said Scott’s son, Wendell Jr. “That was one of the regrets he had on his dying bed. He died relatively happy but with unfulfilled dreams.”
Scott raced virtually his entire career on a shoestring, depending on family members for mechanical and pit assistance and on other drivers for hand-me-down parts.
On more than one occasion, he pulled his car into its pit during a race and climbed out to participate in his own pit stop.
“He was obviously a much better race driver than the record shows,” Wheeler said. “I just wish that we all had helped him a little more and had seen how good a race driver he could have been.”
Scott raced in Cup for the last time Oct. 7, 1973 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Five months earlier, he had suffered serious injuries in a 21-car crash at Talladega.
Later, Scott suffered from cancer, and he died at Christmas 1990. Seven years later, the street where he lived was renamed Wendell Scott Drive.
At his funeral, Scott was called “a builder of bridges – bridges that brought people together” by a minister.
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Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.