This weekend the Nascar boys rolled into Las Vegas with every car on the grid proudly carrying a small image to mark a very significant anniversary. It’s 50 years to the day since Wendell Scott became the first black driver in Nascar, to this day he remains the only non-white participant to win at the highest level of stock cars. Half a century of progress later and until the recent Drive for Diversity campaign and its championing of female drivers, the world’s largest spectator sport has seen little but Good Ol’ Boys from the deep South making the running.
As a fan Wendell Scott found himself in the blacks-only areas of the race track, but he didn’t let that kill his passion for speed. He may not have been welcome as a spectator, but as a competitor he eventually found his place as the popular underdog. Here was a man who served in a segregated army after the war who came home to tackle the whiter-than-white world of motor-racing, a brave soul indeed.
Scott’s credentials were perfect; his father was a skilled mechanic while Wendell himself was a convicted moonshine runner, which is about as Nascar as it gets. In a country where he couldn’t sit next to a white man on the bus, it was his encounters with the law that directly led to his dream life as a racing driver.
Wendell’s local track was Danville Speedway, which hadn’t managed to attract the new and popular Nascar-sanctioned racing, reckoned they needed a new attraction to get bums on seats. Danville decided that a black driver who could beat the Good Ol’Boys would be quite an attention-grabber, so they searched the area for talent. But where do you go to find the first brilliant black driver when they weren’t allowed into the best seats in the house, let alone onto the track? The organisers decided to give the cops a call; after all, they were chasing black kids in cars every week. They told them that the fastest moonshiner in town was a 30 year old called Wendell Scott, so he was invited down to race in the spring of 1952.
Like many of the white-skinned fugitives-turned-racers, Wendell showed up in the same machine he used to outrun the police when running whiskey around the South. His debut was booed by some and his trusty car broke down, but after catching the racing bug he carried on and had already won his first race 12 days after his unexpected debut. Many more wins followed and Scott’s popularity rose, but not with everybody. There were still those who booed him in the crowd and Nascar, to its shame, shunned him for years. One night he remembered returning in tears from a Nascar event when he was told by the officials that it was OK to race – but only as a car owner. The pioneering young man was informed he needed a white face in the car to be allowed to continue at the meeting.
A part-time official eventually handed Wendell Scott a license to race in Nascar in 1953, Bill France himself even offering the series’ first black driver words of encouragement after initially voicing displeasure at the interloper joining the party. Things remained tense with some drivers recognising Scott’s talent and attitude as a good thing, others clearly were threatened by it and stooped to running him off the road. But Scott kept his head and eventually made it to the top level of Nascar stock car racing by 1961.
At the end of this first season of what is now the Sprint Cup, Wendell Scott made history by taking victory on the dirt of Jacksonville. But even this unique achievement was overshadowed as it took days for Nascar to actually declare him the winner, instead they had tried to claim that second-placed Buddy Baker had taken the spoils. Nascar conceded the mistake and announced Wendell Scott as the first African-American winner of stock car racing’s premier series. This remains the only win for a black driver at the pinnacle of Nascar, although Scott himself finished a brilliant sixth in the championship in 1966 thanks to consistent finishes. There was to be no repeat victory amongst his amazing 147 top ten finishes, although there was one pole position and a few hard-luck tales to tell.
After retiring from racing in 1973 Wendell eventually succumbed to cancer age 69. We’ve never seen another black stock car driver reach such heights again – indeed, the only black driver to go significantly further in motorsports anywhere is Lewis Hamilton.