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ThatsRacin.com


How does real-life Wendell Scott story end?

THATSRACIN.COM OPINION

- bhenry@charlotteobserver.com
Saturday, Feb. 05, 2011

Some people in and around NASCAR like to call Wendell Scott “the Jackie Robinson of motorsports.”

The late owner/driver was the first black man to compete at NASCAR’s top level, just as Robinson was Major League Baseball’s first black player. But in the half century since Scott’s first NASCAR race, few black drivers have followed him into stock car racing’s big leagues.

Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey worked Robinson into the lineup in 1947. Three months later, the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Browns added their own black players. Other teams followed in the early ‘50s. More than a decade later, the Boston Red Sox became the final team in the majors to do so.

Since Wendell Scott raced, the names Willy T. Ribbs and Bill Lester have been the only ones added to the roster of black drivers in what’s now known as NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series.

Scott remains the only driver to win at that NASCAR level. And officials denied he’d won that one. Then it took them 47 years to present the winner’s trophy.

By that time, Scott had retired, then died in 1990.

There’s no denying Scott’s skill, impact and continuing influence. He was certainly a pioneer in a regional auto racing series that has since become U.S. racing’s biggest brand.

But as long ago as the Great Depression, and well before racing had Wendell Scott, there was Charlie Wiggins.

Turned away by promoters at some speedways in the late 1920s, Wiggins and other black drivers, car owners and mechanics formed their own association. They raced at tracks throughout the Midwest, many of them now long lost to development or neglect and forgotten. Their biggest event was the Gold & Glory Sweepstakes, run over 100 laps on the one-mile the Indiana State Fairgrounds dirt track.

At the “colored” tracks, large and enthusiastic crowds came to know Wiggins by the label favored in the black media of the time: "The Negro Speed King."

Year after year, he attempted to enter his “Wiggins Special” in the Indianapolis 500. And every time, the American Automobile Association pretended he hadn’t.

Wiggins eventually worked as a mechanic at the fabled Brickyard, for 1934 Indy 500 winner Bill Cummings. Since AAA rules restricted blacks to janitorial duties, Wiggins pretended to sweep floors by day and worked on Cummings’ car at night.

Like Wiggins, Wendell Scott was a master mechanic and appeared to have been born with the curiosity and ability to become one. And like many of his rivals in NASCAR’s earlier days, Scott had developed a knack for driving fast – and evasively – while hauling illegal liquor.

Unlike his rivals, Scott was sometimes turned away by promoters just as Wiggins had been.

Officials at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway regularly refused Scott’s applications. “They wouldn’t tell me why,” Scott told the Observer in 1969. They eventually relented, allowing him to enter the Rebel 300 in 1965.

One of the “independents” of the time – racers without major sponsorship or factory support – Scott’s underdog role and dogged determination won over many NASCAR fans, black and white. He’d already gained a following while winning more than 150 races on short tracks on the Dixie Circuit. Scott was crowned Virginia state racing championship in 1959.

Members of the Scott family worked alongside the driver, maintaining the cars and making their way to and from events. Friends, fans and some competitors helped as well.

Engine builder Waddell Wilson met Scott at Daytona International Speedway in 1963.

“I was tearing down the engine in Fireball’s (Roberts) car. Fireball was sitting there on the wall; they didn’t have these expensive motor homes then,” Wilson said.

“I pulled the heads off and tossed the gaskets into a barrel that was there. Someone said, ‘Mister, don’t through them away!’

“I turned around and he was down in that barrel, pulling those gaskets out,” Wilson recalled. “I said, ‘OK, if you want them.’ And I started helping Wendell, giving him stuff we’d used.”

Junior Johnson, Richard Petty, John Holman and Ned Jarrett were among those who helped Scott.

But some rivals, fans and race officials had trouble dealing with – and sometimes being beaten by – a black driver.

“I went to Bowman-Gray (Stadium in Winston Salem) and they wouldn’t let me race. They called me all sorts of names,” Scott said. “I had my little boys with me and the white fans wouldn’t let them go to the bathrooms.”

Such scenes are part of “Wendell Scott, A Race Story,” which ESPN is scheduled to air at 9 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 20. That’s the same date of the 53rd running of the Daytona 500 and 50 years after Scott’s first NASCAR-sanctioned race.

In it, interviews with members of the Scott family and rare footage help tell a small part of the significant story of one racer’s determination. The 48-minute compilation does so while detailing how officials denied Scott a Victory Lane celebration at the end of what should have been the biggest racing night of his life.

Scott's Chevrolet was the class of the field in Jacksonville, Fla., on Dec. 1, 1963. So much so that he was alone on the lead lap when the 200-lap affair ended. But Buck Baker was awarded the win.

After Baker had celebrated – and after most of the crowd had left – officials approached Scott. They informed him there had been “a scoring error” and handed him a check for the victory.

Last summer – 47 years later – his family was presented with a trophy.

The documentary does some justice to the racer-vs.-racism aspects of Scott's story, even if the "racing" in Jacksonville that's depicted barely resembles that. Then the producers – the Emmy-winning NASCAR Media Group with ESPN Films and Max Siegel Inc. – veer sharply off that track.

As documentary turns into NASCAR promotion, viewers find themselves suddenly and stunningly in a far different and more hopeful place than the racially divided South of 1963. It's a place where NASCAR, its subsidiaries and partners are forging a future of fairness.

Once it arrives, all racers will have equal opportunities derived from their skill, desire and determination. Sponsors, promoters and others, working in conjunction with NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program, will all be on the same page.

The diversity program is currently run by Max Siegel, a former Sony Entertainment executive who worked at Dale Earnhardt Inc. before its merger with the Chip Ganassi Racing operation. He's "a black guy with a Jewish-sounding name" (his joke, not ours) and is results-oriented.

He has, indeed, overseen major gains in traction in recent race seasons. More sponsors, top-flight race teams and participants are involved than ever. Siegel and company deserve credit for that, as do many now leading NASCAR.

They point to the success of drivers Michael Cherry, Marc Davis and Sergio Pena in NASCAR’s lower-rung series. "They can flat drive a race car," as Wendell Scott Jr. puts it.

Those names will become household names, Siegel says, at least in households tuning into NASCAR races.

In four or five years.

That would be 54 or 55 years after Wendell Scott's first NASCAR race. (And you thought sooner always trumped later in racing, didn't you?)

No one was allowed to use the word “can’t” in Wendell Scott’s tiny race shop or the household he and Mary Scott headed in Danville, Va. Or at least that's one of the lessons offered through "A Race Story."

Whenever you hear someone say "can't," you know what's coming next: an excuse.

No one wants any more of those.

Bob Henry is a senior producer for CharlotteObserver.com and ThatsRacin.com.

More racing news, blogs, photos and more at www.ThatsRacin.com.