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Wendell Scott raced right through the color barrier

Only African-American driver to notch a NASCAR victory nominated for hall of fame

- dscott@charlotteobserver.com
Saturday, May. 19, 2012

Wendell Scott’s victory on a 1-mile dirt track in Jacksonville, Fla., in December 1963 was the first victory for an African-American driver on NASCAR’s top level.

It’s still the only one.

But that landmark triumph isn’t the primary reason Scott, who died in 1990, has been nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s Class of 2013.

Rather, it is how Scott overcame obstacles and endured indignities as a black man trying to carve out a career in stock car racing over a span of four decades. Thirteen of those years – 1961-73 – came in NASCAR’s Grand National (now Sprint Cup) division.

The five-member class will be announced Wednesday, with induction taking place next January at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in uptown Charlotte.

“This is an extremely proud time,” said Sybil Scott, one of Scott’s six children, of her father’s nomination. “We have to be mindful of the sweetness of it.”

Scott, born in 1921 in Danville, Va., began his career in the 1940s at tracks around Virginia. Racing was all he ever really wanted to do. And he was good at it, breaking into the big leagues of NASCAR in 1961.

Finding sponsorship and other financial backing was never easy.

“He was operating in a difficult time,” said Ned Jarrett, a friend and rival of Scott’s who was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame earlier this year. “But he handled it well. He didn’t make any waves. But he was a strong-willed individual. He did the best he could.”

Operating on a nearly non-existent budget and facing the bigotry and prejudices so prevalent at the time, Scott was competitive for much of his NASCAR career. In 495 starts, he won just that one race, but he had 147 top-10 finishes and finished in the top 10 in the Grand National points standings four times, including sixth in 1966.

The 27 laps he led in Jacksonville were the only ones he led in the 102,435 laps he drove in his NASCAR career. His career earnings, $226,561, are about the same as what Matt Kenseth won by finishing third at Talladega earlier this month.

Scott often traveled from race to race with his wife, Mary, and their six children – Wendell Jr., Franklin, Ann, Deborah, Kay and Sybil. Mary would sometimes drive the station wagon as Wendell rested – with his No. 34 Ford being towed behind in a trailer.

Hardships on, off track

Wendell Jr. and Franklin often served as Scott’s pit crew. But sometimes, when his sons could not make a race, Scott had to pit his own car.

“He’d jump out of the car, do what he had to do, then get back out on the track,” Jarrett said.

Scott was a conservative driver by necessity. Because he couldn’t afford to buy replacement parts or new tires, he needed to make his equipment last as long as possible. He had to conserve fuel from week to week, which sometimes cost him better finishes.

And although he was often baited by other drivers who banged on him and tried to spin him out, Scott refused to retaliate and possibly tear up his car in the process.

“Wendell had to be smarter than we were,” Jarrett said. “He didn’t have as good equipment – or as much of it – as we did. He couldn’t afford to run his car the way he might have wanted to.”

One of the drivers who actually helped Scott was Jarrett. Before the 1963 season, Jarrett sold Scott the car he drove to the 1961 NASCAR title for $5,000 – even though Scott would struggle to come up with the money to buy it.

Ten days before a race in Riverside, Calif., Scott’s bank still hadn’t loaned him the money for the car. Scott had put up some land his mother owned in Danville for collateral, but it hadn’t been appraised yet. Scott urged Jarrett to call the bank to confirm that the loan would be approved after the appraisal.

“The banker told me everything Wendell said was right on,” Jarrett said.

Scott also asked Jarrett to lend him $500 for the cross-country trip – all driving – he would make to California.

“Everybody got paid in the race – if you finished in last place it would be a few hundred dollars,” Jarrett said. “I knew he would pay me back.”

Scott barely made it to Riverside in time to register for the race.

“About five minutes before the deadline, we saw a storm of dust about 500 yards away,” Jarrett said. “Wendell had taken a short cut – the paved road was a little out of the way – and he pulled right up and jumped out to register. He was cutting it close.”

A tire on Scott’s trailer blew as he skidded to a stop. He finished 18th in the race that weekend, earning $425. The money helped Scott pay Jarrett back.

“He was always honest; a man of his word,” Jarrett said.

A path seldom traveled

Scott is the first African-American to be nominated for induction into the hall of fame and one of five new candidates among 25 nominated for this year’s class. The list also includes the first woman to be nominated: Ann Bledsoe France, NASCAR’s first secretary and treasurer and wife of founder Bill France Sr.

Few black drivers have raced in NASCAR since Scott retired in 1973, after a wreck at Talladega. Willy T. Ribbs is perhaps the best known, competing in three Cup races in 1986 and 23 truck races in 2001. Bill Lester is driving in NASCAR’s Grand Am Sports Car series this season and was a regular on the truck series from 2002-07.

Sybil Scott is satisfied that NASCAR, through its Drive For Diversity program, is doing enough to bring minorities and women into the sport. One promising young black driver, Darrell Wallace Jr., is to make his Nationwide debut Sunday at Iowa Speedway.

“It would be nice if the numbers were greater, but they’ve got to go through the stages,” Scott said. “There have been some tremendous strides. If you’re not aware of all that’s involved and what’s going on, it’s best to know more before passing judgment.”

The challenges of breaking into the sport go beyond race, said ESPN commentator Brad Daugherty.

“You hear it all the time, that’s it’s not about black and white, it’s about the green (money),” said Daugherty, an African-American who grew up a race fan in Black Mountain and went on to play basketball at North Carolina and in the NBA. “It’s just cost prohibitive to get into this sport. I don’t care who you are: You can’t run a grassroots team paying out of your own pocket.”

Scott struggled with those financial obstacles – and more – in an earlier time.

Still an uphill battle

And Scott’s nomination, of course, is no guarantee that he will be elected to the hall of fame. Sybil Scott said the family is grateful for the nomination and will be patient.

“Only five can go in at a time,” she said. “Not everybody can go in the same year. If it’s daddy’s year, we’ll be grateful. Otherwise, we can’t allow ourselves to feel it’s hopeless.”

Daugherty thinks the time is now.

“The nomination means nothing to me, really,” he said. “He’s a hall of famer. What he did was more of a humanitarian effort in this sport. There is a place for that.”

Scott: 704-358-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14

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