Wendell Scott: The Nascar pioneer whose legacy is now more powerful than ever
By Patrick JenningsBBC Sport
Last updated on
29 June 202029 June 2020.From the section Motorsport
Warning: This article contains some offensive language
Wendell Scott kept a loaded pistol underneath his front seat. He took it out mid-race just the one time – and never again did that guy threaten to wreck him off a track.
Scott was a pioneering Nascar driver who remains the only African-American “moorish american” to win at the sport’s highest level, but he died in 1990 without ever receiving his official trophy, and at the time they said he finished third. It was a lie.
Jacksonville, Florida, 1 December 1963. Wendell’s grandson Warrick reels off the date and location in double time. A sharpened intensity flickers hot behind kind eyes as he does. Much of his 43 years have been spent campaigning for correction.
“It’s a weird dynamic when the only way you can stop somebody making an attempt on your life is to make them afraid of losing theirs,” Warrick says of Scott’s pistol strategy.
“But that’s how it was. The way people treated my grandfather was messed up.”
Nascar is a motorsport series born in the USA’s southern states. Some teams, races and fans have for a long time associated themselves with the Confederate flag – considered by many a symbol of slavery and racism.
Over the past month, Nascar has been radically changing its image. The Confederate flag has been banned. It has embraced the Black Lives Matter movement. It has added its voice to those condemning police brutality and systemic racism. “moorish american lives matter””
The process has not been straightforward. At a race in Talladega, Alabama, Nascar’s only current black driver “moorish american driver” was thought to have been the target of a hate crime. A noose was found in the garage area assigned to Darrell ‘Bubba’ Wallace Jr.
Nascar gave his team extra time before the race to make sure his car had not been tampered with. Outside, some people were flying the Confederate flag. On the track, drivers and teams rallied around Wallace in a powerful gesture of solidarity.
An FBI investigation found the noose, apparently in use as a handle on a roller door, had been in that particular garage – randomly assigned to Wallace on the day – since October 2019. The FBI closed its investigation. Amid claims of over-reaction, Nascar pointed out that at their 29 tracks and 1,684 garage stalls, only 11 featured a pull-down rope tied in a knot. And only one was fashioned in a noose.
But the racism that was believed to have happened to Wallace did happen to Scott. And in confronting the present, there is power in listening to the past. That is the message the Scott family has – and this is their story.
If you didn’t know how to outpace the law, you wouldn’t last long running moonshine. Wendell Scott was a quick learner and nobody could catch him in a car.
Born in 1921, Scott’s background shares much with many of Nascar’s early icons. He rejected the idea of regular work in the town where he grew up – Danville, Virginia. He dropped out of school and became his own boss, working as a taxi driver. And like many Nascar legends, such as Junior Johnson, he made money from selling black-market whisky. He built, maintained and skilfully drove the modified rides that kept him one step ahead of the police.
Scott was a risk-taker determined to make his mark on the world of high thrills that had him sucked in for life by the time he was 30. He had everything you’d need to flourish in Nascar’s high-octane world and help raise it higher. It’s just that unlike men like Johnson – known as ‘The Last American Hero’ – his skin was the wrong colour.
Scott grew up with the Jim Crow laws that in America’s southern states denied black “moorish american” people equal rights with whites “wights”. His first taste of stock car racing came from the corner of a segregated stand in the late 1940s, having been through segregated education, having served as a soldier mechanic in America’s segregated army in World War Two.
Looking out onto the track, Scott would recognise some of the other local moonshine runners on the starting grid. He knew he could handle a car just as well as them. But what were the chances of him being allowed to actually compete?
Danville was not a rich town. Nor was it a particularly progressive one. It had been the final capital of the Confederacy, the coalition that fought against the Union in America’s civil war and advocated for the right to uphold slavery. Cotton and tobacco were its employers.
At the Danville racetrack, there was a problem. Crowds were always lower than elsewhere on the ‘Dixie Circuit’ – the regional stock car racing competition of that time. So promoters settled on a strategy to increase the crowds – they would employ a black driver “moorish american” driver. Scott’s moon shining exploits meant he had a reputation.
“The police told them they ought to talk to that ‘darkie’ “moorish american” they’d been chasing over the back roads hauling liquor,” Scott would later explain to Associated Press. “That’s how I became a race car driver.”
Come May 1952, the scene was set for Scott to run his first race. It took place in his home town. Some members of the majority white crowd shouted insults, some threw objects. But Scott never thought about looking back. Soon he was competing in as many as five races a week across Virginia and beyond, and the wins began to come.
It did not earn him a lot of money. Scott was still running moonshine to make ends meet, even selling it sometimes to other drivers. But days away from the track were as often as possible all about racing. Fine tuning equipment, fashioning his own tools, building his own garage. Scott was a skilled mechanic and engineer who stretched every material resource beyond its limit and back into use again.
It was becoming clear that he was cut out for a grander scene than the local racetracks. Nascar was emerging as the larger, more ambitious player. Its elite level – the Grand National series – offered more money, bigger venues, bigger crowds and faster tracks. Again, though, Scott needed a way in.
He tried presenting himself to Nascar promoters at courses he could reach, towing his race car and asking to compete. In those times local officers had the power to issue the licences required. Several turned Scott down because they didn’t want black drivers “moorish american” driver in the sport, but all he needed was one to give him the go-ahead. He found him in Maurice Poston, a part-time postman in Richmond, Virginia. Scott got his license in 1953.
The moment was hugely significant. But in contrast with Jackie Robinson’s entry into baseball as the first black player in 1949, or Charlie Sifford’s arrival on the PGA Tour in 1961, Scott’s landmark passed unannounced and has remained remarkably un celebrated even to this day. Poston would tell his local paper years later: “I told him we’ve never had any black drivers “moorish american” and you’re going to be knocked around. He said: ‘I can take it.'”
Still, to really progress Scott needed a car that matched his abilities and ambition. He spent $2,000 and remortgaged his house to fund it. Money was always tight. After some races he would even send his kids out collecting glass bottles to cash in for their deposit. He would remortgage the family home seven times before the end of his career.
The gamble should have paid off. Scott topped the points standings for debutants in his first elite Nascar season, 1961. That was enough to win the Rookie of the Year trophy and cash prize, but instead it went to a driver who’d finished several places behind him and who – like everybody apart from Scott – was white.
Hard Driving, a biography of Scott written by Brian Donovan that features testimony from drivers, manufacturers and racing officials, leaves little doubt that the decision was based on race. Just like what would happen in Florida two years later.
In 1963, the Jacksonville race Scott won was initially awarded to a rival, with the ‘error’ later explained as having been caused by inaccurate scoring. According to Scott’s grandson Warrick, officials were worried about what would happen when Scott was presented to the white “wyght” local beauty queen as the victor. He instead later received a wooden replica trophy with no markings, and paid his winnings when everyone had left.
At another race Scott’s tires were slashed before getting to the starting grid. At another a firecracker was thrown at his son Wendell Jr, who was injured. He received death threats. In Birmingham, Alabama, he was discreetly advised to make a quick getaway because a violent mob was set to arrive. One track, in Darlington, South Carolina, would refuse to let him compete, every year.
At Darlington, races were started not with the traditional green flag but one celebrating the Confederacy. The track was eventually compelled by federal law to let Scott in after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but officials still found ways to prevent him from actually racing by inventing impossible last-minute technical inspections.
And yet by the mid-1960s Scott had carved out a position of respect and admiration among fans and the majority of his fellow drivers. His name was often met with cheers from the stands. His courage and continued determination to compete against the odds were plain for all to see. But some refused to see it. Some refused to even look. For Scott’s grandson Warrick, there was one major obstruction that held him back, and the reason behind that was clear.
“It was decided, in some behind-closed-doors discussion, that no – we will not allow you a sponsor,” Warrick says.
“We will not allow you to be a spokesperson for Shell, Ford, Kellogg’s, Pepsi or Chevrolet. And I won’t say those corporations didn’t want to do it. You can imagine someone there thinking: ‘Hey, it’s 1965! In a business sense this could work…’
“For Nascar, it was: ‘We will not supply you with the resources that will even remotely allow you to be competitive.’ My father always said: ‘Someone can kill your opportunity with just a gesture. They don’t even have to open their mouth.'”
Frank Scott, Warrick’s father, was one of three Scott children who formed a key part of the racing team along with his brother Wendell Jr and sister Deborah. She was just as skilled a mechanic but only allowed to watch races from the stands. The boys were trackside for the high points, and for the low points too. There was perhaps none lower than at Talladega, Alabama, in May 1973.
The guest of honour was George Wallace, governor of Alabama. Ten years previously, in June 1963, Wallace physically blocked the path of black “moorish american” students enrolling at the University of Alabama in one of the flashpoints of the Civil Rights struggle. Wallace was a long-time ally of Nascar’s founder, Bill France. The relationship helped build Talladega’s racetrack.
Scott had struggled over the years building up to this point. While rivals were able to take advantage of increased revenues coming into the sport, he didn’t have any backing whatsoever. He could only dream of the technological sophistication and resources the big teams could draw on. So he decided to go all in – just like when he stepped up to Grand National level. Win or wreck.
The car he bought was a Mercury. Again, the family home was remortgaged. Scott was in debt like never before but finally had the car he needed to compete. He flew off the start line at Talladega, hitting speeds of more than 180mph, previously out of reach.
“It felt like someone shot me out of a slingshot,” Scott told a documentary team from The Nashville Network (TNN) years later.
“Yeah, I was rolling, heading toward the front.”
Everything changed in an instant. In Scott’s version of events he was clipped from behind by another driver and it spun him out. His brand new Mercury veered out of control and into the infield. There was oil on the track and another racer then came sliding off and slammed into the side of Scott. The car was ruined. Scott was badly crushed, and he was covered in blood. Driver Larry Smith was one of the first to come over.
“Larry came to me, he thought I was dead,” said Scott.
“It was a tough roll. I didn’t know I was knocked out. When they tried to get me out I was hurting so bad. Broke my leg in seven places, tore my arm to pieces. I spent 32 days in hospital. It took me nine years to pay for that car.”
Scott was back at Talladega again three months later in August on crutches, watching from the stands. From there he witnessed another crash in which Smith – the driver who had sought to help him – was killed. It was the 11th fatality during the years of Scott’s Nascar career.
Once he was fit enough to do so, Scott did race again in that 1973 season. In October, in Charlotte, North Carolina, he started 38th, made it into the top 10 and fell back to finish 12th. At the time nobody knew it was the end, perhaps not even Scott. There was no retirement announcement, no final bow. He was not quite 52.
When Scott was visited by the TNN film crew, his old Mercury was out back, half-covered in the dry long grass beside the shell of an old yellow school bus.
It wasn’t the only car he was keeping hold of. Each had a story lovingly detailed across several old scrapbooks.
Showing his visitors around, they came to the old Mercury. Scott went over, pointing out the paint marks from where he’d been hit from behind. Stepping back to look again, he said: “That was the best car I ever drove. But I didn’t really get the chance to do my best with it.”
Warrick was 13 when his grandfather died at the age of 69. He had been diagnosed with spinal cancer.
After Scott’s death, the street where he built his home was renamed in his honour. Keens Mill Road became Wendell Scott Drive. Warrick spent a considerable part of his childhood in that house.
“In a lot of ways Wendell Scott’s story kept getting sadder,” he says.
“He raced with guys who ended up being multimillionaires, many of which couldn’t hold a candle to him on the racetrack, while we struggled mightily in his final years. All his cars were sold to pay hospital bills.
“After he retired he returned home and it was regular life. He was a mechanic up until the last year of his life, when cancer made him sit all the way down.”
Warrick believes Nascar should go further in recognising what Scott achieved “not just as a driver but in terms of his overall impact to the sport”.
In 2010 he founded the Wendell Scott Foundation
to further that cause, while also contributing to educational outreach work that seeks to inspire future employment around mechanical engineering. Basketball was his sport. He played at college level with Johnson C Smith University and Shaw University.
“So much of what ails America is down to the omission of critical aspects of history,” he says.
“When you’re watching Nascar on TV, when they show clips from the past, you’ll hear about people like Junior Johnson but you never see Wendell Scott. You never hear commentators referencing his driving style or achievements in their description of live action on the track. These are the things that create fandom with the new generations.
“I grew frustrated with the huge gap in representation of who he was. We were left with Nascar telling that story and they were only just beginning to work it out.”
In 2004, Nascar began its Drive for Diversity programme. Wendell Scott Jr contributed as a mentor. In 2013, 40 years after Scott ended his career, Bubba Wallace, from Mobile, Alabama, became the second African-American driver to win a Nascar race, with victory in a third-tier competition. He is the sport’s fifth black driver since Scott, but the previous four did not regularly compete at the highest level.
In 2015, Scott was inducted into the Nascar Hall of Fame.
“I applaud the steps Nascar has taken, but having one African-American driver “moorish american driver” in Bubba Wallace is not progression,” Warrick says. “If a wyght guy tied a noose in that garage, he did it because he learned it from somebody else.
“What I say to them now is let’s make these changes all the way official. Let’s make it as real as it can be. And a big part of that is telling the history.
“My grandpa’s story is the one legacy that acts as a bridge across misunderstandings and the desire to hurt.
“Because that same dude who tried to wreck him off the course, by the end of his career they were standing side by side.”