Wendell Scott overcame many obstacles to excel at NASCAR’s highest level. His racing career doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.
When racing fans think of NASCAR, many iconic names come to mind. Richard Petty, Joe Weatherly, Dale Earnhardt (Sr. and Jr.), Fireball Roberts and Jeff Gordon are just a few of the legends in motorsports. Wendell Scott is often forgotten.
Racing from the 1940s to1970s, Scott worked for everything he had. He was the first Black driver to break NASCAR’s color barrier, which meant hate was coming his way. He often dealt with racism and violence from other drivers and NASCAR officials. Although many of his counterparts didn’t respect him as a person, they definitely respected him as a racer.
Scott’s love for racing didn’t start on a racetrack. He worked as a taxi driver during the day and used his vehicle to deliver moonshine at night illegally. He often eluded law enforcement that chased him during liquor runs because he was so sensational behind the wheel. His driving skills were exceptional but far from perfect, however. He accumulated 13 tickets, which caused him to lose his chauffeur license, according to the Danville Museum.
After recognizing his driving skills, Scott needed another way to make a living from them and decided to pursue racing professionally. He entered his first race in 1947, in his hometown of Danville, Virginia. He raced on the Dixie Circuit, a lower-level racing league, and won 128 races across their hobby, amateur, and modified leagues, per the Danville Museum. With very little money and little support, Scott often modified his cars himself and used his sons as his pit crew staff.
Scott’s amateur racing career hit a peak in1959. He won 22 races and the Virginia State Sportsman title that year. Despite his success, he was still unable to participate in NASCAR-sanctioned races. Jim Crow laws were prevalent during Scott’s time as a driver, which meant he was subjected to racism, discrimination and segregation. NASCAR officials wouldn’t permit him to race at their events simply because he was a Black driver.
Wendell Scott broke NASCAR’s color barrier in 1953
In 1953, Scott was finally given a NASCAR license thanks to Mike Poston. Poston was league steward, meaning he could give out official licenses to drivers, according to K1speed.com. He did warn Scott of the adversity he’d face, but the racer didn’t care. He wanted to achieve his racing dream, so Poston got him an official license.
Even though Scott became NASCAR’s first Black driver in1953, he didn’t join The Grand National Series (the highest level in the league) until 1961. This move was monumental for him and the sport — as he became the first full-time Black driver in NASCAR history. Just because he made it to the track didn’t mean the racism would stop, however.
Throughout his career in The Winston Cup, Scott was subjected to attacks. Opponents would purposely hit him during races, and he was denied expense money, per the Danville Museum. There were times where Scott almost lost his cool, but he persevered through the verbal and physical onslaughts.
Unfortunately, one of the greatest moments of Scott’s historic career was ruined because of racism.
On Dec. 1, 1963, Scott participated in the Jacksonville 200 in Jacksonville, Florida. He completed 202 laps and finished first for the event. However, NASCAR officials awarded second-place driver Buck Baker the victory. Scott and his team protested the results for three hours before league officials awarded him the win. It was officially labeled a scoring error, but there is a deeper reason why they didn’t give Scott his deserved credit.
If Scott were declared the winner, he would’ve had his name announced in the victory lane, in front of a predominantly white crowd and his peers. Another norm in racing during that time was the winner kissing a beauty queen during the post-race ceremonies. NASCAR officials were worried about the public’s reaction to having a Black driver celebrated in that fashion.
Scott received the cash prize for winning that race but never received the trophy. His win in 1963 was the first by a full-time Black driver in NASCAR history.
Scott’s racing career came to a brutal end in 1973 at Talladega Superspeedway, where he was involved in a severe crash that earned the nickname, “The Big One.” He was hospitalized for 32 days because he suffered fractures to his pelvis, knees, legs and ribs. The injuries and mounting financial debt from the accident forced Scott to retire from NASCAR.
Scott finished his NASCAR career with 506 starts, 147 top-ten finishes and 20 top-five finishes. He was inducted into the Black Sports Hall of Fame in 1977 and the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2015. The racing legend passed away in 1990 at the age of 69.
Wendell Scott withstood the hatred and bigotry from his colleagues and put together a historic racing career. His victory in 1963 is still the only win by a full-time Black driver, and only one more full-time Black driver has made it to NASCAR’s highest division since. With Jim Crow laws, racism, and more stacked against him, Scott beat the odds and drove his way into history and the Hall of Fame.