Scott, Wendell Oliver 1921–1990
Wendell Oliver Scott 1921–1990
Professional race car driver
Wendell Scott raced stock cars in 506 Winston Cup Grand Nationals from 1961 to 1973 as the first black man to do so at that level and only one of three to race before 1990. His National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) win occurred in 1963 on the Jacksonville Speedway in Florida. Because of the points he earned during races, he started in the top ten racing positions 147 times.
Scott earned a reputation for speed as a taxi driver and then as a bootlegger in Danville, Virginia, where he lived his entire life. He claimed that all the old race car drivers once were bootleggers like he had been. Bootleggers would race on Sundays after forming a half-mile oval track in the dirt by driving around a cow pasture.
During World War II, before his speeding tickets and moonshine-hauling caught the attention of the Danville police, Scott was trained by the Army to be a mechanic and a paratrooper. His skills as a mechanic would serve him well during his lifetime. In an interview for Dirt Tracks to Glory, Scott boasted that his “liquor car would do 95 in second gear, and 118 in high.” According to Scott, there were no police cars at the time in Danville that could go over 95 miles per hour. Scott kept his liquor car in topnotch condition.
On one unfortunate liquor run in 1948, Scott skidded on a gravel road to avoid a group of drunks and crashed into a house. After being cited by the police, Scott received three years of probation. When promoter Martin Rogers asked the local police to give him the name of a black man who might be able to drive for him in order to increase the interest at Danville’s dirt track, Wendell Scott’s name came up. Since stock cars are standard-make automobiles that have been modified for racing, Scott was a natural candidate for Rogers as a skilled mechanic and an accomplished driver.
In 1949, when Scott began his racing career, motor sports were in their early stages of development. Scott, a NASCAR pioneer, loved racing from day one despite the many problems he encountered. Some tracks would not let him compete. At others, people booed and threw things at him. Drivers slashed his tires or tried to wreck
At a Glance…
Born August 29, 1921, in Danville, VA; died of spinal cancer, December 24, 1990; married Mary; children: Willie Ann, Wendell Jr., Franklin, Deborah, Cheryl, Sybil, and Michael. Religion: Baptist.
Career: Taxi cab driver, 1939-43; U.S. Army, 1943-45; city service, 1945-49; driver, 1949-52; NASCAR driver, 1952-73; owner of Scott’s Garage, 1949-90.
Member: Honorary lifetime member, Black American Racers Association; Hollywood Screen Actors Guild, 1977-90.
Selected awards: Keys to numerous cities; Virginia State Championship and Southside Speedway Championship, 1959; 127 race wins; Jacksonville Speedway Championship, 1963; State of Florida Citation for Outstanding Achievements, 1965; honorary Lieutenant Colonel-Aide-de-Camp, Alabama State Militia, 1970; Curtis Turner Memorial Achievement Award, 1971; Special Olympics Service Award, 1974; Schasfer Brewing Company Achievement Award, 1975; subject of the movie and novel, Greased Lightning, 1977; Bont Cultural Council Achievement Award, Greenville, SC, 1977; National Black Athletic Hall of Fame, 1977; Tobaccol-and 200 Award for the Finest NASCAR Driver, 1978; Fort Belvair, VA Award for Outstanding Services Rendered, 1979; Black Rose Community Services Award, 1980; Muscular Dystrophy Association Award for Achievements, 1981; Virginia Skyline Girl Scout Council, Inc. Award for outstanding contributions, 1985; Proclamation of Atlanta, GA and Danville, VA, 1986; Wendell Scott Foundation and Scholarship Fund, 1986; Early Dirt Racers Driver of the Year Award, 1990; Wendell Scott Day, Danville, VA, 1990; mourned and honored by the General Assembly of Virginia, January 16, 1991.
his car during races.
Not all discrimination was so blatant. Judges often did not give Scott the scoring points that he deserved. When he went to get paid for his finishing position, no matter where Scott finished, the scorers would have him listed as last. Inspectors would single him out and make him do such things as take a tiny paintbrush and cover chips in his car’s paint before allowing him to race. He would win “free dinners” but not be allowed to go into the restaurants to eat them. Despite this racially motivated onslaught, Scott loved to race too much to quit.
Scott knew many drivers like himself who illegally hauled alcohol in half-gallon Mason jars to keep racing. Racing was an expensive sport even for drivers with sponsors and Scott never had a sponsor. He had to use his mechanics skills to build fast cars and was proud that he and his sons had that ability. Because of financial straits, he never got to race in a new car.
Scott got his start in racing on the “Dixie Circuit,” the shorter tracks, where he won 127 races. In 1958, Scott competed in a major racing event, the Virginia State Championship and won. In 1961, he moved to the elite form of stock car racing, the Grand Nationals, now known as the Winston Cup. Points were given for each lap completed and for finishing position. The finishing points determined the award money Scott would receive—money needed to feed his large family each week. He finished the races even with broken seats, broken pedals, crushed radiator fins, and crumpled car bodies just to get his points. The competitions consisted of a 100-mile race on a half-mile dirt track. Scott drove his 1962 Chevrolet for many years on those tracks. The superstitious Scott never wore green or allowed green on his cars when he raced, nor did he allow peanuts to be eaten in his pits or his repair garage.
Scott’s bittersweet day of glory was December 1, 1963, when his 1962 Chevrolet crossed the finish line first after 202 laps at the Jacksonville Speedway in Florida. Officials flagged Buck Baker as the winner, however. Later, when Scott protested, the officials claimed there had been a scoring error. A recheck showed that Scott’s Chevrolet had been two laps ahead of the 22-car field. Scott knew that he had actually been three laps ahead of Baker. By the time the error was pointed out, Baker had taken home the $1,000 purse, the trophy, and the acclaim of racing fans. Scott eventually received his winnings, but never the correct trophy.
Scott kept driving, eventually earning the accolades he deserved. In 1971, he received the first Curtis Turner Achievement Award for his efforts to promote NASCAR racing. Unfortunately, a disaster struck in 1973 and effectively ended his career. During a race at Talladega, Alabama, Scott sustained severe injuries in a 19-car wreck, including broken pelvis bones, three broken ribs, a leg broken in seven places, and a lacerated arm that required seventy stitches. Despite his injuries, Scott tried to race several more years before retiring from Grand National racing.
Scott received many awards, especially for his contributions to the Danville community. In 1977, he was inducted into the National Black Athletic Hall of Fame. That same year a movie loosely based on Scott’s life titled Greased Lightning and starring Richard Pryor, was released. Though Scott was a technical consultant and did many of the stunts in Greased Lightning, he received little financial compensation. He was also disappointed with the Hollywood stunt drivers. He declared, “They had about three different stunt men who couldn’t even drive a car—worst thing I ever seen in my life.”
After his official retirement from racing in 1973, Scott ran an automobile garage until disease prevented him from working. His reputation as a driver and mechanic brought people with car problems from all over the east coast. He told Dirt Tracks to Glory, “It’s no fun working on anybody else’s cars, especially race cars.” Without bitterness, he admitted that racing had not been good to him and regretted that due to lack of funds and equipment, he never got to do his best. In 1986, Les Montgomery of Atlanta, Georgia, with Scott’s help, established a Wendell Scott Racing Foundation to begin a scholarship program for young people interested in auto mechanics.
Many acknowledged that Scott had worked harder than any driver they had ever known. In NASCAR Online, the president of the Charlotte Motor Speedway, H. A. Wheeler, a man who knew Scott and had watched him race for years, remarked, ‘“He was obviously a much better race driver than the record shows.” Though it had been difficult for Scott, he always hoped that his efforts would open doors for other black drivers. Scott, whose children were often his pit crew, managed to put all seven of them through school—quite an accomplishment for a man who earned a total of $188,000 in the 506 NASCAR starts of his career.
In 1983, Scott told Dirt Tracks to Glory that he never quit racing. “I just haven’t had the time.” When Willie T. Ribbs, another black driver, started NASCAR racing in 1986, Scott wished he was 25 years old and just starting out. Scott died of spinal cancer and other problems in 1990, just seven years before his hometown renamed the street he lived on in Danville as “Wendell Scott Drive.” He did not get to experience the recognition bestowed upon him December 23, 1997, when an emblem with Scott’s number 34 race car and the words, “NASCAR Racing Legend,” were put up at intersections near his street.
A month after Scott’s death, the Virginia Senate passed a resolution to mourn his death and honor his accomplishments as a “trailblazing sportsman and a man of skill, dedication, and perseverance.” Wendell Scott, often called the Jackie Robinson of stock car racing, picked one of the most difficult sports at which a black man might succeed. His efforts in the face of adversity define success.
Ashe, Arthur R. Jr., A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete Since 1946, Vol. 3, Warner Books, 1988, pp. 231-232.
Golenbock, Peter, American Zoom: Stock Car Racing—from the Dirt Tracks to Daytona, Macmillan, 1993.
Porter, David L., editor, African-American Sports Greats; A Biographical Dictionary, Greenwood Press, 1995.
Wilkinson, Sylvia, Dirt Tracks to Glory: The Early Days of Stock Car Racing as Told by the Participants, Algonquin Books, 1983.
Area Auto Racing News, January 8, 1991.
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, March 15, 1986, pp. 1D, 6D; December 25, 1990, p. E12.
Charlotte Observer, December 27, 1990, pp. 1D, 3D.
Danville Register & Bee, December 24, 1990, pp. 1A-2A; December 17, 1997, pp. 1-2B; December 23, 1997, p. 1A; December 24, 1997, p. 1A.
Jet, August 18, 1986, p. 47; January 26, 1998, p. 54. New York Times, December 25, 1990.
“Rockets on Wheels: Driver Wendell Scott,” Racing for Kids, April 1993.
Southern Motor Sports Journal, December 5, 1963, pp. 1, 3.
USA Today, May 22, 1997, p. 12.
Other information was obtained from a document from the Virginia Senate Joint Resolution No. 193, January 16, 1991 and from NASCAR Online, URL: http://www.nascar.com/news/97news/00656422.html.
American race car driver
Wendell Scott had a lot working against him in his career as a Grand National NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) driver. He was an independent driver racing against factory-backed drivers. This meant he never drove a new car, often buying last
year's cars from competitors. He drove without sponsorship, sometimes making the trip to a race hoping to win back the expense of traveling to that particular race. His biggest obstacle though was being a black man in a white man's sport. He was blocked from some races, denied the promised compensation at others, and was sometimes run off the track because of his skin color. Scott never let this stop him, and despite the odds stacked against him he was an excellent driver who often made a showing. He won 128 races in the lower Sportsmen division. In Grand National races, he finished in the top five twenty times and won once. Shav Glick reported in the Los Angeles Times the following quote from Scott, "Once I found out what it was like, racing was all I wanted to do as long as I could make a decent living out of it.… I'm no different from most other people who're doing what they like to do."
Learning How to Drive a Car
Wendell Oliver Scott was born on August 29, 1921, in Danville, Virginia. Early on he was interested in cars and owned and drove his own taxi. Around 1940 he met his future wife Mary. He went into the Army around 1942 and served in the 101st Airborne division until 1945. In 1943 he and Mary were wed. They began raising their family in Danville, eventually having six children.
The Army had trained Scott as a mechanic. His skill with cars, along with a natural mechanical ability led him to become involved in the trafficking of illegal alcohol. Scott explained to Larry Edsall of Auto Week, "When I was young, I … started hauling whisky.… We would buy it for 55 cents a pint at Danville and sold it for $1.10 at Charlotte. But I learned how to drive a car." Transporting whiskey required Scott to drive fast and keep his car in good running shape. He was somewhat notorious in the region for being able to escape capture. The police knew who he was though, and that eventually helped him get his start in stock car racing.
Around 1947, a race promoter was trying to figure out how to get more African Americans to the racetracks. His attempts to find black racecar drivers were unsuccessful so he went to the police. Glick wrote Scott's description of the events, "He went to the county police and they told him about this 'darkie' they'd been chasing through the mountains, driving awful fast. That was me." The promoter contacted Scott and invited him to race at the Danville Fairgrounds. Scott borrowed one of his old liquor cars that he'd sold because it was beginning to be recognized by the police. In his first race, Scott placed third and won $50. He was hooked.
Facing Down Racism
Scott dedicated himself to racing. In 1950 he made his first attempt to enter a NASCAR sponsored race. Because he had light skin, officials didn't recognize that he was black. But when he went to purchase the safety belt they had asked him to buy so he could drive, his race was recognized and he was told he couldn't participate. No reason was given.
During the next few years, Scott raced in what was known as the "Dixie Circuit." These were smaller tracks—less than a mile long—than those used for NASCAR races and were held throughout the South. In 1954, he was accepted into the NASCAR Modified Division. In those years he honed his driving skills and began winning races. He ended up winning around 127 races in these lower divisions. In 1959, he won a total of twenty-two races, including the Virginia State Championship. Scott felt ready to take on the Grand Nationals.
In 1961, Scott debuted in the Grand National, now known as the Winston Cup, at the Spartenburg Fair-grounds in South Carolina. In the beginning of his Grand National career he faced racism from officials, drivers, and crowds. Drivers in races would try to force him off the track. Inspectors would demand erroneous repairs, like fixing chipped paint, before letting him race. He was once disqualified from a race because his crew was racially mixed. Sometimes he was only allowed to have his wife in the pit to help him during a race. Crowds would often jeer at him.
Scott persisted. He finished in the top ten five times in 1961, earning $3,240. He never felt like he was there to make a statement. His only desire was to race cars. He eventually won over the trust of many other drivers who were in the same situation he was, an independent driver with limited finances working hard to stay in a sport he loved. He and his wife were always willing to help as best they could any drivers who were in distress.
Scott placed consistently throughout the '60s. In 1962, he had eleven top ten finishes and earned $7,000. By 1965 he was rated eleventh in the nation and that year won $20,000 in prize money. In 1964 he set a Grand National record for a 40th place starter. At the World 600 in Charlotte, North Carolina, Scott was able to go from his 40th place start and finish ninth. No other driver had ever done that. That same year, on July 20, Scott earned his only pole position start at the Grand National track in Savannah, Georgia.
|1921||Born August 29 in Danville, Virginia|
|1942-45||Serves in World War II in Army's 101st Airborne|
|1947||Races for first time, Danville Fairgrounds; begins racing in the Dixie Circuit|
|1950||Opens car repair shop; makes first attempt to race in the NASCAR circuit|
|1954||Begins racing in the NASCAR Modified Division|
|1961||Debuts in NASCAR's Grand National at Spartenburg Fairgrounds in South Carolina|
|1973||Suffers major injuries in a pileup at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama; retires from racing|
|1977||Greased Lightning, a film based on his life starring Richard Pryor released|
|1990||Dies December 23 from complications due to spinal cancer|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1947||Placed 3rd and won $50 in first ever race at Danville Fairgrounds|
|1959||Won Virginia State Championship as well as twenty-two other races in the Dixie Circuit|
|1961||Finished in the top ten 5 times, earning $3,240|
|1962||Finished in the top ten 11 times, earning $7,000|
|1963||Only Grand National win, Jacksonville Speedway Park, Jacksonville, Florida, on December 1|
|1964||Only pole position start at Grand National race in Savannah, Georgia, on July 20|
|1964||Set Grand National record for 40th place starter at World 600 in Charlotte, North Carolina, when he finished 9th|
|1965||Ranked 11th in the nation, earning $20,000|
|1977||Inducted into Black Athletes Hall of Fame|
|1994||Inducted into Jacksonville, Florida Hall of Fame|
|1996||Inducted into Danville Register & Bee Hall of Fame|
|1997||Inducted into National Sports Hall of Fame|
|1999||Inducted into International Motorsports Hall of Fame|
|2000||Inducted into Virginia Sports Hall of Fame and National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame|
|2002||Inducted into Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History Hall of Fame|
One and Only Grand National Win
His greatest accomplishment came in 1963. Scott won his first and only Grand National race. Unfortunately, his victory was marred by tampering with the scoring that was most likely the result of racist intentions. The race wasn't an easy one for Scott to make. He was in debt and needed the money he could earn from this competition. He drove from Virginia to Jacksonville, Florida, to compete at the Jacksonville Speedway Park. Exhausted from the trip, Scott couldn't make the repairs he wanted on his car. Instead he removed the shock absorbers from each corner of the car. He told Edsall, "The track was so rough … but that way (single shocked) was just perfect. I lapped the field."
Scott started in fifteenth position and easily lapped all the other racers. He was coming up on his 200th lap, the final lap, and expected to see the checkered flag waving for his first place finish. The flag remained unmoved. Scott continued on for two more laps expecting the checkered flag to signal the end of the race and his victory. Instead, the flag waved for Buck Baker, who was two laps behind Scott. The judges awarded Scott third place.
The fanfare, including the trophy and a kiss from the beauty queen, all went to Buck Baker but Scott knew he had won and he argued his case with the judges. After the crowds had gone and the supposed clerical error corrected, Scott was awarded his prize money. Unfortunately, he did not receive the original trophy. Stories differ on what happened to the trophy. One story relates that it went home with Baker, another that the trophy was stolen. Whatever the case, Scott ended up with a wooden statue that does not contain any information about his placing, the date, or the race. He did however get the money. He told Edsall, "I needed $900-some dollars to pay my bills.… I got $1000 for winning … and $150 for racing on Goodyear tires. But I really didn't have Goodyears. I had recaps."
Scott continued racing for ten more years, ever hopeful that he would get a break. In 1966 he told Ebony, "I don't have too many wins in the Grand National … but I have a bunch of places and shows. With a little better equipment I know I can come out on top." Scott was always driving older model cars, often bought from other racecar drivers. It was never the car itself that helped Scott place, it was his skill as a driver and a mechanic.
Even skilled drivers can be involved in accidents, and Scott had his fair share. Sometimes he was able to fix the car and get back out on the track to finish the race. Sometimes even the best attempts failed. Scott was never injured seriously in a wreck until 1973 when he was involved in a multiple-car pileup at the Talladega Speedway in Alabama. The resulting injuries nearly killed him. He survived the crash despite fracturing his ribs, pelvis, both knees, and one of his legs. He also needed sixty stitches to close up a wound on his arm. The wreck forced Scott to retire.
After retiring, Scott worked full-time in the auto repair shop he'd opened around 1950. The money he made from racing and the repair shop helped him send all six of his children to college. In the late '70s, he served as a consultant for the film Greased Lightning, which was based on his life and starred comedian Richard Pryor. Unfortunately, Scott was diagnosed with spinal cancer in mid-1990, and succumbed to its effects on December 23, 1990, after six months in the hospital. In recognition of his importance to the racing community as well as the regard in which they held him a group of racers held a show featuring racing memorabilia and an auction to raise money to help pay for the costs of his hospitalization.
Released in 1977, Greased Lightning chronicled Wendell Scott's racing career from his days transporting moonshine to his astonishing success in NASCAR's Grand National races. The film starred Richard Pryor as Scott, Pam Grier as his wife, and Beau Bridges as Hutch, a former competitor who becomes Scott's close friend.
Scott served as a technical consultant on the film and was not impressed with the stunt car drivers. The film suffered from the same fate that often afflicted Scott in his career as a racecar driver—insufficient funds. Pryor is reported to have felt the proudest of this role than any other because of how Scott was able to further the cause of civil rights in the arena of sports.
The only hall of fame induction that Scott received while he was alive was into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame. Since his death, his commitment to racing and the adversity that he faced so winningly have earned him spots in national and international halls of fame. Although Scott didn't break NASCAR wide open for other African-Americans to enter, he did set an example of integrity and determination.
Ashe, Jr., Arthur R. A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete Since 1946. New York: Warner Books, 1988.
"Dixie's Daredevil on Wheels." Ebony (May 1960): 61.
Edsall, Larry. "The Speedways Remembered." Auto Week (February, 8, 1988).
Glick, Shav. "Motor Racing; Scott Was Pioneer, But Nobody Followed." Los Angeles Times (December 27, 1990): C7.
"Stock Car Racer Reaches Bigtime." Ebony (May 1966): 61.
"Lester Looks to Future While Respecting Past."NASCAR.com. http://www.nascar.com/2002/news/headlines/ct/07/18/loudon_pre/index.html (January 16, 2003).
"Pole Position, One Win Under Our Belts, A Tribute to the Legendary Wendell Scott." Black Athletes Sports Network. http://www.blackathlete.net/Motorsports/motorsports072902.html (January 16, 2003).
"Scott's Historical Win Highlights Florida Racing." NASCAR.com. http://www.nascar.com/2001/NEWS/11/07/duskey_110701/index.html (January 16, 2003).
Sketch by Eve M. B. Hermann