Thursday, December 31, 2009

Wendell Scott

Throughout his career Wendell Scott was continuously made fun of, discriminated against, and cheated on all because of the color of his skin, but he did not retaliate; he loved to race and he knew that if he did he would have to quit so he was very careful on what he did. His son Franklin recalls of one specific driver continuously wrecking him and holding a grudge towards him because of his race, so one day Wendell pulled up beside of him while the other driver was pointing a finger at him and pointed his gun at him, needless to say, they never had any more problems with that driver. That was the type of person Wendell was, if someone was messing with him, he wouldn’t do something that could cause trouble, he just did it his own way. Even though his career was short and he didn’t make too much money he made sure to put all six of his kids through college.

Wendell Oliver Scott was born on August 29, 1921; he drove the #34 Chevrolet most of his racing career. He is only one of six known black drivers to race at least once in the Sprint cup series; the others were Elias Bowie, Charlie Scott, George Wiltshire, Randy Bethea, Willy T. Ribbs, and most recently, Bill Lester, who raced twice in 2006. Those six drivers have made a combined nine Cup starts. While Wendell had a total of 506 starts and won one race becoming the only black driver to win a race in the Grand National (Sprint cup) Series.

From boyhood, Scott wanted to be his own boss. He vowed never to work in a cotton mill or a tobacco plant which where the two dominant industries of his local town of Danville, Virginia. He began learning auto mechanics from his father, who worked as a driver and mechanic for two wealthy families. After Wendell started racing, all the people of the neighborhood would all say the same thing, “He's just like his daddy" who used to scare people half to death with the way he drove. Scott raced bicycles against white boys in his neighborhood. He said, "I was the only black boy that had a bicycle." He became a daredevil on roller skates, speeding down Danville's steep hills on one skate. He dropped out of high school, to become a taxi driver.

He was a mechanic in the segregated 101st airborne division in the Army in Europe during World War II in 1942.

In 1944, after his discharge, he and Mary Cole got married and later on had six kids.

After the war, he ran an auto-repair shop; and as a sideline, he started running moonshine, which is a good part of how NASCAR got started, with the first NASCAR driver driving their old moonshine running cars, from out of the hills of Virginia and North Carolina. The police caught Wendell only once, in 1949 because he had to dodge a group of people and slid into a house; he was sentenced to three years probation. Even with the probation he continued making his whiskey runs, and on the weekends, he would go to the stock car races in Danville, and he would have to sit in the blacks-only section of the bleachers.

In 1952 the officials at the track in Danville wanted to spice up there races, so they said they were going to put a Negro in with the old country boys. They wanted a fast Negro, not one that will just ride around, so they asked the local police who the best Negro driver was. The police told them of Wendell Scott, the bootlegger who they had chased and chased, but only had caught once. Wendell was invited to race and he jumped on it bringing one of his best moonshine running cars to the next race, which made him the first African-American driver in Southern stock car racing. His car broke down during the race as fans booed him, but he then realized he wanted his career to be racing. He attempted a couple NASCAR sanctioned races after that race, but at the time NASCAR did not allow colored people to race, so he stuck to local dirt track racing, and in a short heat at Lynchburg, Virginia in the amateur class Scott won his very first race.

In 1953 after gaining experience in auto racing and winning over 200 races and a couple track championships at local ½ to ¾ mile race tracks in rural Virginia and North Carolina, Wendell became the first African-American to obtain a NASCAR license; but the only reason he was granted one was because the steward at Richmond Speedway had the power to grant them, and he did; but not without anguish, when the NASCAR officials at Daytona Beach heard what Mike Poston the steward at Richmond speedway had done they were furious. Scott's career was affected by racial prejudice with NASCAR officials, drivers, and fans in the sport that was conceived in the racist heavy south; however, his determined struggle as an underdog won him thousands of fans, white and black, and many friends and admirers throughout the garage.

One night in 1954 a promoter at an event in Raleigh, North Carolina gave all the racers 15 dollars for gas money but denied Wendell the money. The next day he met Bill France for the first time and told him what had happened. Bill being the kind man he was reached into his pocket and gave Scott 30 dollars and assured him that the color of his skin would never be a factor in NASCAR; that of course was not true so far so Wendell wondered why it would be true in the future, but he still hoped France would keep his promise.

In 1961, the same year Jackie Robinson broke color barriers in Major League Baseball, Wendell Scott moved up to the Grand National (Sprint cup) division of NASCAR. The NASCAR races he ran up to that time were equivalent to the Whelen modified series or Camping world touring series.

On the first day of December in 1963 he went to race at the one mile long dirt track at Speedway Park just like he would any other race; but this one was different. He was driving a Chevrolet Bel Air which he had purchased from Ned Jarrett and won the race, two laps ahead of the second place driver Buck Baker; NASCAR declared Buck Baker the winner, claiming it was due to the racist society that Florida was known for, but others say that NASCAR didn’t want a black man to win a race so they claimed Buck won it, but then two hours later NASCAR made the necessary corrections and correctly declared Wendell as the very first and only to date African-American to win a NASCAR Grand National (Sprint cup) race. He ended up only getting a piece of junk trophy a couple months later in a small ceremony in Savannah, Georgia, because Buck got the real one, and he didn’t get to celebrate with the beauty queen, his team, or his family; but that piece of junk trophy that don’t even tell what is was for he got, is his wife Mary’s most prized possession. That year he finished 12th in the points standings.

He finished a career high of 6th in the point standings in 1966.

In 1971, he received the first Curtis Turner Achievement Award for his efforts to promote NASCAR racing.

He was forced to retire due to injuries from a 19 car pile-up at Talladega, Alabama in 1973 which almost crippled him; his injuries included broken pelvis bones, three broken ribs, a leg broken in seven places, and a lacerated arm that required seventy stitches.

In 1977, he was inducted into the National Black Athletic Hall of Fame.

In 1986, Les Montgomery of Atlanta, Georgia, with Wendell's help, established a Wendell Scott Racing Foundation to begin a scholarship program for young people interested in auto mechanics.

On Dec. 22, 1990, Wendell Scott died of Spinal Cancer. Yet, his spirit and memory lives on in the hearts and memories of family, fans, and friends.
He achieved one win and 147 top ten finishes in 506 career Grand National (Sprint cup series) starts.

The book, "Hard Driving: The American Odyssey of NASCAR's First Black Driver," by Brian Donovan was a biography written about Wendell, Mojo Nixon, a fellow Danville native, wrote a tribute song titled "The Ballad of Wendell Scott", which appears on Nixon and Skid Roper's 1987 album, "Frenzy", and in his home town of Danville the street he lived on was officially renamed “Wendell Scott Drive” in 1997, that is just a few of many honors Wendell Scott got and deserved for his determination to become the first African-American to race in NASCAR.