Today, as a follow up to yesterday’s post about Richard Pryor, we will visit with the subject of one of the hit hollywood movies (Greased Lightning – 1977) Pryor starred in; Wendell Oliver Scott (1921 – 1990). Wendell Scott was the first Black American to qualify and race in The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). Mr. Scott’s NASCAR carrer spanned 13 years (1961 – 1973) where he recorded 1 Grand National win, 20 Top Five finishes and 147 Top Ten finishes. Mr. Scott received a Pole Position award in 1961. Overall, Mr. Scott earned over $220,000 and none of it was handed to him on a silver platter. Mr. Scott received the ultimate slap in the face when NASCAR officials refused to wave the checkered flag when Mr. Scott crossed the finish line first at Speedway Park in Jacksonville Florida. Instead, officials flagged Buck Baker the winner, gave Baker the $1,000 prize and winners trophy and let Baker soak in the cheers of the crowd in the winners circle. Hours later, after Mr. Scott filed a protest, NASCAR officials told Mr. Scott he won the race and awarded him the $1,000. Mr. Scott never got the trophy (Baker never offered to return it) and never had the honor of celebrating in the winner’s circle.
Here is a biography (available here):
Like many of the early NASCAR drivers,Wendell Scott started out hauling moonshine in a souped up car he maintained himself. Scott was a clever entrepanuer, opening a taxi service in his native Danville, Virginia to shuttle the local residents around town by day, then using the cab under the cover of darkness to bring them the white lightning they were thirsty for.
With his popularity among the moonshiners growing as word of his driving ability spread through the mid Atlantic region, Scott began entering races at local dirt tracks throughout Virginia and North Carolina in 1952. He tasted success only one month into his driving career, winning his first race on the red clay half mile in Lynchburg, Virginia at the age of thirty.
Determined to move up in the sport of stock car racing, Wendell Scott traveled the south during segregation, showing up at NASCAR events with his number thirty four ready to race. He was turned away from many tracks, told by speedway personnel that he would not be able to compete due to the color of his skin. Encountering signs at restrooms, water fountains and restaurants that read “White Only” was a common occurence for Scott, who never seemed to let it bother him. “I expected all of that,” he said of his trials to become a NASCAR driver in segregated America.
Wendell Scott was issued a NASCAR license for the first time and allowed to compete at the old Richmond Speedway in Virginia, either in 1952 or 1953. NASCAR is not certain of the exact date but believes it to be 1953. Record books indicate that Scott went on to compete in four hundred ninty five Grand National and Winston Cup – known today as the Sprint Cup Series – events over thirteen seasons and collected $180,814 in purse winnings. He is credited with one NASCAR win, a controversial race held on December 1, 1963 in Jacksonville, Florida. Buck Baker was flagged the winner and celebrated in victory circle after Scott had passed Richard Petty, who was nursing a damaged car, for the lead with twenty five laps remaining. Scott was awarded the victory hours after the race was completed and left the track that day without the winners trophy. Many said NASCAR would not allow him to celebrate in victory lane because he would have had to kiss a white beauty queen.
Scott retired from NASCAR racing in 1973 and returned to driving the short tracks of Virginia and the Carolina’s for a few more years, entering select events when circumstances would allow. Later in life he would become dissatisfied with his racing career, firmly believing he hadn’t the opportunity to showcase his talent in competitive equipment. Scott worked diligently throughout his career, without success, to obtain factory support and major sponsorship for his racing efforts. Ned Jarrett and Richard Petty were among his strongest supporters
“I was a black man. They wasn’t going to help a black man. That was all there was to it,” Scott once said in summing up the prejudice his career suffered.
A hard working and humble man, Scott struggled tremendously to raise seven children while running the family auto repair business and pursuing his racing dream. He was popular among NASCAR race fans, taking the time one sunny afternoon in 1973 at the North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham, North Carolina to accommodate this writers request for an autograph and conversation of the days events.
Greased Lightning, a movie detailing the history of Scott’s career, was produced in 1977 and starred Richard Pryor as Wendell Scott. Scott worked with the producers and was promised royalties, but never received any.
Wendell Scott passed away on December 23, 1990 at the age of sixty nine.
A member of several state and regional halls of fame, Scott was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall Of Fame at Talledega in 1999 and the National Motorsports Press Association Hall Of Fame at Darlington in 2000.
It is no doubt Wendell Scott was a genuine racer who accomplished great things in the face of adversity. He was a man ahead of his time, possessing a burning desire to succeed in the sport he dearly loved. Let his path and message serve as an example to us all.