Wendell Scott: NASCAR'S Unsung American Hero


 By Brian Donovan



                                                           Associated Press


Wendell Scott, NASCAR'S first black driver, a pioneer in American sports history.







Associated Press



Scott, who broke the color barrier on the speedway in a time of searing racial prejudice and upheaval.






Wendell Scott: NASCAR'S Unsung American Hero

By Brian Donovan


On Tuesday, 18 years will have passed since the death of a remarkable racial pioneer: Wendell Scott, NASCAR’s first black driver. A talented racer, Scott began banging fenders with roughneck competitors on Dixie dirt tracks in 1952, during an era when he couldn’t use a white restroom or drinking fountain. His story, little known outside the racing world, offers a reminder of how much our country has changed — but also of how NASCAR’s progress toward diversity still seems stuck in the past.

Scott’s dream of becoming a competitive national-level racer depended on support from NASCAR’s celebrated founder and czar, the late Bill France Sr. At first, Scott’s prospects looked promising. Early on, France assured him he’d always be treated without prejudice. In the minor leagues Scott won dozens of races and a Virginia state championship.

Like Barack Obama, Scott developed surprising numbers of admirers among ordinary white folks in Southern states. He became one of NASCAR’s most popular drivers, even as an underdog without the corporate sponsorship for a competitive race car. His passionate determination inspired fans to reconsider racial stereotypes. Unfortunately, his support in the grandstands wasn’t matched in NASCAR’s executive suites.

As the growing civil rights struggle inflamed racial tensions in the 1960s, France reneged on his promise, and a pattern of unfair treatment by NASCAR followed. France denied Scott the Rookie of the Year Award for his first major-league season, even though Scott was the top rookie in the standings.

When Scott won his only national race, NASCAR officials, fearing he’d kiss the white trophy queen, declared another driver the victor. Long after the crowd and the queen had left, NASCAR grudgingly admitted that Scott had won.

For years South Carolina’s major track, Darlington Raceway, banned Scott because he was black. This cost him any chance for sponsorship. France addressed the problem with inaction and silence. When Scott finally asked for help, he said France told him that Darlington was important to NASCAR’s success and Scott should just be patient.

When senior NASCAR officials and major promoters mistreated Scott, France continued his hands-off neutrality. One official abused his authority and excluded Scott from an important race at Charlotte. Others did the same thing at the speedways in Daytona Beach, Fla., and Martinsville,

Va. — facilities in which France owned major financial interests. Repeatedly, officials harassed Scott over trivial issues: his son’s beards, minor blemishes in his car’s paint.

At one prestigious NASCAR event, Scott was exploited in a bogus promotional scheme. A record crowd packed Charlotte’s speedway after the promoter announced he’d give Scott his first chance to drive a competitive car. But the car was a phony; its weak performance embarrassed Scott in front of 81,000 spectators.

France helped other drivers obtain sponsorship for competitive cars, but not Scott. This pattern of unfairness persisted, insiders say, largely because France and other influential executives in the NASCAR world believed that a competitive black driver would be bad for business. At the time France was cultivating alliances with leading segregationist politicians such as Alabama Gov. George Wallace, and those relationships helped NASCAR to grow into today’s multibillion-dollar enterprise.

The biased actions toward Scott continued as France was negotiating successfully with Wallace for millions of dollars in state subsidies for a huge new speedway. Wallace would never have approved that money if NASCAR’s lone black driver had any chance of winning.

Today, 35 years after Scott’s last race, America’s racial situation has improved drastically. But NASCAR remains the country’s least diverse major sport, despite a diversity program launched eight years ago. Every regular driver in NASCAR’s three national series is a white male.

Some Scott admirers feel that some official recognition for him from NASCAR is long overdue — perhaps at the new hall of fame NASCAR is opening in 2009, perhaps a public apology for the bigotry he suffered. Others believe an apology would be quite unlikely, since NASCAR, still owned by the France family, has never honestly acknowledged its role in robbing Scott of his dream.

When we cling to the comfort of denying what we’ve done wrong in the past, we hobble our ability to understand the unfair situations we should be trying to correct today.

Even if NASCAR can’t figure out how to put another Wendell Scott on its speedways, it should at least find some way to express regret for its shabby treatment of an American integration pioneer, one of the many whose struggles helped to open doors for African-Americans to all sectors of our society, including the door to the Oval Office.




Brian Donovan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is the author of “Hard Driving: The Wendell Scott Story, the American Odyssey of NASCAR’s First Black Driver.”  For further information see: www.harddriving.us.



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