Wendell Scott was the first Black NASCAR driver and team owner and the first African American driver to win a race in the sport but you’ve probably never heard of him. Scott was a trailblazer and a champion however, due to the racism in the Jim Crow era and the erasure of his wins, his legacy had gone wildly unsung in racing circles. This Black History Month, we’re shining a spotlight on this champion’s legacy.
Scott was born and raised in rural Danville, Virginia in August 1921 where he learned auto mechanics from his father. After serving as a mechanic in World War II, he returned to Virginia and opened a car repair shop. Like many other poor Blacks at the time, Scott made extra money running moonshine, highly illegal at the time of Prohibition. However, it was the speedy driving skills he developed running ‘shine that led him to a career with NASCAR.
In 1951, Scott was approached by a promoter for the Dixie Circuit, one of NASCAR’s competitors, who was looking for a Black driver to challenge the white legacy racers. He won his first race for the circuit in Lynchburg, VA and, after being denied entry into two NASCAR races before, an official in Richmond gave him his NASCAR license in 1953, making him the sport’s first Black racer.
Driving with NASCAR was an achievement but it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Throughout his career, he was barred from certain races, denied championships he’d won, and paid less than his white counterparts. His historic first NASCAR win in December 1963 wasn’t even publicly acknowledged, with the checkered flag waving for victory only after the second driver crossed the finish line. NASCAR officials were allegedly worried about how their white fans would react should Scott enter the victory circle and kiss a white woman beauty queen, as was tradition at the time. After the crowd and other drivers were dispersed, Scott was officially named the champion.
Scott also faced intense racism, death threats, and even sabotage to his racing car. NASCAR fans would attack him and on one occasion, a spectator attempted to poison him with a spiked drink before a race. Scott even had a run-in with the Ku Klux Klan.
Yet, Scott drove on, enduring the consistent prejudice of the Jim Crow South to drive for NASCAR, all while using low-quality equipment. Unable to find sponsors for his races due to the color of his skin, Scott enlisted his six children to be his pit crew.
In 1976, Scott totaled his car in a 21-car crash at Talladega, NASCAR’s longest and fastest raceway leaving him with a damaged kidney in addition to a broken leg, pelvis, knee, and three ribs. He would race only occasionally after the crash before dying from spinal cancer in 1990.
Over 20 years after his death, NASCAR finally acknowledged Scott’s achievements in racing and inducted him into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Progress toward racial equality in this traditionally white, Southern sport has been slow but steps are being taken. NASCAR has implemented multiple diversity initiatives and hosts free events for their Black fans. In 2020, the organization officially banned Confederate Flags at their tracks. Then Scott’s own daughter, Sybill, became a consultant for NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity campaign in the early 2000s.
Scott spent his career in a series of tough races both on and off the track. Though Scott was denied the recognition he deserved in his lifetime, his contributions changed the course for NASCAR and for Black history.
“My father was one of the vanguards of NASCAR history,” Wendell Scott’s son, Frank, told The Washington Post. “With a shoestring budget and all of that other adversity that we dealt with during those years, during the Jim Crow South, his legacy is amazing.”
Alt text: Meet Wendell Scott, NASCAR’s First Black Driver. Image: Wendell Scott/AP