Wednesday, March 9, 2011

In the Rearview Mirror: Wendell Scott

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Wendell Scott’s first career NASCAR start, I salute him with this look back In the Rearview Mirror.


Wendell Scott (center) was truly a NASCAR pioneer
Credit: Motorsports Images and Archives

Wendell Scott, the first African American to win a NASCAR race, is often mistaken as the first to ever attempt a NASCAR race. That honor goes to Elias Bowie, who made his only start in July 1955 competing in a Grand National race against the likes of Lee Petty and Tim Flock. Bowie finished 28th in that race, but set a mark as the first African American to complete a NASCAR-sanctioned event.

Born in Danville, Va., on Aug. 29, 1921, Wendell Oliver Scott broke the color barrier in auto racing.

Growing up, a young Wendell knew he wanted to escape from the local living of either working at a cotton mill or tobacco processing plant. He learned auto mechanics from his father, who worked as a driver and mechanic for two white families. Scott along with his sister, Guelda, were in awe of their father and his driving skills. Wendell learned his daredevil skills from his father; racing his bicycle against the white boys in the neighborhood (Scott was the only African American to have a bike).

Wendell dropped out of high school, becoming a taxi driver and than marrying his wife Mary Coles. Scott worked as a taxi driver until 1943, when he joined the United States Army, where he served until 1945.

Post war life, Wendell Scott ran an auto-repair shop by day and on the side he ran the illegal trade of transporting moonshine whiskey. Speaking of his moonshine car, Scott once said in an interview, “would do 95 in second gear, and 118 in high.” According to Scott at the time, there was no police cars in Danville that could go over 95 mph.

It was on one of these moonshine runs that Scott would get into an accident, skidding into a house, resulting in a citation from the police. Wendell received three years probation. This incident proved fortunate, when a local race promoter asked the police for the name of a black man who would be able to drive a race car for him. Scott’s name was mentioned.

Wendell Scott began his racing career in 1949, and motorsports as a whole were just beginning. Scott faced much adversity being an African American trying to race. Fans booed him and threw things at him while fellow drivers would crash him or even slash his tires. Not all the discrimination was so blatant; it often was reflected in judging discrepancies. Often Scott, despite where he finished, would be scored in last place. While racing on the short tracks, Scott won 127 races.

In 1961, Scott made the jump to the elite form of racing, the Grand Nationals, which is now the Sprint Cup Series. Wendell Scott’s crowning glory came on Dec. 1, 1963, when competing at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Fla. Scott, driving a Chevrolet Bel Air that he purchased from Ned Jarrett, had won the race with Buck Baker finishing second. Officials signaled Baker as the race winner though Scott clearly finished ahead of him. Scott did protest the results, and after review days later was declared the race winner. Many attribute this to not wanting an African American race winner to kiss a white trophy queen in victory lane.

Wendell Scott continued to drive and in his career had one win and 147 top-10 finishes. Scott retired from racing in 1973, returning to his familiar roots of running an auto garage.

The life and legacy of Wendell Scott is still seen today. Movies were made depicting his story, such "Greased Lighting" starring Richard Pryor, which was loosely based on his biography. The biography "Hard Driving: The Wendell Scott Story" is just one of the numerous salutes to Scott.

Wendell Scott passed away on Dec. 24, 1990 after battling spinal cancer. One month after his death, the Virginia Senate passed a resolution to mourn his passing and honor his accomplishments. They noted him as being a “trailblazing sportsman and a man of skill, dedication, and perseverance."

This past weekend in Las Vegas, NASCAR honored the 50th anniversary of Wendell Scott’s first career NASCAR start with a decal on the cars. Below is the decal.



*Credit to Rebecca Gladden @nscrwriter for the info on Elias Bowie. Read her article at

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