Wendell Scott, who died in 1990, was the first black American to win a race at stock car racing’s highest level. His spot alongside NASCAR’s list of greats comes decades after he defied racism in the Jim Crow south to outpace better-funded white opponents on the same track.
NASCAR’s recognition of Scott comes alongside four other racers — Fred Lorenzen, Joe Weatherly, Rex White and Bill Elliot — whom NASCAR is also inducting in its hall of fame class of 2015.
Scott was born in 1921 in Danville, Virginia, and started his racing career in 1947 after serving in the U.S. army as an automobile mechanic. He went on to win more than 100 races. In 1963, he took home the top prize in a premier series NASCAR event, the Jacksonville 200.
Yet throughout his career, Scott had to endure jeers from fans and even death threats because of the color of his skin, his son Frank recalls.
“Daddy said, ‘Look, if I leave in a pine box, that’s what I’ve got to do. But I’m going to race,'” Frank told StoryCorps, an oral history project, according to NPR.
Even at the peak of his career, racism tailgated Scott. “I can remember him racing in Jacksonville, and he beat them all, but they wouldn’t drop the checkered flag. And then when they did, they had my father in third place,” Frank said. “One of the main reasons that they gave was there was a white beauty queen, and they always kissed the driver.”
After protesting the racist decision, Scott was able to claim the $1,000 prize for coming in first — but only after second-place driver Buck Baker relented, according to the News-Record, a newspaper in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Without sponsors to pay for pit crews, engineers and new equipment, Scott enlisted his family’s help in maintaining his racing car, calling on his son Frank to aid him in the garage. Unlike other drivers, Scott owned his own stock car and had to pay for its upkeep on his own, sometimes using spare parts discarded by other drivers.
Scott had to end his racing career in 1973, after he suffered severe injuries in a crash. The financial cost of racing caught up to him, his son said.
“He did everything that he did out of his own pocket,” Frank told StoryCorps, but stressed that his father took pride in overcoming obstacles to his success in the sport.
“That was one of my daddy’s sayings: ‘When it’s too tough for everybody else, it’s just right for me.'”
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