Against all odds: NASCAR’s Wendell Scott

Hank Segars

Lakelife Associate Editor


There was a time when NASCAR featured authentic “stock” cars which meant, by definition, that the automobiles that raced looked a lot like the family’s sedan and were built on a regular factory assembly line. The driver and his mechanics would modify the engine later for more speed.


In those days we could easily identify a Pontiac Catalina from a Ford Galaxie or an Oldsmobile 442. Today, powerful motorsports companies with creative automotive engineers make customized racecars and, unfortunately, they all look similar in design.


“Well, even up into the 1980’s they strongly resembled the factory version,” says Buz McKin, NASCAR historian. “If you look at the ’85 Thunderbird that Bill Elliot ran, or the ’86 Monte Carlo that guys like Earnhardt ran, the car still very much resembled the factory version. It was probably in the early ‘90’s that they really went away from looking like the factory car.”


  1. thing that has not changed: the old saying of “win on Sunday and, sell on Monday,” still rings true when it comes to automobile racing, sponsorships and car sales.


During the 1960s Fireball Roberts won with Pontiacs; Richard Petty in Plymouths; Freddie Lorenzen with Fords; and Junior Johnson in Chevrolets. National sponsors and owners with money backed winning drivers. Regular drivers like Wendell Scott struggled to keep a competitive car ready for race day. Scott also had another challenge that didn’t affect the other drivers – the color of his skin.


“Wendell Scott figured he was signing up for trouble when he became NASCAR’s version of Jackie Robinson in the segregated 1950’s,” writes Brian Donovan, author of an excellent book about Scott called “Hard Driving.” “Some speedways refused to let him race . . . clearly, the arrival of a black competitor in this all-white southern sport wasn’t regarded by NASCAR as a development to celebrate, promote or even talk about publicly . . . [and] the national news media largely ignored NASCAR during these early years.”


Scott wasn’t the first of person of color in racing but he was the first to compete full-time in NASCAR at the highest level of competition. During Scott’s career, the best-known drivers included A.J. Foyt, Ned Jarrett, and Richard Petty; sponsors named Holman-Moody, Petty Enterprises and the Wood Brothers bankrolled the biggest winners. Drivers like Scott had no sponsorships and paid for their racing cars with loans, small bank accounts and second mortgages on homes.


According to Donovan, “Scott wrote of his lack of success in finding support from either white – or black – companies. ‘I just couldn’t get a good ride, his letter said.’ The colored people that could help a colored man that can drive a race are just not interested.’” Scott felt he was carrying the load himself, with friends and family serving alongside as mechanics and pit crew. A few white drivers like Ned Jarrett and Buck Drummond stood up for Scott and helped with money problems and parts for his worn-out cars.


I’ve seen only a few NASCAR races in my lifetime, and the one best remembered was the Firecracker 400 in Daytona, witnessed as a teenager on July 4, 1963. During this time many families in Middle Georgia took their summer vacations at Daytona Beach and attended the race.


That’s when I first noticed Wendell Scott, a black man competing in an all-white sport.


David Pierson, Junior Johnson and many others were driving new 1963 factory-backed cars. Scott was in his battered ’62 with his friends serving in the pits. The crowd numbered over 26,000 and speeds averaged 150 mph around the 2 ½ mile tri-oval track. It was the best of southern stock car racing with 39 exciting lead changes.


  1. the checkered flag finally waved at the wild finish, the majority of the field had left the race due to wrecks, blown engines and other breakdowns. Fireball Roberts led for 63 laps and won with a winning purse of $12,100. Wendell Scott was one of only 11 cars still running at the end and received $500.


Before joining NASCAR, Scott had raced competitively in Virginia and a won a number of races. His NASCAR career lasted 13 years from 1961 to 1973, and he competed at this highest level of racing with 495 starts, ranking 37th on the all-time list. This intrepid driver posted 20 top-five finishes and 147 top-ten finishes. His only major win came in 1963 in Jacksonville; the controversial win was unnecessarily contested and delayed because officials weren’t crazy about a black man winning the race.


Scott died at the age of 69 on December 23, 1990. Ned Jarrett said this to the congregation about his friend and fellow driver: “I don’t know of any man in the sport that worked any harder than he did or accomplished more than he did with what he had. He built a lot of respect.”


  1. Scott’s story is featured in the movie “Greased Lightning,” and his many honors include induction into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1999 and the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2015. This humble man was a pioneer and lived his life as a champion. After seeing this unsung driver compete during that long-ago summer in Daytona, I have always pulled for underdogs like Scott, those who compete against the longest odds.

Here's some additional information about Wendell Scott:


And here's a little of Darrell Wallace after his second place finish at the Daytona 500. 

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