Wendell Oliver Scott August 29, 1921 - December 23, 1990
Wendell Scott was a racecar driving champion, US Army veteran, and father of seven. Till 2013, Scott remained the only African-American driver to win a NASCAR race, a 50-year layoff. American sports fans generally associate the phrase ‘breaking the color barrier’ with Jackie Robinson and Major League Baseball. But Wendell Scott broke NASCAR’s color barrier when he took to the Danville (Virginia) Fairgrounds Speedway on May 23, 1952.
Navigating racial prejudice made it difficult for Scott. With his success on Virginia tracks, NASCAR officials, despite their racial animus, were forced to grant Scott his license. This made Wendell Scott the first African-American driver to earn a NASCAR license. The license fueled his dream and his love of driving fueled his determination to win on the track.
Being an African-American NASCAR driver was tough enough, but being one during Jim Crow in The South, added to his struggles to find a sponsor willing to endorse him. Thus, he traveled to races with his family who also served as his pit crew. Scott’s son Frank recounted in an interview, “I can remember him getting injured, and he’d just take axle grease and put it in the cut and keep working.”
Due to Jim Crow segregation and a combination of death threats, Scott was not permitted to race on certain tracks. Even some of the tracks that did allow Scott to compete cheated him out of victories. Frank remembers a race in Jacksonville that his father won but race officials refused to drop the checkered flag in order to prevent him from kissing the white beauty queen (as was customary for race winners).
Scott was a highly productive driver during his 21-year career, starting in 495 races. According to NASCAR, there have only been 36 drivers to start more races than Scott.
Scott’s story could easily be one of a great man who eventually faltered or inevitably succumbed to mounting pressure.. But he never allowed outside factors (like the racism of NASCAR officials) to change him or dictate how he would approach obstacles. Despite the oppression, amateur pit crew, and lack of sponsors, Scott saw past that and maintained his appreciation for the opportunity to continue doing what he loved – racing.