NASCAR is the only sport that starts the season with its top racing event – the Daytona 500 – but it has not always credited its top racers. Today, we look at a history maker, a barrier-breaker and a great race car driver, Wendell Oliver Scott.
Born in Virginia in 1921, Scott was the first Black driver to compete in NASCAR. He went on to become the first Black driver to win NASCAR’s highest level of racing, the Grand National Series.
Scott’s racing career was largely stunted by racial discrimination and prejudice from NASCAR officials and fellow drivers. His determination and underdog character won over thousands of fans in the racing world.
As a boy, Scott learned auto mechanics from his father. Scott later dropped out of high school to become a taxi driver and marry a woman named Mary Coles. During World War II, Scott enlisted in the segregated Army in Europe. After the war, he opened his own car repair shop.
Scott ran moonshine whiskey on the side to raise money for his racing career. Scott was arrested for running moonshine in 1949 and was put on probation for three years. Scott continued to make late-night whiskey runs after his arrest.
When he was ready to begin his racing career, Scott attempted to enter two races in North Carolina run by NASCAR, but the officials turned him away when he tried to enter the race because he was Black. Deciding to try his luck at non-NASCAR speedways, Scott entered the Dixie Circuit in Danville, Va. He won his first race 12 days into his racing career.
Fans shouted racial slurs at Scott and prejudiced drivers crashed into him deliberately, but many fans began to root for the underdog. Scott was winning over White drivers who became his friends and acted as his bodyguards, and Southern newspapers began reporting positively on Scott’s talent.
Although Scott was setting records at non-NASCAR races, he knew he needed to break barriers in NASCAR to truly rise to fame as a racer. Scott met Mike Poston, a part-timer with the authority to issue racing licenses, at a NASCAR event at Richmond Speedway. Against the advice of his superiors, Poston granted Scott a license.
In 1959, NASCAR awarded Scott two championships in Virginia: one for drivers of sportsman-class stock cars and one for track championship in the sportsman class.
Scott debuted in the Grand National Series in 1961. By 1963, Scott had become the first Black driver to win the Grand National Series, one of NASCAR’s premier-level races.
Due to the prejudice Scott faced as a Black racer, he was not declared the winner of the Grand National Series at the time. The winner was named as Buck Baker, who had finished in second place.
Two years later, NASCAR awarded Scott the win. His family did not receive the trophy until 2010, 20 years after Scott died of spinal cancer.
Scott was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2015.
– by Ron Whitlock Sr.