"During the 1950s and '60s, as civil rights conflict roiled the South, the first black person that many white southerners came to admire was the driver who'd integrated their beloved sport of stock car racing."
- Author Brian Donovan, Hard Driving: The Wendell Scott Story
Wendell Oliver Scott was a stock car racing driver. He was the first Black driver licensed by NASCAR, the third Black driver to start a race in NASCAR's top level series (then called the Grand National series), the first Black driver to run regularly in that series and the first Black driver to win a race in that series, all accomplished during the Jim Crow era in the South.
Wendell was born in Danville, Virginia on 29 August 1921. His parents were William Ira Scott and Martha Ella (Motley) Scott. His older half brother Ira was from his father's previous marriage, his older half sister Willie Elizabeth was from his mother's previous marriage, and his younger full sister was born two years after him.
About 1924 Wendell and his family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Wendell described the events of the next few years to Hard Driving's author Brian Donovan as follows: about 1926 his parents separated; Wendell, his mother, and his siblings moved in with his aunt in Louisville, Kentucky, and moved back to Danville in 1931. The 1930 U.S. census, however, recorded Wendell as living in Pittsburgh with his mother, his father, Delma, Guelda, and Elizabeth.
He was recorded on the 1940 U.S. census living with his sister Guelda and their mother in the Tunstal district of rural Pittsylvania County. He worked as a helper in the construction industry as an apprentice brick layer.
When Wendell registered for the Selective Service in 1941, he lived in Danville, Virginia, where he worked as a taxi cab driver. He had been driving taxi since at least 1939, and had developed a reputation as a driver who could get passengers to their destinations fast. He was drafted into the army on 6 November 1943. He served until 10 Dec 1945 as a mechanic with the 3116th Quartermaster Company.
Wendell married Mary Belle Coles in Danville on 10 July 1944, while he was on leave. A few weeks later he was deployed overseas. Their first child was born while Wendell was in Europe. They would go on to have 5 more children. Wendell also had a child born from a brief extramarital relationship, who was raised by him and Mary Belle after the child's mother died.
When Wendell returned from his service overseas he began working on cars for a living. He worked in his repair shop by day, and at night he was a moonshine runner, driving bootleg whiskey to customers willing to pay for it. Money from bootlegging paid for the home he had built in Danville in 1946, the home that he lived in for the rest of his life. On 12 Sept 1949 he was indicted by a federal grand jury for bootlegging; he pleaded guilty but was sentenced only to three years probation because he had no prior moonshine convictions.
Although some sources claim Wendell began racing in 1947 or 1949, it is unclear where these purported races took place. It is more likely that his career began about 1952, when he was recruited by promoters of the Danville Fairgrounds track, part of the Dixie Circuit (an early regional stock car racing association), who were looking for a Black driver to use promotionally. Wendell was recommended to them by the Danville police, who had witnessed his speed while trying to catch him in his bootlegging days.
His first race was an amateur event at the Danville Fairgrounds speedway on 23 May 1952. Twelve days later Wendell won his first race, a 10 lap amateur event on the half mile oval at Lynchburg, Virginia's Schrader Field speedway. During the next few years Wendell raced in hobby, amateur, and modified races on the Dixie Circuit and on outlaw (unaffiliated) tracks. In 1953 he hauled his car to the track in Richmond, Virginia and asked to be allowed to race in the NASCAR Sportsman's division event that day. He had been denied similar requests at other tracks, but this time a NASCAR official, low level but nevertheless authorized to grant licenses to drive in NASCAR, granted Wendell a license.
Over the next few years Wendell expanded beyond the Dixie Circuit, winning races and winning fans on northern Virginia tracks. He also won over many of his fellow drivers. Wendell was an owner-driver, who financed and maintained his own cars without corporate sponsorship. His fellow racer Cal Johnson, quoted in Hard Driving:
When Wendell breaks an axle, he gets out ... crawls under there and works on the car, you got to respect him. Everybody finally got so they did.
During the 1950s Wendell won 128 hobby, amateur and modified races. In 1959 he won 22 races in NASCAR's Sportsman Division, plus the Richmond Southside Speedway track and Virginia State Sportsman Division championships.
Wendell moved up to the NASCAR Grand National Series on 4 March 1961, racing in the sixth race of the season, held on the half-mile dirt oval at Piedmont International Fairground in Spartanbutg, South Carolina. He completed 52 of the scheduled 200 laps, a problem with oil pressure taking his 1960 Chevy out of the running.
He won the pole for the Grand National race at Savannah Speedway in Savannah, Georgia on 30 July 1962. He finished eighth, running, but 12 laps down. It was the only pole he won in this series.
Wendell won the Grand National race held at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Florida on 1 December 1963, the first race won in NASCAR's top level series by a Black driver. The race on a half mile dirt oval was the third race of the 1964 season (the season began at the end of 1963). Wendell in his blue number 34 1962 Chevy started 15th.On the 175th lap of a scheduled 200 laps Wendell passed none other than NASCAR legend Richard Petty to take the lead, a position he kept until the end of the race. When Wendell crossed the finish line on the 200th lap he was not shown the checkered flag that would end the race. The end of the race was described by RacersReunion columnist Matt McLaughlin in a 2012 blog post:
Wendell kept right on driving. On the next lap he didn't get the checkered, nor on the one after that. Buck Baker was flagged the winner on that lap. Wendell hopped out his car, and filed a protest ... Over an hour later NASCAR admitted a mistake had been made and declared Wendell Scott the winner.
Records of the race show that it went 202 laps, adding the two extra laps that Wesley drove. The trophy for winning the race was not given to Wendell. NASCAR and the Jacksonville Stock Car Racing Hall of Fame presented his family with a replica trophy in 2010. The family was never given an official trophy.
1966-1969 were the best years of Wendell's career. He finished in the top ten for points in each of the four years, reaching his highest ranking, sixth, in 1966. His highest earning year was 1969, with $47,451 in winnings.
On the eighth lap of the 1973 Winston 500, the spring race at Talladega, Wendell wrecked his car in a 21-car pile up. He suffered a broken pelvis, a broken leg, and required seventy stitches in his left arm. He did not drive again until the October race at Charlotte, North Carolina. He drove for an owner other than himself, one of only a few times he did so. He finished 12th. It was his last race.
In his 13-year NASCAR career at the cup level Wendell ran in 495 races, with 1 pole, 1 win, and 147 top ten finishes, twenty times finishing in the top 5.
After the end of his driving career Wendell returned to his auto repair business. It took nine years to pay off the note on the car he wrecked at Talladega, finally paying it off in 1982. As late as 1986 Wendell was working twelve to sixteen hours a day repairing passenger cars in his shop.
Wendell died of spinal cancer in Danville on 23 December 1990, and was buried in Cunningham Cemetery in Danville, Virginia.
Posthumously he was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1999.
In 2015 he became the first Black driver to be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.Driven
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