NASCAR’s first full-time Black driver overcame racism and lesser equipment to win.

By Jodie Valade
February 03, 2021
Credit: RacingOne/Getty Images

If he were still alive, Wendell Scott would be celebrating his 100th birthday in August. Fifty-eight years after his first victory in NASCAR's top division, the NASCAR Hall of Fame member would be able to see how the barriers he broke down have provided opportunity for minorities in stock car racing.

It has taken time. Probably longer than anyone expected, and definitely longer than anyone hoped.

But Bubba Wallace is now the second, full-time Black NASCAR driver at the sport's highest level. This season, he is competing for a team co-owned by the man regarded as the greatest NBA player of all time, Michael Jordan.

NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program, which began in 2004 as a way for minority and women drivers to have an entry point into the sport, featured Wendell Scott Jr. as a driving coach in the program's early years.

And the Wendell Scott Foundation offers charitable support through educational programs and other activities in service to the Danville, Virginia, community.

It's all a far cry from when Scott started in the sport.

"Wendell Scott had a Hall of Fame career in perseverance alone, overcoming death threats, pervasive discrimination and meager funding to race at NASCAR's highest level for more than a decade. But well beyond the monumental task of breaking NASCAR's color barrier, he also deserves immense credit for being known as a racer," said Nate Ryan, senior motor sports writer at NBC Sports. "Though he wasn't afforded opportunities that matched his driving talent, he still held his own and posted respectable results against drivers who were racing with more money and resources. His indefatigable will lives on with his family, which has helped ensure his legacy remains well documented and remembered."

Scott served in World War II as a motor pool mechanic, and when he returned home after three years, he opened his own auto repair shop. He added to his income by working as a taxi driver—and by hauling moonshine in Virginia.

He broke the stock car color barrier at the Danville Fairgrounds dirt track on May 23, 1952, when he competed in an old Ford. He won third place and $50—and an immediate thirst to continue racing.

"Once I found out what it was like, racing was all I wanted to do as long as I could make a decent living out of it," Scott later said, according to NASCAR. "I'm no different from most other people who're doing what they like to do."

But it was the 1950s and '60s in the South. According to NASCAR, for much of his career, Scott and his family were denied access to hotels, restaurants, and other essential services because he was Black.

Still, he persisted in the sport he loved. He won hundreds of short-track races, and made his premier series debut on March 4, 1961, at Piedmont Interstate Fairgrounds in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He finished 17th in an 18-car field—earning him that same total of $50 he won in his first-ever race.

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Over the course of his NASCAR career, Scott competed in 495 races at the highest level, finishing in the top ten 147 times. That he did it with little financial assistance and often with used cars and parts against teams with far more was a credit to his persistence and love of the sport.

His lone win came in December 1963, and it came with controversy. Though Scott had beaten Buck Baker by two laps, NASCAR declared Baker the victor. Scott protested. Hours later, after fans had left the Jacksonville, Florida, track, NASCAR said it had made a "scoring error" and handed Scott the winner's check for $1,000.

The delay allowed NASCAR to avoid a scene it wasn't quite ready to embrace—a Black driver receiving the traditional kiss from the event's white beauty queen in Victory Lane.

But Scott's victory began to lay the foundation for minorities to crack open the NASCAR door.