Column: The Story of Wendell Scott

Whenever we post something on the Grassroots Motorsports Facebook page, it’s a total guess as to how it will do. Something we actually spent some time and brain power crafting? Never know, it could blow up and succeed like the latest cat video or it might go over like Crystal Pepsi. 

A while back I posted a silly meme showing a bunch of Spec Miatas flowing through Mid-Ohio’s Turn 7. One Miata stands out, though, because it’s catching air while cutting through the sand trap. The caption: “We all have that one friend…”

For some reason, that meme struck a chord. The last time I checked, the post went to some 2.6-plus million people. 

So when I posted a link to the StoryCorps animated short about NASCAR legend Wendell Scott, I wondered how it would fly. Did our readers even remember him? The post kind of took off, and that made me happy. 

 

Growing up, I followed enough NASCAR to have my favorites: 21, 71 and, of course, 43.

Plus one more: 34, Wendell Scott. 

Scott’s NASCAR career ended long before my “Wide World of Sports”-watching days began, but I knew his story thanks to “Greased Lightning,” the 1977 Hollywood biography starring Richard Pryor. Fortunately, early in life my dad introduced me to the classics, including “The Blues Brothers,” “1941” and “Greased Lightning.”

The story of “Greased Lightning” was simple: Scott wanted to go racing, and as an African-American living in a segregated Virginia, the deck was stacked mightily against him. Despite little to no financial backing, the former moonshine runner eventually made it to NASCAR’s top level, the Grand National division. 

He scored a win there, too, finishing first at a 1963 race in Jacksonville, Florida. The next day’s newspapers probably missed the win, though, due to a supposed scoring error. The Wendell Scott Foundation’s website explains:

“Scott started in 15th position and easily lapped all the other racers. He was coming up on his 200th lap, the final lap, and expected to see the checkered flag waving for his first-place finish. The flag remained unmoved. Scott continued on for two more laps expecting the checkered flag to signal the end of the race and his victory. Instead, the flag waved for Buck Baker, who was two laps behind Scott. The judges awarded Scott third place.”

Later on, after the crowds left, Scott did get the credit and prize money for the win, but not the actual trophy. 

Ten years later, a wreck at Talladega ended his driving career. On December 23, 1990, Scott lost his battle with spinal cancer. 

His legacy didn’t die, fortunately. The Jacksonville, Florida, hall of fame inducted him in 1994. The International Motorsports Hall of Fame followed suit in 1999. In 2015, 25 years after his passing, Wendell Scott was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Mojo Nixon may be known for writing some silly (and occasionally crude) songs, but he gets serious and downright respectful with his 1986 release “The Ballad of Wendell Scott”:

But because he was black they said, “Wendell, get back!

Boy, you shouldn’t even try!”

They were mighty surprised when they seen with their eyes,

Wendell was passing ‘em by.

Our readers remember him, too, as the Facebook reaction to the StoryCorps short was huge–at least by our usual standards. The reactions fell into one of three camps: 

  • I had no idea that this happened, and I’m rather upset.
  • I know his story, and I’m also rather upset.
  • That is why I run No. 34.

Phil Osborne, one of our Facebook fans, summed up what many of us thought: “Sad he was denied a true racing career due to skin color...check that...pathetic he was denied due to skin color....even more pathetic that my generation aided in the denial…”

For me, personally, I don’t care what color you are. Or what gender you ID as. Or what God you pray to. Or whatever characteristic some people use to divide us. We’re all stuck on this rock together. If you’re into cars and you treat others fairly, then you can join Wendell Scott in my club.

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Comments
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Stampie (FS)
Stampie (FS) MegaDork
11/12/20 8:41 a.m.

And he won in Jacksonville.  At one point it was discussed painting our Challenge car in his livery.

Snowdoggie
Snowdoggie HalfDork
11/12/20 9:53 a.m.

This guy ran a NASCAR Grand National Team on a low budget with very few sponsors in a small garage. He should be the Patron Saint of the Challenge. 

Tom1200
Tom1200 Dork
11/12/20 10:28 a.m.

For me the thing I most remember is Ned Jarret saying the guy could hang the back of the car out further than any other drive Jarret had ever seen.....................mad skills and huge respect.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
11/12/20 1:36 p.m.
Snowdoggie said:

This guy ran a NASCAR Grand National Team on a low budget with very few sponsors in a small garage. He should be the Patron Saint of the Challenge. 

You know, you raise a strong point. 

Richard Richer
Richard Richer
11/12/20 2:32 p.m.

For a more complete story on Wendell Scott, read "Hard Driving : The Wendell Scott Story - The American Odyssey of Nascar's First Black Driver", written by Brian Donovan, himself a seasoned race car driver (SCCA) and twice awarded the Pulitzer prize for his newspaper reporting at Newsday in NY.  And coincidentally my son-in-law's dad.  Brian passed away a few years ago but his book stands the testament of time.

Datsun310Guy
Datsun310Guy MegaDork
11/12/20 3:14 p.m.

I have an email old Car and Driver that wrote him up - great story.  

Pete Gossett (Forum Supporter)
Pete Gossett (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
11/12/20 6:03 p.m.

In reply to Richard Richer :

I have a copy of that book. It's an amazing, albeit sad story. 

Wally (Forum Supporter)
Wally (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
11/12/20 8:11 p.m.

In reply to Richard Richer :

That was a fantastic book.  I read the entire thing in two days.

chada75
chada75 HalfDork
11/12/20 9:14 p.m.

My late friends dad worked for various NASCAR cup teams in the 60s and 70s before becoming a east coast two cycle kart legend. He said that Wendel would pull in for pit work and while his kids was working on the car, he would go to the concession stand to get a hot dog before reentering the race!

triumph7
triumph7 Reader
11/12/20 10:13 p.m.

I'm sorry, I thought you said Randolph Scott......

dxman92
dxman92 Dork
11/12/20 10:43 p.m.

Thanks for sharing. I just threw it on my FB page.

oneway
oneway New Reader
11/14/20 10:18 a.m.

As a young race fan that grew up in the Northeast in the 60's & 70's I remember going to the NASCAR Grand National-now NASCAR CUP SERIES-events  that came on their Northern swing.  Islip Speedway in NY, Trenton Fairgrounds Speedway in NJ, and Thompson Speedway in CT were three of the tracks they competed at and fondly remember the good old days of NASCAR-real stock car racing.  Petty, Pearson, Darrel Dieringer, Tiny Lund, Ned Jarrett, were some of the bigger names of the day that came North to race and always recall #34 Wendell Scott also being there.  Sadly most fans recognized him as  " a black race driver" instead of just a very good race driver that was competing very respectfully in the very top tier of stock car racing.  Wendell Scott was truly a pioneer in auto racing and should be remembered and honored not for being black but for being a true lover of auto racing who was skilled enough to compete at the highest level and stock car racing for many years.  Thanks, John-Lugoff, SC.

KentF (Forum Supporter)
KentF (Forum Supporter) Reader
11/14/20 4:57 p.m.

Would have been good to know him.

 

racerfink
racerfink UltraDork
11/14/20 5:58 p.m.

There’s a Warner Bros. movie called “Greased Lightning”, with Richard Pryor as Wendell Scott.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
11/16/20 12:55 p.m.
racerfink said:

There’s a Warner Bros. movie called “Greased Lightning”, with Richard Pryor as Wendell Scott.

Yup. I saw it as a kid. Good watching. 

The Wendell Scott Foundation has a Facebook page, too. 

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