Wendell Scott was the first African-American driver on the NASCAR circuit, and the first (and still only) to win a Grand National race. NPR’s StoryCorps project recorded his son Frank’s remembrance, and artist Julie Zammarchi animated the interview in this short film.
Wendell Scott got his NASCAR license in 1953, at a time when African-Americans had separate water fountains and rest rooms in this country. In December of 1963 — at the height of the struggle for civil rights — he won a Grand National Series race at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Florida.
Scott’s son Frank tells that race’s aftermath in the film. It’s a testament to Wendell Scott’s perseverance that he continued racing at all after that experience.
Scott was born in Danville, Virginia, and managed to avoid the cotton mills and tobacco processing plants that dominated the local economy. He learned to fix cars from his father, who was both a driver and a mechanic for white families in the region.
He dropped out of high school, and eventually served in the segregated U.S. Army during World War II. When he returned, he started working as an auto mechanic, and like so many other NASCAR greats, he started running moonshine. Caught once, Scott was sentenced to three years probation, though he continued his whiskey runs through the early days of his racing career.
He wouldn’t drive a race car until he was beyond 30, when he was recruited to race against a field of white drivers, thanks to his shine-running prowess. His racing career started in 1952, to a chorus of boos from the spectators.
After an inauspicious start, he won a feature at Staunton in 1953, and tied the qualifying record at Waynesboro, a week later winning the race at that track.
In order to compete at the highest level of stock car racing, though, Scott needed a NASCAR license. He towed his car to an event at Richmond Speedway and asked Mike Poston, to grant him a NASCAR license, based on his experience in the Dixie Circuit. “I told him we’ve never had any black drivers, and you’re going to be knocked around,” Poston said. “He said, ‘I can take it.'”
Poston approved Scott’s license. He let Scott know that the chiefs at NASCAR’s Daytona headquaters weren’t happy about his decision. “He told me that when they found out at Daytona Beach that he had signed me up, they raised hell with him,” Scott said.
When Scott finally met NASCAR President Bill France in 1954, his reaction was surprising. The promoter at a NASCAR event in North Carolina had provided a stipend for gas to all the drivers who came to the track, all except for Scott. Scott approached France in the pits at Lynchburg and complained. Scott said France pulled a wad of cash out of his pocket and vowed that NASCAR officials would never treat him with prejudice. “He let me know my color didn’t have anything to do with anything,” Scott said. “He said, ‘You’re a NASCAR member, and as of now you will always be treated as a NASCAR member.’ And instead of giving me fifteen dollars, he reached in his pocket and gave me thirty dollars.”
In 1961, he graduated to the Grand National circuit, later known as Winston Cup, and now known as the Sprint Cup. Two years later, he finished 15th in points against the legends that built NASCAR’s reputation, like Ned Jarrett, Buck Baker and Richard Petty. At the Jacksonville half-mile dirt oval, he crossed the finish line first, but the signalman never threw the checkered flag. He was officially recorded as finishing third, but was awarded the cash for the winning spot after the race. NASCAR didn’t recognize his victory for two years, after it finally determined that he’d lapped the field not just once, but twice. His family wouldn’t receive the trophy that he earned until 2010, 47 years after Scott crossed the finish line, and 20 years after he died of spinal cancer in 1990.
Scott retired from racing due to injures he received in a crash at Talladega in 1973. That crash — at speeds greater than 190 miles per hour — claimed 21 cars and was known as “The Big One,” for years considered to be the biggest crash in NASCAR history. It’s recorded here in this clip from Car & Track.
He rounded out his career with that single win, 147 top 10 finishes, and 20 top 5 finishes in 495 Grand National starts.
Four years after his career ended, Richard Pryor portrayed Wendell Scott in the 1977 film Greased Lightning.
The StoryCorp interview with his son Frank and the film by Julie Zammarchi recount Scott’s experience at Jacksonville, and his drive to be competitive despite the overt racism he encountered.
Watch the short film DRIVEN below: