From the sidelines
By Marty Gordon
The winner of a NASCAR race typically receives a trophy. Once, that did not happen.
In 1963, Wendell Scott took the checkered flag at Jacksonville Speedway’s Grand National Race, winning by two laps. After the race, NASCAR bigwigs presented the bling to someone else. Scott did receive the prize money, but it’s the symbolic trophy that at times means more.
If you don’t know the story of Wendell Scott, let me explain.
From 1961 to 1973, he had more than 100 top–10 finishes as the sport’s first black driver. The incident with the trophy — of the lack of it — happened in 1963, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Scott began his racing career on the local circuit and received his NASCAR license in 1953. He officially debuted in the Grand National Series in 1961.
His career was repeatedly affected by racial prejudice and problems with the top officials in the sport, but he was determined to reach the finish line.
The Danville native got started in racing, like many others in that time, hauling moonshine. He was arrested several times but the only sentence he ever received was probation.
Several times, racing promoters turned him away from their local tracks, not letting a black man compete. It was the thrill of racing, though, that kept drawing him back. He never gave up, running as many as five events a week at several local tracks. In many cases, other drivers would wreck Scott on purpose so he couldn’t finish the race. Again, he kept going.
Slowly, many of those contemporary white drivers began to respect Scott for his driving skills. Some of those same drivers became his closest friends and acted as his bodyguards during and after races.
In 1963, he finished 15th in the points standings. On Dec. 1, 1963, in a car purchased by NASCAR-legend Ned Jarrett, he won his lone Grand National race. Scott passed some guy by the name of Richard Petty with 25 laps remaining and never looked back. He won by two laps over Buck Baker, who received the trophy.
Two years later, NASCAR would award Scott the win, but didn’t award him a trophy.
Like many other low-budget race teams, Scott continued to tick along, racing to top–10 finishes one after another until his final race in 1973 at Talladega. He retired after an accident left him with a serious injury.
He passed away in 1980 at the age of 69 with no true fanfare. The film Greased Lightning, starring Richard Pryor, was loosely based on Scott’s career.
He was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2015, but 57 years after winning that race, he still has never been awarded a trophy.
If NASCAR truly wants to make a statement about its position on the recent protests on racial equality, then it must give Scott’s family a trophy.
This should have been years ago. Wendell Scott broke down racing barriers when they needed to be shattered. If NASCAR means what it says about racial equality, it must give Scott‘s family the award he earned.