CHARLOTTE _ Richard Petty. Ned Jarrett. Wendell Scott.
Most NASCAR fans are very familiar with two of these names; the other, not so much. Two of these men are either currently, or scheduled to be, enshrined in the Hall of Honor in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The other will likely take decades to get the recognition he deserves.
Yet, come Feb. 20, 2011, sports fans will learn more about the legacy and impact Wendell Scott left on the sport of NASCAR thanks to a film put together by ESPN and the NASCAR Media Group entitled, “Wendell Scott: A Race Story,” which will air following the Daytona 500.
Thursday night in the very building in which Petty and Jarrett are honored, family, friends and former competitors of Wendell Scott were given a sneak preview of the docudrama telling the story of NASCAR’s first – and only – African-American Cup Series winner.
Most people are aware of Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in baseball for generations of African-American and minority athletes to follow in his footsteps, but rarely is the story of Wendell Scott told.
Unlike Robinson, Scott was forced to endure all of his hardships and endeavors of breaking into an all-white, predominately southern sport on his own – no help from the factory teams, no help from promoters and certainly no help from the higher-ups at NASCAR.
The story of Wendell Scott is not only a story of a single man defying the standards of the Jim Crow South, but the story of a man who had a goal and a drive and determination to accomplish that goal despite all of the challenges laid out in front of him.
The film tells Scott’s story through the words of his family and some of the competitors who raced against him throughout the years. Between the commentary, snippets of mediocre acting bring “life” to their words, however it is the story – not the acting – that will move viewers, race fans or not.
One thing that comes through clear as day in the film is his family’s pride and love for the man that sacrificed so much to chase his dream. Their stories are moving and paint a picture of a loving family man who was willing to do whatever it took to accomplish that dream.
It is also clear how much harder Scott had to work just to run with the teams that received significant backing from the manufacturers and support from NASCAR. Funding everything out of his own pocket, Scott often ran conservatively just to make his equipment last and earn a check at the end of the day. Through the kindness of others in the garage, Scott was able to run used parts from the likes of Ned Jarrett and Rex White.
“I don’t even think Rex knew we weren’t white,” joked one of Scott’s sons following the showing of the film, which I attended recently.
His underdog attitude also played well to the white crowd in the stands. Regardless of his race, the fans cheered and even offered help – one story told of a fan handing Scott $100 through the fence prior to a race.
“If it had not been for the white people in auto racing, we would not have had any career,” Wendell Scott, Jr. explained.
Working all his life to win in NASCAR, Scott finally got the chance in 1963 at the Jacksonville Speedway – although it would not be without controversy. Taking care of his equipment, Scott was able to lap the entire field twice after taking the lead. However, when it came time for the NASCAR official to wave the checkered flag nothing happened.
For two laps Scott drove around waiting for the flag, only to have it wave for Buck Baker – who was running second, two laps down. Baker celebrated in victory lane, kissed the trophy queen and took home the hardware as Scott looked on in disgust. Many believed they simply did not want an African-American kissing the white beauty queen.
Hours after the blatant error and Baker’s celebration, NASCAR declared Wendell Scott the official winner. He received the $1,000 check for first place, but not the trophy. In fact, 47 years after the win Scott’s family was presented the trophy their late-father was never able to see.
Racing for 13 seasons, Scott’s career came to an end following a devastating wreck at the Talladega Superspeedway in 1973. After selling all he owned and putting himself in major debt to purchase a brand new Mercury, Scott now faced career-threatening injuries and had a race car that was torn to pieces. Scott went back to his hometown of Danville, Va. but never gave up his passion and dream. In 1990, Scott passed away at the age of 69.
Still to this day, Wendell Scott remains the only African-American to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. His legacy is long, but his path to diversifying NASCAR is one that has been slow and is only now getting off of the ground thanks to a concerted effort by NASCAR, the Scott family and people like Max Siegel.
Working closely with Siegel’s Revolution Racing and Wendell Scott, Jr., NASCAR’s diversity program has been able to find young minority and women talent and put them in solid equipment as they hone their skills on the track. While the program is just now starting to produce drivers that are winning races on the touring series circuits, with the proper funding and the right opportunity, some of these drivers may one day have the chance to follow in Scott’s footsteps as a Cup Series driver.
“What I want to see is a Marc Davis and Michael Cherry get the same opportunity a Kyle Busch has. Let them bag a couple in the wall, let them tear up a few,” Frank Scott explained. “Some way, find a budget that can allow for them to make mistakes and learn the profession.”
For NASCAR Media Group COO Jay Abraham, the biggest hurdle minority drivers have faced is the access to learn the sport. When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, it was easy for most kids – regardless of race – to pick up a bat and a ball and learn the game. Same with football, basketball and any stick-and-ball sport. In contrast, it not as easy for a kid to simply hop in a race car and try his or her hand at the sport; it takes a large financial and time commitment and is something not everyone has the access to.
“Accessibility, the ability for kids as they are growing up to drive race cars isn’t something that happens every day,” Abraham pointed out. “Every kid plays baseball, basketball, football, whatever it might be growing up, not every kid has the ability and the access to race cars to drive. I think the program NASCAR has and working with Max is making it more accessible.”
The hope is, by creating this film and by retelling the story of Wendell Scott, future generations of drivers will emerge knowing the sacrifices and struggles one man took on to make his place in NASCAR history. The Scott family, however, hopes their father’s story will one day be a staple in schools and homes across the country.
“As I watched [the film], I thought this movie needs to be in every school, every church and every home in the United States – and even around the world,” Frank Scott, who is the principle of a school, explained. “Kids need to know if you work hard, dedicate yourself and refuse to quit, you will be successful.”
"Wendell Scott: A Race Story" will air at 9 pm on Sunday, Feb. 20 on ESPN following the Daytona 500.
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