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Saturday, March 6, 2010

Wendell Scott’s bravery in the face of racism can’t be forgotten

When we talk about NASCAR’s past, a lot of names come up very often … Petty, Allison, Earnhardt, etc.

These are the men who waged the battles on the track that have become legendary.

But there is another man who waged a much more important battle who is not mentioned as often. He is Wendell Scott, the first African-American driver to be a success in NASCAR, in the face of blatant racism.

This week, Scott’s memory is being honored at Atlanta, with all vehicles in the Cup and Truck series races featuring a commemorative decal with the image of Wendell Scott, who died in 1991.

It’s hard for us in this modern day, where racism is still present but shunned by most, to really understand how hard it was for Wendell Scott when he started racing. He began his racing career in 1947, before segregation had ended and the civil rights movement was just in the minds of African-Americans. He had to compete head-to-head with white competitors who often took their aggression out on him on the track because of the color of his skin.

Many a time, his race cars were torn up by competitors in NASCAR and lower series just because he was black (In a recent show I watched on him, Scott’s family indicated that big name drivers like Bobby Allison and Richard Petty may have been guilty of this at times.) He had some allies in the garage, but they were not a large number.

Somehow, despite all this, he won hundreds of race in his career at various levels of racing … including a Cup race.

His mere presence in the garage angered many of his competitors and many NASCAR fans during a highly charged time in history, when black people in America were finally starting to get their equal rights.

When he took his only victory at NASCAR’s top level in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1963, the track was so afraid of what would happen that they didn’t even announce Scott as the winner. Buck Baker was initially named the winner, then the victory was given to him after the fact. Among the concerns … the white trophy girl in Victory Lane, who usually gave the winner a kiss. Imagine that happening back in those days … he would have been lucky to get out of there alive.

Nowadays, thankfully, things have changed. While there are rare exceptions (Brendan Gaughan’s crew chief allegedly used a racial slur on Marc Davis last year), that kind of primitive attitude is shunned in modern day NASCAR. If it rears its ugly head, the people involved are quickly punished (for example, Bob Griese’s suspension for saying Juan Pablo Montoya was out “eating a taco”.)

Wendell Scott’s daughter Sybil Scott said she hopes her father's legacy is creating opportunities for future minority drivers. "Daddy's legacy is through the diversity program," Sybil Scott said. "The doors are open pretty wide right now, I feel very strongly. "I can only look at these drivers and think of how my dad would be their greatest fan. He would be out there encouraging them and would want others to be supportive. That's how to keep Daddy's legacy alive."

It’s yet to happen, but eventually another African-American driver will break through and match the success that Wendell Scott had decades ago. And their road to success will have been much smoother thanks to the bravery and dedication of Wendell Scott decades earlier.

He may not be the biggest name in NASCAR’s history, but he fought a battle more difficult than anything his competitors had to face.


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