On stats alone, Wendell Scott would never make it into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. He was a good driver in NASCAR, which makes him an insanely great driver compared to all of us out on the interstate. He finished in the top 10 in 147 out of his 495 races. But he won only once, in Jacksonville in 1963.
Scott dominated that race. He passed Richard Petty with 25 laps to go and ended up two full laps ahead of the field. But when the race ended, NASCAR officials said Buck Baker had won, and that’s what the fans went home thinking. The officials went over to Scott later and said there had been a “scoring error.” Scott got his winner’s check. But he died in 1990 without ever getting the trophy.
That’s what it was like to be NASCAR’s first black driver.
The Hall of Fame announced its fourth five-member class Wednesday. If you don’t follow the sport, Rusty Wallace is the only name you might know. The other four who got in are pioneers from NASCAR’s early days: Cotton Owens, Herb Thomas, Leonard Wood … and Buck Baker.
Wendell Scott was on the ballot, and finished third in the fans’ voting. But the fans’ vote counts for just one of the 50-some ballots. Overall, he didn’t finish in the top eight.
Life is more than numbers.
A driver named Jack Smith started giving Scott trouble in 1962. Scott had shattered Smith’s track record in Savannah, so Smith set out to wreck Scott — and he finally did in Winston-Salem. The next race came around, and on the pace lap, Smith pulled up close and pointed his finger at Scott. Scott pulled out a gun and pointed it at Smith. That was pretty much the end of that feud.
NASCAR was more wide-open then — the gun probably told you that — but you still needed money to field a good car, and Wendell Scott never had enough. His kids were his pit crew, and if they couldn’t make it to the race, Scott got out and fixed the car himself. He retooled used parts other drivers were throwing away, borrowed money for entry fees and paid off the debts with his winnings. Other drivers — in particular, Ned Jarrett — helped him out. But some drivers shunned him, and some fans booed him, and there were tracks where his children weren’t allowed to use the bathroom.
Today’s NASCAR makes a point of trying to appeal to everybody. There are black businessmen on some of the race teams and a black broadcaster (Brad Daugherty, the former UNC and NBA center) in the ESPN booth. Race teams are working with promising black drivers in the developmental leagues. Part of it is simply practical; a great black driver would draw attention, and ratings, and money. That’s why NASCAR loves having Danica Patrick around, even though so far she can’t get out of the middle of the pack.
But NASCAR still struggles with the dark side of its roots. Confederate flags still fly from tailgates at Darlington and Bristol and Talladega. In Charlotte, where they’re running the Coca-Cola 600 this weekend, the most popular hangout on race day is a little rise in the infield called Redneck Hill.
The sport started with all the good ol’ boys who ran moonshine down from the mountains and argued about whose souped-up car was the fastest. We think of that as a white man’s history. But Wendell Scott ran moonshine, too. Corn whiskey cuts across all social boundaries. So does the desire to get in a car and mash the gas and see how fast it can go.
Wendell Scott broke down the boundaries 50 years ago, and no black driver has been as successful since. What is a hall of fame for? Maybe it’s just about the numbers. But NASCAR, above all other sports, is built on stories. The brawl at Daytona. The Pass in the Grass. There ought to be room for the story of the man who got there first, and not just in Jacksonville in 1963. Wendell Scott never got his moment in Victory Lane. There’s still time.