The First Black NASCAR Driver: Wendell Scott
Before NASCAR banned the Confederate flag, and before Bubba Wallace entered his first race, one man broke down the color barrier in NASCAR. This is a brief story about Wendell Scott – the first Black NASCAR driver in history.
Wendell Scott was born in Danville, Virginia on August 29, 1921. He inherited a love for cars and racing from his father – a driver and mechanic for two different wealthy white families. His father taught him how to be an auto mechanic, and during WWII, Scott served as a mechanic in the segregated Army in Europe.
When the war ended, Scott opened up his own auto repair shop. On the side, Scott joined other NASCAR pioneers by running moonshine whiskey. Scott was only caught once by the police, which resulted in three years’ probation. But that didn’t stop him. In his spare time, he continued to run moonshine and on weekends, attended stock car races in Danville. It wasn’t long before Scott aspired to join the white racers on the track.
Wendell Scott’s Racing Career Begins
The Dixie Circuit was an early regional competitor to NASCAR, and although it was exclusively white, the series officials decided to allow Scott to race for promotional reasons.
Encouraged by his admission into the Dixie Circuit, Scott tried to enter a NASCAR race in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, but black drivers were not allowed to compete in NASCAR. That didn’t deter Scott, however.
He tried to compete in another NASCAR event, this time in High Point, North Carolina. But again, Scott was denied. Instead, he was told he could have a white driver race his car, to which he told them, “no damn white boy going to drive my car”.
Dixie Circuit Days
With NASCAR out, Scott took his opportunity to race in the Dixie Circuit in 1951. Only 12 days into his racing career, he won his first race at Lynchburg, Virginia. Though an amateur race, this gave Scott the confidence he needed to devote his life to the sport.
And devote he did. Scott was always racing at the track – often 5 days a week. He experienced racial slurs, and white drivers attempted to intentionally take him out. But Scott began winning regularly. Many fans – and other drivers – began to respect Scott and his ability behind the wheel. In fact, some white drivers began to act as bodyguards for Scott.
Scott Becomes a NASCAR Driver
Several years later, Scott had made a name for himself on the track, but knew the Dixie Circuit could only take him so far. NASCAR was where the real heavy hitters were. So once again, he towed his car to a NASCAR event at the old Richmond oval.
There, Scott asked a steward named Mike Poston to grant him a license. Though not a powerful NASCAR official, Poston did have the power to grant licenses. Poston warned Scott of the adversity he’d face in the series, but seeing Scott’s determination, he granted the license.
This meant Wendell Scott officially became NASCAR’s first Black driver in 1953. Poston later told Scott that when word got to NASCAR headquarters, “they raised hell with him”.
NASCAR Grand National Series Win
In 1961, Scott moved up to NASCAR’s top-tier Grand National series. Even though Scott scored the most points as a rookie that year, the Rookie of the Year honor was given to a white driver.
Two years later in 1963, Wendell Scott became the first Black driver to win a NASCAR top-level race during the Jacksonville 200 in Florida. He finished the race two laps in the lead – passing “The King” Richard Petty with 25 laps to go. But he wasn’t awarded the win at the time. Instead, the white driver who finished second was awarded the win, allegedly due to a “clerical error”.
Two hours later, NASCAR officially awarded Scott with the win. Though he received his winner’s check, he never received his trophy. It was 47 years later – in 2010 – at which point Scott had been dead from cancer for 20 years, that the family received a replica trophy from a group of historians. As of today, the Scott family still has not received an official NASCAR trophy.
Wendell Scott’s Record and NASCAR Hall of Fame
Though Scott didn’t find winner’s circle again, he continued to have great success in NASCAR. His successes are even more impressive given that he never secured a commercial sponsorship.
After 13 years and 495 races in the series, Scott had 1 win, 1 pole, and 147 top-10 finishes – 20 of which are top-five results. Ultimately, a crash at Talladega in 1973 ended his career, save one last race at Charlotte where he finished 12th.
In 2015, Wendell Scott was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. In June 2020, the Scott family has asked NASCAR to honor Wendell’s victory, since it was never celebrated at the time. As of this writing, NASCAR has not yet made any plans to do so.
OF SPECIAL NOTE: Elias Bowie
Though recognized as the first Black NASCAR driver, Wendell Scott wasn’t the first Black driver to compete in a top-level NASCAR race. That distinction goes to Elias Bowie, a transportation entrepreneur who raced at Bay Meadows in 1955. Bowie finished 28th out of 34.