What It Took To Be A Black NASCAR Driver During The Jim Crow Era

Illustration for article titled What It Took To Be A Black NASCAR Driver During The Jim Crow Era

Wendell Scott was fast, but nothing came easy for him racing in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Scott was the first race-winning black driver at NASCAR’s highest level, which then as now had a tremendous Southern following—but one that made clear that it didn’t want him there at all.

He’s the subject of a moving animated video from StoryCorps, narrated by his son Frank Scott. The younger Scott recounts how his dad got death threats before racing in Atlanta, and how race officials publicly ceded one of his wins to white drivers so he wouldn’t appear on the podium with a white beauty queen.

Despite this, Scott was a competitive racer for years, even though he lacked the funds, sponsorships and support that many other drivers enjoyed.


And as Frank Scott says here, his dad wasn’t the kind of guy who let anybody keep him down. “When it’s too tough for everybody else, it’s just right for me,” he’d say. He’d work and drive through injuries all while keeping his racing operation going on a shoestring budget supported by his family.

Here’s NASCAR.com on his record:

Scott made his first start in NASCAR’s premier series March 4, 1961 at Piedmont Interstate Fairgrounds in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He made 23 starts that season, posting five top-five finishes.

On Dec. 1, 1963 at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Florida, Scott became the first African-American to win a NASCAR premier series event. Scott won the third race of the 1964 season, a 100-mile feature, after starting 15th.

Over 13 years, Scott would make 495 starts, which ranks 37th on the all-time list. In his career, Scott accumulated 20 top-five finishes including eight of them in the same season he won his first career race, 1964. Scott also posted 147 top-10 finishes, more than 25 percent of the races he entered.

Scott never really got his big break, but his son said “He chose to be a race car driver, and he was gonna race until he couldn’t race no more.” He retired from racing in 1973; he died of cancer in 1990, and was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame last year.

The video’s short and sweet and very much worth a watch.

Contact the author at patrick@jalopnik.com.

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