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A perilous track for one driver Stock-car racer Scott drove a perilous track

August 29, 2008|Dan Neil | Times Staff Writer

The Wendell Scott Story

The American Odyssey of NASCAR's First Black Driver

Brian Donovan

Hard Driving

Steerforth Press: 312 pp., $25.95

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WENDELL Scott is frequently called the Jackie Robinson of American stock-car racing. In 1952, at Virginia's old Richmond Speedway, he was able to talk his way past a NASCAR race steward and compete, thus crossing the sport's color line.

Except that it wasn't a line; it was a wall, guarded by racist track promoters and white Southern fans seething over the civil rights movement. Not to mention Scott's fellow drivers. In his long and unfailingly miserable career, carefully documented in Brian Donovan's "Hard Driving," Scott was often wrecked by white drivers who knew he didn't dare retaliate. Whatever Robinson's travails, nobody ever tried to kill him on the baseball diamond.

The Robinson comparison also breaks down because, after him, Major League Baseball remained integrated. Once Wendell Scott left NASCAR in 1973 -- he was nearly killed in a wreck at Talladega -- the sport returned to its all-white complexion and has remained almost exclusively so.

To be sure, NASCAR would love to have African American drivers participate. The organization has spent millions on its Drive for Diversity program, designed to identify and promote minority and female drivers and crew; Wendell Scott Jr., the driver's son, has served as driver mentor and technical advisor to the program since it began in 2004.

But this effort is baldly commercial, an attempt to enlarge the fan base, which has reached a saturation point in white America. Any suggestion that the program is an effort to atone for the sport's past sins is highly charitable.

Scott was born in Danville, Va., in 1921. He learned to love cars by helping his father, a mechanic and driver for white families. After a stint in the Army, Scott returned to Danville, where -- like many of stock-car racing's early stars -- he honed his skills running moonshine in and out of the Virginia hollers.

He bashed around dirt tracks on the old Dixie Circuit before graduating to NASCAR's sportsman class in the 1950s. By the early 1960s, Scott was competing in the Grand National class -- comparable to today's Sprint Cup -- and on Dec. 1, 1963, at a half-mile dirt track in Jacksonville, Fla., he became the first and still only African American to win in NASCAR's elite league.

The story of that win is a handy gloss of Scott's career. He had driven all night through the segregated South, towing his clapped-out race car on a T-bar behind his pickup. (He couldn't afford a proper trailer.) Such forays into the Deep South were deeply unnerving. In those years, the threat of racial violence followed Scott like an unmarked police car.

When Scott arrived in Jacksonville, he found the track rutted and bumpy, causing the cars to porpoise wildly over the surface, losing traction and speed. Scott, an ingenious mechanic, removed one of the two shock absorbers at each wheel. His car responded beautifully, virtually floating over the rough track. When Richard Petty's car failed with 25 laps to go, Scott took over the lead. Suddenly, the leader board went blank. Scott was being robbed.

Hours later, the race stewards announced that a scoring error had occurred and Scott was indeed the winner. By that time, the trophy had been presented to Buck Baker and the crowds had dispersed. The deepest fears of the race organizers -- that Scott would kiss a white beauty queen -- had been averted.

Scott died on Dec. 23, 1990, at age 69. Eventually, he was recognized as a pioneer. He was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and was the subject of a thoughtful documentary on the History Channel in 2003. (In 1977, Richard Pryor played Scott in the movie "Greased Lightning," a highly fictionalized account of his life.)

NASCAR, though, has yet to mount a prominent tribute to the man. As Donovan points out, Scott's story presents the organization with a delicate public relations problem. In order to celebrate his achievements, NASCAR would have to acknowledge its history of racism.

Some of the villains in the Scott story are the saints and heroes of the sport: Baker, Banjo Mathews, Enoch Staley, Bruton Smith. Bill France Sr., NASCAR's founder, promised Scott that as long as he held a NASCAR license he would be treated fairly, but that never happened.

On the other hand, Scott had his defenders and supporters, drivers like Ned Jarrett, Richard Petty and Fireball Roberts. These, some of the sport's good guys, really were.

For a race fan, perhaps the toughest part of "Hard Driving" comes when Donovan chronicles Scott's desperate years racing with inferior equipment and no budget, doing all his own repairs and engineering, sometimes even changing his own tires during races. At a time when star teams were getting millions from Big Three manufacturers, Scott was scrounging for leftover parts and sleeping in his truck.

There is also the suggestion that NASCAR let Scott race only as long as he wasn't too competitive. Donovan makes a persuasive case that automakers gave Scott just enough help to stay in the show without giving him enough to win. Unwittingly, perhaps, Scott became the star of his own awful automotive minstrel show, a black back marker for the amusement of white fans.

He always believed that if he could get into a competitive car, he had the talent to beat the sport's stars. Maybe, maybe not. One thing seems beyond dispute: Nobody ever wanted it worse than Wendell Scott.

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dan.neil@latimes.com

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