Changing of the old guard

The story of NASCAR’s first African American star isn’t widely known, but it’s gradually getting the traction it deserves – and has helped one of stock car racing’s brightest rising talents

Rookie Darrell ‘Bubba’ Wallace Jr sobbed during the post-race press conference at this year’s Daytona 500. His mother, Desiree, embraced the 24-year-old after he guided Richard Petty Motorsports’ no43 Chevrolet to second place. “You act like we just won,” said Wallace. “We did,” replied his mother. It was a watershed moment: Wallace had scored the highest finish for a Daytona 500 newcomer and the highest ever in the race for an African American.

That was the enduring image of the 60th Daytona 500, more so even than Austin Dillon taking victory – the first in the event for the revered car no3 since Dale Earnhardt Sr won 20 years earlier.

And it happened in a branch of motor sport where, just a few years ago, it was common to see swathes of confederate flags at many tracks; where attitudes to race can be described as at best old-fashioned. Even now, the infields at circuits such as Talladega are reportedly rife with symbolism that Dale Earnhardt Jr called “offensive to an entire race”.

In 2017, when white supremacist protesters descended on Virginia, angered by a removal of confederate statues, NASCAR found itself in the limelight due to its lax stance on divisive imagery. When NFL players, who knelt during national anthems in a protest against police brutality against African Americans, were sucked into the argument, NASCAR owners such as Richard Petty expressed in blunt terms that they were fully against any protest during the anthem. Donald Trump then tweeted that he was “so proud” of NASCAR’s stance, adding fuel to a fire that needed dousing.

Wallace’s own journey from dirt racing to the regional K&N Series and then the national NASCAR series was often tainted by racism. “At the time I was too young to understand it, but my parents told me to keep driving my heart out, win races, and that they’d eventually shut up and not bother you. That proved to be true.”

Wallace’s podium finish may have cast a spotlight on the issue of race in America’s premier racing series but he is not the first African American to compete at the very top. Nearly 50 years ago at the height of the civil rights movement another racer took on the NASCAR establishment, risking his life not just on the track but also off it to prove that behind the wheel everyone is equal. His name was Wendall Scott, and his story reads like a Hollywood movie.

Scott was born in 1921 in Danville, Virginia, once known as the last bastion of the confederate, where an army attempted to cling onto power having tried to secede from the United States.

His engineering proficiency brought him into the military, where he served in General Patton’s army as a mechanic during World War II, but segregation was still official policy on the army. When a person of colour volunteered for duty, the Jim Crow laws of segregation applied and black servicemen on one line of duty were kept separate from white counterparts on another. It was only in 1948 that segregation in the army was abolished.

At the end of the war Wendell returned home and picked up a new trade: moonshine running. “By day he was a cab driver,” says Warrick Scott, Wendell’s grandson and founder and CEO of the Wendell Scott Foundation, an educational charity which encourages youngsters to take up science and technology. “But at night he ran moonshine. He was able to blend his own abilities with experience gained from serving in the military and applied them to moonshine running.”

Scott’s son Frank remembers those days vividly and takes up the story: “At one time he had five 1940 Fords and packed them with moonshine. I was a child, but thought the idea of him running away from the cops on the back roads of Virginia was thrilling. I knew what he was doing. He had a switch on his dashboard to turn off his brake lights, so that the cops wouldn’t see them. If he ventured onto a dangerous route, anybody who gave chase would be unaware that he was braking.

“I used to help him with the wiring. He also added a second fuel tank so he could drive all the way to Maryland, 350 miles away, without having to stop for gas.”

One particular story involves Wendell careering down a winding back road, before spotting a roadblock. He reversed, escaped and took the car home. An hour or so later, there were flashlights outside as the authorities arrived with their dogs. “How in the world would I be running moonshine in that car?” said Wendell. “It has no engine.” He’d removed it as soon as he returned home…

His moonshine-running days ground to a halt when a confidant, working with the police, blocked off an escape route during a run. He was tried swiftly and taken to jail – where, ironically, many of his moonshine-swilling clients worked.

“The local track owner in Danville ensured he wasn’t in there for long,” says Warrick. “He had a crazy idea: he wanted all the African-American drivers to come and race at the local fairgrounds, so asked the police for the top 10 with speeding records.”

But this wasn’t a charitable offer. “At that time,” adds Warrick, “an African American being offered an opportunity like that was considered a death wish. The track owner was to sell twice the tickets, sit back and watch the rest of the drivers essentially lynch him. It wasn’t designed to turn him into a NASCAR Hall of Famer, but to provide entertainment – one black guy in a field of 40 drivers intent on running him off the track.”

Wendell was confident of his own racing prowess, having often been chased at high speed through dusty back roads, and began racing regularly in 1947 after borrowing money from his brother-in-law. He competed at local fairgrounds and dirt tracks throughout Virginia and North Carolina, sometimes facing death threats even before he entered the gates.

He began racing on the NASCAR circuit in 1950, working his way up to the Modified Division in 1954 before becoming Sportsman state champion in 1959. By 1961 he was competing in the top-tier Grand National Series, making his debut at Spartanburg and being classified 17th after oil pressure problems.

It’s important to note that a family-run crew with one race car – almost always an old model that had been bought – was competing against the likes of the Pettys, and Junior Johnson.

“My brother and I both looked older than we were, so we were able to get a licence to work in our father’s pit crew,” says Frank. “We were young, athletic individuals, fast and strong, but we didn’t have the same equipment as some crews. You’d think all jacks are the same, for example, but they weren’t. Ours would take four to five pumps to get the jack to maximum height, but rivals needed only three. We couldn’t even afford tyres a lot of the time. Manufacturers were giving them to the top teams, while we’d get used rubber.”

Wendell was, however, helped by fellow racers who donated parts otherwise destined for the scrap yard. Ned Jarrett and Rex White were among those who would contribute, leaving Scott’s team to restore them to a useable status and Frank to repaint them as though they were new.

In 1965, the Spartanburg Herald reported that he was given a brand-new car for the National 400 in Charlotte, a big step up. The donor remained anonymous, but Wendell was grateful. “Having a new car for the National 400 could be the best thing that has ever happened to me,” he told the Herald.

But off the track, he continued to face hostility in a still segregated nation.

“After a 500-mile race,” Frank says, “a fan walked up and offered him something to drink – and obviously he was thirsty. Instead of orange juice it was a mickey [a drink laced with an incapacitating drug] and 36 hours later he still had no idea who he was. We had to keep him from being harmed, restraining him to get him back home. Eventually it wore off. We ended up refusing anything from anybody we didn’t know: food, drink, whatever.

“We endured a lot of racial insults, of course, but we were taught to ignore them. I was 15 when we travelled to Montgomery, Alabama, and there was no concession stand in the pit area, so my father told me to find some gum for him. I went to the stands and bought 10 pieces, and these guys were talking about ‘cutting my genitals off’. They never touched me, but my father told me they had a pack mentality, and that I should never run. He explained, ‘If you run from a dog, it will chase you.’

“The pit area was pretty safe, though – we had a lot of friends there, struggling just like we were against the factory-backed runners.”

Frank recalls the car being sabotaged on a number of occasions, and it wasn’t uncommon to find a tyre slashed in the early 1960s. The general consensus between the Scotts is that things would have been much worse had Wendell not been covered in grease and dirt after a long race, which shrouded his skin tone and made him look similar to his competitors, if only for a moment.

“If he was darker-skinned,” says Warrick, “I doubt he would have made it as far as he did without being lynched.”

But perhaps the most painful example of racism came in 1963 when Scott was literally robbed of victory because of his skin colour. In December that year the Grand National (now Cup) Series, NASCAR’s top-tier series hit Jacksonville, Florida, for a 200-lap race around a half-mile dirt oval. After qualifying 15th in a field of 22, Scott realised that the surface was punishingly rugged, and his car’s suspension – stiff at the front, softer at the rear – wasn’t up to the task. So, he replaced the stiffer front shocks with spare parts meant for the rear. The race would be scarred by controversy for decades to come.

Maurice Petty (Richard’s brother) had crashed his Plymouth before he could qualify and the carnage continued during the race, with cars breaking down frequently. Richard Petty led 103 laps until his steering failed and Scott, in his 1962 Chevrolet Impala, was in the lead with 25 laps remaining. Spectators reported ruts in the surface to be almost as deep as the cars themselves as the race wore down, while dust obscured much of the action for the 5000 crowd.

“Richard Petty was losing to my grandfather,” says Warrick. “He was counting the laps, his crew was counting the laps, and 200 was run down. He was looking for the chequered flag – no chequered flag. He thought he’d miscounted and went around again. No chequered flag. Another one, 202 laps this time.”

And then the flag was shown – to Buck Baker.

“He said, ‘I can’t believe I won! In Jacksonville, the bottom of the south – the Deep South’,” says Warrick. “These were the places where Wendell and his crew were most likely to be run off the road, shot, cut into pieces and fed to the alligators, without anybody knowing.”

Wendell hadn’t been recognised as the winner, but he couldn’t risk a reactionary response. “My grandfather was upset,” Warrick says. “He was really angry, but knew his surroundings and the odds mounting against him. At the time, the winner would go and kiss the local beauty queen. It was a white community festival, in a way.”

Nearly three hours later, when the track had emptied, officials sidled over to Wendell, admitted some kind of mistake and presented him with a winner’s cheque. Wendell had, finally, become the first African American to win a NASCAR race. But there was no trophy, and the Scott family still hasn’t received it. Wendell reportedly asked Baker for it, but the latter claimed he’d thrown it in a river on the way home. Eventually, 47 years later, the Jacksonville Stock Car Racing Hall of Fame presented the Scott family with a replica.

“My father needed the money,” says his son Frank, “but felt the trophy would have meant more. He never forgot that”.

Wendell raced until 1973, receiving little in the way of sponsorship or funding. His desire to compete hadn’t waned, even after a 19-car pile-up at Talladega broke his leg in several places and put him in hospital. He made his final start at Charlotte, on October 7.

After that, a lack of sponsorship ended his NASCAR career, though he continued driving in invitational events until he was 65. He died in 1990 and in 2015, 25 years after his death, he was inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame.

Today, his legacy appears to be on the rise: as well as the Wendell Scott Foundation (wendellscott.org), he features in Disney’s Cars 3 and there’s a Hollywood movie in the works. And Darrell Wallace’s full-time Cup Series debut at Daytona has brought further recognition of Wendell’s career. The Scott family has championed Wallace for a number of years – and its support was a catalyst for his graduation to the Cup Series.

“I first met the Scotts back in 2009,” says Wallace, “and even ran Wendell Sr’s livery at Martinsville in 2013, which was really cool. Being with the Scott family has truly been a special part of my career. I’ve always been able to take their support to the racetrack, and having Wendell Scott Jr just a phone call away is really, really neat. I know they’re proud to see me doing them proud, and representing the family legacy.”

There is even a pleasing symmetry to the act that Wallace is competing for Richard Petty – the man who all those years ago as a driver raced against Scott. “We’re getting ready for a new chapter,” says Petty. “We got to thinking that we weren’t getting where we wanted to get with to with Aric [Almirola], so we changed drivers. We got with Bubba and said ‘Let’s try something different.’” Wallace drives the iconic car number 43, in which Petty took 192 wins in 1125 races.

“It’s nothing different for me,” continues Petty. “I’ve had drivers from Australia, Brazil, Mexico and Aric’s Cuban-American, so we’ve diversified, pretty much, over the years. It works out good for us.

“The big deal is what we think about his ability. We don’t care if he’s Chinese or whatever. We’re just trying to win races and do things for our partners.

“NASCAR is very accepting now. If you look at any other sport, minorities come in and change things, but it’s been a long time since we saw a minority be competitive. He’s the first African-American driver to have a regular job for 46 years. We think it’s time for that.”