Omission of a Nascar Pioneer Stirs a Debate
As construction of Nascar's $146 million Hall of Fame takes shape in Charlotte, N.C., racing fans are arguing over the nominees for the first five inductees to be honored there.
But the biggest debate may be over a name missing from the 25 contenders announced last month: Nascar's pioneering black driver, Wendell O. Scott.
"Wendell Scott was a hero Nascar didn't want," Larry Edsall, the former managing editor of AutoWeek magazine, wrote online.
The omission is also stirring broader discussion of Nascar's past discrimination and what critics say is its continued record as the nation's least diverse major sport.
Since Scott broke the racial barrier more than half a century ago, several minority and female drivers have competed in some events. Despite a nine-year diversity program, all but one of the 125 regular drivers in Nascar's three national racing series are white males. The sole ethnic minority is Juan Pablo Montoya, who is Hispanic.
"It appears that all those splashy press conferences and impassioned speeches on diversity from Nascar officials were just empty platitudes," wrote Allen Gregory, the racing columnist for The Bristol Herald Courier in Virginia.
Nascar's mission statement says: "Nascar is committed to making the sport - on and off the racetrack - look like America. No other issue is more important to Nascar's success and growth."
Brian France, chairman of the multibillion-dollar enterprise, has pledged to make "all Americans feel welcome to participate in our sport."
Nascar has spent millions recruiting diverse drivers, employees, vendors and college interns. It awards Wendell Scott Scholarships and hired his son, Wendell Jr., as a mentor.
But racial incidents have clouded the sport. A crew chief slurred a black driver this spring; a black crewman was confronted by a coworker wearing a pillowcase on his head in 1999; slurs were scrawled in toilets at a track in 2001; a fired Nascar inspector filed a race and sex bias suit in 2008; and critics have objected to Confederate flags waved by some fans.
Nascar says it has zero tolerance for bias and has responded by suspending, barring or firing people in various incidents and by privately settling the bias suit.
The dearth of minority and female racers in the top ranks reflects the prolonged years it takes to develop drivers, who often start training in childhood, said Nascar's diversity director, Marcus D. Jadotte. He predicted more progress as "we expand into every demographic area and group."
The history of Scott's roadblocks remains largely ignored by Nascar. Barred from some races and sometimes cheated in scoring, Scott never landed corporate sponsors, which could have afforded him a first-rate vehicle and a professional crew.
Still, he managed to rank among the top 10 drivers in 147 national races; finish in the top 10 annual standings in four seasons; and win dozens of minor league races, a Virginia state championship and a national race.
The 1977 film "Greased Lightning," starring Richard Pryor, was loosely based on Scott's life. Scott, of Danville, Va., died in 1990 at 69.
The debate comes amid revived interest in Scott's career, chronicled in the biography "Hard Driving" (Steerforth Press, 2008) by Brian Donovan, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist. A Los Angeles Times review praised its "carefully documented" new evidence of Nascar's "history of racism."
Supporters will stage a Wendell Scott Recognition Day tribute on Sept. 12 at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville, with speakers and a petition for his induction.
"It's a lost page of history," said the organizer, Alexir Hairston, a family friend and artist who painted Scott.
Like many white drivers in the Southern-rooted sport, Scott honed his skills outracing law enforcement to haul moonshine. After starting to race legitimately in 1952, he competed in hundreds of sanctioned contests until injuries in a 21-car pileup forced him to retire in 1973.
Though he has been called the Jackie Robinson of racing, Scott's initiation was different. While the Brooklyn Dodgers recruited Robinson to integrate baseball, Donovan's book documented that Nascar's establishment thwarted Scott.
For years Scott was barred from Darlington Raceway in South Carolina and barred from some races elsewhere. Officials denied him the Rookie of the Year award he had earned and hassled him over trivia like chipped paint and his sons' beards, the book reports. The most egregious humiliation came in a major 1963 race in Jacksonville, Fla. Scott won by two laps, even beating Richard Petty.
But officials apparently blanched at the prospect of the winner's customary kiss for the local - white - beauty queen. So the scoreboard went blank, the checkered flag was withheld and the runner-up was crowned victor.
"Everybody in the place knew I won the race," Scott recalled. Later, officials conceded a "scoring error" and privately gave him a crude wooden trophy with no inscription.
Nascar's salute to Scott on its Web site cites his Jacksonville victory - but omits the troubles.
Though Scott never complained publicly during his driving years, he endured grandstand jeers and slashed tires and said some drivers intentionally bumped him into crashes.
But he won crossover popularity as a gritty underdog and earned the friendship of many drivers.
Nascar helped some promising white drivers find sponsors, but not Scott.
"If he'd had the equipment or financial backing that I and others had, he would have won more races," said Ned M. Jarrett, a Hall of Fame nominee who said he once urged Lee Iacocca, then a Ford executive, to aid Scott.
Serving as his own mechanic, Scott made do with inferior cars and amateur crews and sometimes ran on recapped tires. "They wasn't going to help a black man," he told Donovan. "That's all there was to it."
The financing problem persists. Harry L. Davis, whose son Marc, 19, was mentored by Wendell Scott Jr., said, "Until sponsorship is attached to diversity drivers, nobody is going to make it."
Charlotte Motor Speedway's former president, H. A. Wheeler, said Scott "was obviously a much better race driver than the record shows."
Jadotte, Nascar's diversity director, said, "Nascar embraces and celebrates Wendell Scott's contribution to the sport."
While Scott's travails haunt the debate at Nascar, his achievements have won honors elsewhere, including the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Ala., and the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame in Darlington, S.C.
A 50-member panel will choose Nascar's five inaugural inductees this fall, followed by new selections annually.
Whether Scott is eventually inducted, "there will definitely be recognition of his career in the exhibit on diversity," said the Hall's director, Winston B. Kelley.
Like Scott's sanitized salute on Nascar's Web site, however, the exhibit is not expected to delve into issues like the Jacksonville dispute, Kelley said.