Racing Pioneer Wendell Scott

By Tony McClean
Updated: February 8, 2005
Wendell Scott
Wendell Scott

BRISTOL, CT — The new NASCAR Nextel Cup Series will begin in earnest on February 20 with its Super Bowl, the Daytona 500. Today we take a look at one of the first African-Americans to thrive and win a race in the NASCAR circuit.

You may already have heard of the name of Wendell Scott if you’re a fan of comedian-actor Richard Pryor. Back in 1977, Pryor starred in “Greased Lightning”, a movie depicting the life of Mr. Scott.

Scott, who endured severe discrimination during his days as a driver, raced throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. He finished sixth in the Winston Cup standings in 1966 with 21,702 points. Only 1,250 points separated Scott and third-place finisher Richard Petty, who is arguably the greatest driver ever.

Born Aug. 28, 1921, Scott was from Danville, Virginia’s “Crooktown” section. His first driving job was as a taxi driver. Later he hauled illegal whiskey, an occupation that called for skills as both a high-performance mechanic and a fearless driver.

Early on, blacks were barred from many major races. In the 1920s black drivers tried to arrange racing circuits. But the prize money was meager at best. Nevertheless, Scott set his sights on breaking into organized racing. “There were just a few Blacks attending races then,” Scott was quoted as saying.

“Most of the time me and a friend were the only two Blacks in the stands. He’d often ask me if I’d have the nerve to get out there and run. I’d tell him, ‘shucks, yes,’ I could do it.” Scott started racing at the Danville Fairgrounds Speedway.

On February 10, 1952, Joie Ray started 25th in the Daytona 500 course in his Henry J. Ray went on to finish 51st that day and is recognized as being the first African-American driver to start a NASCAR sanctioned race.

Scott would go on to win 120 races in lower divisions and in 1959 won state championships in his classes. In 1961 he was able to pull together enough money to field a car on NASCAR’s top-level Grand National circuit, later renamed the Winston Cup series.

Enduring persistent, sometimes brutal discrimination, Scott raced in nearly 500 races in NASCAR’s top division from 1961 through the early 1970s. Racing on a shoestring, he finished in the top ten 147 times.

On December 1, 1963, he won his only major race, a 100-mile event on a half-mile track in Jacksonville, Florida, but Scott was denied the opportunity to celebrate in Victory Circle.

NASCAR officials said a scoring error was responsible for allowing another driver to accept the winner’s trophy. Scott doubted that explanation. “Everybody in the place knew I had won the race,” he said years later, “but the promoters and NASCAR officials didn’t want me out there kissing any beauty queens or accepting any awards.”

In 1973, he suffered severe injuries in a race at Talladega, Alabama. He raced only a few times afterward. Wendell Scott passed away in 1990. But the legacy of Scott hasn’t been forgotten.

In fact, there have been and are other African-American drivers that are carving their own niche in the racing. Two names that come to mind are Willy T. Ribbs and Bill Lester.

Ribbs, another African-American stock car driver, competed in two Winston Cup races in 1986. Ribbs was unable to finish the season because of a lack of corporate support. He competed in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2001 with the support of Dodge.

Currently, Lester serves as the only black driver (Craftsman Trucks) in NASCAR’s three national touring series. Driving the red No. 8 Dodge for Bobby Hamilton Racing, Lester earned his first pole earlier last season at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C.

Despite being winless on the circuit, Lester already has broken ground in NASCAR by signing a personal endorsement agreement with General Mills’ Honey Nut Cheerios cereal.

He’s believed to the first driver from the Truck Series and the first African-American driver to appear on packaging for a major product.

So even to this day, the spirit of the ex-cab driver from Virginia remains.

NOTE: The African-American Registry and contributed