NASCAR is one of the few sports left that doesn’t encompass a great deal of diversity, but that’s not to say that efforts aren’t being made.
In 2004, NASCAR implemented a “Drive for Diversity” program, which looks to train minority groups and female drivers who have driving experience in order to develop them both on, and off the track. On top of that we saw Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr make his debut in the NASCAR Cup Series in Pocono as a fill in for Aric Almirola who was badly injured during a wreck in Kansas. Bubba was the first black driver to compete in the top level since 2006. However, if you were to ask Wendell Scott – the first ever black African-American driver to compete in the Cup Series back in 1961 – his version of events and how he was treated was significantly different.
It was way back in 1950 when Scott made his first attempt to enter a premier series NASCAR sponsored race. Due to his light skin color, his race wasn’t recognized straight away. However, things changed dramatically when he went to purchase a safety belt he was asked to buy in order for him to be able to compete. It was at this point that his race became an issue and he was told he could no longer participate. No reason was given for this blatant act of prejudice. Though one could infer that the political and cultural climate at the time was to blame due to the US undergoing a significant period of change with regards to segregation and Civil Rights Movements.
Unfettered by this, Scott went on to race on smaller tracks until he was accepted into the NASCAR Modified Division in 1954. He improved, succeeded and started winning races – totaling around 127 victories in lower divisions. In 1959, he won twenty-two races, including the Virginia State Championship. Finally, he believed he was ready to tackle the Grand National, now known as the Winston Cup.
Debuting in this series opened a whole new can of worms in terms of how he was treated based on his ethnicity and skin color. “Fellow” drivers would try to run him off the road. Inspectors would demand repairs to superficial damages such as scuffs and paint chips before allowing him to race. Crowds would jeer and scoff at him. He was even once disqualified because his pit crew was racially mixed, and sometimes only his wife would be allowed to help him in the pits during a race.
Despite this, Scott displayed total grit and determination, shown by his five top ten finishes and earnings of $3,240 in 1961. He didn’t let the racism get to him, nor did he make an issue about it. His heart beat for one thing and one thing only: to drive, to race, and to win. His independence and persistence earned him a lot of respect from drivers who were in a similar predicament to him. He was a beacon of hope that even independents with limited finances and societal views stacked against him, could work hard enough to remain doing what they felt born to do. He and his wife were always receptive and sympathetic to helping drivers who were struggling.
In 1963, Scott earned his only NASCAR victory in Jacksonville at Speedway Park. He wasn’t the first African-American driver to race in NASCAR, but he was the first to win a race. Scott started in 15th and led 27 laps in the race in his famous No. 24 car. Upon the final laps though, the official withheld the flags and waved them for the second-place driver, Buck Baker, instead. Two laps later, it was Baker who went to Victory Lane, lifted the trophy and kissed the trophy girl in front of the nation.
NASCAR officials said this whole palaver was due to a scoring error. Wendell was unconvinced, and instead believed it was due to the fact that the sanctioning body did not want an African-American man kissing a white trophy girl on camera. Hours after the conclusion of the race though, Scott was finally awarded the win.
In the 13 years that Scott raced, he had 495 starts, 147 top tens, 20 top fives, one pole and one victory. After an wreck in 1973 at Talladega Speedway, Scott suffered multiple injuries and only race once more after that. He passed away in 1990.
Fast-forward to the modern day and Bubba Wallace: He became the first African-American since Scott to win a race in one of the top NASCAR series in 2013. Perhaps it was fate that this first win was at Martinsville Speedway – Scott’s home track. In fact, Wallace has made connections with the Scott family and even drove a special No. 34 Hall of Fame Wendell Scott truck to victory at Martinsville. Scott’s family were in attendance and saw the whole thing.
There’s absolutely no doubt that Scott has left a legacy and a mark on NASCAR that should never be forgotten. He battled through adversity, prejudice, abuse and ill-treatment, and yet never faltered in his stride. He never allowed himself to become a victim, and instead used everything as momentum and motivation to stick with and succeed in what he loves. He was a racing driver through and through and never saw himself as anything else. He’ll always be honored for continuing to succeed, even when his life was made difficult due to the challenges that American society faced during the 1950’s.
As for how things are today… attitudes have improved significantly, but there is still much work to do. Drivers such as Bubba no longer have to face the racism and discrimination to the level that Scott did. However, NASCAR is still indisputably the “whitest” of sports in terms of competitor and audience demographics and Bubba has been the target of racial slurs from fans, drivers and race officials. His participation in the Cup Series as a fill-in for Almirola, saw Bubba become the fourth black driver to race in the top level, but the first in 11 years. Bubba lost his Xfinity ride earlier this year and there has been no confirmation of a 2018 ride in the pipeline just yet.
Bubba is not convinced that enough is being done to be able to say the sport is changing, but he does believe it is going in the right direction. It’s undeniable, the stands remain predominantly white, and the track remains white except for when Bubba participated. All that can be said is that the space deserves to be watched. It might be slow, but progress is progress and Bubba’s days of racing in NASCAR are definitely not over just yet. Perhaps he’s the next Scott in the making.