|NASCAR’s darkest chapter is its racism|
|Published Thursday, January 15, 2009|
As we move toward Martin Luther King Day, Barack Obama’s inauguration and the Daytona 500, it’s an appropriate moment to consider the unusual life of another remarkable racial pioneer: NASCAR’s first black driver, the late Wendell Scott.
|COURTESY BRIAN DONOVAN
|Wendell Scott, the first black driver to compete in NASCAR, faced discrimation on and off the track, including from NASCAR officials, according to author Brian Donovan.
A talented racer, Scott began banging fenders with roughneck competitors on Dixie dirt tracks in 1952, during an era when he couldn’t use a white restroom or drinking fountain. The story of his frustrating struggle, little known outside of the racing world, offers a reminder of how much our country has changed – but also of how NASCAR’s progress toward diversity still seems stuck in the past.
Scott’s dream of becoming a competitive national-level racer depended on support from NASCAR’s celebrated founder and czar, the late Bill France Sr. At first, Scott’s prospects looked promising. Early on, France assured him he’d always be treated without prejudice. In the minor leagues Scott won dozens of races and a Virginia state championship.
Like Obama, Scott, who lived in Danville, Va., and often raced in Charlotte, developed surprising numbers of admirers among ordinary white folks in the South. He became one of NASCAR’s most popular drivers, even as an underdog without the corporate sponsorship for a competitive racecar. His passionate determination inspired fans to reconsider racial stereotypes. Unfortunately, his support in the grandstands wasn’t matched in NASCAR’s executive suites.
As the growing civil rights struggle in the ‘60s inflamed racial tensions, France reneged on his promise, and a pattern of unfair treatment by NASCAR followed. France denied Scott the rookie-of-the-year award for his first major-league season, even though Scott was the top rookie in the standings. When Scott won his only national race, NASCAR officials, fearing he’d kiss the white trophy queen, declared another driver the victor.
Long after the crowd and the queen had left, NASCAR grudgingly admitted that Scott had won.
For years South Carolina’s major track, Darlington Raceway, banned Scott because he was black. This cost him any chance for sponsorship. France addressed the problem with inaction and silence. When Scott finally asked for help, he said France told him that Darlington was important to NASCAR’s success and Scott should just be patient.
When senior NASCAR officials and major promoters mistreated Scott, France continued his hands-off neutrality. One official abused his authority and excluded Scott from an important race at Charlotte. Others did the same thing at the speedways in Daytona Beach, Fla., and Martinsville, Va. – facilities in which France owned major financial interests. Repeatedly, officials harassed Scott over trivial issues: his son’s beards, minor blemishes in his car’s paint.
At one prestigious NASCAR event, Scott was exploited in a bogus promotional scheme. A record crowd packed Charlotte’s speedway after the promoter announced he’d give Scott his first chance to drive a competitive car. But the car was a phony; its weak performance embarrassed Scott in front of 81,000 spectators.
France helped other drivers obtain sponsorship for competitive cars, but not Scott. The pattern of unfairness persisted, insiders say, largely because France and other influential executives in the NASCAR world believed that a competitive black driver would be bad for business. At the time France was cultivating alliances with leading segregationist politicians such as Alabama Governor George Wallace, and those relationships helped NASCAR to grow into today’s multi-billion-dollar enterprise.
Many of the biased actions toward Scott took place as France was negotiating successfully with Wallace for millions of dollars in state subsidies for a huge new speedway at Talladega. Wallace never would have approved that money if NASCAR’s lone black driver had any chance of winning.
Today, more than 35 years after Scott’s last race, America’s racial situation has improved drastically. But NASCAR remains the country’s least diverse major sport, despite a diversity program launched eight years ago. Every regular driver in NASCAR’s three national series is still a white male.
Some of Scott’s admirers feel that some official recognition for him from NASCAR is long overdue – perhaps at the new hall of fame NASCAR is opening this year, perhaps even a public apology for the bigotry he suffered. Others believe an apology would be quite unlikely, since NASCAR, still owned by the France family, says it knows nothing about any unfair treatment of Scott.
BRIAN DONOVAN, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, is the author of “Hard Driving: The American Odyssey of NASCAR’s First Black Driver.”
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