Wendell Oliver Scott Sr. was born on August 29, 1921, in Danville to William Ira Scott and Martha Ella Motley Scott. Will Scott was a talented mechanic who became the foreman of a Studebaker plant in Pittsburgh, where he managed white men, which was a rarity at the time. After losing his job, however, he fell into gambling and the marriage dissolved. Nonetheless, Wendell Scott remained devoted to his father and became interested in auto mechanics because of him.
Even as a child, Scott had a passion for speed and a drive to succeed. He earned the money to buy himself a bicycle—he remembered being the only Black boy in the neighborhood who owned one—which he tinkered with to make go faster. He set up a bicycle repair shop in the grocery store run by his mother and grandmother and worked in a drugstore and the night shift at the P. Lorillard Tobacco factory to help support his family. Scott left high school in the eleventh grade and took a job as an apprentice bricklayer but became bored with the repetitive work and the constant supervision. He found work that better suited him: driving a cab. By the time he was eighteen, he owned his own cab and had gained a reputation as a fast driver adept at the backroads of Danville.
Scott was drafted into the Army in 1943 during World War II. On July 10, 1944, he married Mary Belle Coles of Danville while on leave. Scott served for two years as a mechanic with the Red Ball Express, the famed, largely Black trucking convoy that supplied the Allied forces after the. After the war, Danville refused to renew Scott’s taxi license because it said he had too many speeding tickets, so he opened an auto repair shop.
Scott supplemented his mechanic’s income by hauling moonshine whiskey from the hollows of Franklin County, which was known as the moonshine capital of the world, in the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains to Danville and cities beyond. It was a lucrative but dangerous business, with both police and federal agents looking to catch bootleggers on their late-night runs. But they were woefully overmatched in Scott’s case. The cars he used may have looked like unassuming family sedans, but they were much faster because he built and tuned them to his own exacting standards. And he knew how to use the twisting backcountry roads to his advantage. These were skills that he would put to good use. Scott biographer Brian Donovan called the high-stakes, back-road pursuits that forged Scott and some other early NASCAR drivers “prep school for stock car racing.” Scott was caught only once, in 1949, and sentenced to three years probation, but continued to profitably haul moonshine into the mid-1950s.
In 1952, promoters at the struggling Danville Fairgrounds Speedway were looking to boost attendance at the track and came up with the idea of pitting a Black driver against the all-white field. They asked local police to recommend a driver—a Black hot-rodder who would attract Black fans to the speedway. The police recommend Scott. On May 23, 1952, the thirty-one-year-old mechanic/taxi driver/bootlegger was wheeling his souped-up 1951 Ford around Danville’s half-mile dirt track in his first race. He finished third, earned $50, and became the first Black driver to compete against white drivers in southern stock car racing.
On to NASCAR
Scott hoped to follow his debut at Danville Speedway, which was on the regional Dixie Circuit, with a race on the more competitive and prestigious NASCAR circuit. The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing had been founded in December 1947 by Daytona Beach, Florida, businessman William “Big Bill” France to organize and promote the growing sport of stock car racing. France correctly predicted that fans would flock to a sport that featured “strictly stock” cars that were modified versions of the family sedans they could buy on a dealers’ lot but driven hard and fast. Scott headed for the NASCAR track in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and entered the race without difficulty—he was light skinned and the organizers may have not realized he was Black—but when they saw his Black friends who were serving as his crew, they refused to let him race. The same thing happened at another NASCAR track in North Carolina, so Scott decided to prove himself on the local circuit in Virginia. On June 4, 1952, Scott won his first race at Lynchburg’s Shrader Field. Drivers had to be warned not to knock Scott off the track and racial epithets were hurled—including by the announcers in Lynchburg—but Scott kept showing up at tracks around Virginia and impressing other drivers with his tenacity and skill. He won races in Staunton and Waynesboro and began attracting fans. The Waynesboro News Virginian called him “one of the most popular drivers to appear here.”
In September 1953, Scott tried again to break into NASCAR. He presented himself to Maurice “Mike” Poston, the NASCAR official at Richmond Speedway, and requested a license to race in NASCAR’s Grand National Series, which was rapidly gaining popularity throughout the southeast. Poston warned Scott that he likely would get knocked around on the track but issued the license. It wasn’t a universally popular call. Poston said he took heat from NASCAR officials, but he assured Scott he would be treated fairly—although that would not always be the case. On March 4, 1961, at a half-mile dirt track in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Scott became only the second Black man to compete in the history of Grand National racing. (Elias Bowie was the first Black man to compete in a Grand National series on July 31, 1955, at Bay Meadows Speedway in California. He retired after one race). Scott’s engine failed that Sunday, leaving him seventeenth in the eighteen-car field. He was more disappointed than embarrassed and vowed to get better. It was a vow he kept: twenty-two more starts that year produced five top-ten finishes. His best result was a seventh in August on the quarter-mile track at Winston-Salem.
Throughout the 1950s, Scott did modestly well on the Dixie Circuit and with NASCAR’s lower-level Modified Sportsman series. By the mid-1950s, he had quit working on customer’s cars and given up moonshine-running to focus on racing. Notably, he raced five times between 1954 and 1958 on the famous highway/beach course south of Daytona Beach. Statistics from the early era of NASCAR racing are unreliable because some promoters didn’t pay much attention to record-keeping, but it is generally accepted by racing historians that Scott won between 100 and 150 races on the Dixie Circuit and NASCAR’s Sportsman series. He was the 1959 Sportsman champion at Southside Speedway in Richmond and the 1959 Virginia State Sportsman champion. Those accomplishments convinced him to move to the major leagues and the National Series.
Scott’s greatest limitation was money. Motorsports can be among the most expensive of all competitive endeavors. The adage “to make a small fortune in racing, you must start with a large fortune” was as true in the 1950s as it is today. Even the cost of street-legal cars converted into race cars in small garages or under shade trees was significant. Likewise, souped-up engines needed periodic refreshing that wasn’t cheap. It cost money to travel to races, pay entry fees, buy tires, and make the overnight drive home. Drivers who won or finished near the front often turned a small profit; those who crashed or finished poorly generally lost more than they made—but often came back to race again the next weekend. Scott the racer wanted better parts and fresher tires; Scott the businessman wanted to race carefully enough to protect his car but aggressively enough to finish well.
The most successful drivers received corporate sponsorships and with them the money that allowed them to be more competitive by buying modified cars with the new overhead-valve, fuel-injected engines (Scott drove Fords with factory V-8 engines). They could also afford things like new tires and large pit crews that were luxuries to Scott, who as an unsponsored independent bankrolled himself in hopes of making enough to race the next weekend, while supporting his growing family, which included Willie Ann, Wendell Jr., Frank, Deborah, Cheryl, Sybil, and Michael. Scott and his friends, and later his sons, tuned his cars instead of hiring mechanics. Frank Scott was the first African American crew chief in NASCAR. Deborah Scott served as scorekeeper, and Mary Scott was the team’s bookkeeper, in addition to working in a nursing home. As their family grew, she was the force that held it together as Scott raced. Scott approached numerous potential sponsors over the years, from auto manufacturers to alcohol and cigarette distributors, but while he remained a popular driver, and had respectable results from time to time, the sponsorships didn’t materialize. Nonetheless, he was the first African American team owner in NASCAR. Three men raced for Scott, two of them white—his good friend Earl Brooks and fellow Danville native Bobby Fleming—and his son Wendell Scott Jr.
Once Scott reached NASCAR’s top series, he generally raced within driving distance of Danville. It wasn’t only a matter of money—Scott’s team was barred from whites-only hotels and restaurants and sometimes had difficulty buying gasoline from white merchants. Still, Scott competed relentlessly, often racing six days a week and sometimes twice on Sundays. His most ambitious schedule was in 1964, when he started in fifty-six of sixty-two Grand National races, driving to and from each one. He finished in the top ten twenty-five times and was twelfth in points for the season. His most competitive stretch was from 1962 to 1970, when he had twenty top-five finishes, 138 top-ten finishes, and was a top-fifteen driver in season points eight times.
Scott accomplished this not only on a shoe-string budget, but while enduring countless moments of racial prejudice—from promoters who refused to pay him the expense money they typically gave to drivers who didn’t place high enough to win any money, to racial slurs, to numerous incidents of drivers trying to bump him off the track. The problem was so noticeable early in his career that NASCAR head France had to send a letter to drivers warning them not to try and wreck Scott or they would be suspended. While Scott downplayed the problems that he faced at the time, in 1968 he told Stock Car Racing, “I got run off more tracks that I can remember.” For his part, Scott sometimes had to drive less aggressively than he wanted to for fear that if a Black driver bumped a white one, he would face penalties on and off the track. Scott maintained a stoic dignity in the face of these challenges.
One of the most painful snubs was NASCAR’s selection of a white driver, thirty-five-year-old Woodie Wilson, as 1961 Rookie of the Year. The difference in their performances that year was apparent: Scott ran twenty-three races, Wilson ran five; Scott had five top-ten finishes, Wilson had one; Scott had thirteen top-fifteen finishes, Wilson had two. Scott’s average grid and finish positions were better than Wilson’s, and Scott finished nine positions better in the final standings.
Two years later, Scott racked up the first and only win of his NASCAR Grand National career, at the Jacksonville 200 in Jacksonville, Florida, although the race is better remembered for what happened afterward. Scott started fifteenth for the two hundred-lap, one hundred-mile race on the rutted and dusty track at Jacksonville Speedway Park. He was running second when Richard Petty slowed with engine failure at lap 175. Scott clearly inherited the lead, but his number suddenly vanished from the scoreboard, and at the finish he was scored down a lap. Buck Baker, the second-place finisher, was declared the winner and presented with the trophy. During a lengthy scoring review that went into the night, officials determined that Scott had actually finished 202 laps. Scott was declared the official winner for the first time in his 114-race career, long after the other drivers and the spectators had gone home.
NASCAR blamed a scoring error, but Scott and others at the track that day were convinced that nobody in authority wanted Scott in the post-race Victory Lane presentation receiving the traditional photo-op kiss from the young white woman presenting the trophy. Scott got the $1,000 winner’s check, but not his trophy or the thrill of seeing the checkered flag drop when he crossed the finish line. “They took all the kick out of it,” he told Donovan. Nonetheless, Scott would go down in the record books as the first Black driver to win a top-level NASCAR race.
The Last Lap
As racing became both more expensive and more competitive, Scott’s team lagged. In 1972, at age fifty, he qualified only six times in thirteen attempts. His career all but officially ended on May 6, 1973, after a twenty-one-car accident on the backstretch at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. (Earlier that day Scott was put in the awkward position of having to shake hands with George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama. One of Wallace’s staffers secretly put a “Wallace for President” bumper sticker on Scott’s car, which Frank Scott tore off.) Scott suffered a broken leg and knee, broken ribs, and a shattered pelvis, and needed sixty stitches to close an arm wound. He was hospitalized for weeks and didn’t race again for almost six months. His last start was October 7, 1973, at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he finished twelfth. As throughout his career, he drove a smart, conservative, error-free race that resulted in a credible finish and a modest payday.
Scott attended his induction into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in New York City in 1977 and was a consultant that year for Greased Lighting, a movie loosely based on his life. But Scott didn’t make any money from the movie and spent his retirement as a small-town mechanic who sometimes had to sell scavenged parts from his rusting racecars to make ends meet. Scott died of spinal cancer on December 23, 1990, at the age of sixty-nine and was buried in Danville’s Cunningham Cemetery. Mary Belle Coles Scott died on July 2, 2015, at age ninety-one and was buried beside her husband.
Scott died before his groundbreaking twenty-one-year racing career (1952–1973) was fully appreciated and recognized. In 1999, he was posthumously inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. A year later, he was selected for the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame and the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame. In 2008, Danville renamed a street in his honor and ten years later renamed its heavily traveled, six-lane bypass the Wendell O. Scott Sr. Memorial Highway. His most meaningful recognition came in 2015, when he joined other stock car racing luminaries in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Scott’s other enduring legacy is his family. All six of the Scott children attended college. His grandson Warrick Scott and his wife, Chinique Scott, founded the Wendell Scott Foundation to commemorate Scott’s legacy by introducing minority youth to STEM-based educational opportunities and cultural activities.
At Daytona International Speedway in August 2021, at the urging of the Scott family, NASCAR executives presented the family with a replica of the Jacksonville 200 trophy that Scott never received. (Buck Baker, who was initially declared the winner of the race, claimed he didn’t have it, but others at the track that day said he left with it.) This fulfilled Scott’s long-standing prediction. “I may not be with you at the time,” he told his family, “but someday I’ll get that trophy. Just because I might lose the race doesn’t mean I’m defeated.”