Verner column: A powerful story of race and racing
How successful would pioneering black NASCAR driver Wendell Scott have been if he’d enjoyed the factory backing that accelerated the careers of competitors such as Richard Petty, Junior Johnson and Freddie Lorenzen?
How many more African-Americans would be sitting in the stands and competing in stock-car racing today if NASCAR had given Scott more support ó or at least lived up to its promise that it wouldn’t allow bigotry to sideswipe his ambitions?
Those are two of the questions left to ponder from author Brian Donovan’s “Hard Driving: The American Odyssey of NASCAR’s First Black Driver,” a meticulously documented and vividly written account of Scott’s many travails and sporadic triumphs as a black driver competing amid the turmoil of the civil-rights era.
Ultimately, readers must devise their own answers to the “what if” questions. But Donovan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist, convincingly portrays Scott as a driver of unusual talent and determination who endured decades of shabby treatment by other drivers, fans and track promoters.
Donovan will talk about Scott’s career Tuesday at Appalachian State University in Boone, where the Belk Library’s stock-car racing archives aided his research.
The outline of Scott’s story is familiar to many racing fans (in part through the 1977 movie “Greased Lightning”). A native of Danville, Va., he came to stock-car racing the traditional way, honing his driving skills and mechanical ability by running moonshine and competing on rough-hewn dirt tracks. Like Junior Johnson, Scott did time in prison.
He enjoyed some success in NASCAR’s sportsman class in the 1950s and then moved up to Grand National events (forerunner of today’s top-tier Cup series) in the 1960s.
Over the next decade, often mortgaging his home to finance his racing, serving as his own crew chief, mechanic, driver and, sometimes, pit crew, he managed to keep competing. He garnered more than 100 top-10 finishes and one Grand National win (in 1963, in Jacksonville) before a horrific crash at Talladega in 1973 ended his career. He died in 1990, at age 69, still haunted by what might have been.
However, the outline doesn’t begin to capture Scott’s passion for racing or the indignities he endured. Given the era and the fact that Scott’s particular American odyssey primarily traversed the segregated South, many of those indignities come as no surprise ó the fans who taunted and cursed him, the restaurants and motels that turned him away, the second-class treatment that trailed him like a cloud of poisonous exhaust. What does surprise are the on-track ordeals ó the drivers who deliberately tried to wreck him, the track owners or promoters who refused to let him compete or grudgingly allowed him entrance only to deny him his fair share of purses, even the outright manipulation of outcomes. After his Jacksonville victory, race organizers initially refused to declare him the winner to avoid the spectacle of a white beauty queen kissing a black man.
“I will never forget the hurt on Daddy’s face,” Scott’s son recalls. “Daddy was cussing, but he was so damn hurt, the cursing kept him from crying.”
These outrages occurred, Donovan concludes, even though NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. had assured Scott he would be treated without prejudice as a competitor ó raising the tantalizing possibility that, just as Major League baseball facilitated Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in that sport, stock-car racing’s hierarchy might recognize Scott’s potential to do the same in this arena.
“I think the evidence shows he (France Sr.) didn’t back up that promise,” Donovan said in a recent interview. “Jackie Robinson had support at top level of his sport. Wendell Scott didn’t have that support.”
In part, Donovan says, France may have feared a racial backlash from promoting (or even protecting) a black driver.
“A competitive black driver would have been bad for business.”
In a fascinating intersection of high-octane sport and power politics, Donovan’s research also suggests France’s attitude was influenced by his relationship with former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, whose support France needed to grease the way for construction of the track at Talladega.
“Back in the 1960s, France was very much involved with segregationist politicians,” Donovan said. “France had a strong financial interest in keeping Wallace happy.”
Yet, bleak as these episodes are, Scott’s story is an odyssey, not a tragedy. While he didn’t triumph, he did persevere ó and he gained white allies and friends along the way. Richard Petty came to his defense. Ned Jarrett tried to help him get sponsorship from Ford. Leonard Wood of the famed Wood Brothers team was particularly generous in helping him obtain equipment. Eventually, Scott also had a strong following among fans, becoming one of the more popular drivers on the circuit.
Ultimately, they appreciated Scott’s dogged persistence and skinned-knuckle grit, his refusal to surrender to odds, obstacles or soul-bruising meanness. He didn’t set out to make a racial statement. He just wanted to race.
“He just loved it,” Donovan says. “Realistically, he probably knew he was never going to get sponsorship from a major automaker, but he was hooked on it. He had a passion to race that just kept him going.”
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Brian Donovan will speak at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Room 114 of the Belk Library at Appalachian State. The program is free and open to the public. For information, contact Suzanne Wise at 828-262-2798.