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The Legacy Of NASCAR Hall Of Famer Wendell Scott

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On December 1, 1963, Wendell Scott became the first African-American to win a race in NASCAR's top division. More than 50 years later, the number of African-American drivers who've accomplished that feat hasn't changed. Scott's recent induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte was a chance to celebrate a pioneering achievement, but also an opportunity to examine why NASCAR still struggles with diversity.

In the 1960s, almost no one would help Wendell Scott with his racecar, so his family did. Sybil Scott remembers being a small child, helping her exhausted dad wash and grease car parts. 

"Sometimes he would be about to fall on his face, 3:00, 4:00 in the morning," she says. "I witnessed quite a bit. We were always traveling with him."

Sybil says she and her six siblings have fond and painful memories. There were boos and racial slurs, death threats and wrecks.

There were also two forbidden words at their home in Danville, Virginia: “can’t” and “never.”

"There were times when Daddy didn't know how the lights were going to still be on the next day," she says. "But he wouldn't want us to worry about it. He wouldn't want Mommy to worry about it. He knew that he was skilled enough. Daddy always knew how to make a way."

Two years after Wendell Scott made his debut in NASCAR’s top series, his perseverance turned historic. 

"On December 1, 1963 in Jacksonville, Florida, with a patched up car and second hand parts, Scott became the first African-American to win a NASCAR premier series event," a Hall of Fame video commemorated.

Scott kept racing until 1973. But with very limited resources, he was unable to win another top race. Since his retirement, no African-American has.

But his accomplishment has opened doors.

"Realistically, for someone like myself, it gave me the opportunity that I had," Brad Daugherty says. He's a former all-American basketball player at UNC-Chapel Hill. About six years ago, he became co-owner of NASCAR racing team JTG Daugherty.

His passion for racing stems from his upbringing in rural North Carolina. He says it can be tough to attract other African-Americans to the sport, especially kids who live in cities.

"It's easy to go play basketball – all you need is a basketball," Daugherty says. "It's easy to go play football. All you need is a football and some buddies. You can't go play racing. And if you don't have a cultural lineage to racing, it's very, very difficult."

The lack of success by African-American drivers plays a role too, says NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell.

"You always want to see someone you may be able to relate to on television or see and look up to, and that's important to us, to have that on the track," O'Donnell says.

That's starting to happen. Two years ago, Darrell Wallace Jr. became the first African-American to win a lower tier NASCAR race since Wendell Scott. That was in the sport’s truck series, and Wallace Jr. has won four more times since. 

He came up through NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity, a developmental program created in 2004 for minority and female drivers and crew members.

Driver Dylan Smith is in the program this year.

Credit Getty Images For NASCAR
Dylan Smith (left) and Collin Cabre are two of the six drivers to earn a spot driving for Rev Racing through the NASCAR Drive For Diversity Combine.

"For us to be able to keep that path rolling along is really important to me, so I'm really proud to be a part of this," he says.

Smith is 22 years old and has all kinds of Wendell Scott memorabilia at his house. He says he hears other African-Americans stereotype his sport.

"Oh NASCAR, it's a bunch of more or less white Caucasian people, and that's what it is. They drive racecars, turn left. But there's a lot more!" Smith says. "When I go to schools, I explain, we have so many different levels and tiers. If you like math and building stuff, you can be an engineer!"

Smith says some of the kids he talks to don’t realize there are opportunities beyond the driver’s seat.

That includes covering the sport. Barry Richmond has been doing that for a radio station in Danville, Virginia, since the 1990s. He noticed something about his fellow reporters when he first started.

"When I would go to a cup race, I would be the only one of my complexion," he says.

Now, Richmond says it would be weird not to see African-American and Hispanic reporters.

Wendell Scott died in 1990. His daughter Sybil says NASCAR has made progress.  

"The climate is so different," she says. "Yes, my answer is that I do feel that it's moving forward. I think we take some steps backwards sometimes. I think we get stagnant sometimes."

Although there are still very few minority drivers, Dylan Smith’s experience racing is vastly different than Wendell Scott’s was.

"I've had incidents on pit road and on the track with people, but never once did I think it was because of the color of my skin," Smith says. "I just think it's more or less hard racing. When you put the helmet on, I think everybody just sees a racecar in front of them; they want to get by it."