Alongside NASCAR's first black driver


By Brian Donovan. Steerforth Press. 328 pages. $25.95.

Most people know who Jackie Robinson was. But even here in NASCAR country, Wendell Scott's name may not be easy to place.

He was NASCAR's first black driver, and the subject of Brian Donovan's sad, illuminating biography, “Hard Driving.” Sad because it evokes the racism Scott faced throughout a racing career that began in the segregated South of the 1950s. Illuminating because Scott's story evinces dreams both attained and thwarted.

Scott never spoke out against the many acts of cruelty and discrimination he faced.

Not when Lynchburg, Va., track announcers introduced him using the “N word.” (Donovan doesn't use the euphemism.) Not when he watched NASCAR hold a victory ceremony for another man even though Scott had just attained his first major circuit win. Not when Darlington Raceway's leader refused to let Scott race there year after year, only relenting when the Civil Rights Act was passed.

He kept it inside, giving himself an ulcer and a thick skin, knowing he had to avoid provoking a fight at all costs.

Scott didn't race to break any color barriers. Like other early drivers, he was a former moonshine runner. He raced, he said, because he loved driving fast and he “wanted to do it without paying tickets.” Donovan details how Scott entered NASCAR through the back door, essentially showing up for a race in Richmond, Va., one day and applying for a racing license from the local race official.

The book also delves into the role of NASCAR founding father Bill France Sr., and to what extent he helped or hindered Scott. But Scott eventually got a fair amount of support from fans and many drivers.

Several familiar names appear in the book, including Lowe's Motor Speedway owner Bruton Smith, former speedway President H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler and former Observer reporter Tom Higgins.

Donovan is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who often wrote about prejudice. He also became an amateur racer, and clearly warms to his subject. But Donovan doesn't sugarcoat the unseemly side of Scott's character, from the harsh way he treats his family to his affairs with other women.

So is this book for non-racing fans? Yes, although I think hard-core may enjoy it more. That'd be a shame. Scott's story deserves to be told, and Donovan tells it well.