Road to NASCAR Hall of Fame wasn’t always easy for Wendell Scott

Wendell Scott and his two sons, Wendell Jr. and Frank, would set their goals for a race in the truck on the way to the track.

They knew what bills were due on Monday, and they knew where they needed to finish to have enough money to pay them. They figured out how many drivers would race factory-backed cars, knowing they’d be difficult to beat. And they decided which new parts their independent team could, and couldn’t, do without for their No. 34 car.

They also planned where near the track they could get a meal, go to the restroom or get a tank of gas, and they braced for racial slurs once they arrived at the track.

Friday, for his racing ability and his courage, Scott will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The first African-American driver to get a racing license in NASCAR, Scott will be honored posthumously in the fifth induction class.

“He won the drivers and the mechanics over in NASCAR,” said Wendell Scott Jr. from his home this week. “It was the belligerent fans, and there wasn’t that many of them.

“Daddy had a saying, ‘It’s the ones you don’t hear.’ And he was one of the wisest people you ever met. You see, we won the fan vote for the Hall of Fame by a landslide. Well, those were the people he was talking about.

“If they’re sitting in the company of a redneck, they can’t express any love for Wendell Scott.”

From 1961 to 1973, Scott drove 495 races in what is now NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup series, with 147 top 10s, 20 top fives and one victory. He led 27 laps in a NASCAR race in his career, all in his lone win.

Scott has fewer wins than any driver in the Hall, a distinction that will likely stand forever.

A former bootlegger who learned how to handle a fast car while racing away from police, Scott worked his way through the ranks to earn his NASCAR license in the early 1950s.

To be sure, it was difficult for any driver to get a sponsorship in the early days of NASCAR, but it was impossible for Scott. He also didn’t have much of a pit crew beyond his two sons.

What he did have was a promise from NASCAR co-founder Bill France Sr. that he would be given every opportunity to compete.

Even that, at times, was tenuous. Scott had five top-10 finishes in 1961, his rookie season. But the rookie of the year award went to Woodie Wilson, who ran five races, had one top-10 finish and finished nine spots behind Scott in the points standings.

And, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Scott was repeatedly turned away from racing at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.

“My father, even then he realized that life has a generational component,” Frank Scott said. “And a lot of times we were disappointed with the lack of support that he got. And sometimes he got support in a fashion that wasn’t always advertised.

“You know, you don’t accomplish anything in life by yourself. If you get somewhere in life, somebody helped you.

“I don’t think we had a bad relationship with NASCAR. It was a sign of the times as well. Things could have been better, but things could have been worse.”

‘Things you have to do’

Wendell Jr. and Frank had to grow up fast living life on the road. Their father was the best mechanic they knew, but that only got them so far with inferior equipment.

While Scott’s statistics aren’t as impressive as his fellow Hall members, the two sons say Scott would have been more competitive if they’d had more money.

But Scott always made do. When he discovered cracks in his engine before the 1967 Daytona 500, he drilled holes at the bottom of the cracks so they wouldn’t spread, and finished 15th.

“We would gear the car so as to not overwork the engine,” Frank said. “Sometimes he would sacrifice a position to not overwork his machinery. One time we got 12 races out of an engine. That’s a lot.

“We had to do that because if a driver – and there weren’t that many – wanted to be hostile toward him, he couldn’t retaliate the way he would want to. You would tear your car up. The guy doing it, well, he has five cars.

“There are a lot of things you have to do to stay in business. That’s the way we had to operate.”

But Frank said it wasn’t just the three of them making it on their own.

In Danville, Va., a community of friends and family would come to the two-bay garage – simply known in town as “The Shop” – and offer help.

On the road, some competitors offered assistance, too. Wendell Jr. said legendary engine builder Leonard Wood was one of their best friends. Wood and his brother, Glen, are already in the Hall of Fame.

“Wendell did with what he had,” Leonard Wood said. “He had a car that had a Boss 429 Hemi engine in it, a Ford. They didn’t know a whole lot about it, but they wanted Glen and me to come and help them with it at Talladega.

“We certainly weren’t expecting to charge him anything for it, just trying to do him a favor. He ended up sending me a whole set of china and Glen basically the same thing for helping. He had a big heart and he was a good guy.”

Scott accepted the help, but money was always an issue. Scott and his wife had two boys and four girls to take care of, traveling expenses, mortgages and more.

Muhammad Ali is a distant cousin, and once Scott asked his aunt to ask Ali about helping out. Ali responded by having a new roof put on their home.

“(Ali) didn’t understand what we meant,” said Scott Jr., who has a Polaroid of Ali hanging above the couch in his living room. “Daddy said, ‘That’s nice, but I don’t need no damn roof. I need some money.’

“Daddy was a character.”

Victory wasn’t easy

Scott’s only NASCAR victory came on Dec. 1, 1963, in Jacksonville, Fla. Scott started 15th in a field of 22 and overtook a Richard Petty car that malfunctioned late, claiming a lead he wouldn’t relinquish.

Scott crossed the start-finish line on the last lap but saw no checkered flag. He did it again. Then again. In what NASCAR would say was a scoring error, Scott was named the third-place finisher of the Jacksonville 200 despite racing two extra laps.

As the story goes, there were fears of fan rioting if Scott won. How would fans react to a black man winning a top-series NASCAR race, something that hadn’t been done before or since? Would he have the audacity to kiss the white trophy girl, as winners at that time customarily did?

Scott was named the winner late that night, with the fans long gone and no trophy girl to kiss.

The original trophy – given that day to Buck Baker – never reached Scott. Weeks later, he was unceremoniously given a small trophy that “even a child wouldn’t have,” Scott Jr. said.

It was a piece of wood with a bronzed wreath on top and an engraved metal plate signifying Scott as the winner. The wreath broke off before the Scotts got home, and soon after the glue to the metal plate loosened.

“The trophy is always going to be a sore spot,” Scott Jr. said.

In 2010, the Scott family got a replica of the original trophy through NASCAR and the Jacksonville Stock Car Racing Hall of Fame.

It came nearly 20 years after Scott died of spinal cancer at age 69.

‘A life’s work’

Wendell Jr. and Frank, both in their 60s now, will be at the ceremony for their father, just like they were in that truck on the way to the race five decades ago.

They’ll remember him, as they remember the questions about cars he would ask them to teach them mechanics and cut down on the boredom of long trips.

“He would have his arm around us, and he would ask us questions,” Wendell Jr. said. “Say, for instance, I would give him the right answer or my brother would give him the right answer, he would pat us. He wouldn’t pat us if the answer wasn’t right.”

Wendell Jr. says he can still feel those pats today.

“I lived for that pat,” he said. “For years I lived for that pat, for that affirmation that I did the right thing, or I knew the right thing.”

Friday’s induction marks a culmination of a life’s work for Scott and those who helped him.

Frank will give the induction speech. He won’t have time to thank everyone he wants in his allotted five minutes, but he hopes to deliver a message his father would be proud of.

A message that would be worthy of a pat from his father.