Born: Aug. 29, 1921, in Danville, Va.
Died: Dec. 23, 1990, in Danville of spinal cancer.
Family: Wife Mary, deceased; daughters Ann, Sybil Scott, Deborah Davis and Cheryl Ashley, and sons Wendell Jr., Frank and Michael Booth.
Career history: First start at NASCAR’s top level was in the Spartanburg 200, Piedmont Interstate Fairgrounds, March 4, 1961. Started ninth and finished 17th when failing oil pressure sidelined his Chevrolet after 52 of 200 laps on a half-mile dirt track. ... Only victory came in Jacksonville 200, Dec. 1, 1963, at Jacksonville (Fla.) Speedway Park, a half-mile dirt track. Started 15th and won by two laps, but suspicious scoring led to Buck Baker getting the checkered flag. After four hours, NASCAR officials conceded that Scott actually had run 202 laps and won the race, with Baker second. … The triumph made Scott the only African-American winner in the history of NASCAR’s major division, dating to 1949. … Some observers consider him “the Jackie Robinson of auto racing.” … His final race was in the National 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Oct. 7, 1973. Started 38th and finished 12th in a brief-lived comeback attempt after a 23-car pileup in the Winston 500 on May 6, 1973, at Alabama International Motor Speedway in Talladega left him with fractures of the ribs, pelvis and both knees, plus a cut on an arm that required 60 stitches. He was hospitalized for weeks. ... Overall, he had 495 starts from 1961 to 1973, with one victory, 20 top-five finishes, 147 top 10s and winnings of $226,563.
Retired Observer motorsports writer Tom Higgins on Wendell Scott:
I first saw him: On Aug. 13, 1961, in the Western N.C. 500 at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway, a half-mile paved track. Scott started 35th and finished 24th in an event that’s notorious in NASCAR history. As the race progressed, the track’s asphalt began breaking apart, sending chunks of pavement flying and endangering participants and fans. NASCAR decided to end the race shortly after it reached 250 laps. Junior Johnson got the checkered flag on Lap 258. Thousands of fans rioted, blocking the route from the infield, basically holding drivers and crews hostage. The angry fans chanted, “We saw half a race, we want half our money back!” Finally, after about three hours, Pop Eargle, a giant crewman from Bud Moore’s team, charged swinging into the mob, breaking the impasse.
First impression: Scott was a thick-skinned, very tough and determined man who endured and manfully ignored crude racial slurs and jokes hurled at him, maintaining his right to drive in NASCAR.
My favorite memory of him: Watching from well behind the pit wall as Scott tirelessly worked almost single-handedly for 45 minutes on a sweltering day to repair a broken left front suspension in order to get back into the National 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Oct. 15, 1967. His sons, who made up his pit crew, helped by fetching parts and tools. He returned to the track to improve his position only slightly, finishing 28th and earning $950.
His most memorable quote: It followed the ’67 Charlotte incident just mentioned. “Gaining just one spot and the purse difference it made might mean whether I slept in a motel or slept in my truck at the next race,” Scott said.
What people might not know about him:
• From 1942-45 during World War II, Scott served in the 101st Airborne Division in Europe.
• Like many early NASCAR drivers, Scott learned to drive fast and well while transporting illegal moonshine whiskey. In a TV documentary on Scott’s life, a Danville police officer who often chased Scott stated, “He could drive faster going backwards than we could going forward.”
• Virginia-area promoters not affiliated with NASCAR recruited the well-known moonshine-hauler Scott to enter races starting in 1952, hoping to draw black fans. Over the next eight years, he won dozens of races and two track championships in cars he owned and prepared himself.
• Hollywood based a film on Scott’s exploits, releasing “Greased Lightning” in 1977. The movie starred Richard Pryor as Scott.
• Hall of Famers Junior Johnson, Ned Jarrett and others who competed against Scott contend that given equal equipment, Scott could have won many more races.