it was almost 10 years ago that the family of hall of fame driver wendell scott thought it had reached the end of a long, emotional journey. but now, as nascar begins to accept that black lives matter more than ever, the scotts of danville, virginia, aren't sure their 57-year journey is over after all.
this is their story.
on december 1, 1963, wendell oliver scott won a 200-lap, 100-mile cup series race at speedway park in jacksonville, florida. it was anything but a straightforward green-to-checkered victory for the struggling, underfunded, doggedly determined black driver. in fact, future hall of fame driver buck baker—a popular, two-time champion who was white—was flagged the winner after what turned out to be 202 laps. he drove to victory lane, posed with the white trophy queen, spoke with the media, loaded up, and left for his home in north carolina.
but scott, who died during christmas week of 1990, was so sure he'd won that he asked for a scoring review. scoring was pencil on paper back then, an intense and tedious exercise often subject to honest human error or outright cheating. reviews were routine, so scott was well within his rights. wisely, he didn't claim anything underhanded; he simply wanted an audit of the scorecards.
it took officials almost two hours to find that, indeed, he was the winner. perhaps coincidentally—or perhaps intentionally (after all, this was dixie in the '60s)—those two hours are about what it took fans, competitors, the media and the trophy queen to leave the track. scott got the $1000 winner's check, but there was no victory lane ceremony, no media interviews, no photos with the trophy queen, and no trophy. he and his two-man crew quietly loaded up and headed north, back to virginia. they knew better than to celebrate.
the man and his career
wendell scott was born in rural, hardscrabble southern virginia in 1921. he left high school early and served as a mechanic in the european theater during world war ii. he returned home, married mary coles in 1943, opened his own auto-repair business, and doubled up as a cabdriver. all seven of the scott children went to college, and some got advanced degrees. clearly, education was the only thing more important than racing.
typical of that era, scott did some late-night moonshine running. he was so good that the ever vigilant local police chased him down only once in all the times they tried. that well-deserved reputation as a bootlegger had its upside: when promoters at the local speedway wanted a black driver to attract minority fans, the danville police unhesitatingly steered them toward scott's garage on keens mill road.
in 1952, he began racing his own cars on the lower-level dixie circuit, mostly on dirt tracks in virginia and north carolina. he won almost immediately, as much a testimony to his driving skill as his ability to build and tune fast, reliable cars. despite his success and growing popularity, nascar bullheadedly refused to accept his entries. that changed in 1961, when a short-track steward in richmond, virginia, sold him a nascar license . . . an unauthorized kindness not well received by executives in daytona beach.
soon after, on march 4, 1961, scott made his cup series debut at spartanburg, south carolina. in a chevrolet, he won $50 for finishing an engine-related 17th place at piedmont interstate fairgrounds, a half-mile dirt track. at 39, he was finally getting his long-denied opportunity to race the sport's best, including future hall of fame drivers ned jarrett, richard petty, junior johnson, david pearson, rex white, baker, glen wood, fred lorenzen, and joe weatherly.
he made 495 starts between that debut and october 1973, mostly in homemade or secondhand cars well past their prime. in addition to the jacksonville victory, he had one pole, 20 top fives, 147 top 10s and top 10 points seasons in 1966, 1967, 1968, and 1969. despite far better statistics in every meaningful on-track category, he lost the 1961 rookie of the year award to white driver woodie wilson. scott started 23 races that year and had five top-1o finishes, while wilson started just five races and managed one top 10.
scott was critically injured and his best car was destroyed in a massive backstretch wreck at talladega in may 1973. hospitalized for weeks, he missed the next 16 races. financially, emotionally, and physically drained, he retired after that october’s 500-miler at charlotte. he was a well-worn 51, beloved and respected by almost everyone in the sport. once scorned by fans and barred from nascar because of his skin color, he had won them over with his skill, grace, and determination in the face of unimaginable odds.
to him and his family, almost nothing ever came easy.
confusion and controversy
from the moment buck baker took the checkered flag in jacksonville, there was confusion and controversy. by then, scott had passed beneath the flagstand twice, looking for the first checkered of his career. instead, baker got it after 202 laps, while pole-winner jack smith scored second, scott third, ed livingston fourth, and a rising young star named richard petty fifth.
but were the scorecards right? some said yes; others said no. this much we know: it's been 57 years now, and the undeniable truth is that nobody is absolutely sure.
"everybody was in and out of the pits for repairs (because of terrible track conditions) and nobody knew who was leading," veteran racer willie carter told noted florida times-union motorsports writer don coble in a 2010 interview. "the owners didn't know who was running where. i was there when they were discussing it after the race. it was an honest mistake and they didn't know who won.
"there was a (white) beauty queen, and wendell walked up to buck and said, 'mr. buck, you can kiss that beauty queen, but the trophy's mine. i won that race.' " (the family says scott would never have addressed baker as "mr. buck.")
not surprisingly, others disagreed. "wendell didn't win that race, he inherited it," irwin spiers, one of jacksonville's most successful engine builders and team owners, told coble in 2010. "wendell stopped and got out of his car; there ain't no way he won. that thing was so messed up. it was whoever lasted the longest. buck knew he won, but he never contested (the official results). we talked about it. he was glad wendell got paid for winning."
later, spiers backtracked some. "i don't think anyone knows for sure," he reluctantly admitted. "i was there. i watched the race and i'm still not sure who won."
jarrett led much of the show but finished seventh after several stops for suspension damage. "i always thought it was a legitimate scoring problem," the highly respected two-time champion told coble. "it was common to recheck scorecards back then; it happened all the time. when you have manual scoring, there's going to be plenty of room for error. they found the problem and wendell won. it turned out the way it was supposed to."
except for this: to this day, nobody can find the winner's trophy given to baker in victory lane. it's a mystery—some consider it a slight—that still bothers the scott family.
looking to make things right
"one of the greatest atrocities in sports history is the fact that wendell scott never received his trophy from 57 years ago in jacksonville," his grandson, warrick, said in a nascar-produced video highlighting his grandfather's life and times. "now is the time to show that nascar is a sport for all people, not just some."
several months ago, he spoke of the awkward post-race moment in jacksonville. "the trophy was given to the person they announced as the winner [baker] in front of my grandfather," he said in an interview with a roanoke, virginia, television station. "hours later, when all the fans and the associated press had left, that was when the money was given to my grandfather. but there was no trophy."
bubba wallace, the only full-time black driver in the cup series, thinks it's time someone makes things right. in june, he successfully lobbied nascar to ban confederate battle flags from its properties and events. soon after, a noose was found hanging from his garage door at talladega. in response, everyone in the garage on race day pushed his car to the grid in an emotional "i stand with bubba" moment. not surprisingly, the scotts and the 26-year old driver from mobile, alabama, have become close.
"obviously, that brings up a time when the sport was not in a good place," wallace recently said of the trophy issue. "it was when things like that were normal. [getting the trophy] would be big. righting that wrong would be a true victory and success in the sport. i'll mention that with [nascar president] steve phelps and ask how they're going to handle that. it's kind of a sticky situation, but it needs to be done."
with a fairly crowded plate right now—scheduling, keeping covid-19 at bay, racing without fans, and political pressure from all sides—the sanctioning body nevertheless seems willing to help. "we have had several quality conversations on this topic with the scott family in the past few weeks," phelps said recently. "we plan to have more discussions."
over time, the missing trophy became a sports trivia question: what nascar driver never got the trophy from his only career victory? when scott died in 1990 at 69 of spinal cancer, the news was almost always headed by the qualifier "the only black driver to win in nascar's top series."
despite that lone victory, scott posthumously joined lorenzen and former champions weatherly, white, and bill elliott in the class of 2015 into the nascar hall of fame. some felt his career had been mediocre at best, certainly not hof worthy; others considered his 13 difficult years of cup racing an extraordinary accomplishment by a humble, hard-working, visionary pioneer in what was overwhelmingly a white man's world.
(notably: scott is also in the virginia sports hall of fame, the international motorsports hall of fame, the national motorsports press association hall of fame, the jacksonville racing hall of fame, the national black athletes hall of fame, and the virginia motorsports hall of fame. he and his family have received most of the significant service and achievement awards the sport has to offer.)
two trophies, but still not the real one
in october 2010, at golden isles speedway in waynesville, georgia, the scotts received some measure of closure to the missing-trophy mystery. in an emotional ceremony, the jacksonville stock car racing hall of fame gave five family members a sparkling replica of the missing 1963 winner's trophy. (four weeks after his victory, scott had received a small, crude, flimsy, unadorned wooden trophy before a race in savannah, georgia. despite its ratty condition, it remains in the family's showcase.)
according to coble's exhaustive research, the jacksonville club spent much of 2010 searching for the original trophy. "from what we know, buck took it with him when he left," said ron rohn, president of the club. "we decided to find one like the real one and present it to the family. i spent a day at nascar looking at old pictures of trophies they'd given out in the early '60s. cost me $25 to buy one little picture, then more than $300 to have a replica trophy made."
scott's widow, mary (since deceased); children wendell jr., franklin, and sybil; and daughter-in-law mabel were at golden isles that night (jacksonville speedway park had long-since closed down). not only did the family get a look-alike trophy, but rohn and some club members unveiled a restored version of scott's winning no. 34 chevrolet.
"this has been a journey for us," sybil said during the ceremony. "the effort you have put forth to make this night what it has been . . . there simply are no words that can ever express what we really feel. we hope our presence here tonight will, in part, show we are truly grateful. we do realize you have put forth a lot of effort [and wish] that you all will continue to have safe racing. the respect you have shown our father will forever be embedded in our hearts."
frankie scott, a longtime teacher, principal, administrator, and high-school basketball coach in virginia, told the gathering that his family would drive directly to danville the next day and deliver the trophy to their father's gravesite. "we are grateful to jacksonville," he added, "for making this right. we can tell our father he got his trophy."
but wait, there’s more
two years ago, warrick scott told the motorsport website how the jacksonville incident had affected his grandfather. he said the culture around the mostly white sport and racial turmoil in the jim crow era meant any justice was unlikely, particularly in the deep south. (jarrett and petty are among those credited with helping scott during those trying times; many other drivers eventually befriended the family.)
"there were places where wendell and his crew were most likely to be run off the road, shot, cut into pieces and fed to the alligators, without anybody knowing," warrick told the british motorsports publication. "my grandfather was upset. he was really angry, but knew his surroundings and the odds mounting against him. at the time, the winner would go and kiss the local beauty queen. it was a white community festival, in a way."
nobody seems to know the whereabouts of the original trophy. neither the jacksonville racing club nor nascar's archives has it. hall of fame driver buddy baker told coble it wasn't among his late father's collection. "as far as i'm concerned, wendell won the race," baker said in 2010. "my dad never told me anything different. after all the races he won, i'm sure he wouldn't covet a trophy he didn't win. he had so many trophies we had them stacked up out in the carport."
warrick wonders whether someone in the baker family might have the trophy and not realize its significance. he also wonders whether anyone else could possibly appreciate what it means to his family. he feels that if buck had taken it with him that sunday evening, it was only because he didn't know the outcome of the scoring review. the scott family has contacted the baker families without success.
"how many times after that race did my grandfather see buck?" warrick said recently. "a true competitor wouldn’t have kept something he didn't earn. we've reached out to both women [the baker widows] and gotten shuffled back and forth. with people moving all the time, it might even be destroyed by now. it might be in a dusty box stored somewhere. people discover and rediscover stuff all the time."
a call for nascar to step in
short of finding the original trophy, frankie feels he has a balm for his family’s pain. see, it’s not the physical piece of mahogany and brass and engraving the scotts want; it is, far more importantly, official recognition from nascar of what wendell did in jacksonville that sunday afternoon. there have been conversations between nascar and the scotts along that line, but nothing official has been decided. still, a dialogue has been opened, and that’s an encouraging sign.
“nascar had nothing to do with the replica trophy the racing club gave us in georgia 10 years ago,” frankie said. “we’d like for nascar to have an official ceremony for maybe 10 minutes next year and give us a trophy of their own. there’s your easy fix right there; that would make it right. and let me tell you: with everything going on right now, that little ceremony would help them as much as it would help us.” (two venues have been suggested: next year’s daytona 500 or a race weekend at martinsville speedway, close to the scotts’ home in virginia.)
warrick calls jacksonville “a glaring hole in [wendell’s] career that needs to be filled.” he added, “how many racers worried about getting shot by a sniper? how many worried about a dark roadblock 60 miles down the road late at night? how many worried about the kkk? or getting run off the road at night? my grandfather was a racing genius and we’re not going to accept that his legacy will go unfulfilled.”
last month, he spoke out again on his grandfather’s behalf, this time on youtube: "even in 2020 we’ve had a much harder time establishing recognition, opportunities and respect for wendell’s contributions," he said. "in a world that is media-centric and often facilitated by inaccuracies and half-truths, there is an obligation to uphold integrity. i believe it’s time for nascar to rise to the occasion by changing the narrative of an unpleasant past involving my grandfather and nascar."
he expanded on that in a recent conversation. "he built a bridge to diversity in racing, so nascar needs to tell that story through the lens of wendell scott. he gave people hope because he had a big heart for everyone. he had more love in his heart than [his enemies] had hate in theirs. he did as much for race relations in the south as dr. [martin luther] king."
as for finding the precious jacksonville trophy?
"we always have hope that we’ll find it because our hope lies within our faith," warrick scott said. "we trust god that it will work out."