Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday March 3, 2011
He wasn’t the winningest driver of his era, nor the most popular. He wasn’t a champion, nor did he make millions upon millions driving a racecar. But sometimes making history comes quietly, and what Wendell Scott did for NASCAR is irreplaceable. Scott, the first African-American driver to race and win on NASCAR’s top circuit, desegregated the sport before we desegregated America. Breaking into the NASCAR ranks in 1961, Scott first raced in the Grand National (now Sprint Cup Series) in 1963, in a car he bought from Ned Jarrett. He didn’t win, but finished 15th in points-not bad for a rookie. And when the 1964 season got underway that December, Scott broke through with a win-still the only win for an African-American in the series.
Jarrett believed in Scott enough to help secure him a car the following year, and Scott thanked him with a 12th-place points finish-despite missing several races early in the year. In the mid to late ’60s, Scott was a fixture in NASCAR, finishing in the top ten in points in 1966-1969.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of Scott’s historic first NASCAR race, and to honor this pioneer, all Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series teams will carry a decal in remembrance of his life and contributions to racing. That’s small thanks from a sport in which men and women of many backgrounds now compete at various levels. Diversity is still lacking in the Cup Series, perhaps, but that too will change.
Frankly, showing a small token of thanks is a welcome gesture in NASCAR. In the past two races at Daytona, teams paid tribute to a pair of champions. In July, Tommy Baldwin’s Cup entry looked an awful lot like a certain orange Modified that was once driven by the winningest driver in NASCAR, nine-time champion Richie Evans, who amassed hundreds of wins in the Modified division over his career-he has more NASCAR-sanctioned victories than Richard Petty and David Pearson combined.
And just two weeks ago, teams and fans alike honored seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt on the tenth anniversary of what is one of the greatest losses the sport has endured, perhaps second only to the loss of Bill France himself. On the third lap, fans raised three fingers in silent salute, remembering (or perhaps not) the contributions of the Man In Black, and reflecting on the void he has left in the sport.
Running a decal or even a car in memory of those who paved the way is something to be embraced. Not that it should happen all the time, because it would lose its impact, but a few times a year to remember something truly special? Bring it on.
Perhaps it seems overly sentimental to some, but in today’s NASCAR, a NASCAR that has seen a huge influx of fans in the last decade, it’s a way to bring the past to light. Simply put, many of this new breed of fan don’t understand the sport’s rich history, don’t know its humble roots, and frankly, aren’t going to crack a book to learn. (This doesn’t apply to all new fans, of course, but to a large number who truly don’t realize what this sport is built on.) So, the responsibility to teach them falls on those who do understand and embrace the sport’s storied and colorful past.
If a decal or a paint job on a racecar can make a few people type in “Wendell Scott” or “Richie Evans” or “Dale Earnhardt” on their search engines, then it has done its job. Hopefully those fans will understand, and want to know more. Those are the truly lucky, for the history of NASCAR is fascinating and deep. When you get it, and I mean really get it, it gives you something. The more you learn, the more the sport gets under your skin. It becomes a part of us, a part of our past, a piece of an America that is fast fading into a world of technology and uncertainty. Racing, when it’s about the people, is a part of America, a part of every fan who wants to partake, to drink deep of the knowledge.
Here’s hoping that the TV stations will make more than a passing mention of Wendell Scott this weekend, that there will be recognition of his accomplishment, which was more than just wheeling a car in the days of a segregated nation-Scott would have had to endure prejudice across the circuit, especially away from the track where he couldn’t stay or eat with his competitors or team in places. Scott is a part of the fabric of the sport, irreplaceable-as are Evans and Earnhardt and more. It’s great for the sport to celebrate the fabric it is made of-the more fans who feel that fabric and take the history to heart, the stronger the sport will be.
NASCAR has never only been about cars going fast-it’s so much more complex than that-and it’s high time to celebrate those who made the sport for us.
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