By Phil Allaway
Hello, race fans, and welcome back to another edition of the Critic’s Annex, where we endeavor to cover additional motorsports-related content on television. Today, we’re covering ESPN’s latest film, Wendell Scott: A Race Story, which premiered Sunday night after the Daytona 500.
When ESPN announced their film about Scott, I was under the opinion that it was going to be another documentary, along the lines of the Tim Richmond 30 for 30 film that premiered last October. I was wrong. It turns out that ESPN decided to make a short biopic about Scott. Basically, its a one-hour docudrama. As a result, I have to look at it differently. The following critique will have to take the tone of a movie review instead of a critique, complete with a star rating at the end. Enjoy.
The film starts out at a stand-in for Jacksonville Speedway Park (the real track closed in 1973 and is now a housing development) on December 1, 1963, the date of Scott’s first and only Grand National victory and periodically returns to the great night, while also telling Scott’s life story. The combination of staged footage and interviews brings back memories of TV shows like Rescue 911 from the 1990’s.
To a point, I do take some issue with the idea of Scott having nobody to help him out. He did have a small crew that would help him with his race cars (mainly family). When he entered Grand National, Bill France was an ally of his and would help him get into tracks that would have otherwise barred him from the grounds. However, Darlington was a sticking point. Bob Colvin, the track president at Darlington Raceway at the time, was a virulent racist who refused to even accept Scott’s entry requests. As a result, Scott could not even enter, let alone attempt to qualify for the Southern 500 for most of his career.
Unfortunately for Scott, his alliance with Bill France ended on bad terms. Scott joined the boycott of Talladega in September, 1969 in protest of the high speeds along with most of the Grand National regulars. After that, Scott was effectively dead to France. Tracks started refusing his entry blanks again after that point. It should be noted that none of that was mentioned in the movie.
However, the film was right in pointing out that he was effectively going it alone when it came to actually integrating the sport. When Jackie Robinson entered Major League Baseball in 1947, he was just the first player. A slow trickle started almost immediately afterwards. Within a couple of years, almost every team had at least African-American player (The Boston Red Sox were a notable exception. They did not field an African-American player until 1959). In Scott’s case, barely any other African-Americans started a Grand National race until after Scott retired (and none have run a full season).
There were a varied group of interview subjects in the movie, including Scott’s widow and their children, along with Richard Petty and Ned Jarrett, contemporaries of Scott. There were also interviews with Brian Donovan, author of Hard Driving: The Wendell Scott Story (which I own and recommend), Humpy Wheeler, and Darrell Waltrip. Waltrip raced against Scott only at the very beginning of his Winston Cup career when he was driving his own No. 95.
During his Grand National career, Scott was effectively the underdog of underdogs in the series. He would have to rely on older parts, or parts that he had scourged from local junkyards in and around his hometown of Danville, Virginia in order to maintain his cars. In the film, a scene is shown of a stand-in for Ned Jarrett bringing over some used parts to give to Scott at the track. Such a favor would happen from time to time, but not always.
There were also some other times in which some of the bigger teams would intentionally leave parts outside their shops for Scott to take and use. For the vast majority of Scott’s career, he ran Ford products. For a time, Scott was under consideration to gain factory backing from the Blue Oval. Unfortunately, it never came to pass, partially because of NASCAR banning the Hemi engine in 1965, leading to Chrysler pulling out of Grand National (that was the year Petty tried drag racing). As a result, Ford didn’t feel the need to further stack up against the competition since they were already dominating.
Scott is depicted in the film as a workaholic, doing most of the work on his cars himself. However, his family would help out, since the race cars were their livelihood. Scott appeared to be relatively stern with his children, but they were very respectful of him. He, in turn, was very protective of them, as shown in the re-created confrontation between Scott’s children and a small band of possibly drunk white men.
The film skips a number of years in Scott’s career after his victory in Jacksonville, going straight ahead to 1973 and the crash at Talladega that ended his career. Footage from Car and Track was used to show the scene at Talladega and the big crash that destroyed the brand new Mercury acquired for the race. However, it should be noted that the years that the film skipped were actually the most successful in Scott’s career (the one win notwithstanding).
The film ended with a presentation of a replica trophy to the one that Buck Baker claimed for Scott’s Jacksonville win to Scott’s family in Chester County, South Carolina. The track used for the ceremony was the same one used for location shooting for the movie, as shown in “this clip”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P1CBHiZkD-w from FOX Charlotte. The family then took the trophy to Scott’s grave in Danville.
There was also a short segment that can’t be described as anything more than a plug for the Drive for Diversity (Note: Max Siegel, who heads up the Drive for Diversity, was an Executive Producer of the film). It talked briefly about the accomplishments of their drivers in the K&N Pro Series over the past couple of years with quotes from some of the racers. The Drive for Diversity considers itself to be carrying the torch of Scott’s legacy, but the advertisement comes across as self-serving.
As for the rating, I’m giving it 2.75 stars out of 4. It does a great job of storytelling, but leaves out a lot of facts about Scott’s career. For example the Frances were never mentioned in the entire film. Like a lot of the documentaries that have been produced about different drivers and/or teams, certain information has been omitted. I’m not a fan of that since I’m a completist. Must be the History background, where omitting anything gets you marked down. Some of the more spectacular anecdotes, like the time Scott apparently drew a gun at Jack Smith, were included. That apparently did happen, although Smith denies it. In the aforementioned book, Scott claimed that he did it, and that the pistol was loaded at the time.
Also, some license was taken in the filmed portions. There is nothing that says that Scott got out of his car to change his own tire during the Jacksonville race, although he likely did do it at some point during his Grand National career (the last time that I can recall a driver doing such a thing was Morgan Shepherd in the Truck Series in 2001 or 2002). In fact, there is no mention of him changing tires at all during the race. He did stop for fuel, though. Still, the film was really poignant. You definitely got the feeling of what Scott had to go through during his career. The travesty that was his night in the sun really did go down like that. Some versions of that story have the track basically stepping in to protect Scott from a potential riot if he was seen kissing the trophy girl, who was undoubtedly white. More than likely, that would not have been an issue since Scott was married at the time.
Bonus points should be given for the accuracy of the car that was commissioned for Charles Foster (who played Scott in the filmed segments) to drive in the dirt track scenes. It is a fifth generation Chevrolet Bel Air coupe, which is what Scott drove in the Jacksonville race in 1963 (despite the fact that Scott drove Fords for most of his career).
I hope you enjoy this week’s edition of the Critic’s Annex. Tune in next week for more telecast critiquing. Until then, have a great weekend.