Off Track, NASCAR Ensured Racial Pioneer Couldn’t Win

Brian Donovan, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 21, 2008

On Tuesday, 18 years will have passed since the death of a remarkable racial pioneer: Wendell Scott, NASCAR’s first black driver. {snip}

Scott’s dream of becoming a competitive national-level racer depended on support from NASCAR’s celebrated founder and czar, the late Bill France Sr. {snip}

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As the growing civil rights struggle inflamed racial tensions in the 1960s, France reneged on his promise, and a pattern of unfair treatment by NASCAR followed. France denied Scott the Rookie of the Year Award for his first major-league season, even though Scott was the top rookie in the standings.

When Scott won his only national race, NASCAR officials, fearing he’d kiss the white trophy queen, declared another driver the victor. Long after the crowd and the queen had left, NASCAR grudgingly admitted that Scott had won.

For years South Carolina’s major track, Darlington Raceway, banned Scott because he was black. This cost him any chance for sponsorship. France addressed the problem with inaction and silence. When Scott finally asked for help, he said France told him that Darlington was important to NASCAR’s success and Scott should just be patient.

When senior NASCAR officials and major promoters mistreated Scott, France continued his hands-off neutrality. One official abused his authority and excluded Scott from an important race at Charlotte. Others did the same thing at the speedways in Daytona Beach, Fla., and Martinsville, Va.—facilities in which France owned major financial interests. Repeatedly, officials harassed Scott over trivial issues: his son’s beards, minor blemishes in his car’s paint.

At one prestigious NASCAR event, Scott was exploited in a bogus promotional scheme. A record crowd packed Charlotte’s speedway after the promoter announced he’d give Scott his first chance to drive a competitive car. But the car was a phony; its weak performance embarrassed Scott in front of 81,000 spectators.

France helped other drivers obtain sponsorship for competitive cars, but not Scott. This pattern of unfairness persisted, insiders say, largely because France and other influential executives in the NASCAR world believed that a competitive black driver would be bad for business. At the time France was cultivating alliances with leading segregationist politicians such as Alabama Gov. George Wallace, and those relationships helped NASCAR to grow into today’s multibillion-dollar enterprise.

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When we cling to the comfort of denying what we’ve done wrong in the past, we hobble our ability to understand the unfair situations we should be trying to correct today.

Even if NASCAR can’t figure out how to put another Wendell Scott on its speedways, it should at least find some way to express regret for its shabby treatment of an American integration pioneer, one of the many whose struggles helped to open doors for African-Americans to all sectors of our society, including the door to the Oval Office.

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