We watched a biopic on NASCAR driver Wendell Scott and it was so compelling that I did some research on the man and his racing career.
Wendell was the first black man to race at NASCAR’s highest level and he did it by refusing to accept the word “no”.
What he endured, mere decades ago, was enough to send a lesser being running from the racetrack. Denied the end-of-race gas-money payout given all the white drivers, denied sponsorship and even denied his first win in 1963 because the track promoter didn’t want him kissing the local beauty queen at the podium, as was the custom. After the public ceremony honouring the second-place finisher as the first, and long after everyone else had left, officials finally told a disgusted Scott that there had been an error and he was the true winner. He was handed the cash but told the trophy was already gone. His sons say that win was never a cause for celebration in their family because of the way their Dad was treated.
Wendell attracted lots of white fans and many friends among the other drivers. Some helped him out by giving him car parts. Others acted as his bodyguards, standing up to those who didn’t want Wendell on the track. He was often deliberately wrecked and he couldn’t afford to not finish a race because he counted on the payout for his family. He kept coming back despite loud and continuing pressure to quit, just because of his skin colour.
A story such as Wendell’s makes me retroactively judgmental. Many, many people chose not to participate in racism but many more went along with it; some, I’m sure, knowing in their hearts that it was wrong. When I see old news footage of politicians defending segregation and white police officers spraying fire hoses on African-Americans demonstrating on behalf of equal rights, I know I’m not alone in feeling sick to my stomach. But I can’t help but wonder about the individuals who took part simply because they were told to. I have to think they were mostly ordinary people who didn’t think for themselves, along with racist jerks, of course.
Wendell’s family was finally given his winning 1963 trophy during a ceremony last year. There have been African-American racers in the big sport since Wendell, because of Wendell. To those who don’t really know it, NASCAR may seem like a good ol’ boys’, redneck organization – I think that’s because of so many stereotypical sounding Southern accents during the broadcast – but it’s not. Even back when Wendell told the head of NASCAR that he had been denied his gas money, that man, Bill France, promised him it would never happen again and gave Wendell $30 from his own pocket – twice the gas allotment. Undeniably, Wendell’s journey depended on the support of men like Mr. France, someone who made the choice to do the right thing even though the wrong thing was the overwhelming choice of most at the time.