Who was the first black driver in NASCAR?

Edited from the NASCAR Hall of Fame
Edited from the NASCAR Hall of Fame
Ted Fleming

When NASCAR hits the track for the first time on Feb. 9 for the Clash at Daytona, there remains one constant. Bubba Wallace remains the only driver of color that is competing full-time in the Cup Series. The casual fan may think he is the first because the sport has been traditionally white, but those who have been following stock-car racing for many years know better.

On Mar. 4, 1961, at the Piedmont Interstate Fairgrounds in Spartanburg, S.C., there were only 18 cars entered in the race that day. One of them was a newcomer driving the No. 87. Wendell Oliver Scott was behind the wheel of a 1960 Chevrolet, and NASCAR had a new entry in its record book.

It didn’t matter that Scott finished P17; he completed just 52 laps before an oil pressure issue knocked him out of the race. What mattered was he changed the face of NASCAR — literally. At the not-so-young age of 39, Scott was the first black driver in a sport that was still relatively young, having formed in 1948.

Scott would start 495 races in NASCAR as a driver and owner, racing against such legends as Buddy Baker, David Pearson, Richard Petty, and LeeRoy Yarbrough. He had just one victory in his career, edging out Buck Baker at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Fla.

NASCAR was not a welcoming place for Wendell Scott

With its roots in the south, NASCAR wasn’t just an all-white sport. Scott’s presence at that Florida track didn’t sit well with NASCAR officials. They flagged Baker as the winner, gave him the trophy, and he headed back to his North Carolina home. The trouble was, there was a review after the race that took more than two hours, and Scott was eventually declared the victor. Meanwhile, Baker had already taken off with the trophy that didn’t belong to him.

Scott would get the $1,000 first-place prize payout, but he never got what Baker had. When he died on Dec. 23, 1990 of spinal cancer, there was still an empty spot on his trophy case, and to this day, no one seems to know what happened to it.

The controversy lingers today with his family still trying to get something they believed belonged to Scott.

Wendell Scott
Wendell Scott

Scott was honored with his posthumous induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte in 2015. To some, one victory is not Hall-worthy, but what he accomplished against all odds makes him a worthy recipient. He was beloved and respected when he finally called it a career at the age of 51.

Bubba Wallace at 62nd Annual Daytona 500 Media Day (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Bubba Wallace at 62nd Annual Daytona 500 Media Day (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Scott’s legacy is that he fought through the kind of obstacles unthinkable today. He was barred from tracks because of his race while drawing scorn from fans at others. But in the end, he persevered to not only make it to the highest echelon of stock-car racing but winning in it.   

Edited by Jeff Owens
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