Nominations were announced this week for the 2012 induction class into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Twenty of the nominations carried over from the 2011 list with five new additions. New names on the list include teams owners Cotton Owens and Leonard Wood, circuit owners H. Clay Earles and Lee Richter and former driver Bobby Isaac, the 1970 Cup Series champion and winner of 37 Cup races.
Sixteen drivers are among the nominees in total including many of the star names such as Fireball Roberts, winner of 33 races, four drivers who each won two titles, Buck Baker, Tim Flock, Herb Thomas and Joe Weatherly and two drivers who won three titles each, Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough.
There was an outcry when the last two weren’t included in the 2011 induction – the largest outcry probably coming from Waltrip himself via Twitter! – and it begs the question why NASCAR only have five nominations inducted in each of these first years of its Hall of Fame. Having opened the Hall in 2009, sixty years after NASCAR racing started and with six decades worth of stars in the sport an argument could have been made to have larger induction classes for the first three, four or five years of maybe fifteen people each time and then reduced to five per year once the obvious names had been honoured. As it is each year there is bafflement with some of the names not chosen such as Yarborough, winner of 83 races and Waltrip, winner of 84 and the man who, as colour commentator for the televised races has NASCAR fans everywhere shouting out “Boogity, boogity, boogity!” as the cars pass the green flag to start each race, something he claims he shouted out to himself as the race started in his driving days.
The controversy is not limited to those chosen from the nominees, though. This year, as in both previous years, many fans and people involved in Stock Car racing question some of the names left off the list of nominations and the name everyone is bandying about this year is Wendell Scott.
Scott was a native of Danville, Virginia, just across the border from North Carolina and just a stone’s throw from where the Martinsville track was later built. Having served in the US Army in World War Two he returned and worked as a mechanic and then taxi driver. It was as the latter that he started running moonshine and so developed the tuning and driving skills to stay one step ahead of the law, although he did get caught and sentenced to probation on one occasion.
A local race track operator is said to have asked the local police who was the fastest driver out there and they said Scott was the one they couldn’t catch so he was invited to race. Over the next four or five years he became a regular in the winner’s circle and in 1952 or 1953 – the true date has been lost – he applied for and was granted a NASCAR licence. Through the fifties and into the sixties Scott won over 120 races and became 1959 Virginia State Champion.
In 1961 Scott decided the time had come to race in the Grand National division, what we now know as the Sprint Cup Series. In 495 starts Scott started from pole position once, won one race, somewhat controversially, and finished in the top ten just short of 150 times. His racing career ended at the senior level when he cracked his ribs and pelvis in a lap nine wreck at Talladega in 1973.
The statistics tell the story of what he achieved but they fail to tell how he achieved it. Wendell Scott had one handicap which was to dog him through pretty much all of his career although he never let it beat him despite the many obstacles placed in his way. Simply, Scott was an African-American. And whilst that solitary win may not seem much for a career lasting twelve years the fact is it remains the only win by a black driver to this very day.
To put Scott’s career into some sort of historical perspective it must be remembered that the Deep South of the United States in the early sixties was still very much a place of racial segregation, of whites-only restaurants and drinking fountains, motel rooms with the loathsome sign, “No niggers” outside. Scott’s first season in the big league was just six years after Rosa Parks had famously and courageously refused to give her bus seat up to a white person, and six years, as history has shown, was nothing like enough to erase years of racial bigotry and intolerance.
Scott suffered blatant discrimination throughout his career, including from NASCAR itself despite Bill France claiming in Scott’s early days he would ensure the driver would never suffer because of his race. It was France who denied Scott the Rookie of the Year award despite being the best rookie. Darlington Raceway refused to let Scott race there for many years because he was black – no other reason.
His one win is probably NASCAR’s most shameful exhibition of racism. On December 1st 1963, ironically exactly eight years to the day after Rosa Parks’ protest, in a race that was actually part of the 1964 season Scott was running in second place with 25 laps to go when the leader, Richard Petty, slowed with a damaged car. For the final twenty-five laps at the Jacksonville, Florida track Scott counted down to his first win. But on that last lap there was no checkered flag. Nor the next one. The flag was shown to Buck Baker and it was he who went to Winners Circle and collected the trophy. Scott protested and hours later, long after Baker had left the circuit with the trophy, NASCAR told Scott that he had indeed won the race, citing a scoring error for the discrepancy.
Scott always believed that NASCAR was nervous about how the admittedly red-neck crowd would react to a black man winning, or, worse still, kissing the white beauty queen in the winner’s circle. A month after the race Scott was given a trophy, of sorts, a varnished piece of wood for his win but it was a shoddy token effort and most certainly not the trophy that Baker had lifted on the night.
It is because Scott persevered, redefining the term racing on a shoestring – his car had written on its front wing at one point “Mechanic – me” – and refusing to retaliate against the prejudism he was shown, by both officials and other drivers who spun and wrecked him deliberately, that there is such a clamour for him to be a nominee for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
And I have to say I have a troubled mind with that.
If you go back to where we started with Wendell Scott, looking at his results he performed remarkably well with what little help he had. But he was not alone with that. Look through NASCAR history and there are many examples of drivers exisiting week to week – ekeing out a bare living doing what they love. There are men doing exactly that in 2011. Scott used to share help with Elmo Langley, Henley Gray and Jabe Thomas, all racing as best they could with what they had. Scott also got moral and practical support from Richard Petty and Ned Jarrett.
NASCAR’s records show that about four dozen drivers have started 450 or more races, as Scott did and that more than forty have achieved 150+ top ten placings, again as Scott did. His record is good but could never be considered great.
So, is Scott’s suggested nomination as an apology for the shameful bigotry he was subjected to, particularly by the morally impotent NASCAR officials from Bill France down or is it an acknowledgement of his achievements as an African-American race driver. Scott certainly deserves a belated and posthumous apology for the way he was treated but is induction to the Hall of Fame the right way to offer that apology. Admission to the Hall of Fame is supposed to be on merit for outstanding achievement. I have to ask, what exactly is Scott’s outstanding achievement?
If the clamoured for nomination is because of Scott’s successes as a black man in what was very much a white man’s world I fear he would turn in his grave. His whole racing career was built on a determination to be accepted and recognised for what he did irrespective of his colour. And I have seen no evidence that he lived the life he did to try and pioneer a course for other African-Americans. He epitomises a man who wanted just to be a racing driver. Not a black racing driver. To induct him into the Hall of Fame because of his race would negate everything Scott stood for.
How, then could the long overdue apology be made to Wendell Scott and his memory? Well, cast your mind back to Darlington Raceway’s ban on Scott racing there. Could there be a more fitting admission of the wrongs that Wendell Scott was dealt than for the winner’s trophy at all future Sprint Cup Series races at Darlington Raceway to be called the Wendell Scott Memorial Trophy?
Not a one-off big occasion to remember his name and what he suffered but an annual chance to acknowledge a tough, quiet and yet very dignified man who actually showed his oppressors what it means to be a man.