Wendell Scott was born in Danville on Aug. 29, 1921. He died there 69 years later on Dec. 23, 1990. In between, Scott lived a heck of a life, joining legends such as Junior Johnson and Curtis Turner in making the leap from moonshine running to the new sport of stock-car racing.
Unlike those men, Scott faced racial discrimination that prevented him from getting full corporate support, prohibited him from racing at some southern tracks, and kept race officials from acknowledging his first win until hours after the crowd had gone home.
Yet Scott kept at it, running competitively even with an older, slower car and smaller crew than drivers with corporate sponsors. In doing so, he left his mark on racing history and built a legacy that has only grown stronger since his death nearly 30 years ago.
Today, Scott’s legend lives on through the Wendell Scott Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has provided mentoring, job skill training, educational opportunities, and supportive services to at-risk, under-served youth ages 8 to 18, with a focus on STEAM fields—science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics.
“The Wendell Scott brand is a call to action to those who not only desire to compete at the highest level, but desire to be the best at the highest level,” according to “The Legend” page on the foundation’s website. “Wendell Scott embodied a competitive credence that giving up is way harder than trying. Wendell Scott believed that there is no such word as ‘can’t.’”
Growing Up in Danville
Scott grew up in Jim Crow-era Danville in which most residents worked either in the textile or tobacco industries. Scott determined to work in neither, but instead became a taxi driver until he went off to fight for the Army in Europe in World War II.
After returning stateside, he opened a mechanic shop while moonlighting running moonshine. Scott was caught only once, in 1949, when he led a police chase that ended with him crashing his car into a house. According to the Danville Register’s account, “none of the jars in the luggage compartment were broken.” Scott was given probation, and so he continued the trade that launched the career of many a mid-century race car driver.
The Dixie Circuit
At age 30, Scott started racing stock cars on the Dixie Circuit, a race series on tracks in North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, New York, South Carolina, and Washington, D.C. Some people booed Scott, but he became a fan-favorite known both for his driving talents and his talent as a mechanic, which enabled him to modify and repair cars during races.
He won dozens of races and, in 1959, also picked up two championships—a NASCAR title for drivers of sportsman-class stock cars in the state of Virginia, and the track championship in the sportsman class at Richmond’s Southside Speedway.
Moving on Up to the Grand National
In 1961, Scott began racing in the Grand National division, NASCAR’s premier series. He did fairly well, and on Dec. 1, 1963, Scott passed Richard Petty with 25 laps remaining on a half-mile dirt track in Jacksonville, Florida, to win a Grand National race.
The story of what happened next is documented in the short StoryCorps documentary “Driven,” which features interviews with his son Frank and grandson Warrick Scott, the latter of whom is president and CEO of the Wendell Scott Foundation. The short version is that race officials ignored Scott at first, instead declaring Buck Baker the winner, before conceding hours later—after all the fans left—that Scott had indeed won the race.
Scott continued to race through the ’60s and early ’70s before retiring in 1973. During that time, he ran older cars with bare-bones pit crews consisting of his sons. Often Scott would climb under the hood during races to make adjustments to the car himself. Fellow Dan River Basin race team—the Wood Brothers—occasionally helped Scott by encouraging him to find gear and car parts from their second-hand and surplus supply.
Scott finished in the top 10 in points from 1965 through 1969. His best season in terms of placement was 1966, when he finished sixth, and his best year in winnings was 1969, with $57,451.
The Legend Grows
Wendell Scott’s legend only grew after his retirement from NASCAR. The 1977 movie Greased Lightning, starring Richard Pryor, was based loosely on Scott’s life. In 1986, psychobilly artist Mojo Nixon—also a Danville native—recorded a song called “The Ballad of Wendell Scott.”
More accolades followed after Scott’s death in 1990. Pulitzer Price-winning investigative reporter Brian Donovan’s “Hard Driving: The Wendell Scott Story: The American Odyssey of NASCAR’s First Black Driver,” from which much of this story was drawn, was published in 2008.
In 2015, Scott was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. He was honored by NASCAR drivers in a Las Vegas race earlier this year. In June, Danville City Council approved a measure to rename the U.S. 58/29 bypass the Wendell O. Scott Sr. Memorial Highway.
This winter the Wendell Scott Foundation will celebrate the 55th anniversary of Scott’s win at Jacksonville with its first annual Legacy Gala, a fundraising event that will include a live auction, award ceremony, and performance by Lalah Hathaway, the Grammy Award-winning daughter of Donny Hathaway.
For more information, check the Wendell Scott Foundation’s Facebook page.
Where to Learn More
Find out more about Wendell Scott through the Danville Museum of Fine Arts & History’s biography from his induction into the Danville Hall of Fame. You also can visit the state historical marker dedicated to Scott in Danville on the stretch of road named for him.
Learn more about Scott’s era of racing by visiting the Patrick County racing museum of Scott allies the Woods Brothers.
Or for a deeper dive, check out our guide to auto racing heritage in the Dan River region.