By Christopher Harress
Reckon Staff Writer
On a Sunday afternoon in late 1963, on a ramshackle dirt speedway in northeast Florida, a powder blue Chevrolet Bel Air swept to victory and became an iconic part of Black sports history.
The 5,000 people in attendance that cold December day did not roar in appreciation as Wendell Oliver Scott emerged from his mud-speckled roadster as the first Black man to win a NASCAR Cup Series race. Race officials at the Jacksonville, Fla., track did not wave the checkered flag as Scott crossed the finish line and refused to acknowledge his two-lap victory. The white race officials instead gave the trophy to a white man who finished in second place.
That decision was eventually overturned, according to Scott’s family, but it came hours after the last fans left, robbing Scott of the opportunity to stand above his competitors on the winners’ podium.
Scott, then 43, waited a month before race officials quietly handed over his $1,000 victory check, according to a local news report at the time. A replica trophy was given to his family in 2010, two decades after Scott’s death and 50 years after his iconic win.
Despite a long and illustrious career, where he made 495 starts, he never won another elite NASCAR race. Only a few others have come close. The latest to attempt to cross that decades-long chasm is Bubba Wallace.
For diehard auto racing fans, Wallace’s ascent to NASCAR’s most prestigious stage has not gone unnoticed. The Mobile, Ala.-born driver won his debut race at a regional NASCAR event in 2010, when he was only 16 and had just begun competing for Rev Racing, the team responsible for those selected to drive with NASCAR’s Diversity Program.
But Wallace was thrust into the national spotlight earlier this summer after a noose was found in his garage at the Talladega Superspeedway. The discovery came during a period of racial upheaval across the country, raising questions about the lack of diversity in auto racing and the sport’s long history of hostility toward Black drivers.
Only eight Black men have ever driven in NASCAR’s elite Cup Series.
Unlike Jackie Robinson, who crossed professional baseball’s color line when he turned out for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Scott’s 11 years at the pinnacle of American auto racing went largely unnoticed.
While Robinson established himself as a civil rights icon and bulldozed a path for other Black athletes through personal perseverance and excellence on the field, Scott’s own trailblazing in a difficult environment failed to create a similar avenue.
“It’s always been difficult for Black drivers,” said 72-year-old retired racer Randy Bethea, who now lives in Newport, Tenn. In his gravelly Tennessee Appalachian accent, he spoke nostalgically about his past life, one that few Black men have experienced. While he rues missed opportunities in his career, he appears to be at peace with not making it to the very top of his chosen profession.
Bethea got his introduction to racing as a 17-year-old when a friend asked him to help fix up a car in rural Tennessee. “You need money, and if you don’t have that, you need sponsors. Most of the time you need both. And before you even get close to that, you need opportunity. Most Black folks don’t get close to any of that.”
For the handful of black drivers who made it to NASCAR’s Cup Series and the many more that competed at lower levels of auto racing, money has always been a barrier to progress. The typical net worth black families in the U.S., for example, is ten times less than white families, which can be traced back to slavery, Jim Crow and continued discrimination, according to a Feb. 2020 report from the Brookings Institute, a Washington DC-based economics think tank.
And auto racing isn’t a cheap pursuit.
Most people starting out in auto racing — usually at about 8 years old — are typically thrust into the sport by parents with money, time and an interest in the sport.
For example, it costs around $12,000 a year to buy, maintain and drive a competitive go-kart. After racing at that level, young drivers move on to the Bandolero car which can cost $7,000 new on its own and tens of thousands in maintenance and transportation costs. A Legends car, which looks like a 1934 Ford Coupe, costs about $13,000 new and is equally as expensive to run.
Wallace, who in 2013 became the second Black man to win a Cup Series race, had a father who owned a successful commercial cleaning company and could afford to fund his son’s early advances in the sport.
If you’re good enough and have the money, you can move on to the semi-professional level.
Once there, custom-built stock cars can cost $100,000 plus an additional $500,000 to operate per season, according to Mobile-based team owner Tommy Praytor, whose son, Thomas Praytor, races part-time in the NASCAR-affiliated ARCA Menards Series.
“You’ll spend a couple more million a year doing that,” the senior Praytor told Reckon, referring to the large costs involved in maintaining a stock car for years. “Somewhere in there you hope somebody notices what you’re doing and gives you an opportunity to race at the NASCAR level.”
While denying that NASCAR is an inherently racist organization, Tommy Praytor, who is white, acknowledged that racing was one of the most difficult sports for minority drivers to get into.
“If you have some ability and talent and you think you can play basketball, you can go to your backyard and dribble and shoot until fingers bleed,” he said. “In the racing business, if you don’t have money to get started and you don’t have money to practice, or money to race, you can be the greatest race car driver in the world. But without money you can’t hone your skills.”
“And that’s part of the reason we’ve had such a difficult time in stock car racing putting forward minority candidates,” he added.
The Select Few
Wendell Scott’s father worked as a mechanic, enabling his son to gain an understanding of the cars he would later drive. After serving in the segregated U.S. Army in World War II, Scott worked as a civilian mechanic. It was during this part of his life he gained notoriety as a skillful driver while delivering illegal moonshine near his hometown of Danville, Va. — the final capital of the Confederacy — according to Brian Donovan’s 2008 book, Hard Driving: The Wendell Scott Story.
Donovan notes in the book that Scott built fast cars that regularly outran police during his dangerous night time deliveries; he was caught just once.
That reputation gave Scott his first big break in racing. Local organizers at a struggling racing circuit knew he was a fast driver and used him as a promotional gimmick to boost ticket sales.
Still, over the course of his career, Scott was regularly denied entry to speedways where he was slated to race and sometimes slept outside the track because hotels did not rent to Black guests or because he couldn’t afford a room for the night.
Despite these challenges, Scott excelled and eventually moved on to compete in NASCAR’s Cup Series, known then as the Grand National.
He finished his NASCAR career with 150 finishes in the top 10, with 20 top five placings.
Tennessee’s Bethea got his big moment in 1975, becoming the fourth Black man to race in NASCAR. Unfortunately for him, engine problems forced him out of his one and only elite race. He spent much of his career competing in the minor leagues, now known as the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
Bethea, who grew up in the Jim Crow South, said auto racing was an exclusively white sport for people who grew up with cars and money. “(Racing) wasn’t a Black thing. My family couldn’t have ever supported me in racing. We just didn’t have that kind of money and not a whole lot has changed since then.”
It wasn’t just socioeconomic barriers that prevented Black people from advancing in the sport.
For example, in the 60s, if a driver got injured, the other drivers would go into the stands to collect money to help pay for medical bills and offset wage losses, Bethea said.
But white spectators weren’t always so generous to Black drivers. In an interview with Reckon, Bethea recalled a 1969 race at Smoky Mountain Raceway near Knoxville, Tenn.
“I crashed and crushed my ankle that night,” he said. “I never to this day got a penny from anybody there. Call it what you want — racism or whatever. Maybe it was because I was a hobby stock driver. How do I know?”
The racism that Black racers faced was not limited to the tumultuous 1960s or even the South.
Long before Scott came to prominence, Black driver Dewey Gatson took part in races all over the west coast in the 1920s.
Better known as Rajo Jack, he often used the pseudonym Jack DeSoto and claimed Portuguese or Native American ancestry to avoid anti-Black prejudice, according to the 2020 biography The Brown Bullet: Rajo Jack’s Drive to Integrate Auto Racing.
At that time, the American Automobile Association banned non-white drivers from racing. To keep his race a secret, he sometimes covered his face and hands and even occasionally purposely lost races, the book claims.
Nearly eight decades later, in 2001, Georgia’s Morty Buckles became the first Black driver to win a NASCAR-sanctioned event since Scott. The series is considered one level below the Cup Series.
Buckles was sent straight to the podium after his win. On the way, fans waved Confederate flags in his face and one child shouted, “You people go home,” according to the book Silent Thunder: Breaking Through Cultural, Racial, and Class Barriers in Motorsports by Leonard Miller, the first Black Indianapolis 500 team owner.
Then there was the fabled Willy T. Ribbs, one of auto racing’s greatest and most divisive characters. His driving career spanned three decades beginning in the early 80s. He was one of the most successful Black drivers based on career earnings and races won, though he largely steered clear of NASCAR, an organization he referred to as “neckcar,” a play on the term redneck. He was known to swing punches at fellow racers and dance on the hood of his car when he won.
Some of his motivations to succeed were clear. Ribbs said in a recent Netflix documentary about his life that he loved hearing the N-word because it fueled him to win. On his uniforms, he included the word “uppity,” a term with racist connotations used for African Americans perceived as arrogant.
He was the first Black driver involved in Formula One racing and served as inspiration for Lewis Hamilton, the current F-1 world champion who is Black. With his six world championship wins, Hamilton is widely regarded as one of the greatest drivers in history.
In an effort to encourage more people of color to get involved with the sport, NASCAR started its Drive for Diversity program in 2004. The program is designed to attract women and minority drivers who have gained experience in racing but perhaps lack the resources to make it to the next level.
Among those currently on the six-person racing team are Perry Patino — a 21-year-old from Montgomery, Ala., of Colombian ancestry — and Rajah Caruth, an 18-year-old Black driver based in North Carolina. Caruth was the first competitor to be selected from online racing.
While Caruth’s entry into racing is unconventional, he said that being involved in the real-life racing world has helped him see the cultural obstacles he will face in the future. He always knew that as a young Black man in a predominately white sport he would be held to a higher standard, but said NASCAR’s decision this year to ban the Confederate flag eased his transition.
“Some people will say it’s heritage, but the overall majority know it’s hatred,” the soft-spoken teenager told Reckon, referring to the Confederate flag. “It was good for me to see that. But before that I was just trying to be the best person I can be on and off the track and, above all, treating people how you want to be treated. You can’t let people walk over you — just got to stand your ground and race how you get raced and leave the track with a smile on your face.”