Baseball gives a lesson on how to cherish a pioneer

Published 8:54 pm Monday, April 16, 2007

By By CHRIS JENKINS, AP Sports Writer
OK, NASCAR, it’s your turn: When’s Wendell Scott day?
And if your first thought here is ’Wendell who?’, that’s a pretty good indication that the racing community needs to do a better job recognizing the pioneering efforts of the first — and only — black man to win a race in NASCAR’s top series.
Sunday, major league baseball honored the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut. League officials retired Robinson’s No. 42 a decade ago, then temporarily unretired it so any player who wanted to honor Robinson could do so. About 200 players, coaches and managers did.
Now it’s time for NASCAR to honor Scott, who faced his own difficult journey in breaking down a racial barrier.
NASCAR has awarded scholarships in Scott’s name to minority students with an interest in the racing industry, and Scott’s son, Wendell Jr., has served as a mentor to drivers participating in NASCAR’s diversity program. Wheeler said some tracks have hosted their own tributes to Scott.
But where’s the big-stage tribute to the man who broke racing’s racial boundaries? NASCAR isn’t ruling it out, but it’s not in the works yet.
Bill Lester, who last year became the first black driver to compete in NASCAR’s top series in 20 years, grew up watching Indy-style racing and admits he didn’t know much about Scott when he came to NASCAR.
Since then, Lester has gotten to know Scott’s widow, Mary, and his children.
Scott, a taxi driver and auto mechanic from rural Virginia, started racing cars in 1947, the same year Robinson broke into baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Some estimates say he won more than 200 races in the minor leagues. Wheeler said when Scott competed at Bowman-Gray Stadium during segregation, the black grandstands were full.
Scott finally broke into NASCAR’s top series, then called Grand National, in 1961.
The true depth of his struggle for respect in an overwhelmingly white sport — another black driver, Charlie Scott, raced on the sands of Daytona Beach in 1956 — aren’t widely known; NASCAR wasn’t in the same media spotlight as baseball at the time and Scott wasn’t one to complain.
Racial issues aside, Wheeler was most impressed by the fact that Scott never got frustrated trying to take on well-funded stars like Richard Petty while racing on a shoestring budget. Wheeler said Scott ‘‘had to be a master of the junkyard’’ just to make it to the track.
Scott only won once, but who knows what he could have done in a proper race car?
Wheeler said he doesn’t remember Scott being mistreated by fans or competitors. In fact, some fellow drivers helped him out by lending him spare parts.
But even his victory didn’t come without controversy.
Scott clearly won the Dec. 1, 1963 race at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Fla., perhaps as many as three laps ahead of second place. But officials declared another driver the winner, only later recognizing Scott as the winner and attributing the mix-up to a ‘‘scoring error.’’
But Scott endured, starting 495 career races and finishing in the top 10 in points three times. His career came to an end after a crash at Talladega Superspeedway in 1973.
Given America’s fixation on round-number anniversaries, NASCAR already has missed out on the chance to make a bigger deal out of the 40th anniversary of Scott’s victory. That means NASCAR could wait to throw a heck of a party in 2013 for the 50th anniversary of his victory.
But if they don’t want to wait, NASCAR could make Scott a major part of the new Hall of Fame, which is set to open in Charlotte in 2009.
Wheeler said recognizing Scott might boost NASCAR’s existing efforts to convince more black teenagers to take up racing, as a fan or a driver.