Pulitzer Prize–winning Newsday reporter Donovan, now retired and a race-car driver, follows the hard-luck career of a man who challenged NASCAR’s racial barrier in the 1950s.
Growing up in the Deep South, Wendell Scott parlayed his early years as a police-dodging moonshine runner to become one of NASCAR’s best, most reliable drivers. If he didn’t finish with roomfuls of trophies to show for his two decades as a driver, it’s only because he labored under incredible disadvantages, most notably a lack of financial support from either NASCAR officials or the major car companies that poured millions into the sport. He was forced to drive a beat-up old car that he often had to repair mid-race—and that was when he was even allowed to the starting line. In the South, where stock-car and auto racing had its roots, Scott was routinely banned from entering racetracks like Darlington and Talladega. When he was allowed on the track, bigoted drivers often intentionally wrecked him while fans harassed him with racial slurs. His fortitude and persistence knew no bounds. Using his sons and friends as pit crew, he competed for more than 20 years until a wreck nearly killed him in 1973. It was typical of Scott’s bad luck that the wreck occurred in a brand-new race car that it took him 11 years to pay for. Donovan does an excellent job recounting the numerous roadblocks that were placed in Scott’s way. Even when he won his only Grand National race (now the Sprint Cup series), officials initially awarded the checkered flag to someone else; he didn’t receive his first-place trophy until a month later. Following the many other races in Scott’s long career may prove less fascinating for the casual reader, but Donovan provides additional interest with his portraits of such major players of the period as George Wallace and NASCAR founder Bill France Sr.
A memorable tale of an unsung American hero, and a worthy history lesson as well.