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1921

Born August 29 in Danville, Virginia

1942

Serves in World War II in Army’s 101st Airborne [1942-45]

1943

Wendell Scott Marries Mary Coles

1947

Races for first time, Danville Fairgrounds; begins racing in the Dixie Circuit

1947

Placed 3rd and won $50 in first ever race at Danville Fairgrounds

1950

Opens car repair shop; makes first attempt to race in the NASCAR circuit

1954

Begins racing in the NASCAR Modified Division

1959

Won Virginia State Championship as well as twenty-two other races in the Dixie Circuit

1961

Debuts in NASCAR’s Grand National at Spartenburg Fairgrounds in South Carolina

1961

Finished in the top ten 5 times, earning $3,240

1962

Finished in the top ten 11 times, earning $7,000

1963

Only Grand National win, Jacksonville Speedway Park, Jacksonville, Florida, on December 1

1964

Only pole position start at Grand National race in Savannah, Georgia, on July 20

1964

Set Grand National record for 40th place starter at World 600 in Charlotte, North Carolina, when he finished 9th

1965

Ranked 11th in the nation, earning $20,000

1973

Suffers major injuries in a pileup at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama; retires from racing

1977

Inducted into Black Athletes Hall of Fame

1977

Greased Lightning, a film based on his life starring Richard Pryor released

1990

Dies December 23 from complications due to spinal cancer

1994

Inducted into Jacksonville, Florida Hall of Fame

His greatest accomplishment came in 1963. Scott won his first and only Grand National race. Unfortunately, his victory was marred by tampering with the scoring that was most likely the result of racist intentions. The race wasn’t an easy one for Scott to make. He was in debt and needed the money he could earn from this competition. He drove from Virginia to Jacksonville, Florida, to compete at the Jacksonville Speedway Park. Exhausted from the trip, Scott couldn’t make the repairs he wanted on his car. Instead he removed the shock absorbers from each corner of the car. He told Edsall, “The track was so rough … but that way (single shocked) was just perfect. I lapped the field.”

Scott started in fifteenth position and easily lapped all the other racers. He was coming up on his 200th lap, the final lap, and expected to see the checkered flag waving for his first place finish. The flag remained unmoved. Scott continued on for two more laps expecting the checkered flag to signal the end of the race and his victory. Instead, the flag waved for Buck Baker, who was two laps behind Scott. The judges awarded Scott third place.

The fanfare, including the trophy and a kiss from the beauty queen, all went to Buck Baker but Scott knew he had won and he argued his case with the judges. After the crowds had gone and the supposed clerical error corrected, Scott was awarded his prize money. Unfortunately, he did not receive the original trophy. Stories differ on what happened to the trophy. One story relates that it went home with Baker, another that the trophy was stolen. Whatever the case, Scott ended up with a wooden statue that does not contain any information about his placing, the date, or the race. He did however get the money. He told Edsall, “I needed $900-some dollars to pay my bills.… I got $1000 for winning … and $150 for racing on Goodyear tires. But I really didn’t have Goodyears. I had recaps.”

Scott continued racing for ten more years, ever hopeful that he would get a break. In 1966 he told Ebony, “I don’t have too many wins in the Grand National … but I have a bunch of places and shows. With a little better equipment I know I can come out on top.” Scott was always driving older model cars, often bought from other racecar drivers. It was never the car itself that helped Scott place, it was his skill as a driver and a mechanic.

Career-Ending Crash

Even skilled drivers can be involved in accidents, and Scott had his fair share. Sometimes he was able to fix the car and get back out on the track to finish the race. Sometimes even the best attempts failed. Scott was never injured seriously in a wreck until 1973 when he was involved in a multiple-car pileup at the Talladega Speedway in Alabama. The resulting injuries nearly killed him. He survived the crash despite fracturing his ribs, pelvis, both knees, and one of his legs. He also needed sixty stitches to close up a wound on his arm. The wreck forced Scott to retire.

After retiring, Scott worked full-time in the auto repair shop he’d opened around 1950. The money he made from racing and the repair shop helped him send all six of his children to college. In the late ’70s, he served as a consultant for the film Greased Lightning, which was based on his life and starred comedian Richard Pryor. Unfortunately, Scott was diagnosed with spinal cancer in mid-1990, and succumbed to its effects on December 23, 1990, after six months in the hospital. In recognition of his importance to the racing community as well as the regard in which they held him a group of racers held a show featuring racing memorabilia and an auction to raise money to help pay for the costs of his hospitalization.

Greased Lightning

Released in 1977, Greased Lightning chronicled Wendell Scott’s racing career from his days transporting moonshine to his astonishing success in NASCAR’s Grand National races. The film starred Richard Pryor as Scott, Pam Grier as his wife, and Beau Bridges as Hutch, a former competitor who becomes Scott’s close friend.

Scott served as a technical consultant on the film and was not impressed with the stunt car drivers. The film suffered from the same fate that often afflicted Scott in his career as a racecar driver—insufficient funds. Pryor is reported to have felt the proudest of this role than any other because of how Scott was able to further the cause of civil rights in the arena of sports.

The only hall of fame induction that Scott received while he was alive was into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame. Since his death, his commitment to racing and the adversity that he faced so winningly have earned him spots in national and international halls of fame. Although Scott didn’t break NASCAR wide open for other African-Americans to enter, he did set an example of integrity and determination.