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Remembering Wendell Scott, first Black man to compete in NASCAR's highest category

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's Friday, which is when we hear from StoryCorps. And this one reflects on the coming weekend because Sunday, NASCAR holds the first on-track competition of its 75th anniversary season. We remember Wendell Scott today. He drove during the Jim Crow era of segregation and was the first African American to win a race at NASCAR's elite major league level. His family was his racing team. They would travel to races together from their home in Virginia. And his sons served as his pit crew. Wendell Scott died in 1990. His son, Frank, and grandson, Warrick, sat down to remember him for StoryCorps.

FRANK SCOTT: He started racing in 1952. And, you know, it was like Picasso, like a great artist doing his work. And he was in that car. And he was doing his work. And as children, we didn't have that leisure time, you know? We couldn't go to the playground. He said to us, I need you at the garage. I can remember him getting injured. And he'd just take axle grease and put it in the cut and keep working. But he wasn't allowed to race at certain speedways. He had death threats not to come to Atlanta. And Daddy said, look; if I leave in a pine box, that's what I got to do. But I'm going to race. I can remember him racing in Jacksonville. And he beat them all. But they wouldn't drop the checkered flag. And then, when they did drop the checkered flag, they had my father in third place. One of the main reasons that they gave was there was a white beauty queen. And they always kissed the driver.

WARRICK SCOTT: Did he ever consider not racing anymore?

F SCOTT: Never. That was one of my daddy's saying. When it's too tough for everybody else, it's just right for me. Like, I can remember one time when we were racing the Atlanta 500 and he was sick. He needed an operation. And I said, Daddy, we don't have to race today. He whispered to me and said, lift my legs up and put me in the car. So I took my arms and put behind his leg. And I kind of acted like I was hugging him and helped in the car. He drove 500 miles that day.

W SCOTT: How did his racing career officially end?

F SCOTT: Well, finances, you know? He couldn't get the support. Where other drivers that we were competing against had major sponsorship providing them engineers, as many cars as they needed, he did everything that he did out of his own pocket. He always felt like, someday, he's going to get his big break. But for 20 years, nobody mentioned Wendell Scott. At one point, it was like he never existed. But he didn't let it drive him crazy. I think that's what made him so great. He chose to be a racecar driver. And he was going to race until he couldn't race no more.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Frank and Warrick Scott for StoryCorps. Their conversation is archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.