Much of the media coverage of the announcement Wednesday that the first black NASCAR race winner, Wendell Scott, is being inducted into the Hall of Fame, has been negative. Instead of reporting that the man represented the first move toward a legacy of diversity and progress, many are trying to impose the cultural norms of the here and now on an entirely different time in history. Wendell Scott faced considerable discrimination and indignities which should never have happened. The fact that he was not immediately recognized as the winner of his victory in NASCAR’s premier series for racial considerations is a black eye for the sport. To characterize NASCAR as backwards, and criticize the delay in Scott’s induction, however, represents a failure to recognize the strides that have been made and which continue to be made.
Scott’s daughter, Sybil Scott, in comments made after the announcement, acknowledged the difficulties that her father faced. She also, however, challenged people to consider the strides which were made, and the fact that it was a “different era.” With her mother significantly ill, she expressed pleasure at the fact that NASCAR made this announcement while her mother could still see it happening. She remembers her father as a “builder of bridges,” and expressed eloquently her gratitude for those that “did the research,” and made the decision to honor her father in this way. She spoke fondly of the catch phrase which her father’s fans used throughout his career, “Give ’em hell, Wendell.” With his induction into the NASCAR hall of fame, it seems he has.
The legacy of Wendell Scott can be easily seen even on casual inspection in today’s NASCAR. Just this Monday, the latest participants were announced for the NASCAR Diversity Internship Program. This program, which was started 15 years ago, is a ten-week program designed to introduce multi-cultural college students to the sport, and to the employment possibilities therein. Many graduates continue on to permanent positions in racing or other sports, having received a strong foundation and education during their participation in the program.
It is not only off of the track that the legacy of this pioneer can be seen. Just this season, there is a black driver stepping into the forefront in the sport. Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. is a NASCAR truck series driver who has seen great success. Wallace became a driver in the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program when he became old enough to join. Wendell Scott’s son, Wendell Scott Jr. was a technical advisor and mentor for the program in 2008, where he scouted Wallace prior to his participation. The Drive for Diversity is another program which NASCAR initiated that recruits minority and women drivers to participate in the sport. It is a part of the legacy which detractors have sometimes marginalized and dismissed, but which demonstrates the commitment of the sport to progress.
Darrell Wallace Jr. was the 2010 K&N Pro Series East Rookie of the year. He won at the Greenville-Pickens Speedway, becoming the first black driver with a victory in that series. Last year, he won his first truck series race at Martinsville, and became the first black driver to win a race in that series as well. He has continued this year with an impressive showing, including starts in the Nationwide series where he has run in the top 15 cars 98.2 percent of the time when he has raced that series. After that win in 2013, Scott’s son Franklin said in a press conference that he had heard a noise from heaven which he interpreted as his father saying, “Hell, yeah,” when the checkered flag dropped. That kind of endorsement is hard to come by.
While it is true that NASCAR continues to be dominated by white drivers, it seems premature to attribute that to an attitude of indifference or a deliberate exclusion of minority drivers. A balanced evaluation of the efforts being undertaken to broaden the demographics belies such claims. With the continued success of drivers like Darrell Wallace Jr. and others like him, the question on the lips of many minority drivers has shifted. It is no longer a matter of whether they will make it in the sport, but when.
Commentary By Jim Malone