Scott story will bring mix of emotions
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- "Wendell Scott, A Race Story," will make you smile and make you cry.
It also may make you angry.
It is a story about how the first black man to win a race in NASCAR's top series persevered in a sport ruled by white males. It is a story that reminds just how far NASCAR hasn't come in diversity.
The 49-minute docudrama can be seen Sunday on ESPN at 9 p.m. ET after we celebrate the opening of another season with the Daytona 500. It should, as Wendell Scott's son, Frank, said during a question and answer session with family members following a recent sneak preview at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, be seen in every church, school, university and home in the country.
Since Scott drove his final race in 1973 there have been only four other black drivers in a combined seven Sprint Cup races -- none since 2006.
Bill Lester drove in two Cup races for Bill Davis Racing in 2006, with a best finish of 32nd. Willie T. Ribbs drove in three Cup races in 1986 for DiGard Racing, with a best finish of 22nd. The other two ended with engine failures.
George Wiltshire made two starts in Cup, going two laps in a 1971 race at Islip before, according to records, he "quit" and 15 laps at Pocono in 1975 before, according to records, he was "flagged."
Randy Bethea made one start, the 1975 World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but had an engine failure 251 laps into the 400-lap event.
Ribbs and Sam Belnavis, the head of Roush Fenway Racing's diversity program and one of the few minorities to have owned a race team, were interviewed for the docudrama. Their words, apparently less than complimentary about the sport in terms of diversity, were left on the cutting room floor.
The docudrama says Scott opened doors, but he really only cracked them as wide as the chain would allow.
While NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program is a step in the right direction through Revolution Racing, led by former Dale Earnhardt Inc. president Max Siegel, not nearly enough is being done to get black drivers, or minorities in general, involved.
The blame can be spread throughout the sport. NASCAR could invest more in grassroots programs and do more to encourage teams to put black drivers in a position to succeed, as the NFL did with requiring teams to interview at least one minority when a head-coaching position comes open.
But until a major team owner such as Rick Hendrick, Jack Roush, Joe Gibbs, Roger Penske or Richard Childress is willing to invest in a black driver, allow him or her to make mistakes and wreck cars like a Kyle Busch, as Frank Scott noted, the push to diversity will continue at a snail's pace.
Until a major sponsor is willing to devote the money to allow a black driver to make his or her way, it's doubtful one of those owners will step forward.
Toyota stepped up to support Siegel's effort. Where are the other manufacturers that have been approached? Ford, for example, has invested heavily in diversity in other areas of its company. Why not motorsports?
Wouldn't having a black driver in the top series have a major impact on car sales?
And where are minorities with influence and money? Michael Jordan recently brought Denny Hamlin into the fold to represent the Jordan Nike Brand. Why not invest that in a young black driver such as Darrell Wallace Jr., who last year became the first black driver to win in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series?
Yes, there are other issues and stumbling blocks here. Motorsports isn't like basketball, where all you need is a pair of shoes, a ball and a court to play. Most drivers that make it to Cup do so because somebody, often their parents, invested a lot of money, sometimes millions, in their careers.
Scott never had that. Everything he earned he did on his own.
But the docudrama wasn't about what hasn't been done since Scott's career ended with the driver physically broken from a horrific crash at Talladega and financially broke from having to mortgage everything he owned and more to finally buy a car worthy of being in that '73 race.
The docudrama was about Scott, easily the most successful black driver in NASCAR history with 20 top-5s, 147 top-10s and one win in 495 Cup races, and how he defied odds no matter what obstacles were thrown at him.
It was brilliantly centered around the Dec. 1, 1963, Grand National race at Jacksonville (Fla.) Speed Park that Scott won by at least two laps over Buck Baker, only to have Baker initially declared the winner because the track owner didn't want a black man kissing the track queen in Victory Lane.
The film goes back and forth between that race and telling Scott's amazing story. It tells how he grew up fixing bicycles for neighborhood white children, how his family became his crew at home and on the road, how he had to change his own tires on pit road while other drivers had crews.
It told how many white fans and drivers supported him in a time when the country was in upheaval over the civil rights movement.
"If it had not been for white people, we would not have had our career," Wendell Scott Jr. said after the film.
One of the more dramatic moments was a shot of Scott alone, in the dark, in Victory Lane long after most had left the Jacksonville track. There are tears running down his face as the track owner and a NASCAR official admit there was a scoring error and give him the first-place prize money.
When Scott asks about the trophy, he is told in a less than respectful tone it is long gone with Baker.
The film ends with the track finally returning the trophy -- albeit a duplicate and not the original that Scott deserved -- to the family of its rightful owner last October. It ends with the family, led by Scott's wife Mary, placing it on Wendell's Danville, Va., grave.
Forty-seven years later.
Another reminder of how slow diversity growth has been.
It is a film worth seeing, a film that will stir emotions of sadness, joy and perhaps anger. It is a life worth celebrating.
"I'm the principal of a school," Frank Scott said. "Kids need to know if you work hard and refuse to quit, you can be successful. Overall, the point was well made."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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