Hard Driving: The Wendell Scott Story

Hard Driving: The Wendell Scott Story

by Brian Donovan


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Hard Driving: The Wendell Scott Story by Brian Donovan

Hard Driving is the dramatic story of one man’s dogged determination to live the life he loved, and to compete, despite daunting obstacles, at the highest level of his sport.Wendell Scott figured he was signing up for trouble when he became nascar’s version of Jackie Robinson in the segregated 1950s. Some speedways refused to let him race. “Go home, nigger,” spectators yelled. And after a bigoted promoter refused to pay him, Scott appealed directly to the sport’s founder, nascar czar Bill France Sr.France made a promise Scott would never forget – that nascar would never treat him with prejudice.For the next two decades, Scott chased a dream whose fulfillment depended on France backing up that promise. Persevering through crashes, health problems, and money troubles, Scott remained convinced he had the talent to become one of nascar’s best. Hard Driving documents a previously untold chapter in the history of integration, politics, and sports in America. It reveals how France, founder of the multibillion-dollar nascar empire, reneged on his pledge and allowed repeated discrimination against Scott by racing officials and other powerful figures. It details France’s alliances with leading segregationist politicians such as George Wallace, the reluctance of auto executives such as Lee Iacocca to sponsor a black driver; and the inspiring support Scott received from white drivers such as nascar champions Ned Jarrett and Richard Petty, who admired his skill and tenacity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781586421601
Publisher: Steerforth Press
Publication date: 05/12/2009
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 640,550
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Brian Donovan, a former Newsday investigative reporter, has won more than forty journalism awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and Columbia University’s Paul Tobenkin Award for reporting on racial and ethnic intolerance. Driving on the EMRA Vanderbilt Cup circuit, he has won a season championship, as well as a track championship at Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway and dozens of races from Canada to West Virginia. He gained exclusive access to Wendell Scott over the last fourteen months of his life and interviewed more than two hundred individuals to capture this epic, previously untold American story. He lives on Long Island.

Read an Excerpt

Hard Driving

The Wendell Scott Story: The Odyssey of NASCAR'S First Black Driver

By Brian Donovan

Steerforth Press

Copyright © 2008 Brian Donovan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-58642-161-8


"Didn't no black kids have no bicycles."

More than anything, Wendell Oliver Scott wanted to be his own boss.

Even as a young boy, growing up in the 1920s and '30s, he vowed that no matter what, he wasn't going to wind up like so many people in his neighborhood: stuck in a dull, regimented job. He didn't want to work for The Man. He'd say this so vehemently and so often that his younger sister, Guelda, knew better than to question the idea, and sometimes she thought that if anyone in the family besides herself had a chance to escape to an interesting life, most likely it would be Wendell.

For the working folk of Danville, blacks and poor whites alike, the local economy didn't offer many career choices. Two industries, textiles and tobacco, dominated life in Scott's hometown, a hilly city of about twenty-five thousand in south-central Virginia, just above the North Carolina state line. From miles away, travelers heading for Danville could see a huge, illuminated sign that proclaimed the most important economic fact about the city since the late 1800s: DAN RIVER COTTON MILLS. These cavernous mills, turning raw cotton into threads and fabrics, were the biggest structures for miles around, five stories high with acres of floor space. They crowded the banks of the Dan River, fat columns of smoke pouring from their stacks.

Inside, thousands of workers toiled in a clattering din as thirteen thousand looms shook the floors. Black employees got the most menial jobs. All of the workers breathed air full of cotton dust; some died from brown-lung disease. Employees shopped in company stores, sent their children to company schools, worshiped in company-subsidized churches, got haircuts at the company barber shop. Many white workers lived in the "mill village" of company houses. Dan River Mills essentially controlled Danville: its economics, its politics, and City Hall. During the 1920s, the company experimented with a workers'-rights scheme called Industrial Democracy. It foundered, but not before the white workers passed a measure banning black workers from all of the better jobs.

Outside the city, tobacco fields stretched out for many miles. Tobacco jobs were even tougher than mill jobs. Workdays lasted as long as fourteen hours. Laborers worked the fields for subsistence pay. Children worked alongside adults. Some workers died from heatstroke or bites from disease-bearing insects. Tobacco warehouses and processing plants dotted the landscape. Like the cotton mills, they were stifling and stuffy inside, their pungent air full of lung-damaging dust. Black workers had to conceal their resentment that white co-workers got better pay.

"Being black, you could work alongside a white fellow, doing the same thing that he's doing or more, and you could never get his salary," Scott's cousin Alonza Carter recalled of his years as a tobacco worker. "He could get twelve to fifteen dollars a week. The most you could get was about nine."

The idea of life beyond Danville was inconceivable to many. Scott's sister, Guelda King, said: "In the community that we grew up in, in our age group, I cannot think of a single person who went to college but me. Everybody, when they finished high school, they got a job in a tobacco factory or the cotton mills."

Scott swore he'd avoid that kind of boss-dominated life. "I'll never go work in those mills," he told a boyhood friend. "If it gets to where I can't make a living, I'll get me a mule and a plow and raise corn. That mill's too much like a prison. You go in and they lock a gate behind you and you can't get out until you've done your time." Across the South, towns like Danville supplied many of the men who would be drawn after World War II to the new sport of stock car racing. A career in which you risked your life and labored for long hours over wrecked cars seemed much more attractive if your other choices were the mill or the tobacco industry.

During Scott's boyhood, his prospects for any kind of decent future sometimes looked doubtful. Besides the insults of segregation, growing up often seemed for Scott a process of being buffeted by one unhappy personal situation after another. His parents broke up. His father disappeared. His family ran out of money. At school he did poorly. Other kids mocked his stammering speech.

Scott was born in Danville on August 29, 1921, in a bedroom of his family's house at 243 Keens Mill Road. Back then, black children often were born at home. Danville Memorial Hospital delivered only white babies. His parents were William Ira Scott and Martha Ella Motley. They got married in 1919, when he was forty-two and she was twenty-five. Each already had a young daughter: Ira Scott, from William's previous marriage, and Willie Elizabeth from Martha's. In 1923 a fourth child, Guelda, was born. Wendell Scott wasn't the first in his family to look to the automobile as an escape from the bleak options of Danville industry. His father, a handsome man with an adventurous streak, avoided the mills and tobacco plants by becoming the mechanic and driver for two prosperous white families who jointly owned one of Danville's first cars.

Will Scott was stubborn and tough. One cold winter day he washed his hair, and Martha told him he shouldn't go outside with his head still wet. Immediately he went out and worked in the yard until little icicles froze in his hair, just to make the point that he'd do as he pleased. Once, when a power saw tore a deep gash in his leg as he was cutting a load of firewood to sell, he ignored the bleeding wound and kept on working for hours until he got all the wood cut and delivered.

Wendell idolized him. As a little boy, he would sit beside his father while Will Scott worked on cars. Wendell would pass tools to his father and try to anticipate what size wrench his father would want next. Quickly the boy learned to glance at a nut or bolt and pick out the right wrench before his father asked. Their father's daring behind the wheel impressed Wendell and his sister. "My father was something with a car," Guelda said. "He frightened people to death. They say he'd come through town just about touching the ground. After Wendell started racing, all the old people would say the same thing: 'He's just like his daddy.'"

Danville's mill owners failed to modernize their machinery while times were good, and by 1924 the company began losing money. Five years before the Great Depression, Danville already had fallen into a deep slump. During those hard times, Scott's father decided to take a new job. Will Scott, Martha, and the four children moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and he went to work as a mechanic at a Studebaker factory. The family's new home was near a firehouse. Young Wendell spent a lot of time there, fascinated by the noisy, exciting trucks.

Wendell found another quality to admire in his father — Will Scott had the nerve to cross racial barriers, regardless of white reaction. "Daddy was the only black mechanic there," he said. "The shop foreman died, and they made my daddy the foreman. Just about all the mechanics, they quit because they didn't want to work under no black man." The boss backed up Will Scott, telling the mechanics to come back or be replaced. After a week, some of them returned.

After two years in Pittsburgh, Scott's parents separated. Martha and Will Scott had clashing personalities and different attitudes toward life. Will Scott liked fast living as well as fast cars and fast driving. He gambled heavily. Guelda remembered him as "a carefree, happy-go-lucky person" who just wanted to enjoy himself. Martha Scott, a serious, religious woman, became worried that her husband set a poor example for their children. She had been a dedicated schoolteacher before marrying Will, and her relatives in Danville included some prosperous black businessmen. She wanted her children to become college graduates. Her husband's lifestyle, she felt, would not teach them to put any priority on education, culture, concern for others, or playing by the rules.

It was Will Scott's compulsive gambling, finally, that broke up the marriage. After many fights over his numbers betting, Martha told him to leave. "My daddy, he just mess his life up, messin' with them numbers," Wendell Scott said. "That's what my mother thought. He was writing numbers and playing numbers. She kept telling him she was going to leave him."

As a boy, Wendell didn't understand why his mother was so upset over gambling. Wasn't taking chances part of what made his daddy special? Wendell thought his mother was too hard on his father, and he was frightened of losing him. His mother not only wanted Will Scott out of the house — she wanted him to have nothing further to do with the children.

One night after the separation, though, Martha Scott permitted Wendell to spend the night with his father. "He had a room that didn't even have a bed in it. It had a mattress laying on the floor. He bought me some bananas, and I stayed in that room and laid on that mattress with him that night, and I was the happiest person in the world."

Wendell was seven. That was the last time he would see his father for years.

Far from home and broke, Martha Scott had to fall back on family charity. Fortunately, her sister Lavella Pope in Louisville, Kentucky, was comparatively well off. Lavella agreed to take them in, and the Scotts moved to Louisville. Martha Scott tried to pass on to the children her respect for education and culture. She was only halfway successful.

Guelda flourished. She took ballet and acrobatics lessons and starred in recitals in local theaters. People in the audiences gave her flowers and threw money onto the stage. But book learning and culture didn't appeal to Wendell.

Overshadowed by his little sister, angry with his mother, wounded by the loss of his father, young Wendell developed a bad stammer. He couldn't say his last name: The best he could do was Sot. Other kids gave him the nickname Wella-wella, mocking his efforts to speak. "I was ashamed," Scott said.

Back in Danville, Scott's maternal grandmother, Lottie Motley, ran a small neighborhood grocery. When Mrs. Motley's health began to fall, Martha Scott moved back to Danville with the children in 1931. Wendell was ten. They all lived in the same small family-owned house where Wendell had been born. Mrs. Scott helped her mother run the store, and the children spent their afternoons there, playing, doing chores, watching their mother and grandmother eke out a fragile independence in their neighborhood of blacks and working-class whites.

When the children started school in Danville, one of Wendell's first lessons was in the workings of segregation. In Louisville, his school had both white and black children — "so it wasn't until I came back to Danville to live that I realized I was different," he said. After his first day in the four-room Negro school, which housed grades one through twelve, he told his mother, "There weren't any white kids in school today, and not one white teacher."

His mother looked at him for a long moment. "There aren't going to be any," she replied.

Wendell had light skin and blue eyes, so he found segregation puzzling at first. His father had been light-skinned, too, and his mother and Guelda were even lighter. If white Danville didn't like people with dark skin, what did that have to do with his family?

Learning the new rules didn't take long. At the movie theater, Negroes could sit only in the balcony. When Wendell came in one day and sat downstairs, the manager assumed he was white and raised no objection. Then a white boy who knew the Scotts spotted Wendell. He ran to the manager, who promptly threw Wendell out. The lesson was clear: Any trace of black ancestry earned you the same treatment as the darkest Negro in town. Later, Wendell learned that his mother's father had been a white man who had children both with his white wife and with Wendell's grandmother.

The Ku Klux Klan was growing in Danville during Scott's youth. Hundreds of whites packed a local theater for Klan rallies. But in the Scotts' racially mixed neighborhood, Crooktown, most people got along. The Depression left everybody struggling. As providers of food and arbiters of credit, Wendell's grandmother and mother were people of stature in Crooktown. White customers addressed them as Mrs. Motley and Mrs. Scott. Many customers had no telephone at home; they depended on the phone in the Scotts' store. Neighbors of both races would hang around to chat and catch up on local gossip.

For adolescent boys, race relations weren't so harmonious. At the swimming hole near Wendell's house, groups of black and white boys regularly threw rocks at each other. Many of Wendell's peers had as little to do with whites as possible. "If we went through their neighborhood, we had to walk in a gang, ten or twelve of us," his cousin Alonza Carter said. "Otherwise you'd have to be a good runner." Wendell walked the tightrope of racial diplomacy more easily than many of his friends, however. He learned that even strongly prejudiced white people sometimes made distinctions between his race as a whole and individuals in it. They talked of good niggers and bad niggers. One could associate with them in a reasonably friendly way, he found, if one observed racial etiquette and did not show interest in white girls.

Scott's lifelong habit of hard work started with his impassioned desire for a bicycle. He earned the money to buy his own. "I used to ride bicycles with the white boys," Scott said. "I was the only black boy that had a bicycle in Crooktown. Having a bicycle then was a big thing, almost like having a car today. Didn't no black kids have no bicycles. They had old wagons, homemade wagons. But I worked." Wendell set up a little bike shop in a spare room off the store. He fixed flat tires quicker than any of his bicycle companions. Looking for more speed, he learned to adjust the ball bearings for the least possible friction. His sister would watch him conjure up working bicycles from what looked to her like piles of junk.

His talent for fast riding on the streets of Crooktown, which were mostly dirt back then, won him respect. Soon he could ride faster backward — sitting on the handlebars and pedaling while facing the rear of the bike — than many kids could ride forward. On roller skates, too, Wendell was speedy. He taught himself to leap and spin like a figure skater. Among the neighborhood boys, skating down the steep hill at the Rock Hill Playground was the litmus test for courage. When Wendell sailed down the hill on one skate, the feat clinched his reputation as Crooktown's leading daredevil. He had found something that set him apart, something that made him special — going fast, taking risks.

His stammer began to fade away. Soon, he could say his name as well as any of the other kids.


"I don't never want to punch no clock."

For the Scotts and their neighbors, labor strife at the textile mills made the Depression years of the early 1930s particularly harsh. The owners refused to bargain with workers trying to form a union. The workers went on strike for months. Demonstrations, brawls, and bombings roiled Danville. The governor called up the militia. Union activists fled the city, defeated. With no paychecks, some families became destitute.

At their store, Scott's mother and grandmother carried families on credit for months, sometimes collecting as little as fifteen cents a week on a seventy-dollar tab. As the hard times dragged on, the store wasn't bringing in enough money to support the family. Martha Scott had to find outside work. She cleaned and cooked at white people's homes for four dollars a week. Rising before dawn, walking two miles to work, she started her chores at 6 AM.

While still a child, Wendell had to do his part. Before his teens, he got used to working long hours and contributing money to the family. On a patch at his uncle's farm, he grew sweet potatoes and tobacco to sell. During summers, he put in hard days at a fish market, where sometimes he had to take part of his pay in fish. He worked at a drugstore, where he made a dollar a week more than his mother by putting in seven days a week. "I'd be at work at seven o'clock in the morning and get off at eleven at night," Scott said. "I like to killed myself working that job." In high school, he worked a night shift at the P. Lorillard Tobacco factory. He was out of school at three o'clock, at work by four, and on the job until midnight.

He bought his first car for fifteen dollars, a decrepit Model T Ford. As with bicycles, the car quickly became a central passion. Its mysteries absorbed him, and he began teaching himself how to work on it, trying to get it running. He'd talk friends into pushing the car up a nearby hill so he could get behind the wheel and coast back down. In class, his mind would wander, and sometimes his feet would follow. He'd slip out of high school, the teacher would call home, and Scott would be down at the junkyard, scavenging parts.


Excerpted from Hard Driving by Brian Donovan. Copyright © 2008 Brian Donovan. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface     xi
Prologue     1
"Didn't no black kids have no bicycles."     7
"I don't never want to punch no clock."     14
"A hard, nasty business."     21
"Judge, it couldn't have been me."     28
"Let me see how you doin' them turns."     35
"He had to be tough-skinned."     41
"I said, 'Well, I won the steaks.'"     48
"You're going to be knocked around."     55
"The more you do it, the more you like to do it."     64
"He knew just how to hit me."     71
"If he had the power, he'd come on at you."     81
"We're movin' up."     89
"They didn't want to use the word Wendell"     93
"A standoffish position"     99
"He hid the pain so well"     105
"Man, I come a long way"     117
"They took all the kick out of it."     127
"I just knew Ford was going to do something for me"     136
"How come way out here?"     144
"We used to be the cleanup boys"     152
"I'll get it done, Bill"     161
"You're not gonna miss that li'l ol' wheel"     168
"I'm going to show them"     176
"The funds was just notthere"     185
"I know my place now"     192
"We will not forget"     197
"It was about wore out"     202
"I'm gonna wreck him"     210
"A chance to win one"     214
"Just dreaming"     223
"And the crowd laughed"     233
"He put all his chips on the table"     239
"What's the purpose?"     245
"Business is business"     250
"I couldn't drive like he drove"     261
"I saw a different Wendell"     270
"Hope for the best"     277
Epilogue     284
Acknowledgments     289
Notes     292
Index     301

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Hard Driving: The Wendell Scott Story 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The story is written so that you see and feel what Wendell was working through. Wendell Scott was a pioneer NSCAR driver. He paved the way for diversity. Just this year, he was entered into the NSCAR hall of fall. Well deserved.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ente More than 1 year ago
The "Wendell Scott"-Story was long-time overdue. It shows the hard way and struggle and sometimes success of a real under-dog in motorracing. Looking into the past of NASCAR-Racing,guys like Petty, Allison,Baker,Roberts,Yarborough,Parsons...stood always in the limelight,so it's great to have a book now on the market,which tells the story of a real under-dog!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm not a huge NASCAR fan. I feel compelled to state that up front. I've watched some over the years, and when it was more of a regional sport and the cars looked more like something you could actually buy, it was more fun for me. As NASCAR has increased in popularity, it has decreased in interest for me, personally. After reading Donovan's biography of Wendell Scott, I was left with the same set of feelings I had when I visited the Negro League Museum in Kansas City. First, an appreciation for the stories of what Men of Passion were willing to do to chase their dreams and do the things they loved. The stories of Men and the inspiration that could be had from their stories of overcoming overwhelming odds. Secondly, I feel shame. Shame that other white people could, would and did some of the awful things to another person simply because of their color. Wendell Scott never set out to be a trailblazer or make a racial statement. Wendell Scott wanted to drive race cars for a living. That he chose to do this in the Red Neck world of NASCAR, in the Deep South with Jim Crow in full flower is a testament to his desire to do what he wanted to do. Donovan does a fine job of showing the trials and tribulations that Scott faced, the overt racism both in and out of NASCAR, and the good and less than good people that helped or hindered Scott as he chased his dream. He also shows a side of NASCAR, both past and present to some degree, that they would rather not have aired. Namely that NASCAR was racist, that promises made to Scott by founder Bill France weren't honored, that NASCAR did nothing to ensure that Scott was treated fairly. He won a race in Jacksonville, and to avoid him getting a peck from the track Beauty Queen 'naturally a white woman', they jobbed him out of the victory celebration at the time. It was later awarded to him, with no fanfare, and blown off to a scoring error. A fiction NASCAR still stands behind. Wendell Scott was hardly perfect, but who of us is? He was the first of four '4!' Black Drivers to have driven in NASCAR races, and while never a huge winner, he was a competitive driver for quite some time. Donovan presents not only the story of Wendell Scott, but the story of NASCAR, Civil Rights struggles, political skulduggery and institutional racism. He addresses the fictions of the 'Greased Lightning' movie starring Richard Pryor and Scott's lack of concern for accuracy. He paints a solid picture of a man trying to do something he loved, and how he overcame and dealt with obstacles. A highly recommended biography and history book.