Race. For Wendell Scott, that word was like a double-edged sword.
On one hand, there he was in 1963, barreling down Speedway Park, a half-mile dirt track in Jacksonville, Florida, pushing his secondhand Chevrolet Bel Air past stock car legends like Richard Petty, Ned Jarrett and LeeRoy Yarbrough en route to the winner’s circle.
Then, there was the side that cut deep. Scott, the first African-American stock car racer to ever win a Cup-level NASCAR race, saw his victory go to Buck Baker, the driver that crossed the finish line after he did that day. Scott was eventually declared the winner, though only after filing a formal protest, but he never got to take a victory lap – he wasn’t even awarded a trophy until nearly a month later. Some blamed the confusion on the sport’s rudimentary scoring system, while others viewed it as a microcosm of the growing racial strife that was enveloping the nation. Neither side has ever been proven wrong.
On Wednesday, 50 years after that historic victory – and nearly 25 years after his death – Scott finally received that victory lap, when he was named as a member of the 2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame class. He’ll be enshrined along with the likes of Bill Elliott and Joe Weatherly on January 30, 2015, and, understandably, his family is elated by the posthumous honor.
“I felt like it was his moment, and the people who were making that decision probably felt that, too,” his daughter Sybil told USA Today. “I’m thankful to those who made the final decision that they opened up their minds and did their research — and maybe some of them opened up their hearts.”
Those sentiments were shared by Darrell Wallace Jr., a rising star on the NASCAR circuit. Just 2o years old, the kid known as “Bubba” is one of the most promising talents to ever tackle the tri-oval, and last October, he became the second African-American driver to win a NASCAR national-series event, taking the checkered flag at a Truck Series race at Martinsville Speedway. To him, Scott is an icon, and the recognition was long overdue.
Following the news of Scott’s enshrinement, Wallace spoke to Rolling Stone about “NASCAR’s Jackie Robinson” finally getting his due, racism in racing, and how far the sport has come in the 50 years since the Speedway win that almost wasn’t.
What was your reaction to the news that Wendell got into the Hall of Fame?
Finally. I was pumped, simple as that. It was very cool to hear that and to see that finally happen. There are a lot of people excited for him and glad it finally came around.
What did it mean for you as an African-American driver trying to make his own mark in the sport?
I use that as motivation. He paved the way for me. Carrying on his legacy and fighting for what he’s been through to eventually get to the Hall of Fame. It takes a lot of hard work and determination. You have to keep your head held high. He went out there and put it all on the line and went through a lot of stuff to get his first win, and that’s tough to hear about and to think about. Having him in the Hall of Fame is a boost of confidence and motivation.
Scott’s been nominated in the past. Were you worried that he might not make it in this year?
It was tough, there’s a lot of people who want to talk about how he shouldn’t be in, based on his performance, but to go through what he did, and to show up to the track the next week to do it all over again, that just shows who he was. That’s why I believe he’s in. Some say it’s because of race, but that’s just like me winning Martinsville because I’m African American. That’s bogus. He went out there and earned that win the same way I did.
Speaking of your win, why did it take 50 years for another African-American driver to win a NASCAR race?
The sport is just so tough; we thought it could have been another year until I won, so you never know. But you gotta throw away the bad and focus on the good that you have, so I’ve been trying to do that. To have success is tough in this sport if you can’t block out the bad. That’s probably what people got caught up in and couldn’t seal the deal. So it’s not easy to go out there and win a race, Martinsville wasn’t easy for sure.
Whether it’s based on fact or not, NASCAR isn’t seen as an inclusive sport. Do you think Scott’s induction into the Hall will change that?
I’d say so. Hopefully this gets people more involved. They’re seeing an African American that has been selected to be in the Hall of Fame, so now they’re like, ‘Well I never heard of that.’ The next thing you know, they’re going through the list of what African-American drivers were in NASCAR like Bill Lester, Willy T. Ribbs and Marc Davis. Hopefully, that will get them to come out and support me and the Drive for Diversity program and Revolution Racing. We can only hope it will work like that, so people will look into the sport and pay attention to it more.
Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling thrust racism in sports into the headlines recently. Do you think that helps the conversation as far as racism in NASCAR?
Yeah, but that was from an owner’s standpoint. NASCAR has a zero-tolerance policy on that. It’s moreso the fans I think. Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion and some are bizarre but you can’t help what people think.
Have you experienced racism from NASCAR fans?
Yeah, I get that. It’s just all across the board, you know? I get things like, ‘You don’t belong in this sport’ or ‘You’re not gonna win a race’ [on Twitter]. Well I’ve already done that, and I’ve made a name for myself, so I’ve already proved them wrong. Things like that that don’t bother me at all. It’s just funny, I look at it and laugh. Somebody different being successful, they’re going to do anything they can to try to stop it. But what they don’t know is it’s fuel for me to go out there and do better the next race.
Is there a lot of pressure being the lone African-American driver on the circuit?
There’s pressure there, but I try to do my best and not forget about it, but set it aside and focus on competing for that top spot and let everything else fall in place. If I can go out there and do what I need to do, win races and run up front, then I’ll get my name out there and let people know what I’m about.
Speaking of your name, we’ve got to ask: Where did ‘Bubba’ come from?
‘Bubba’ came from my sister the day I was born. She called me that and it stuck. Plus, it’s easier to go to the racetrack and call me ‘Bubba’ instead of ‘Darrell,’ because that’s my dad’s name.