Clinton, South Carolina, Friday, December 15, 2017, 8:02 a.m.
Greenville-Pickens Speedway was the primary NASCAR venue of my boyhood. Twice a year, the half mile in the South Carolina foothills hosted Grand National (which became Winston, then Nextel, then Sprint, then Monster Cup) races. When I first started going there, it was dirt. Not many fans today can say they saw Richard Petty win on dirt. I did twice. When it was paved, the dominant driver became Bobby Isaac.
I do not have the same perspective today that I did when I was 12 and under. Duh. I remember that perspective, though, and there’s no need to try to parse it against the experiences of all the years since. A kid keeps it simple. Joy is easier for a kid. At G-P, I was in heaven. A red-clay-tinted heaven, but heaven just the same.
The Lord works in mysterious ways.
History tells us that Wendell Scott, of Danville, Virginia, faced great obstacles, and it’s certainly true. For many years, NASCAR’s African-American pioneer wasn’t allowed to compete amid the Confederate flags of Darlington Raceway, home of annual races named Rebel and Southern. By the time I came along, those days, at least, were over. I remember being pleased at the picture I snapped of Scott flashing by the back straight in a Ford that was painted in a color, robin’s egg blue, that was common then but rare now. Basically, it’s blue-tinted white. Most of the time, Scott’s Ford was red. I took that photo with a Kodak Instamatic, and it was only slightly blurred, which was something of a miracle. I “panned” the car before I knew what panning was, unless it was for gold on Bonanza.
What was great about Greenville-Pickens was the access fans had. As soon as the race ended, the gate at the flag stand opened, and fans streamed across the track to mingle with their heroes. Most drivers hung around to talk, sign autographs and pose for photos. No one could fail to be impressed by Petty, “the Randleman Rocket,” who was beloved even by those who wanted someone else to win. Richard stayed until he’d signed every program thrust in his direction. Years later, I asked him about why no one hated him, and he said it was because the fans were divided between Fords and Chevys, and they didn’t mind him because he drove a Plymouth. Nice try, but I think it was because, no matter how weary and covered in grime he was, he kept on smiling.
None of that may surprise you. This probably will. Wendell Scott was beloved, too. As a boy, I saw at close range lots of racial discrimination. Oddly, I never saw any of it at Greenville-Pickens. Scott was an independent who seldom had anywhere near enough money to be competitive, and, perhaps, if he had been perceived as a threat by the segregationists of 1968, they would have turned on him, and perhaps they did when I wasn’t there to see it.
In the grandstands of Greenville-Pickens Speedway, Scott was a revered figure. I think the fans respected him because he fought the good fight, whether it was Thursday night in Columbia or Sunday afternoon at Martinsville. I guess it was condescending. There goes ol’ Wendell, usually pronounced “win-DELL.” It was kind, though.
Scott looked weary, whether he’d just climbed out of his race car or not. He bore the weight of struggle and years of working twice as hard for half the rewards.
The dignity of that is one reason Scott is now a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
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