The Day Wendell Scott “Raced” NASCAR: Hard Driving, Counter Mobility, and the African American Civil Rights Struggle

Bookmark and Share

The Day Wendell Scott “Raced” NASCAR: Hard Driving, Counter Mobility, and the African American Civil Rights Struggle

 

The themes of mobility, movement and transportation are important yet under-analyzed avenues for exploring the African American civil rights struggle.  The processes and politics involved in creating and maintaining racial separation and inequality are complicated, and for the most part, geographers have focused on the dialectical interplay between the production of space and the creation of racialized identity.  No less important, however, is the racialization of movement, the historical and contemporary production of black immobility, and the ways in which African Americans have sought to fashion “counter mobilities” in which they decidedly move to contest white supremacy and control.  I wish to capture the revolutionary qualities of movement as a social and spatial practice, recognizing that a politics of mobility underlies the historical geography of the African American experience—from escapes during slavery to the Great Migration out of the South in the early 20th century, from the bus boycotts and freedom rides of the Civil Rights Movement to more recent transportation justice campaigns.

 

The relationship between African Americans and the automobile demonstrates the extent to which mobility has been constructed in ways that both reaffirm and challenge racial hierarchies of power within the US. The car occupies an important place within the history of race relations and, as demonstrated in debates over police racially profiling black motorists, it remains as a contested arena for asserting and denying the rights of African Americans.  African Americans, like whites, have long viewed the car as a powerful status symbol of status.  From the Cadillacs of Motown stars to the tricked out rides of hip hop artists, “[b]lack popular culture appropriated the automobile—as both a symbol of the American ‘good life’ and as a sign of a distinctive, black culture” (Sugrue 2005, np).    During the Jim Crow era, for instance, the private car symbolized to middle class African Americans a way of escaping and de-legitimizing the racial segregation found on busses, trains, and trolleys.  At the same time, this escape was not complete and black motorists still faced discriminatory accommodations, police harassment, and even violence while traveling.  Surprisingly, despite the centrality of transportation and movement to the study of geography, few geographers—even those recent advocates of critical mobility studies—have examined the politics of African American automobility (Alderman and Modlin forthcoming)

 

The politics of mobility, as argued by Creswell (2010), is an entanglement of practices as well as movements and representations.  The counter mobilities constructed by African Americans using the automobile were not simply about taking to the road.  These alternative mobilities were characterized by driving practices—creative bodily, technological, and social maneuvers—employed both to survive and subvert racism and inequality.  Cresswell reminded us of the importance that such practices play in mediating the meaning of mobility.  Black drivers during Jim Crow, for instance, mitigated or circumvented racial discrimination and intimidation by closely controlling their speed (traveling at or below posted speed limits); route (avoiding unfamiliar pathways or notoriously hostile destinations); rhythm (travelling at night when it was more difficult for police to identify drivers of color); and experience (using travel guides to identify safe, black-friendly hotels, service stations, and restaurants) (Sugrue 2005; Foote 2012).

 

As black tourists during Jim Crow demonstrate, the historical geography of African American counter mobilities is not always a matter of protesting or overtly confronting the white power structure.  Moving in defiant ways also involved navigating through and around racially hostile landscapes using everyday mobility practices meant to draw limited attention.  Moreover, counter mobilities can involve African Americans asserting and practicing their right to move in broader cultural arenas seemingly beyond and unrelated to the formal political distribution of rights.  While its mobilities are more spectacular than everyday, the historical geography of NASCAR provides insight into the broader cultural place of the automobile within the African American civil rights struggle.  The construction of major league stock car racing as a “white” sport was not something that simply occurred organically or naturally, but developed historically through NASCAR’s efforts to control and limit African American access to certain mobility-defining resources such as tracks, technology, and sponsorship.  While I certainly see NASCAR as a site for white racial control, I also understand it as a site of black, anti-racist resistance, albeit that resistance has been grossly limited.  But, I do use my paper to focus on a single African American driver in the 1960s and 1970s who asserted his right to race at the top level of NASCAR and the creative driving practices he employed in enhancing his mobility on individual speedways and within the broader sport of stock car racing.

 

NASCAR has the distinction of being one of the fastest growing professional sports in America, having expanded demographically and geographically well beyond its traditional core region of the working class American South (Hurt 2005).  NASCAR also has the distinction of being a sport that, despite its significant expansion, has failed to significantly attract racial and ethnic minorities in terms of fan support and driver participation.  For many people of color, the racing association continues to be identified with rednecks waiving Confederate flags at races, even though NASCAR leaders have invested money in diversity initiatives and taken an active role in countering that image within the mass media.  An important barrier in efforts to counter the image of the race track and grandstands as “white” places is the sport’s history, which has been marked by personal and institutional racism (Alderman et al. 2003).

 

In NASCAR’s over 60 years of existence, only one African American has competed in any significant or consistent way at the association’s top level —Wendell Scott of Danville, Virginia (1921-1990).  Scott was the first to break the color barrier in major league stock car racing, competing in his first race in 1961.  But unlike his counterpart in baseball, Jackie Robinson, Scott’s arrival to NASCAR did not usher in a true racial integration of racing. Only a handful of African Americans since Scott have competed at the elite level and their participation has added up to a mere nine race starts, the last being in 2006.  Over a career that stretched 13 years and 495 races within the Grand National Series (the equivalent of today’s Sprint Cup Series), Scott amassed 1 win, 20 top 5 finishes and 147 top 10 finishes.  He achieved this level of success with no corporate sponsorship, a pit crew that consisted of family and friends, inferior cars, equipment, and parts, and in the face numerous instances of racial prejudice and discrimination.  Indeed, after several instances of NASCAR officials not being allowed him to race because “black men were not allowed,” Scott obtained his racing license only after slipping through the process unbeknownst to (and to the consternation of) NASCAR headquarters in Daytona Beach, Florida (Donovan 2008).

 

Perhaps no event better illustrates the discrimination that Scott endured than his sole win on the Grand National circuit in December of 1963—less than five months after Martin Luther King’s famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  Racing at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Florida and amid the tense days of the Civil Rights Movement, Scott beat his nearest competitor by two laps but was not recognized as victorious at the end of the race.  The second place driver, Buck Baker, was declared the winner.  Race promoters were supposedly apprehensive about how the fans in attendance would react to Scott kissing the white beauty queen, which was traditionally done at NASCAR races.  Two hours after the end of the race and the departure of the crowds, race officials declared Scott the winner, but had no trophy to award him (it had been given to Baker).  It would not be until 2010, twenty years after Scott’s death and 47 years after the Jacksonville race, that NASCAR would award a trophy to his family

 

The Wendell Scott story, especially the 1963 race in Jacksonville, provides geographers an important moment to reflect on the racialization of mobility.  Racist social practices severely limited African American movement and participation on NASCAR tracks, affirming that major league racing was a type of mobility and economic livelihood reserved exclusively for “whites.”  Even after winning the Jacksonville race, Scott was made to appear and feel that he did not belong and that his ability to drive was inferior to his white competitors. At the same time, the racialization process never goes uncontested and Scott created a “counter mobility” on the north Florida track that, despite not being fairly recognized, did catch the attention (and in some instances, the respect) of white fans and fellow racers.  He constructed a freedom and superiority of movement that sought to defy racially stereotypical depictions of who belonged behind the wheel of a race car while competing within a racing association that remained (and remains today) racist in nature.

 

Critical race theory argues that we should be sensitive to how American social life is “raced,” how white privilege and the marginalization of people of color are maintained and reinforce over time, space, and as I argue, through different constructions of mobility. Scott’s biography assists us in exposing the “raced” dimensions of NASCAR, understanding how stock car racing is implicated in a wider white supremacist geography of controlling the movement of African Americans.  Yet, Scott did not challenge the racialization of stock car racing by simply showing up and driving around the track.  He quite literally “raced” NASCAR in the sense that he drove against, and at times outcompeted, his white counterparts.  Scott’s relied upon a style of “hard driving” practices that allowed him to be more mobile and competitive, especially during the 1963 Jacksonville race, than one would expect given the lack of support from NASCAR and corporate sponsors.   This “hard driving” was a combination of bodily technique, mechanical prowess, and social navigation on and off the track that made his counter mobility not just possible but potentially competitive among faster and more technologically superior race cars.   At a time in the 1960s when the African American civil rights struggle was identified with bus boycotts and street protests, it is important to remember someone who “moved” the struggle for racial equality in a different way and who, in his own words, “chose to race than march.”

 

References

Alderman, D. H., Mitchell, P. W., Webb, J. T., & Hanak, D. (2003). Carolina thunder revisited: toward a transcultural view of Winston Cup racing. The Professional Geographer, 55(2), 238-249.

 

Alderman, D.H., and Modlin, E.A. Jr. (forthcoming). The Historical Geography of Racialized Landscapes. North American Odyssey: Historical Geographies for the Twenty-First Century.  Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield (edited by Craig Colten and Geoffrey Buckley).

 

Donovan, B. (2008). Hard Driving: The Wendell Scott Story. Hanover, NH: Steerforth Press.

 

Cresswell, T. (2010). Towards a Politics of Mobility. Environment and planning. D, Society and space, 28(1), 17.

 

Foote, K. E. (2012). Editing Memory and Automobility & Race: Two Learning Activities on Contested Heritage and Place. Southeastern Geographer, 52(4), 384-397.

 

Hurt, D. A. (2005). Dialed in? Geographic Expansion and Regional Identity in NASCAR’s Nextel Cup Series. Southeastern Geographer, 45(1), 120-137.

 

Sugrue, T.J. (2005). Driving While Black: The Car and Race Relations in Modern America. Automobile in American Life and Society. Dearborn, MI: Henry Ford Museum and University of Michigan.  Available online at http://www.autolife.umd.umich.edu