Academy Award Winner Bringing His Talents To Nascar
When NASCAR finished its 2020 season the sport emerged as one that was far different than when the season began.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the sanctioning body to pivot and try things once thought unimaginable. They completed an entire season despite races without fans; staged doubleheaders, and events held during the week. The pandemic changed the very way the sport operates, and will no doubt have a lasting effect moving forward.
But something else changed as well. While dealing with all the difficulties brought on by the pandemic there was a fundamental change that swept across the nation that had noting to do with a virus.
America confronted the systematic racism that has plagued the nation for generations, and NASCAR wasn’t immune. Led by the Cup series lone Black driver Bubba Wallace, NASCAR confronted its own racist past. Wallace brought awareness to the front of the field after the death of George Floyd, and NASCAR followed. The sanctioning body banned the display of the Confederate flag, a symbol of hate and America’s racist past to many. And an incident at Talladega shocked those in and outside of the sport but ended with a display of unity that became a shining symbol of just how far NASCAR had come in such a short time.
One of the remnants of NASCAR’s racist past is a story from the early 1960s involving a Black man named Wendell Scott. Scott was born in Virginia in 1921 during a time when systematic racism was part of the law in most southern states. After serving as a mechanic in WWII, Scott wanted to race. He was denied entry into NASCAR however, because of his skin color. Undeterred, Scott competed for almost a decade on the Dixie Circuit, a regional competitor to the still growing NASCAR.
NASCAR would grant Scott a license to race in 1953, and he became the sports first driver of color. Scott still faced racism in the sport yet worked hard most often working on his cars himself with very little outside help. Wendell Scott would score another first, winning a NASCAR sanctioned race in Jacksonville in 1963. A “clerical error” however, denied him a chance of any sort of celebration. That error was later reversed, but Scott was never awarded the trophy. Scott would go on to compete in 496 NASCAR events scoring 147 top-10 finishes and race until a crash that nearly killed him ended his career in 1973.
Wendell Scott would live until 1990 when cancer took his life. He was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2015, again becoming a first for NASCAR as the first African American to be enshrined in the Hall.
David Steward II knows Scott’s story well. The St. Louis native is a producer who co-founded Lion Forge Animation, one of the only Black-owned animation studios in America, and one that won a 2020 Academy Award for the animated short film Hair Love.
Steward has a history with NASCAR as well. His father David Steward is a successful entrepreneur and founder of World Wide Technology. The company sponsored Bubba Wallace in 2018 when he was racing for Richard Petty Motorsports and in 2019 purchased the naming rights to Gateway Motorsports Park, now known as World Wide Technology Raceway outside St. Louis.
“As we’re supporting Bubba,” the younger Steward said. “It’s kind of like, well, who was the first and, you know, what did he have to go through to make it possible, even for Bubba to be there?”
Steward II did some research and learned of Wendell Scott and his accomplishments. He found that no one had yet to really tell Scott’s story.
“I remember seeing this Richard Pryor movie Greased Lightning that was put out a number of years ago,” he said. “And I was like, okay, that’s cool. (But) what’s current, you know, it wasn’t really much current about it.
In addition to being the subject of the 1977 film Greased Lightning starring Richard Pryor, Scott inspired the character of River Scott in Disney/Pixar’s Cars 3 which came out in 2017.
“You know,” Steward said. “I think it’s time now that people know more about it…during that time too, you had Jackie Robinson’s movie coming out and you had all these things kind of coming out, about the first African-Americans and, and different, sports and arenas and stuff.”
“And I’m like, you know what, this is a great story to be told too,” he said. “I kind of put it in the back of my mind, I’m like, I need to get in touch with the Scott family.”
The plans for the Wendell Scott project began to take shape shortly after at, of all places, a trade show.
“We happened to have a booth there with one of our companies,” Steward said. “And I was sitting there, and a gentleman and his wife were talking to one of our staffers and I kind of overheard this story about ‘my grandfather was a racer’ and all this stuff. And I was like, ‘what, this sounds familiar!”
It turned out the gentleman was Wendell Scott’s grandson. Soon the Scott family and David Steward II had a working relationship. And as Steward’s company grew from publishing into animation and other media, he told the family:
“You know maybe there’s a way to be able to be helpful to you and to the family to kind of help get Wendell’s name out there; kind of more into the kind of the cultural lexicon in the same way that Jackie Robinson is to baseball and others.”
Soon Wendell Scott Ventures was born with plans for a docuseries and a fictionalized limited series for TV/streaming that through the lens of his life will cover themes of family, racism, American culture and racing. Steward is working with the family, and NASCAR as well.
“Wendell, he was a racer, but also he was as much of an innovator and an engineer as well as a racer,” Steward said. “Some of the stories that I got I’ve gotten from his son who was on his crew, were absolutely amazing. He was also one of the first Black team owners. So, he actually had other people racing for him too towards the end of his career as well.
“What a great individual,” Steward added. “I wanted to make sure that everybody kind of knew that, Hey, you know African-Americans have had a place in NASCAR for a long time and had success in NASCAR as well.”
Steward II also has a long-standing relationship with NASCAR and after the events of 2020, he started having conversations with the sanctioning body around what they could do together. It was out of those conversations that an idea was born.
“The trophy wasn’t given when Wendell won his race,” Steward said. “How much that would help in kind of, really putting a stake in the ground in terms of changing the tide for NASCAR and perceptions and things. So, we all kind of came together and they agreed to do this wonderful event that we had a few weeks ago in Daytona.
At that event in late August at Daytona International Speedway on the Coke Zero 400 race weekend the Scott family awarded the trophy Wendell never had. It came on what would have been Scott’s 100th birthday.
Scott’s story isn’t the first one Steward about an African American driver. While Wendell Scott is in the NASCAR Hall of Fame and well known in the NASCAR community, another Black driver was making a name for himself long before Wendell Scott.
Charlie “Speed King” Wiggins was born in Indiana in 1897. Wiggins raced while dealing with the racism prevalent at the time including threats to him and his family from the Ku Klux Klan. Banned from whites-only racing events including the Indianapolis 500, Wiggins, and several other African American drivers from the Colored Speedway Association in 1924. That series biggest race was the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes held at the 1-mile dirt track at the Indiana State Fairgrounds and a race Wiggins won four times between 1926 and 1935. Wiggins was a star long before Jackie Robinson stirred the national consciousness.
Wiggins never realized his dream of racing in the Indy 500 but did get hired as a mechanic for driver Bill Cummings in the 1934 Indy 500. According to reports Wiggins due to Jim Crow Laws, had to pose as a janitor just to get into the track. Cummings won the 1934 Indianapolis 500. Charlie Wiggins passed away in 1973 just over a decade before Will T. Ribbs became the first African American to compete in the Indianapolis 500.
Wiggins was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in Detroit this past July. A biopic on Wiggins’ life, “Eraced” is already well into the planning stages with the efforts being led by Ed Welburn, former General Motors
David Steward II’s media company Polarity is serving as executive producers on the film which is tentatively scheduled to begin production in the spring next year.
With the Wiggins story in motion, David Steward II is now hoping to bring the Wendell Scott to the masses. While NASCAR is looking to move forward from its past, the inclusion efforts of late are showing that they are all on board with helping to tell those stories that matter, staring with Wendell Scott.
“Hopefully we can get this out there,” Steward said. “Hopefully we can build more of a fan base, but also hopefully we can get more African Americans to look at racing as a potential; a goal and a career because we need to get more Bubba Wallace’s.
“If anything, if that’s something we can do and accomplish through the work that we’re doing, I think we’ve won.”