How a stockcar driven by Wendell Scott, the first Black man to win a major NASCAR race, ended up in Gloucester.
by CARL FINCKE | photography by ADAM EWING
She looks amazing for 84. Granted, she’s had a lot of work done. A lot. But after all she’s been through, it’s a wonder she’s still with us. Banged around for years, then abandoned for decades. Finally rescued from the waist-high weeds of a North Carolina field. Revived, restored and repainted – jet black.
That’s a fitting color, since this 1937 Ford, which now sits at MarketPlace Antiques in Gloucester, once belonged to the first Black man to win a NASCAR race in its major division: Wendell Oliver Scott. And if you think this car has traveled a rough road, imagine what Scott endured breaking the race barrier in one of the most good ol’ boy networks ever.
Born and raised in Danville, Scott followed a common path to stock car racing: hauling moonshine. He drove a taxi during the day and spent nights outrunning police with bootleg whiskey.
In 1949, Scott began racing at small Virginia dirt tracks – Lynchburg, Staunton, Zion Crossroads. He was a natural, posting his first win 12 days into his career. He often raced up to five times a week. Good thing he was his own mechanic and had a knack for piecing together fast cars.
The flatback Ford at MarketPlace was one of Scott’s earliest, and most durable. He drove it during the ‘50s, including at Daytona Beach back when the race was actually run on sand.
So, what’s it doing here, at a strip mall on the Middle Peninsula? Well, that’s a longer story.
When Joe Crews first heard about the car in 2007, he didn’t quite believe it. Crews, 78, was working on restoring an old dirt track in Hillsborough, North Carolina, with fellow racing enthusiast Kent Wrenn. “He said, ‘I got an old Wendell Scott car,’” Crews says. “I said, ‘You’re full of bull.’”
So, Wrenn took Crews to his spread in rural Prospect Hill, 15 miles north of Hillsborough and 30 miles south of Danville, and there it was – a rusting shell with 77 painted on the side. Wrenn said he’d gotten it from Scott back in the mid-‘60s. Wrenn actually raced it a few times in 1967, but after wrecking it, he pulled the engine out and parked it in a tobacco barn. Eventually, it was relegated to the field.
Wrenn and Crews decided to fix it up, but during the years-long restoration, Wrenn died – “He lived alone. It was two or three days before they found him,” Crews says. Crews bought the car outright from Wrenn’s son for $5,000. The bill of sale is on display under glass at MarketPlace, along with dozens of receipts for work done on it.
Efforts were made to keep as many original parts as possible – like the chassis, which is key in being able to officially certify a historic car, as Crews hopes to do. “Those are original rims, too,” Crews says. “Wendell made ‘em.” He preserved other parts as well: rear end, shocks, roll bars, seat frame and main body.
Among the replacement pieces: a flathead V-8 engine from North Carolina, fenders from Alabama, a gas tank from a Toyota (the original tank was from an International Harvester combine).
The car features several of Scott’s trademark elements, like a seat that came from a bus and a rear bumper that is actually a front axle. That heavy-duty bar was valuable protection from the abuse Scott’s car would take.
The discrimination Scott faced battling his way up through the local and regional tracks to the national scene was much as you’d expect. He was the inspiration for the 1977 movie Greased Lightning, starring Richard Pryor. The film was full of slapstick, but there was nothing funny about Scott’s early days in racing. He couldn’t stay or eat where the white drivers did. He would show up at events, then not be allowed to race – and sometimes when he did, he wouldn’t get paid afterward.
Other drivers went out of their way to knock him around on the track, but Scott was legendary for his restraint. He stood his ground, refusing to back down or go away. In time, his competitors had no choice but to respect him.
His first NASCAR win – in Jacksonville, Florida in 1963 – was also his last. And he almost didn’t get credit for it. Scott was sure he’d won, but the hand-charted records had Buck Baker finishing in first. At the post-race ceremony, Baker accepted the trophy and first-prize money, and in keeping with tradition, kissed the beauty queen.
Scott and his threadbare team asked for a recount. Sure enough, not only had Scott won, but he’d run 202 laps in the 200-lap race. Scott was awarded the victory, and later given the first-place money. But he never got the trophy.
There was a strong suspicion that officials gave the race to Baker because they didn’t want a Black man kissing the white beauty queen. Scott said later that he wouldn’t have kissed her anyway, but would have just shaken her hand.
While that was Scott’s only win at NASCAR’s top level, the Grand National circuit, he spent 13 productive seasons on those tracks: 495 starts, 147 top-tens, 20 top-fives, and a respectable sixth place finish in point standings for a season.
A serious crash at Talladega in 1973 put an end to his racing. Scott suffered fractures to his legs, pelvis and ribs. The wreck, known as “the big one,” was so bad that his car from that day is on display in the Winston Cup Museum in Winston- Salem, North Carolina.
In 2015, 25 years after his death, Scott was voted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Crews never met Scott, but he did see him race four or five times in the ‘60s at Langley Speedway in Hampton, then a regular stop on NASCAR’s top circuit. “First time I saw him,” Crews says, “he was pulling his race car behind what looked like an old hearse.”
Crews’ research has turned up several photos of Scott with the old ’37 Ford, even though he never saw driver and machine together in person. Once the restoration was complete, Crews let it take a few laps during a commemorative event at the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail in Hillsborough. The original dirt loop was open from 1948-68 and was one of NASCAR’s first two tracks.
“We wanted to invite some old drivers to just do five, 10 laps,” Crews says, “but we wound up needing a police escort out front to slow them down, ‘cause they all wanted to race.”
In the crowd was Scott’s daughter Sybil, who had become a friend of Crews’ family and was invited down from Danville. “After everyone was gone, she asked me if she could go up in the grandstands,” Crews said. “I said sure. She was crying, very emotional.
“She said it reminded her of going to races with her father, and after everyone had left, the kids would go up into the stands looking for Coke bottles to see if there was anything left in them. But they had to be careful, ‘cause guys would also spit their tobacco juice in them.”
The car has also done ceremonial laps at tracks in Danville and South Boston.
If you’ve ever been in an antique mall, you know the scene: some treasures, some junk.
Full-sized cars are not standard fare, but MarketPlace features two: the ’37 Ford and a fire-engine-red ’63 Chevy Corvair. “People love getting their picture taken with it,” says Rick Crews, Joe Crews’ nephew, who owns the 15,000-square-foot mall with his wife Christie.
The Corvair might be flashier, but the star of the mall is the ‘37 Ford. It’s been on display since early last year and carries the mall’s highest price tag: $35,000.
Rick, 59, says he’s never been a big race fan, but he likes hearing tales from the old days. And he says the ‘37 Ford is good for that. One of his favorites:
“A fellow said Wendell used to tow his race car to the track in a Cadillac. During one race, the back end went out, so Wendell jacked up the Caddy, took the back end out, put it in the race car and did enough laps to get his points, then put the rear end back in the Caddy.”
Two display cases next to Scott’s car are stuffed with old photos, news clippings and documents chronicling the car’s paper trail and Scott’s career. Included in the collection are consent release forms allowing Pixar to use the car as a character – River Scott – in the computer-animated film Cars 3.
Rick says the memorabilia adds to the car’s value, as would certification. They had a tough time putting an asking price on it. “It’s not like real estate, where you use comparable home sales,” Rick says. “There aren’t any comparables. There are no other first Black drivers to win a Grand National race.”
Joe Crews says he could never get back what he sunk into the car, somewhere around $50,000. But he didn’t do it as an investment. “That never entered my mind,” he says. “I’d like to sell it, but it was really just a labor of love. It was all about wanting to preserve the car.”