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Wendell Scott was the first African-American to win a race in a NASCAR top division event. More than 50 years later, he is still the only African-American to do so. The new NASCAR season begins today with the Daytona 500, and some in the sport are using Scott's recent posthumous induction into the Hall of Fame to celebrate a pioneering achievement but also to examine why NASCAR still struggles with diversity. From member station WFAE in Charlotte, Michael Tomsic reports.
MICHAEL TOMSIC, BYLINE: In the 1960s, almost no one would help Wendell Scott with his racecar, so his family did. Sybil Scott remembers being a small child washing and greasing car parts with her exhausted dad.
SYBIL SCOTT: Sometimes he would be about to fall on his face, 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning. I witnessed quite a bit.
TOMSIC: There were boos and racial slurs, death threats and wrecks. There were also two forbidden words in the Scott family - can't and never.
SCOTT: There were times when daddy didn't know how the lights were going to still be on the next day. But he wouldn't want us to worry about it. He wouldn't want mommy to worry about it. He knew that he was skilled enough. Daddy always knew how to make a way.
TOMSIC: Two years after Wendell Scott made his debut in NASCAR's top series, his perseverance turned historic, as is commemorated in this Hall of Fame video.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: With a patched-up car and second hand parts, Scott became the first African-American to win a NASCAR Premiere Series event.
TOMSIC: Scott kept racing until 1973, and he died in 1990. No other African-American has won a top NASCAR race and very few have even gotten behind the wheel. But Scott's accomplishment has opened doors.
BRAD DAUGHERTY: Realistically, for someone like myself - it gave me the opportunity that I had.
TOMSIC: That's Brad Daugherty, a former NBA All-Star. About six years ago, he became co-owner of a NASCAR racing team. His passion for racing stems from his upbringing in rural North Carolina. He says it can be tough to attract other African-Americans to the sport, especially kids.
DAUGHERTY: It's easy to go play basketball. All you need is a basketball. It's easy to go play football. All you need is a football and some buddies. You can't go play racing. And if you don't have a cultural lineage to racing, it's very, very difficult.
TOMSIC: The lack of success by African-American drivers plays a role, too, says NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O'Donnell.
STEVE O'DONNELL: You always want to see someone, you know, you may be able to relate to on television or see and look up to. And that's important for us to have that on the track.
TOMSIC: And that's starting to happen. Two years ago Darrell Wallace Jr. became the first African-American to win a lower tier national NASCAR race since Wendell Scott. Wallace came up through NASCAR's Drive for Diversity, a developmental program created in 2004 for minority and female drivers and crew members. Driver Dylan Smith is in the program this year. The 22-year-old has heard other African-Americans stereotype his sport.
DYLAN SMITH: Oh, NASCAR, oh, it's a bunch of more-or-less white Caucasian people. And, you know, that's what it is. They drive race cars, turn left, and - but there's a lot more. Like, so when I go to schools and stuff, I explain, like, we have so many different levels and tiers. If you like math and building stuff, you can be an engineer.
TOMSIC: Smith says some of the kids he talks to don't realize there are opportunities behind the scenes at races. As an example, NASCAR teams up with historically black colleges and universities to hold pit crew tryouts. At the Hall of Fame, Sybil Scott says NASCAR is making progress.
SCOTT: The climate is so different. Yes, my answer is that I do feel that it's moving forward. I think we take some steps backward sometimes. I think we get stagnant sometimes.
TOMSIC: And although there are still very few minority drivers, Dylan Smith's experience racing is vastly different than what Wendell Scott faced.
SMITH: I've had incidents on pit road and on the track with people, but never once did I think it was 'cause of the color of my skin.
TOMSIC: Smith says when he puts the helmet on, his competitors just see another driver they're trying to pass. For NPR News, I'm Michael Tomsic in Charlotte.
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