DAYTONA, Fla. – Race fans, here’s a trivia question for you: has an African-American driver ever won a NASCAR Cup Series race?
To mark Black History Month and The Daytona 500 kicking off NASCAR’s 2020 Cup Series season this week, we thought this might be a good time to take a look at the influence of African-American drivers on American stock car racing.
There have only been a handful of African-American drivers to ever race in NASCAR’s top tier event, known as The Cup Series. Although there haven’t been many when an African-American driver did come into the series, sometimes it made big news and sometimes it went completely unnoticed.
Exactly how many drivers are we talking about? Eight.
And of the eight, only one has ever made it to Victory Lane.
The Early Days
After World War II, as America grew, so did NASCAR. The sanctioning body was founded in 1948 by Bill France Sr. Though NASCAR had its roots as the NCSCC (National Championship Stock Car Circuit) with races up and down Daytona Beach, the very first “official” NASCAR race was run in Charlotte, North Carolina.
In its formative years, NASCAR ran races all over the country but saw its biggest growth in the South at old tracks (Martinsville and Richmond) and new ones as well (Darlington/1950, Daytona/1959, Atlanta/1960, Bristol/1961, and Talladega/1969). In fact, in its first thirty-five years, NASCAR had only one series champion born outside of the south (1951 champion Bill Rexford from Conewango Valley, New York).
For better or worse, most of the sport’s big events were in southern states. And like it or not, NASCAR being born in the south had strong ties to its fan base with southern roots.
If there was a day when the tide started to shift, it was probably on Feb. 18, 1979, when CBS Sports provided the first flag-to-flag, live coverage of the Daytona 500. In the following years, contracts were signed, TV coverage expanded, ratings grew, and fans all over the U.S. settled down on Sunday afternoons to watch races right alongside NFL football.
Stock car racing was going mainstream and both track promoters and NASCAR leadership started to recognize that to expand its fan base, NASCAR needed to move away from the idea that their racing was only appealing to good ol’ boys and descendants of the Confederacy.
However, getting people of color interested in the sport was one thing; getting them to be part of the sport was another.
After a pilot project by three race teams in 2003, in 2004, NASCAR created Drive for Diversity, a developmental program created to help get minority and female drivers behind the wheel and on to the track. Aside from pushing for more diversity inside the race car, D4D also looked at increasing diversity among sponsorship, ownership, and support roles in the sport.
In the wake of national protests against Confederate monuments, in 2015, NASCAR also made an effort to distance itself from the Confederate flag. The governing body released a statement leaning towards “an all-inclusive atmosphere” at races, asking fans to “refrain from displaying the Confederate Flag at our facilities and NASCAR events.”
Confederate flags are still a common sight at races (infield, souvenirs, apparel), though NASCAR itself does not include the flag in any official capacity. If you regularly attend NASCAR events, you’re probably seeing fewer flags each year.
In 2019, the National Hockey League had 25 African-American hockey players. That same year, among the three levels of NASCAR’s top series (Cup, Xfinity, and Truck), out of about 50 or so full and part-timers, there was just one African-American driver. That driver was Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, who will make his third start this Sunday in the 62nd version of The Great American Race.
Wallace, who is just 26-years-old, drives for seven-time Daytona 500 winner Richard Petty’s team, Richard Petty Motorsports. He is the only African-American driver currently racing in any of NASCAR’s top three tiers (there are three women in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series).
Wallace’s Daytona ride might be a little hard to spot for old-school racing fans. Throughout the 70s, 80s and even into the 90s Petty, also known as The King, drove in an iconic “Petty Blue” car sporting the No. 43 and sponsored by STP. Kicking off 2020, the No. 43 is still there, but both STP and Petty Blue are gone, replaced instead by U.S. Air Force sponsorship with a gray metal-themed A-10 Warthog inspired jet fighter paint job.
Wallace enters his third year as a cup-regular after successful stints in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series (six top-five finishes) and wins in the Gander RV & Outdoor Truck Series (he’s a six-time winner). He got the fulltime ride with RPM after subbing in 2017 for an injured Aric Almirola.
In 2018, Wallace finished second in the Daytona 500; in 2019, he finished third at the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Prior to Bubba Wallace’s string of starts dating back to 2016, Bill Lester was the sole black driver in NASCAR’s top series for a long, long time. Lester’s first NASCAR start came in 1999 with a ride in the Zippo 200 at the Watkins Glen Road Course in the (then known) second-tier Busch Grand National Series. In 2000, Lester landed a one-race-deal in the Craftsman Truck Series (third tier) at the ½ mile Portland Speedway. The following year he had five starts in the Truck Series and in 2002 ran a full Truck Series schedule (finishing 17th in points). Lester also placed second for Truck Series Rookie of the Year. 2003 saw better results with a pole at Lowe’s Motor Speedway and finishing 14th in Truck Series points.
On March 19, 2006, Bill Lester made his first NASCAR top-tier start (then known as NEXTEL Cup) running the No. 23 Waste-Management Dodge Charger at Atlanta Motor Speedway for car owner Bill Davis. Lester finished 38th in that race. Three months later he ran another race for Davis at Michigan International Speedway, this time finishing 32nd.
The Atlanta and Michigan races were Lester’s only two NASCAR Cup Series starts. He returned to the Truck Series in 2017 and competed in 15 races before his team folded halfway through the season because of lack of sponsorship.
Bill Lester is one-half of an interesting historic moment for NASCAR. In Lester’s aforementioned 2000 Portland race, he competed against a driver named Bobby Norfleet. That event is the only time in NASCAR history that two African-American drivers competed against each other in the same race. Lester finished 24th; Norfleet finished 32nd.
Of all the drivers on this list, Willy T. Ribbs is probably the most controversial as well as the most diverse. Controversial as Ribbs was known to have a short fuse and had a reputation of being difficult to work with. Diverse from the fact that Ribbs has driven in The Cup Series, The Truck Series, IndyCar, Formula 1, Formula Atlantic, SCCA Trans-Am, Champ Car, Formula Ford, and IMSA. He was the first African-American to qualify and race in the Indianapolis 500, Ribbs did it in 1991 and George Mack in 2002, and was the first black driver to ever test a Formula 1 car in 1986 for a car sponsored by Olivetti.
Willy T. Ribbs’ career started in England in 1975 at the age of 18 where he raced in Formula Ford and won the Dunlop Championship in his first year. When he returned to America three years later, Ribbs raced in the Formula Atlantic series before getting an unexpected call to race a Winston Cup car at Charlotte Motor Speedway for the World 600. The call came from the track promoter Humpy Wheeler who had the idea of bringing Ribbs to Charlotte to attract more African-Americans to the sport. Ribbs never made it into the race.
In the 2020 documentary Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story, Ribbs himself says he didn’t race at Charlotte because both he and Wheeler received death threats. However, the documentary makes no mention of the fact Ribbs missed two practice sessions and was arrested before the race for fleeing from police after driving the wrong way down a one-way street. The incident had many wondering if Ribbs’ arrest was a publicity stunt as he was driving a pace car from the speedway. Ribbs was replaced for the race by future NASCAR legend and Hall-of-Famer Dale Earnhardt.
Ribbs got his first start in NASCAR eight years after the Charlotte debacle when on April 20, 1986, he started a race at the North Wilkesboro Speedway and finished 22nd. He went on to compete in two more races that year but never made another start on the top tier level, then known as the Sprint Cup.
In 2001, after competing twice in the Indianapolis 500, Ribbs returned to NASCAR and drove in 23 of 24 races in the Craftsman Truck Series. He finished the season 16th in points.
On July 15, 1971, George Wiltshire competed in the Islip 250, a short-track race at Islip Speedway in Islip, Long Island. Islip was a very, very small track (.2 miles) and the shortest track to ever host a NASCAR top-tier race. The Islip 250 was supposed to run 250 laps but only 230 were completed because of a scoring error. Wiltshire, a Corona, New York native, started the race 29th and dropped out just two laps in finishing one spot up in 28th. The race was won by Richard Petty.
On August 3, 1975, Wiltshire started the Purolator 500 at Pocono International Raceway. He completed just 15 of the race’s 200 laps before retiring but he did finish ahead of both Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough. The race was eventually won by The Silver Fox, David Pearson.
If you don’t know the name Randy Bethea, don’t worry not many people do. But Bethea is in this story because he was the fourth African-American to ever start a top tier NASCAR race. Bethea’s lone start came on May 25, 1975, when he raced in the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. And who was the man who made it possible for Bethea to race at Charlotte? None other than Humpy Wheeler.
Bethea qualified 39th for the race, out of 40, and finished 33rd. Finishing the World 600 is an accomplishment in itself as it is still the longest race (600 miles) of any NASCAR race.
Wendell Scott was born in Danville, Virginia in 1921. After dropping out of high school, he served with the 101st Airborne Division in Europe in World War II. Wendell’s father was a mechanic and passed along his tradecraft to his son before Wendell went off to war. After returning from Europe, Scott opened his own garage and set his sights on becoming a professional race car driver.
After being denied entry in a number of races because of his skin color, Scott’s professional driving career started in 1947 on the Dixie Circuit, a race series for black drivers who were not allowed to enter NCSCC/NASCAR races. Scott’s first win came just 12 days after joining Dixie at a race in Lynchburg, Virginia.
In 1953 Scott convinced NASCAR to let him enter a regional race in Richmond, Virginia. Scott spent nine years on NASCAR’s lower-tier circuits before being allowed to race on the top tier level (then called Grand National) in the early 1960s.
Wendell Scott’s first top-tier NASCAR race was the Spartanburg 200 in Spartanburg, SC on March 4, 1961. Two years later on Dec. 1, 1963, he won at the Jacksonville 200 at the ½ mile Speedway Park track in Jacksonville, FL. Also in that race: Richard Petty. But Scott’s win wasn’t without controversy. Race officials originally declared Buck Baker the winner even though Baker finished the race two laps down. Officials figured out their mistake two hours after the race was over after most fans and drivers had already gone home.
Scott wasn’t awarded the win until two years later. His family received the winning trophy in 2010, 20 years after his death. The win would be the first and to this day, only for a black driver in NASCAR’s top-tier.
Wendell Scott went on to compete in 495 Cup races spanning 13 years. He retired in 1973 after a bad wreck at Talladega, then known as the Alabama International Speedway. The wreck on lap 9 of the Winston 500, is still considered one of the worst in NASCAR history. Scott fractured his pelvis, knees, legs, and ribs in the crash. His car, a 1971 Mercury Montego, is on display at the Winston Cup Museum & Special Event Center in Winston-Salem, NC.
Wendell Scott is the only African-American driver who has been inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame (2015). Richard Pryor starred in a 1977 movie called Greased Lightning that loosely chronicled Scott’s life and racing career.
On Feb. 26, 1956, Charlie Scott became the second African-American to compete in a top tier NASCAR event. Like Randy Bethea, Scott would only race once in what was then known as the Grand National Series. Scott qualified his Chrysler 300 in 14th (out of a 76-car field) and finished the race at the Daytona Beach-Road Course in 19th. Prize money: $75.
On July 31, 1955, Elias Bowie entered his 1953 Cadillac in a NASCAR race at Bay Meadows Speedway in San Mateo, California. Bowie started 31st and finished 28th earning prize money worth $90. In competing in that race, Elias Bowie would go down in history as the very first African-American to race in NASCAR’s top tier series.
An article from the San Mateo Times noted that Bowie owned several taxi cabs and buses, showed up to the race with the biggest pit crew, and “always wore his fedora when he drove.” Also in the race that day: Buck Baker, Lee Petty, and Tim Flock, all of whom would eventually be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. According to the racing statistics website, Racing-Reference.info, Elias Bowie’s name was officially recorded after the race as Eliso Bowie.