As a Southern Californian, my attention span for auto racing has shrunk to the four seconds it takes a top fuel dragster at the Pomona Winternationals to roar 1,000 feet in a straight line. So I haven’t really been following as closely as I should all the drivers down in Dixie going around and around. And around. (And, I suspect, around some more.)
I’ve been especially lax about keeping up with NASCAR’s minor-league truck-racing circuit on which the 20-year-old Wallace triumphed Saturday. Nevertheless, his victory in Martinsville, Virginia was deemed major-league news because, you see, Wallace is a product of NASCAR’s nine-year-old Drive for Diversity program. He’s the first African American to win even this kind of third-tier NASCAR event since 1963.
Presumably, after this shattering of barriers and furnishing of a suitable role model, black drivers will flood NASCAR, just as Tiger Woods’s 1997 Masters victory led to all the black golf champions we see today.
(Oh, sorry, that didn’t happen as forecast.)
The news should raise the question: If it takes so much organized effort in the 21st century for a black to win a small-time NASCAR contest, how in the world did Wendell Scott triumph in a Grand National race a half-century ago, back before diversity awareness?
Like Junior Johnson (whom a young Jeff Bridges portrayed in The Last American Hero, a 1973 adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s famous 1965 Esquire article), Scott got his start bootlegging moonshine and trying to outrace the revenuers.
In 1952, a struggling racetrack in Danville, Virginia was looking for a gimmick to excite public interest. So the managers “asked the Danville police who the best Negro driver in town was. The police recommended the moonshine runner whom they had chased many times and caught only once.” The news brought a big crowd, including new black fans, to the racetrack. Scott contended for the lead, but over several laps his 1935 Ford comically disintegrated.
The 30-year-old novice then struggled for years to make it in a sport that functions as a sort of implicit ethnic-pride festival for Americans not allowed to hold ethnic-pride festivals, finally achieving sustained success in the 1960s.
I was too young to hear about Scott’s 1963 Jacksonville win, but I recall his name during my years as a car guy from 1967-1969. I was more into dragsters, such as the science-fiction-style top fuel and cartoon-like funny cars, than the more mundane-looking stock cars. But I was less ADD when I was an eight-year-old, so I followed all the circuits and can recall Wendell Scott’s name coming up near the top of the agate type columns of race results. He never won again after 1963, but impressively, Scott finished in the top ten overall for each year from 1966 through 1969.
As a boy, I tended to get Scott confused with Charley Pride, a black country and western singer who broke through in Nashville in 1967 and had six straight number-one country chart toppers in 1969-71. They were both Southern blacks making it in white Southern businesses.
That seemed to be the general pattern back then: the lifting of hard-and-fast racial lines meant that talent flowed into unexpected fields.
So why are the top ranks of NASCAR drivers less integrated today than in the 1960s? Why in 2013 is Wallace being adamantly celebrated by NASCAR as the exception to the rule?
The usual explanation is the usual: prejudice, discrimination, Jim Crow, slavery, etc. But why would the effects be worse than in Wendell Scott’s day?
Moreover, NASCAR doesn’t represent an isolated trend. In a striking number of fields, the barrier-breakings of the past haven’t led to much difference today.
Look at women in racing. Shirley Muldowney was the champion fuel drag racer of 1977. (A movie about her, Heart Like a Wheel, was released in 1983.) Yet 36 years later, so little has changed that Danica Patrick can still make $15 million annually for being The Girl Driver.
Similarly, five black golfers won 23 PGA tournaments between 1961 and 1986. Since then, only the quarter-black Tiger Woods has triumphed.
Conversely, African Americans have come to utterly dominate the running back position in the NFL while largely losing interest in baseball.
It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. The reasonable-sounding expectation back in the 1960s as discrimination faded was that accomplishment would become ever more randomly scattered among the population. Instead, achievement in America is perhaps becoming more hereditary, more channeled by descent.
Yet it’s culture as much as DNA that is pushing the new de facto segregation.
Examples such as Scott of what I call “diversity before Diversity” point to an unanticipated nature-nurture paradox. While nurture (such as Malcolm Gladwell’s popular 10,000 Hour Rule) is usually seen as the nice, liberal alternative to retrograde, politically incorrect nature, the last few decades point to increasing nurture by sideline fathers and tiger mothers boosting segregation.
From the perspective of 2013, it’s starting to look as if 20th-century society was an anomalous free-for-all in which talented upstarts such as Scott could climb the ladder, in part because it wasn’t all that steep. NASCAR racing in 1963 was far cheaper than today. Thus, like the golf tour back then, it featured fewer prefab stars and more raffish outsiders.
Auto racing has always featured dynasties, such as the Earnhardts, Andrettis, Unsers, and Pettys. But racing used to be seen as the exception, not the forerunner.
After an era of “careers open to talent,” the world seems to be settling down again to a social system in which high achievements require multigenerational investments, and thus are largely passed down within families and ethnicities.
For example, back in the Bad Old Days, Lee Elder, the first black golfer to play in the Masters, got his start as the chauffeur (and ringer) for America’s most notorious gambler/conman Titanic Thompson. A Lee Elder biopic would be far more entertaining than one about Tiger Woods, whose youth consisted of endless golf under his father’s calculating eye. But Tiger’s upbringing is likelier to generate a star (or a burnout).
Even today’s esteemed exceptions to the rules often turn out to be unexceptional. For example, young Wallace, last weekend’s winner, is not some genetic fluke who has emerged straight outta Compton to compete in NASCAR on raw talent. The North Carolinian’s father had him racing by age 9. At 12, the family entered him in 48 Bandolero events, with the youngster winning 35 times.
Racially, Wallace is always described as black, but ethnically he’s a good old boy. Unsurprisingly, he has a white Southern father, a white Southern accent, and a white Southern Twitter handle: @BubbaWallace.
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