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Hall Will Feature Unique Photos

Source: Mike Hembree,  

January 28, 2010

The history of racial discrimination in stock car racing is ugly.

It is personified by the experience of black driver Wendell Scott, a struggling racer who traveled with the NASCAR circus from 1961 to 1973. Scott is the only black driver to win a major NASCAR event. He finished first in a 100-mile race at Jacksonville (Fla.) Speedway in December 1963 but was initially denied the victory, in part (according to drivers and others who were on the scene) because track officials were afraid of repercussions if Scott kissed the white race queen in victory lane.

Although Scott finally came to be accepted as a NASCAR regular and earned a certain amount of respect among many fans as a perpetual underdog, he and other black drivers were subjected to taunts and threats at and around speedways, and their wanderings along NASCAR backroads were complicated in the 1950s and early 1960s by the fact that many hotels and restaurants would not serve them.

“He died (in 1990) relatively happy but with unfulfilled dreams,” said Wendell Scott Jr. of his father.

Black fans – the relative handful who braved discrimination and uneasiness to attend races in the early days – often were directed to broken-down grandstands and were told to use restrooms marked “Colored Only”.

With those experiences as a messy backdrop, one of the major exhibits in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, scheduled to open in May in Charlotte, N.C., will carry an ironic significance.

Museum officials recently acquired rare black-and-white photographs shot during one of the most historic events in NASCAR history – the June 19, 1949 inaugural race in what would become today’s internationally known Sprint Cup Series. The race was held at the now-defunct Charlotte Speedway, a three-quarter-mile dirt track on the outskirts of Charlotte, N.C.

Rarer than the photographs of a signal NASCAR event is the man who shot them. His name was Clifford Morrison, and he was a black man wielding a Speed Graphic camera to shoot photographs of a very dangerous, primitive sport that mixed black and white only in its checkered flag.

A resident of Elkin, N.C., Morrison, who died in 1992, was a photographer, pilot, woodcarver, teacher and an all-around handyman. He and his brother, Tom, owned a photography studio in Elkin, and, in the late 1940s, they became interested in the rudimentary, ragtag racing events being held at area dirt tracks like Elkin Speedway and North Wilkesboro Speedway. It was natural that they would bring along their bulky Speed Graphics when they attended, and that eventually resulted in them crossing paths with Bill France Sr., who was promoting stock car races in the Southeast and was only a year or so from organizing an umbrella motorsports sanctioning body that would be named NASCAR.

“The story as I’ve heard it,” said long-time racing radio announcer Barney Hall, also an Elkin resident and a friend of the Morrisons, “is that they tried to sell Bill France some of their photographs. Bill told them to bring the photographs and let him look at them and he’d pay 50 cents apiece for the ones he wanted. They always laughed about that – said the photo would have to be a really great one for Bill to pay 50 cents for it.”

At least some of the photographs met France’s approval, for he and Clifford Morrison developed a business relationship that found Morrison occasionally shooting races that featured a bunch of wild white men – and the occasional woman – bumping and thumping around woebegone dirt tracks in the middle of nowhere.

When France took his biggest gamble – starting a series for new American-built cars fresh off the showroom floor – in 1949, he asked Morrison to travel to Charlotte that June day to photograph the landmark first race. Drivers who participated remember the afternoon as one overwhelmed by unusual amounts of both dust and uncertainty.

They raced on the rutted track in bulky Buicks and Hudsons, cars then much more known for Sunday morning rides to church and trips to the supermarket. Here they were driving them like prison escapees, blowing tires and radiators, popping wheels and, most famously in driver Lee Petty’s case, flipping several times in a street vehicle he borrowed from a neighbor.

Morrison got the Lee Petty shot – and a noteworthy moment. Petty’s tumble brought out the first caution flag in the history of the series that would become Sprint Cup.

More than 10,000 people crowded into and around Charlotte Speedway that day to see France’s new invention. It is likely that very, very few of them were black. Racing then was almost exclusively white, and advances in that arena over the next 60 years have been slower than an Edsel with a flat tire. Wendell Scott would be the only black driver to break through the exhaust ceiling, and, despite a heavily promoted diversity program in recent years, the sport’s highest levels remain predominantly white.

Morrison shot NASCAR events sporadically into the 1950s and wound up with a collection of thousands of black and white prints and negatives of competition, accidents and other speedway scenes from NASCAR’s early years.

“He told me he just went over to the racetrack one day out of curiosity,” Hall said.

“He and Big Bill (France) apparently got along well. Cliff told me that France would let them get into places around the track that nobody else could get.”

Hall said neither of the Morrisons ever shared stories with him about racially-tinged problems they might have had while at racetracks. “Both of them had great personalities,” Hall said. “They were big men, too. They were unusual people to do all that they did.”

Many of Clifford Morrison’s racing photographs now are owned by Dave Brendle, another Elkin resident. When Brendle heard about plans for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, he contacted officials there. Soon, Hall historian Buz McKim, a long-time NASCAR devotee who has seen virtually every significant photograph shot of the sport, was on the road to explore what this unexpected treasure chest might hold.

“Man, I almost swallowed my teeth,” McKim said. “I said, ‘Oh, my God, this is the first Cup race.’ It’s great stuff.”

Soon, McKim had some of the images and negatives in hand, and about a dozen of the best photographs will be enlarged and on display when the Hall opens.

“It’s such a unique story,” McKim said. “It just blew me away. He was kind of a pioneer in a lot of things. He never let the color hold him back. It seemed like he and his brother were very well regarded in the community.”

There were limits, though. In 1947, one of Morrison’s racing photographs was chosen for a journalism award, but he was not able to attend the awards function because it was held at a Winston-Salem, N.C. hotel that did not admit blacks.

Many years later, in a high-profile setting in a big city of the Old South, near the location of the dusty speedway where Morrison recorded a bit of history, that wrong will be righted.