CHARLOTTE, N.C. — On a night when California young guns took home a myriad of hardware from the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Awards Show, Ryan Vargas received one of the highest honors of all.
The 16-year-old from La Mirada, California was named as the 2016 recipient of the Wendell Scott Trailblazer Award, which is presented annually to an outstanding minority or female driver who competes in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series ranks.
The award recipient is selected by a committee, based on nominations received from drivers, crew members and track operators. Selection is based in part on a driver’s final standing in the NWAAS Division I Top 500 points.
Vargas’ 2016 season was certainly one to be recognized, as the La Mirada High School sophomore and honors student competed at Irwindale Speedway, Kern County Raceway Park and The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, scoring 12 top-five and 25 top-10 finishes in 27 starts this year.
Though he didn’t win a race in NWAAS competition, Vargas did finish fifth in the California state standings and came one points position away from scoring state Rookie of the Year honors, missing out on that award by eight markers to Irwindale regular Dylan Garner.
“I don’t know what you guys think, but that is a beautiful trophy,” Varga said during his acceptance speech Friday night. “Growing up, I always had a desire and passion for cars. As a kid, I’d wake up at 5 a.m. sometimes, just to catch whatever race was on the old SPEED Channel. When I finally got the chance to race in the Bandolero class (at Irwindale in 2012), I knew (racing) was something I wanted to do.”
“Flash forward three year to September 6, 2015. I was coming off my second-career NASCAR Super Stock win in a row and Dave Eshleman was in the pits that night. I honestly have no idea what he and his family saw in me … but he offered me, at the age of 14, the opportunity of a lifetime to race a super late model. … A one race deal transpired into a season-long ride, where I was able to race cars I’d never dreamed I would have a chance to.”
The Trailblazer Award is given in memory and honor of NASCAR Premier Series driver Wendell Scott, who competed in the top division from 1961 to 1973.
Scott was the first — and to this day the only — African-American driver to win a Premier Series event, who was often ridiculed, harassed and had to deal with racial prejudice from top-level NASCAR officials throughout his career.
“We faced many struggles in our racing this season … but none of those compare to those faced by Wendell Scott,” Vargas added. “He had a desire for racing, no matter what it took. He spent weekends at the track watching from the ‘Blacks Only’ section, aspiring to live out that dream of speed we all share here.”
Vargas brought to mind a particular story from Scott’s career during his acceptance speech, when the Danville, Va. driver won his only Premier Series race in 1963 at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Fla.
Scott crossed the line as the race winner, finishing two laps ahead of the field after passing the legendary Richard Petty for the lead late in the race, but was not declared as such at the time, presumed to be because of the racial tension of the time period.
Two years later, NASCAR finally credited Scott with the victory.
“Having the checkered flag waved for you as you cross the finish line is an amazing feeling all of us in the racing industry work so hard for,” Vargas pointed out. “I cannot imagine the hurt one would feel if the flag was not thrown simply because of the color of their skin or their gender.
“I am grateful every day to be doing what I love and I thank pioneers of the sport, especially the namesake of this award, Wendell Scott, for paving the way for diverse drivers to compete.”
Through it all, Vargas said he has simply been happy to be as competitive as he was during his first full late model season this year.
“I never thought I would be performing as well as I have,” Vargas said following Friday’s banquet. “If you’d asked me a few years ago, I’d have said I don’t think I can keep up with these guys. But this year we did. It’s been a great season.”
Past recipients of the Wendell Scott Trailblazer Award include Juan Garcia (2015), Toni Marie McCray (2014), Jay Beasley (2013), Trey Gibson (2012), Natalie Sather (2011), Sloan Henderson (2010), Jason Romero (2009), Paulie Harraka (2008) and Emily Sue Steck (2007).
About the Writer
Jacob Seelman is the Managing Editor of Race Chaser Online and creator of the Motorsports Madness radio show, airing at 7 p.m. Eastern every Monday on the Performance Motorsports Network.
Seelman grew up in the sport, watching his grandparents co-own the RaDiUs Motorsports NASCAR Cup Series team in the 1990s.
The 22-year-old is currently studying Broadcast Journalism at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and is also serving as both the full-time tour announcer for the Must See Racing Sprint Car Series and the co-track announcer at Millbridge Speedway.
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