“Timeless” Races Back to the ’50s in ‘Darlington’

The second episode of the season highlights an underappreciated NASCAR driver from the sport’s earliest days

Malcolm Barrett as Rufus Carlin, left, with Joseph Lee Anderson as race car driver Wendell Scott (Justin Lubin/NBC)
smithsonian.com

Okay, “Timeless” fans, another episode has aired, and so, like us, you probably have some questions: Why does everyone keep saying Flynn is a “psycho” simply for wanting to take down Rittenhouse? How historically accurate were the writers this week? And how is stuffing Lucy and Wyatt into a dark car trunk—such that they basically have to spoon in order to fit—not enough to officially get them together? C’mon, writers.

This week’s episode takes our time-traveling trio to South Carolina in 1955, to witness the birth of NASCAR, more or less. (More on that later.) The plot is fairly straightforward: Rittenhouse has planted a sleeper agent in South Carolina, who spends a couple years working his way up the racing circuit in order to qualify for the Darlington 500, the first 500-mile race in the history of NASCAR. This agent, named Ryan Millerson, plans to drive his car, rigged with explosives, into a viewing platform where most of Detroit’s car executives are taking in the historic race. Killing them in this suicide mission is supposed to allow Rittenhouse to take over Detroit (shorthand for the American car industry), which, Lucy points out, “in ‘55 was still a big deal.” Thanks to some flashy driving (and an assist from another driver, more on that in a bit) our heroes manage to stop Millerson from completing his mission save the car executives (and Detroit and America), and make it back to 2018 in one piece.

There’s some headache-inducing wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff in this episode, which might be important foreshadowing for later, so a quick note: Wyatt recalls growing up with a poster of Millerson on his wall, because he won a race in the ’60s. For him to have childhood memories of Millerson as a successful driver but not memories of Millerson as a terrorist who bombed the most important car executives of the 1950s would mean that Wyatt, Lucy and Rufus had already been successful in foiling the Rittenhouse plot. Which means that Wyatt’s kid-memories are influenced by something he did as an adult. As Lucy says, “this is simultaneously giving me a headache and a panic attack.” At any rate, the paradox is probably important for understanding the rules of time travel in the Timeless universe.

Now onto the important stuff: history! This episode is set at the Darlington Speedway, the site of the first really important NASCAR race, in 1950, and the track that helped legitimize a sport that had grown out of bootleggers running moonshine over narrow mountain roads.

At this race in ’55, our heroes team up with Wendell Scott, who in a roughly decade-long career as a driver, raced to 20 top-five finishes and one first-place win.

Scott was among the first African-American NASCAR drivers and the first to win a Grand National race, NASCAR’s top series at the time. As a driver of color in the overwhelmingly white world of stock-car racing, he often faced discrimination and racism. He and his family were turned away from some tracks for the color of his skin; drivers admitted to targeting him during races. In 1963, he won a race in Florida by two full laps but was denied the prize. Officials called it a “scoring error” and later awarded his prize money, but it took until 2010 for him to posthumously receive the trophy he’d earned. His family maintained that he had been denied the win because the winner traditionally kissed a beauty queen—a white woman—and officials couldn’t handle it.

Scott continued to drive, self-funding his races (as he couldn’t get sponsors due to the color of his skin), until 1973, when an accident on the track left him injured and his car totaled. Unable to pay for a new car, his career essentially ended then, according to USA TODAY.

But at the time of this episode, that’s all in the future. In “Timeless”, it’s 1955 in Darlington, South Carolina, and Scott’s a promising young hotshot (though one still facing discrimination). Timeless sanitized the racism a bit for the sake of the plot; in reality, Scott was barred from Darlington Raceway for years and did not drive in the 1955 race.

In 1950, Detroit was America’s fourth-largest city and had the highest median income of any major American city, thanks largely to jobs in the auto industry. Four out of five cars in the world were made in the United States, half by GM. By the 1970s, the oil crisis made smaller cars more appealing, and companies like Toyota, which had been quietly innovating for decades, suddenly found their cars popular in the U.S. (Today, Toyota is the fastest-growing car company in the U.S.) If Rittenhouse had control over the Detroit of the 1950s, they ostensibly would have had significant leverage over a large part of the American economy.

Little has been said about Scott’s life and personality, as he was never given the same attention or celebrity as white drivers were, but the writers seem to have tried to capture him faithfully from what we know and from what his family members have said. His son, Frank, told StoryCorps that one of Wendell’s mottoes was, “When it's too tough for everybody else, it's just right for me."

In “Timeless,” Rufus tries to gently disabuse Scott of any ideas that he might go on to fame and fortune as a stock car driver. “You really think they’ll give a black man the prize?” he asks.

“Course not,” Scott says. “Y’all think I’m thick? They ain’t gonna call no race for a black man, sure as hell won’t give me no trophy.”

“Then why do it?”

“I wanna race and be the best...and if they don’t like it, screw ‘em.”

Other plot-related concerns to keep in mind as the season progresses:

  • Jiya’s dissociative episodes are confirmed to be what many fans have speculated: she can see the future (or at least one version of it). Before the gang enters the Lifeboat, she sees burn marks on Rufus’s arms; in 1955, Rufus gets burned in the same place.

  • Time-machine-inventing ex-billionaire Conor Mason is growing restless keeping a low profile and insists on going to speak at a tech conference. While there, before going on stage, he taunts a professional rival who is DEFINITELY NOT RITTENHOUSE. DHS Agent Christopher, who had warned Mason about doing exactly this, shows up right before Mason is about to go on stage and perp-walks him back to the secret bunker, which obviously upsets him greatly.

  • Rittenhouse, meanwhile, is waiting for their spiritual leader rescued from World War I last week—Nicholas Keynes—to stop moping around, missing his phonographs and pickled eggs, and start leading. By the end of the episode, he does.

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