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Bad luck and omens take a back seat

While superstitions have mostly faded nowadays, some owners and drivers still adhere to peculiar taboos and rituals.

BRANT JAMES
Published August 21, 2004

David Green doesn't consider himself a superstitious sort. He does, after all, drive a green race car, one of racing's oldest taboos, and to this point things have worked out pretty well.

He won a Busch series title in 1994 with a supposedly bad luck last name, and he finished second in the series last season in a No. 37 Chevrolet awash in the colors of his sponsor, Timber Wolf tobacco products. There have been no disasters on or off the track to give him pause.

"Besides," he said, "Bobby Labonte and Harry Gant won a lot of races in green race cars."

But the 46-year-old has done enough racing from his days on the short tracks of rural Kentucky through NASCAR's upper echelons to pick up an odd notion or two, to latch on to a habit or comforting thought to get through long days in a dangerous sport.

"This one may be a little weird," he said, smiling, "but before a race when I run in to go to the bathroom, I'll always use the urinal on the far left. That's pole position. If somebody's already there ... I'll just wait."

NASCAR superstitions are matters of both personal and collective hysteria. Some drivers keep a treasured photo or object in their cars - Scott Riggs tapes a picture of his son to his dash, and fellow Nextel Cup rookie Brian Vickers treasures a hat from his deceased childhood friend, Adam Petty - while others adhere to the standards. Though they don't hold the same resonance in an age when the sport is dominated by science and engineering, many at least offer some reverence to the tried and true maxims.

Foremost among them: the green scourge, the 13 curse and peanut apocalypse.

The green phenomenon usually is traced to a 1920 accident in Beverly Hills, Calif., that killed defending Indianapolis 500 champion Gaston Chevrolet, the youngest of the three industry-pioneering brothers. It was the first known racing accident in the United States to kill two drivers, and Chevrolet reportedly was driving a green car.

The color green was just one of many fears of Joe Weatherly, a two-time champion in the Grand National series that later became known as Winston and then Nextel Cup. He qualified in the 13th position at Bristol in 1962 but insisted track officials document him as starting from 12a. He finished eighth but went on to win the first of consecutive driver championships. That same year he had refused to enter the 13th Southern 500 until Darlington officials coined it the "12th Renewal of the Southern 500."

Peanuts or shells on or around a race car are generally considered dark magic, though the M&M decals on Elliott Sadler's No. 38 Ford are no problem for team-owner Robert Yates.

"Maybe it's the hard candy coating holding in the bad luck," he said, laughing.

Yates should know. He lived the peanut mania in the 1970s as an engine builder for Junior Johnson, who was as legendary for his driving as his temper.

"One day one of the guys was eating peanuts and we had an engine blow up or something," Yates said. "And after that he would go nuts if there were peanut shells around the car. When those little plastic foam packing peanut things came out, a guy colored some of them and acted like he was eating peanuts around the car and Junior just went ballistic. He didn't think that was very funny."

Johnson eventually had to amend his beliefs for the sake of subsidizing his race team when he secured as a sponsor Gatorade, which used green as its primary color.

"We won a lot of races in that green car," Yates said. "He liked that we got a lot of green money in our pockets from it."

Yates, too, adjusted his sensibilities when he began his own team.

"We got a Planters deal, so we decided if the peanuts were hulled, that was fine," he said.

Apparently the ones in Kevin Harvick's were not.

"We had a bad experience," he said. "It just seems that way. Maybe it's something to blame. We had peanuts in the pits one time and the car blew up or something."

Ricky Rudd uses a few old standbys but considers himself moderate on the superstition scale.

"If a black cat crosses my path, I will go around the block," he said. "If I'm caught by surprise, I'll put a little X on the windshield. You hear about guys wearing victory socks or underwear. I'm not to that extreme."

For a guy who grew up in Las Vegas, a town that thrives on the unlucky, Nextel Cup rookie Brendan Gaughan is remarkably unsuperstitious.

"I've seen rabbit's feet, and I've seen my father won't carry a $10 bill," he said of his father, Michael, and former NASCAR Truck team owner. "I've seen all sorts of things like that. I've understood for a long time that superstitions are just that, superstitions. You make your own luck, and luck basically just comes from the hard work the guys put into the offices and the teams in the shop. ... Once you get in that race car you are alone and that's my time to get focused in and do my job."

Brave, brave talk, especially from a guy in a bright yellow, red and black Dodge.

Gradually, the firmly held superstitions have dimmed in emphasis.

"I don't know if it's just that people have more sense, but they aren't as superstitious," Yates said.

That's easy to say for a man with a hard candy coating between him and doom.

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