Has NASCAR’s DB Cooper been found? Here, at the start of the week a new NASCAR Hall of Fame class will be announced, a member of the sport’s Hall of Infamy broke a four-decade silence.
“I said, ‘That’s almost a mile long right away! How much can this car gain before you enter that corner?’ I said, ‘Lord, I’m here, but I’m going to need help,’ and I didn’t tell anyone else.”
On this same date, 40 years ago, a man named LW Wright competed at the highest level of stock car racing at his fastest circuit, starting 36th and finishing 39th in one of the Crown Jewels from NASCAR, the Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. Before the race, no one in the Cup Series garage had heard of Wright, but the sanctioning body had, for some reason, accepted his racing resume on little more than the man’s word. Tennessee trucking business and a public relations group that had launched on his behalf.
As soon as the race was over, he reportedly ditched the Chevy Monte Carlo he had purchased for the event and disappeared. He’s spent the past four decades evading everyone from NASCAR officials to private investigators hired by the people he still owed for that race car to scores of attorneys and a growing number of amateur motor racing sleuths. , eager to meet the man. who somehow made his way onto a race track alongside Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty and race winner Darrell Waltrip.
As Tennessee Sports Writers Hall of Famer Larry Woody wrote later that summer, “If he could have driven as fast as he spoke, L. W. Wright would now be a NASCAR champion.”
Over time, Wright’s story has become NASCAR legend, especially in the conspiracy-obsessed corners of the internet. Woody himself revisited the mystery in a story in Anniston’s Star two weeks ago. But after years of efforts by reporters to find Wright, he was finally located by another longtime motorsports writer, Rick Houston, who worked on the legendary Grand National Scene and now hosts “The Scene” podcast. Vault” based on NASCAR history. Houston spent an entire year searching, locating, and ultimately persuading Wright to finally tell his story. On an agreed date in mid-April, Houston was taken to an undisclosed location, where Wright, now 73, was waiting. Houston was understandably skeptical of meeting a man who has worked very diligently for nearly half a century to elude anyone in the NASCAR community. For this reason, the writer was very careful to positively identify Wright. Over the years, many have speculated that the single rider’s name was never actually LW Wright. But, armed with a stack of back issues of Grand National Scene and photos from that day in 1982, Houston is convinced the man he interviewed is the one in those images. The uniform Wright brought with him to the meeting was also a perfect match, right down to the seams.
“If you can find someone who said I owe them $30,000, you tell them I’ll face them,” Wright told Houston, denying any wrongdoing. “I want to see who they are, and I want to know how it goes. If it makes them stutter, then you know what I’m talking about, okay?”
In poor health, Wright seems to want to set the record straight. Skeptics will no doubt wonder if the most infamous scammer in stock car racing can be trusted. There is even confusion about the post-Talladega demise. He is listed as not qualifying at the following weekend’s race in Nashville, but no one remembers seeing him and neighbors reported he showed up at his house the night after the Talladega event. , had seized personal effects, including some of their own which he had already stolen – and hunted, never to be seen again.
No matter who said what or what really happened, everyone will be amazed that Wright has resurfaced.
“I had a lot of friends in country music,” he says on the podcast. “And I didn’t use any of them other than what they wanted to do.”
Wright’s solo racing story began with, well, that same story. In the spring of 1982, a publicist contacted Tennessee newspapers, offering them a rags-to-riches story about Wright. He was described as a 33-year-old short-track racer with 43 starts in NASCAR’s Busch Grand National (now Xfinity) series who would go on to make his Cup Series debut at Talladega with the backing of country music superstars he had worked in the construction of buses and trucks. for touring, including Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and TG Sheppard, who was already involved in sponsoring stock car racing. The team was called Music City Racing. Wright applied for a NASCAR license, at a cost of $115, and also paid the $100 fee to file an entry for the Talladega event.
According to the dispatches of the time. Wright then convinced Nashville-based Space Age Marketing and its owner, Bernie Terrell, to loan him $30,000 to buy a race car, $7,500 to cover additional expenses and a big truck to transport the car to the south to Talladega. This car was purchased from local racing hero Coo Coo Marlin and his son Sterling – a future two-time Daytona 500 winner – for $20,700, almost all of which was paid for in cash and the rest covered by check. Wright wrote lots of checks, to Goodyear for tires, to other teams for parts, and even spent $168 to have race jackets made for his crew.
Wright says he asked the Marlins to paint the all-red car black and give it the No. 34. and in the early 1970s. didn’t have the means or the money. So I picked up 34. Besides, I was 34 when I started racing.”
Wright tells Houston he also had Sterling Marlin come over to oversee his pit stops and race strategy, to educate his new team for the future they envisioned having. Marlin, who always said it was his idea to follow Wright and the car to Talladega, was immediately skeptical.
“Hell, I’ve never heard of this guy,” Sterling Marlin told ESPN in 2019, saying Wright claimed to have won many short track races in Virginia, but didn’t seem to know the names of the Virginia riders. , including the living. legend Tommy Houston. “So I decided to go over there with him, kind of be his team leader, just to keep an eye on him, you know. As soon as we got there, everything was become even more fishy.”
Marlin says Wright spent the weekend asking questions “that any real racer would have already known the answer to” and that Wright didn’t know the answers to any of them. When the story was published in a Nashville newspaper leading to the Winston 500, TG Sheppard’s camp immediately released a statement that they had never heard of LW Wright. Wright responded with an apology, explaining that he prematurely announced the sponsorship. He also said there had been some confusion about his experience, that he hadn’t actually run 43 Busch Series races, but rather lower division events that were held at racetracks around the Busch series. Still, NASCAR allowed him to make a qualifying run at its biggest and fastest track.
“I had never seen the track,” Wright recalled in Houston of arriving at the massive 2.66-mile trioval. “I remember walking into the infield that day and standing at the end of the track and looking down and looking at my brother [a member of the crew] and said, ‘Lord, have mercy. There’s no way…to think of holding that car, pedal flat to the ground, all around that track!'”
In a conversation before his death in 2010, Jim Hunter, the former NASCAR executive and president of Talladega Superspeedway, cited Alabama’s right-to-work laws as “handcuffs” to the sanctioning body’s efforts to keep Wright away from the racecourse, located 80km east of Birmingham. . “Besides,” Hunter said with a laugh, “that fucking guy qualified for the race.”
He did indeed, with a speed of 187.37 mph, at the same time as Benny Parsons became the first Cup Series driver to exceed 200 mph in qualifying pole. But Wright also crashed in practice. Before the 500 mile race, he says he was approached with unsolicited advice from a pair of future NASCAR Hall of Famers. First, Bobby Allison said don’t feel bad if he wasn’t on the court, but said, “Well, you’re pretty cocky.” Then, according to Wright, Dale Earnhardt spoke to him after practice, advising him, “When you go out, you get on the back of someone who’s been here before and follow them, stay with them and then move on.”
Once the green flag dropped, the only move LW Wright made was to step out of the way. Unable to maintain the minimum speed of 180 mph, NASCAR ordered him back to the garage after 13 laps. He finished 39th out of 40 cars, earning $1,545.
And it was, according to reports at the time, that he disappeared. The checks he had written have not disappeared. According to Sterling Marlin and all Music City Racing investors interviewed by reporters at the time, Wright’s checks were returned due to insufficient funds.
“Don’t ask me if I was surprised,” Marlin said in 2019. “Because I wasn’t.”
Houston worked for a decade for the newspaper affectionately known as “Scene,” the weekly publication that was must-read for the stock car racing industry and fans alike. Since the paper’s closure in 2010, Houston has dedicated her career to digitizing back issues as well as interviewing heroes — and now antiheroes — from NASCAR’s past. But he never had such an experience.
“What I take away from that is that LW was finally looking to get rid of a burden, to finally get their story out there,” Houston said. “In the grand scheme of things, in the rear view mirror, what he did wasn’t really that bad. And I will say that the story that we’ve all heard all these years and the story that he tells us now it’s not the same story. Is there a closure? I don’t know. But to sit there and listen to him finally talk about it, to a lot of NASCAR fans, it’s a day that we never thought would happen.