Drivers have been racing under fake names since the start of racing began. Some of them were rich aristocrats that needed to protect their identity from a disapproving family. Some of them didn’t want to hurt mom’s feelings. Some of them were women trying to get away with racing under an ambiguous name. But I can only think of one of them that didn’t actually really exist: L. W. Wright.
Ahead of the 1982 Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, a resident of Hendersonville, Tennessee contacted The Tennessean, a Nashville newspaper, to promote a new entrant named L. W. Wright.
The announcement read as follows:
Nashville driver L. W. Wright yesterday announced he will be attempting to qualify for next week’s Winston 500 Grand National race at Talladega, Ala.
The 33-year-old Wright, a veteran of 45 Grand National races, will drive a 1981 Monte Carlo.
The name of Wright’s team is Music City Racing, and among his sponsors are country music stars Merle Haggard and T. G. Sheppard. Haggard is scheduled to appear at Talladega with his driver.
Already, his claims seem to be a little too good to be true, No one seemed to know this L. W. Wright character, despite the fact that he said he had competed in countless races before. A sponsorship by big-name country music stars also seemed questionable. But right-to-work laws forced NASCAR to let the man participate if he could pay the $115 fee for a NASCAR competition license and the $100 entry fee.
He could. He did. He even penned some further checks worth over $1,000 to get pit passes for his crew.
The only thing Wright didn’t have was a car. So he set about finding one.
Next on Wright’s con list was poor ol’ B. W. “Bernie” Terrell. Terrell headed up Space Age Marketing, and Wright came looking for funds:
“It was strictly a con operation… I didn’t know anything about racing and he really got me good. But I’ve hired a private detective to track him down and we’ll get him sooner or later. He’ll end up in jail before we’re through.”
Terrell said Friday he agreed to buy and sponsor a race car for Wright, who passed himself off as a veteran driver. Terrell said he gave Wright $30,000 in cash to buy a car in addition to another $7,500 in expenses. He said Wright also took an expensive tractor-trailer rig with him.
I am once again asking myself why, exactly, anyone would willingly hand a stranger about $40,000 just because he said he was a race car driver, but, hey. There wasn’t the internet. There must not have been any possible way to double-check a man’s credentials before you handed him the equivalent of $100,000 when adjusted for 2020's inflation.
Well, hell. We’ll put that one behind us for now and start looking toward the race, which was quickly approaching for ol’ L. W. Wright. He still needed a car. So, Wright approached driver Sterling Marlin and asked to buy a car.
Marlin sold him his Monte Carlo for $20,700. $17,000 of that was straight cash, and Wright wrote out a check for the rest of it. Wary of a man who could just drop that kind of money willy-nilly, Marlin decided to serve as Wright’s crew chief.
Now, with a car under his belt, Wright could start writing checks for other things, like:
- Over $1,500 to Goodyear for tires
- $1,200 to a fellow driver for car parts
- $168 for official racing jackets
We have a man here who is now well-equipped and ready to race.
This is where Wright ran into his first stumbling block. He conducted a newspaper interview to promote his entry and again name-dropped both Haggard and Sheppard. This time, though, Sheppard heard about it:
The day after the newspaper interview appeared, Shepard [sic] announced he had no connection with Wright, and had never offered him a sponsorship.
“In fact, T. G. Said he had never heard of the guy,” said Gary Baker, Raceway co-owner and Shepard’s tax attorney. “Something mighty fishy’s going on somewhere.”
When confronted about his lies during the race weekend, Wright just said he was a little premature in announcing the sponsorship. He was also questioned about the fact that no other NASCAR Grand National driver could recall racing against him. Well, Wright claimed, he’d fudged the story a little bit to make himself sound better—but he had definitely competed in the Sportsman class.
At this point, his license was already approved. NASCAR had to let the man race.
That year’s Winston 500 was the first time a driver qualified a race at higher than 200 mph. Wright qualified at a speed of 187.379 mph. He also crashed into the wall on his second lap, but the team was able to put things back together. He started in 36th.
On race day, Wright lasted a lucky 13 laps. Then his engine blew. He earned $1,545 in prize money and was listed as finishing 39th. Because a different driver crashed out before he did, Wright was not last.
After the race, Wright disappeared. He abandoned his race car at the track and took off—just in time for everyone to start figuring out that Wright really wasn’t what he claimed. The big indicator of that? His checks started bouncing.
Not one check that Wright wrote cleared, including a $700 bill to his phone company and a $4,500 rent check. United Trappers Marketing Association owner Dean McIntire apparently lost $10,000 over the whole affair, too.
“I knew something funny was going on,” Marlin told The Tennessean. “When the check came back, it didn’t really surprise me. I sort of expected it.” Marlin also noted that Wright asked a lot of questions at the track that any driver would know the answers to.
NASCAR put out a warrant for Wright, but nothing ever transpired. The guy seemed to disappear off the face of the earth, and we still haven’t heard anything. He just walked away.
One of the big things I don’t understand is why he actually went through with the race. The man had thousands in cash and a brand new rig after he talked to Terrell; why not just walk away with that? He could have started life over somewhere else without ever having to piddle away most of that cash on a race car.
I can only assume it was a novelty thing. He wanted to race a car, so he raced a car and took off with all the money he had left. After all, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper and a whole lot easier to con your way into racing on the big stage once than it would normally take a driver to refine his talent and work up through the ranks.
This is probably one of those mysteries that’s just going to remain unsolved.