News & Media

Caraviello: In racing, it's not always easy being green

March 17, 2012, David Caraviello,

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- The St. Patrick's Day theme was in full swing Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway. Green T-shirts and Mardi Gras-style beads were in abundance. There was a party in the track's hospitality area featuring plenty of green beer. Actor George Wendt, Norm of Cheers fame -- OK, not exactly Irish, but close enough -- offered a toast to the crowd. The name of the Nationwide Series event -- the Ford EcoBoost 300 -- was green, as in environmental. Saturday night, the facility's outside stadium lights were to shine green. Even Beaver Creek, which runs between the speedway and the adjacent drag strip, had been dyed the appropriate color for the occasion.

Indeed, emerald hues were everywhere you looked Saturday, right down to a No. 18 car driven by Kyle Busch that was second-fastest in final Sprint Cup practice, to a No. 7 machine piloted by Danica Patrick that attracted so much attention during the Nationwide event, to the shamrocks worn on the sleeves of Bristol staff members. And all of it flew in the face of motorsports superstition, which has long held that anything green at a race track -- vehicles, driving suits, or otherwise -- is a recipe for bad luck.

"I try to choose to not believe in any superstitions like that, like the No. 13 or green or anything like that. It's only real if you believe it."


No one knows where it came from, but everyone has heard of it. It's one of those racing superstitions, like peanuts around a race car, that seems to linger on even though nobody really believes it anymore. One of the most prominent green cars these days is driven by Patrick, whose vehicle in Saturday's race was covered in four-leaf clovers. Patrick will admit, she's aware of the superstitions surrounding green at the track. But she also once drove a vehicle called a Tony Kart, an elite Italian go-kart chassis that's helped launch the careers of a number of drivers, including Michael Schumacher and Jarno Trulli of Formula One, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alex Barron of IndyCar, and NASCAR's Patrick and Scott Speed. Tony Karts come in one paint scheme, and there's one dominant color -- green.

"It used to be said that [green] was unlucky," Patrick said. "But of course, when one of the best go-karts made is green, you kind of just drive it and don't think about that. I try to choose to not believe in any superstitions like that, like the No. 13 or green or anything like that. It's only real if you believe it."

Kenny Wallace can relate. The veteran NASCAR driver remembers the days when his father, Russ, raced, and a track announcer would refer to "mean, green, unlucky 13" cars bearing a certain numeral and color. "Early in my career, I believed anything," said Wallace, who competes on the Nationwide tour. Then in 1991, he recorded his first career victory in the then-Busch Series at Volusia County (Fla.) Speedway, in a No. 36 car that was black and green.

"I grew up that peanuts were bad luck, that green was bad luck," Wallace said. "Fortunately, it's all in our heads."

The superstition long predates NASCAR, even if its exact origin is unclear. Donald Davidson, historian at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said no one is really sure where it comes from, although it's believed to be related to an accident involving a green race car. In 1964, his first year with the speedway, Davidson met a driver named Lee Oldfield, who was a contemporary of (but not related to) the Barney Oldfield who set speed records on the sands of Daytona Beach in the early years of the 20th century. According to Davidson, Lee Oldfield believed himself to be the source of the unlucky green superstition, it stemming from an accident involving his green race car going into the grandstands and killing several spectators during a race at the New York State Fair in Syracuse -- in 1910.

But even that is just a theory. "It's beginnings, nobody knows," Davidson said. And the whole idea of green race cars being unlucky seems to be debunked somewhat by the fact that for years, British race cars were outfitted in that country's famous racing green. Davidson said sponsorship in Formula One was banned until 1968, and before then cars were assigned a color based on the team's nationality, a tradition that began with the Gordon Bennett Cup -- multi-day races across Europe comprised of teams representing different countries -- of the early 1900s. Italian cars were red, French cars were blue, and German cars were white. British cars, in what's believed to be a tribute to Ireland, became green.

Many vehicles employing that hue experienced tremendous success, among them Bentley in the 24 Hours of LeMans and Lotus in Formula One. In NASCAR, though, championship cars utilizing a mostly green paint scheme have been rather uncommon -- the most recent in the Cup Series was Bobby Labonte's Interstate Batteries-backed No. 18 in 2000. In NASCAR's modern era, the only other mostly green vehicle to win the title at the sport's highest level was Darrell Waltrip's No. 11, which claimed the 1981 and '82 crowns for owner Junior Johnson in a car sponsored by Mountain Dew.

"Early in my career, I believed anything. ... Fortunately, it's all in our heads. "


Of course, none of that means today's drivers believe green cars to be unlucky. Jeff Gordon admits to being familiar with the superstition "until I had a race car that had green on it, and I won a lot with it," he said, referring to his famous No. 24, which won four titles in a DuPont scheme that featured rainbow stripes. The superstition was stronger from the 1920s through the 1950s, Davidson said, but over time it faded away.

"In the mid-60s, you started to have Formula One drivers and sports-car drivers who said, 'What's all this green nonsense about? I don't know anything about that,' " Davidson said. "I think it gradually went away."

Sponsorship certainly played a part. Although Ferrari retains its signature red, national team colors became de-emphasized in Formula One once sponsorship became legal in that series in 1968. In NASCAR, the costs of fielding competitive cars eventually outgrew purse winnings, making teams more dependent on sponsorship dollars and more willing to drive a vehicle in whatever color their potential backer wanted to support. Wallace drove a mostly green vehicle sponsored by the U.S. Border Patrol as recently as 2009.

"I've heard of it all, but I've never heard of anybody turning down a sponsorship because the car was green," said Wallace, whose current No. 09 is backed by Mac Tools. "I'd say sponsorship overrules color. You've got to remember, Dale Earnhardt had a pink race car as his very first race car ever, a dirt car. We do what we've got to do."

As for Patrick? She certainly has no complaints about the color, especially given how popular her Bristol paint scheme has proven to be. "I can't believe how much St. Patrick's Day merchandise I saw last weekend at Las Vegas," she said. "I must have signed the majority of St. Patrick's day stuff, shirts people were already wearing and everything. So it went well from that perspective."

Ultimately, brisk merchandising business like that generates another kind of green -- one most people find to be very lucky indeed.

Darrell Waltrip's mostly green and championship-winning 11 car made the Hall of Fame two years before its driver. (Getty Images)

The opinions expressed are solely those of the participant.