NASCAR stock car racing, as America’s most famous motorsport, has had its fair share of scandals and cheaters over its lengthy and storied existence. One especially infamous driver stands out for the reason that to this day nobody knows who he even really was. He has been called many names like the D. B Cooper of NASCAR, the mystery driver, the conman racer, but is mainly known by his presumed pseudonym, L. W. Wright.
A New Challenger Appears:
In April of 1982 William Dunaway of Hendersonville Tennessee, alleging to be a local business manager, reached The Tennessean with an announcement of a promising young driver named L.W. Wright who would be competing in the upcoming Winston 500 at Alabama International Motor Superspeedway in Talladega. This race was part of the prestigious NASCAR Cup Series, the prime level of competition within NASCAR. Wright claimed to have competed in 43 NASCAR Grand National races over the last decade and stated that his race team, Music City Racing, was sponsored by country music stars Merle Haggard and T. G. Sheppard.
With just a week until race day, Wright paid NASCAR $115 for a competition license and $100 for the race entry fee. Race officials such as NASCAR field manager Doyle Ford were wary of Wright’s background but lawfully there was nothing they could do to avoid him from competing. “There’s a thing called a ‘Right to Work’ Law,” Ford explained. “If a driver likes to enter a race and can pay for the license and entry fee and has a race car that meets our rules and specifications, then there is no way NASCAR can lawfully keep him from filling an entry and trying to qualify for the race.”
Fake it Till You Make it:
Wright approached B. W. “Bernie” Terrell, head of Nashville-based marketing firm Space Age Marketing; he satisfied him to sponsor his race team and assist him to buy a reasonable race car. Wright left this meeting with a tractor-trailer for transport, $30,000 to buy the car, and $7,500 for other expenses.
Wright then turned to NASCAR driver Sterling Marlin and negotiated the purchase of a 1981 Chevrolet Monte Carlo for $20,700 giving Marlin $17,000 in cash and an additional $3,700 check. Marlin was wary of this newcomer with so much cash to throw around so he decided to follow Wright to Talladega and serve as his crew chief.
Following this, Wright proceeded to write checks including $1,500 to Goodyear, $1,200 to driver Travis Tiller for spare parts, $168 to the Southern Textile Association for racing jackets, as well as numerous other checks for other odds and ends.
Cracks in the Facade:
It wasn’t long after reaching Talladega that Wright’s story started to fall apart. Wright’s alleged sponsors Haggard and Sheppard both claimed to have never met Wright and refuted ever sponsoring him. Moreover, no other NASCAR drivers could ever remember competing against him in any Grand National races. Wright answered these allegations by saying that he had been premature in announcing his sponsorship deals but swore that many deals with country music stars were in the works. As for his racing credentials, Wright conceded that he had never competed in a Grand National race but did compete in the secondary Sportsman class races that took place at Grand National racetracks.
Even this claim came off as controversial. Wright’s crew chief Marlin would later recall “[Wright] kept asking questions any driver should have known. He didn’t look like to understand much about what was going on.” This was particularly obvious during the qualifying trials where Wright spun out and crashed into a wall during his second lap. Fortunately for Wright, the car was shortly repaired and he managed to qualify for the race beginning in 36th, pretty far into the pack for someone with so much alleged experience.
Wright’s story was falling apart, but at this point, it barely mattered. Wright had his credentials, his car, and a starting position. He was off to the races.
Start Your Engines:
The 1982 Winston 500 was broadcast nationwide on ESPN. Wright’s car is noticed briefly many times as the camera pans over the field. Little interest is paid to the rookie driver and he is mentioned just in passing when the drivers of the race are discussed.
The race ran for 4 laps before a crash forced a yellow flag which remained for another 6 laps. Once the green flag was back out, Wright lasted another 3 laps before being disqualified. Sources vary on whether Wright dropped out of the race due to an engine problem or he was disqualified for driving too slow. There was little fanfare for the end of Wright’s brief 13 lap race (seen at about 17:20 in the YouTube Video) with ESPN commentator Larry Nuber saying “…the black flag coming out for one of the backmarkers… Maybe a little bit of inexperience on the young driver, well he’s not that young inexperience in terms of his years in Grand National racing…”
Catch Me If You Can:
Wright, having not technically come in final place, was entitled to a cash reward of $1,545. Wright collected his cash, abandoned his car, appliance, and crew at the track, and took off in the tractor-trailer he had gotten from Terrell.
The $3,400 check paid to Marlin for the car came back as invalid. Marlin later told the press, “I realized something funny was going on. When the check came back it didn’t shock me. I sort of expected it.”
NASCAR officials, to whom Wright had written $1,500 in bad checks for licenses and passes for him and his crew, were amazed at the entire situation. Field manager Doyle Ford stated in an interview that he’d “been in the business for 24 years and had never run into a case like this.”
“It was exactly a con operation,” said Terrell, who had given almost $40,000 to Wright in startup funds. I didn’t know anything about racing and he got me good.”
Wright’s other checks also bounced including the $1,200 check to driver Travis Tiller, the $168 check to Southern Textile, and the $1,500 check to Goodyear Tires. Wright was also said to have received $4,500 from his landlord in Hendersonville Tennessee, $700 from South Central Bell for long-distance calls made to his mum in Virginia, and another $10,000 from the United Trappers Marketing Association.
All told, Wright’s tricks cost his victims over $60,000 in 1982 or about $163,000 in 2021.
The Wright Side of History:
Wright’s con job made sports headlines across the country. NASCAR had warrants published for his arrest, and Terrell hired a private investigator to try to track the man down. Nothing came of these actions and by 1983 Wright had largely vanished from mainstream attention.
Many have believed in Wright’s intentions. After all, if it was cash he was after certainly there were less visible and simpler con jobs he could have pulled. Was he after attention? Glory?
One theory states that Wright had no intent to defraud all of his victims but instead developed a half-baked plan to kickstart a professional racing career. Had Wright won or at least completed the race he could have begun paying back all of the money he “borrowed?”
Others said he was nothing more than a thrill seeker who was way over his head. “This was a remarkable case because it’s extraordinary for somebody as obviously unqualified as Wright was to attempt to get into a race.” NASCAR field manager Doyle Ford explained, “First of all there’s the expense, $30,000 or more for just a race car, not to mention the danger. A guy who doesn’t understand what he’s doing could handily get killed out there.”
To this day, the real identity and intention of NASCARs mystery driver stay just that, a mystery. Regardless of this, Wright has left behind a rather fascinating and lasting legacy. He is still listed in official NASCAR results as having one start in the 1982 Winston 500.
In the end, the fact that a completely unqualified driver managed to talk their way into the main leagues of racing, qualify for the race, not come in last place, and then totally vanish is nothing short of extraordinary. A reporter for UPI put it best, “If he could have driven as fast as he talked, L.W Wright would be a NASCAR champion now.”