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He’s one of the most famous NASCAR drivers of all time, even though he only completed 13 laps in his career.
(The Scene Vault Podcast // ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)
L.W. Wright was an unknown racer who entered and qualified for the 1982 Winston 500 at Talladega in 36th place. No one on the NASCAR circuit had heard of him before, despite claims, which turned out to be false, that he’d made several prior starts in the Cup Series.
Larry Wright claims he is the L.W. Wright who competed in the 1982 Winston 500 won by Darrell Waltrip. (The Scene Vault Podcast | ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)
Hailing from Nashville, Wright had obtained his car from the shop of Sterling Marlin, who also provided a pit crew for the event. He was black-flagged 13 laps into the race for being too slow, however, and then his story turned into a legend.
Wright allegedly abandoned the car at the track and disappeared, leaving a string of bounced checks in his wake. B.W. Terrell, a team owner who had reportedly assisted in getting him the car, told the press at the time that Wright owed him over $30,000 for the transaction and other help.
Wright’s whereabouts have been unknown in the years since, but on Monday, May 2, which marks the 40th anniversary of the race, the NASCAR-focused “The Scene Vault Podcast” released an episode featuring an interview with a man who says he is him.
Podcast host and motorsports journalist Rick Houston told Fox News Autos that he’d been trying to track down Wright for over a year through someone who knew him and in April received a call saying he was ready to talk.
Houston describes how he wasn’t given an address, but was instructed to drive to a location on a highway where he would meet up with someone who would lead him to Wright.
Wright told Houston his real name is Larry Wright and showed him the racing suit he wore at Talladega as proof. There’s only one published photo of Wright from the race, and Houston said both he and the suit are a perfect match.
Houston has only released a portion of the interview, as he is saving most of it for future projects, but Wright tells a somewhat different story in the clips than what has been reported before.
He said he was a bus driver working in the music industry in Nashville and received money from music stars Waylon Jennings, George Jones and Merle Haggard, all since deceased, to help pay for his Talladega entry.
As he explains, he told Marlin he’d pay him for the car after the race, but didn’t. He also never paid bills for tires from Goodyear and his NASCAR competition license. A representative for Marlin has not yet responded to a request for comment on the story from Fox News Autos.
Cale Yarborough keeps in front of an oncoming barrage of cars in the Winston 500 on May 2, 1982, at the Talladega Speedway in Alabama. (ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)
Records show that Wright actually attempted to qualify for the next race at the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway the following week. He chalks up his unpaid bills to a sponsor who backed out after he failed to qualify for the event, but denies he ever owed Terrell $30,000.
“If you can find somebody that said that I owe them $30,000, you tell them I’ll face them,” Wright said.
Terrell passed away in 1998 and his son, Bernie, told Fox News Autos that he remembers hearing the stories about his father loaning Wright the money and a truck, but that he’s not sure how accurate they are. He said his father never really talked about it with him and that it didn’t seem like a big deal that weighed on him.
Houston said Wright’s personal history is still a little cloudy, but that he’s confident what he told him about the events surrounding Talladega are mostly accurate. Wright admits never having been in a Cup Series race before it, but Houston said he had competed in small-time stock car racing.
Among a few details Wright shared were his first impression of the track, which he’d never seen before arriving for the race weekend.
“I looked over at my brother and I said, ‘Lord, have mercy. Ain’t no way,’” he told Houston. “Lord, I’m down here, but I’m gonna need some help.”
Wright’s car wore the number 34, which he said was both his age and a tribute to Black NASCAR pioneer Wendell Scott, who, like him, raced without a lot of means. He claims that Dale Earnhardt told him, “When you get out there, you get on the back of someone who’s been here before and follow them. Stay with them, and then make your move.”
Fox Sports NASCAR analyst Larry McReynolds, who was at the race as part of Donnie Allison’s team and worked with Earnhardt a few years later, doesn’t have direct knowledge of Wright’s claims, but said Earnhardt was the type of driver who often offered advice to rookies.
The 1982 win was Waltrip’s second in the Winston 500. (ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)
Wright crashed on his second qualifying lap, but the car was repaired for the race. The daunting 2.66-mile oval proved too much of a challenge, however, and officials decided to get him off the track for safety.
Journalist Steve Wade, who was at the event, said they didn’t think much about it at the time because then it was easier to enter a NASCAR race and there were always a couple of local drivers who tried to race at Talladega.
According to Houston, Wright is in poor health and wanted to get his side of the story out there while he still can.
Houston said he is working on a book and entertaining offers for other ways to share more of Wright’s story.