St. Pat’s Day, Green, and Racing

As I drove from Sioux Falls to Badlands Motor Speedway today, it was a sea of green. Obviously, St. Patrick’s Day brings out the green in all of us. But seeing all of the green today reminded me of a story I wrote in last year’s BMS Program about the superstitions in racing, including the color green. If you didn’t get to read the story in last year’s program and have an interest, I’ve reposted the story here.  Happy St. Patrick’s Day, and we’ll see you in 56 for the Silver Shootout!

SUPERSTITIONS IN RACING

During his racing career, legendary IndyCar driver Roger McCluskey refused to stay in hotel room number 832.

Or 706.

Or 148.

Roger McCluskey stayed clear of the No. 13.

The three numbers collectively add up to 13, an extremely unlucky number over the years in the sport of automobile racing. McCluskey, who started the Indianapolis 500 18 times, didn’t want to take any chances.

It’s called Triskaidekaphobia – the fear of the number 13.

In auto racing circles, triskaidekaphobia ran wild for several years, as have other superstitions in racing. From 13, to the color green to peanuts or sunflower seeds in the pits, many drivers steer clear of certain actions in hopes of good luck on race day.

The 13 was taboo for many years, and still is in most part of the country. The number has only been run four times in the 99-year history of the Indianapolis 500. George Mason ran the number in 1914, and then there was an eerie gap of 89 years before it resurfaced at the Speedway when Greg Ray ran the number in 2003.

Mason ran only 66 laps and finished 23rd. Ray ran the number in both 2003 and 2004, finishing eighth and 27th, respectively. E.J. Viso was the last driver to use the number in the 500 in 2009, finishing 24th.

“They didn’t even make the number available for several years,” said Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson. “(Two-time Indy 500 winner) Rodger Ward told me one time that he wasn’t superstitious, but out of respect to the other drivers, he’d stay away from anything 13 or green.”

In the 68-year history of NASCAR, the number 13 has been run at 447 races with 71 different drivers. It’s won only once when Johnny Rutherford won a Daytona qualifying race in 1963.

But locally, the number hasn’t seemed to bother Mark Dobmeier. The Grand Forks driver has won five championships at Badlands Motor Speedway in the 410-sprint car class, and he scoffs at 13 as being an unlucky number.

“13 is my number, so there’s your answer right there,” Dobmeier said when asked if driving the unusual number bothers him. “I’ve heard people talk about it before, but it really doesn’t bother me at all. It’s the odd number out there, and I guess that’s me.”

Dobmeier’s success has certainly changed the opinion of the superstition in this part of the country. So much so, that he’s not alone. Jordan Martens of Harrisburg raced a sprint car last year at Huset’s Speedway as well.

Although Dobmeier’s championships have somewhat put the 13 superstition to rest, it’s still a no-no in many parts of the world. The Formula 1 circuit still doesn’t make the number available, which is where the phobia in racing started. The number first gained its negative notoriety in 1926 when Giulio Masetti was fatally injured in a Maserati carrying the number while racing in the Targa Florio, an endurance race in Italy.

The color green has also traditionally been something race teams have stayed away from, but that superstition has waned in recent years, mostly because so many of the sponsors carry the color. Quaker State, Gatorade, Mountain Dew, Interstate Batteries and 7-Eleven have all been on the side of championship cars with a green livery in recent years.

But the color still causes a twinge to a few in the racing world, including some of the most successful and popular. Roger Penske, who’s won the Indianapolis 500 as an owner a record 16 times and also owns the NASCAR team with drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, had a very difficult time with the color in 1988.

That year Penske’s powerful IndyCar team landed Miller High Life as the 500 sponsor on the side of Danny Sullivan’s car. The car was painted gold, red, and white with a small strip of green circling the cockpit area. That strip of green caused Penske some angst.

Danny Sullivan in his 1988 Indy 500 ride included a green stripe around the cockpit area, an addition that team owner Roger Penske didn’t like.

“Of all the people, I never would have thought Roger Penske would be superstitious,” Donaldson said. “He finally agreed to go with the paint scheme, but he told me he had a real hard time with it. I couldn’t believe it.”

When it comes to throwing caution to the wind, St. Paul sprint car driver Jack Schostag seemed to be asking for it at the 1982 Knoxville Nationals. Schostag arrived to the Nationals with a car painted entirely green, numbered 13, with a black cat painted on the nose.

Knoxville was lucky to get the races in that night as no one would follow Schostag into the pit area after the team checked in and made their way to the infield. Haulers and trailers were backed up dozens deep before someone finally made the trek across the track to seemingly break the curse.

Schostag’s car broke during qualifications, and he never turned a lap for any race during the Nationals.

IndyCar driver Jimmy Kite also has some superstitions, like always getting into the car on the left side. The one time he didn’t, he crashed at the 1998 IndyCar race in Orlando. He doesn’t have an aversion to green, but he’s raced for certain owners that make it very clear to keep the color out of the garage area.

“I’ve raced for some guys that were crazy serious about it,” Kite said. “There were a couple of guys that were so strict about it, I wouldn’t wear boxers if they had green on them.”

It’s not just numbers and colors that can sometimes make drivers uneasy. For many years, some drivers have refused to have peanuts or sunflower seeds near their pit area.

Former World of Outlaws and IndyCar driver, P.J. Chesson, refused to let anyone near his pit with peanuts. It didn’t always used to be that way for Chesson, but after a nasty sprint car crash at Port Royal Speedway in Pennsylvania, he was adamant about keeping the snacks away from his car.

PJ Chesson was wary of peanuts in his pit area.

“That was one of the worst crashes of my life. We broke the frame in half, the car was on fire and I was soaked in fuel,” Chesson said. “That hurt. I remember being in a daze coming back to the pits.”

Chesson said he was never superstitious about peanuts before that night, but one of his pit crew members always brought it up. Before the race, there was a big bag of peanuts resting on his right rear tire.

“When I got back to the pits, the guy on my pit crew said, ‘Well you idiot, you had peanuts on your car before the race. What’d you expect? Since that night, if anybody came near my pits with peanuts, I’d hit ‘em with a hammer,” Chesson said.

The superstitions in racing have certainly become less prominent over the years, but clearly not to everyone. There are a lot more green cars on tracks around the country today, and you’ll see peanuts and sunflower seeds fly every weekend. Even 13 has become more accepted, especially in this area with Dobmeier on his recent torrid pace.