Race fans likely know they rarely see a car that wears number 13, or is painted green. Why is that? Short answer: superstition. And it’s surprisingly common, from your local dirt track all the way up to Formula 1.
We’ve asked some racers, as well as noted writer/historian Dave Argabright, for some help when it comes to identifying some of the most common superstitions: Former IMSA racer Bill Adam, who has run the 24 Hours of Le Mans and won at Daytona and Sebring; former SCCA President and Formula Vee racer Lisa Noble; current IMSA and SRO Challenge driver—and Hagerty contributor—Tom Long, and Texas dirt track racer Randy Farrell.
Feeling lucky? Make sure to brush up on all 13:
Rumored to be built on a Native American burial ground (it isn’t; I spent two days there investigating), the track nevertheless still has a spooky aura. It’s the largest, fastest superspeedway on NASCAR’s calendar, and consequently the site of some horrific crashes. It was the track where 1970 champion Bobby Issac, one of the most haunted NASCAR drivers ever, stopped in the middle of the 1973 race, got out of his car, and quit. Why? A voice told him to. Earlier in the race, NASCAR Rookie of the Year Larry Smith died of massive head injuries in a solo crash, but it had not been reported, especially to Isaac, that it was fatal.
2. $50 bills
This one is traced to a moderately superstitious NASCAR driver, Joe Weatherly, who was killed in 1964 at Riverside, California, with two $50 bills in his shirt pocket. His head went outside the Bud Moore Mercury window and struck a retaining wall, killing “Little Joe” instantly. Weatherly was not wearing a shoulder harness and did not have a window net because he was scared of being trapped inside a burning automobile, and he had indeed caught fire several times before. Lisa Noble said her husband and fellow racer Bill Noble hated $50 bills: “He had an aversion to them. Jerry Knapp (IndyCar driver Steve Knapp’s dad) was always gigging him by shoving one in his hand!”
There are some pretty solid cases on how green became unlucky early on. Arguably the first occurred in 1911 when driver Lee Oldfield (no relation to Barney Oldfield) crashed into the stands at Syracuse, New York, killing 11 spectators in his green car. Oldfield was thrown clear, and went on to design one of the first rear-engine cars in Indianapolis 500 history. Another is the death of Louis Chevrolet (yes, of that family of Chevrolets), killed on a board track in Beverly Hills, California, in 1920 in a green car. The crash killed another racer and his riding mechanic. In 1952, NASCAR driver Larry Mann (real name Lawrence Zuckerman) became the first fatality in NASCAR Cup history when his green Hudson Hornet (as in Green Hornet, the superhero) crashed. After that, green became rare on a race track, usually present only when required by a sponsor.
4. The number 13
This is just because 13 is considered an unlucky number, period, possibly dating back to Jesus’ Last Supper, as Judas was the 13th guest. The scientific name for the superstition is triskaidekaphobia, a word coined in 1911.
5. Dressing the same way
This may be the most common superstition, and it often involves underwear. “One racer friend wears the same pair of red underwear,” said Lisa Noble. “After all of these maybe 30 years, they are now light pinkish.” Randy Farrell said he wore the same teeshirt when he was having a lucky streak—“Yes, it was washed between races,” he noted. Alan Jones wrapped up the 1980 world F1 title by winning the penultimate round of the season in Canada, but only after the last-minute delivery of his special lucky charm—a pair of red underpants. “I’m really superstitious and I felt uneasy because I thought I’d lost them,” said Jones, according to Formula1.com. “But Bev [his wife] drove to Brands Hatch where I’d left them in a motorhome and rushed them here [to Montreal] by special express.” Another F1 champ, David Coulthard, was said to be partial to a particular pair of shorts his aunt gave him. Even after they were worn out, he continued to take them to each race for good luck.
This is a tough one to pin down, but it remains strongly in effect. Randy Farrell has no problem with peanuts—or often, just peanut shells—but his racing brother-in-law, Richard Strain, “would kick you out of his pits if you were eating peanuts. And he wouldn’t sit with you in the stands between races.” This one seems to have started as early as 1933, says Snopes.com:
“A 1933 newspaper article about superstitions held by race car drivers reported that, ‘Vernon Orenduff, the New Jersey black-headed motor maniac, refuses to race should a peanut shell drop in his seat.’ The caption under the photograph that headed the article read, ‘If you want to make Vern Orenduff, above auto racer, mad at Saturday’s auto races at the Spartanburg Fair, just get near his Miller race car Saturday with some peanuts.’”
But it was cemented into lore in 1937 when two separate cars involved in serious crashes were supposedly found with peanut shells in the car, in the engine, or in the grille. One possible reason: Racers used to pit in the shades under the grandstands, and it’s very possible that shells fell into the cars from above.
Eating the same thing before every race isn’t unusual. Two-time Daytona 500 winner Sterling Marlin ate a bologna sandwich before both races. And there’s food dubbed unlucky: “Some late model racers, and for some reason only late model racers, have a thing about chicken bones around the race car,” said Dave Argabright. “Never heard that one from any other type of racers.”
Sometimes, it’s what you don’t eat. Legendary sprint car racer Galen Fox and his son ate at a McDonald’s right before a race, “and went out and tore up all their equipment. They haven’t eaten at a McDonald’s before a race in 30 years,” Argabright said.
Or not shaving. One big superstition is not shaving on race day, maybe one reason you see some scruffy-looking racers at driver introductions. It reportedly started in 1936 when sprint car driver George MacKenzie was killed in a crash after shaving just before the race.
9. Good luck charms
“I used to race with lucky earrings,” Lisa Noble said. “Bet there aren’t too many racers holding that one dear!” Four-time F1 champ Sebastian Vettel is fond of good-luck charms, having “filled his race suit pockets with objects as varied as a small metal pig to a one-cent coin that he found on the street in Indianapolis ahead of his F1 race debut in 2007,” said Formula1.com. “But most obvious is the way Vettel personalizes his race boots. Catch a glimpse of his footwear just before a race and you might be able to spot two shining pieces of lucky silver given to him by his grandmother—including a medal for St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers—which he puts under his laces.” Charlie Turner, a racer from California, “tucked a bit of a dead friend’s sweater in the race car,” said Noble. “Oh, we racers are a weird lot, aren’t we?”
10. Lucky helmet
Every driver who has ever won has a lucky helmet—the one he or she was wearing when they won a race. The best-known example: Alberto Ascari, two-time world champion, had a favorite blue helmet, which he would not allow anyone else to handle. He made an exception after his crash at Monaco in 1955, when the helmet was damaged. Rather than get a new one and paint it blue, he decided to have his old one repaired. It was in the shop when, at Monza, Ascari was killed in a testing crash, wearing his friend Eugenio Castellotti’s white helmet.
“Probably the closest thing I had to a superstition was always shaking the hand of my crew chief on the grid before the battle started,” recalled Bill Adam. This is among the most common superstitions—shaking hands, or not shaking hands if you happened to win without doing it.
12. Getting in on a particular side of the car
“I would crawl into the car the same way every time, and put my gloves on left first, then right. If it didn’t feel good, I’d get out and do it again,” said Randy Farrell. Said Tom Long: “I once had a teammate who would only climb into his open-wheel car from the left, never from the right.”
13. The deliberate lack thereof
Finally, one of the biggest superstitions is the absolute and conscious avoidance of superstitions. “I personally try not to be superstitious so that I don’t psych myself out if things aren’t the same every time,” said Tom Long. Said Bill Adam: “When I started racing, I had a friend in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who gave me a coin that he said had always kept him safe through his many years in the service. I treasure it and carried it for a while, but then started thinking what I would do if I ever forgot it, or worse, lost it? Would I blow up my car, would I crash it, would my cat leave me? So, I decided to just leave it at home, safely tucked away and hoping that its magic would still work from a distance. I tried to vary my routines deliberately so that I wouldn’t be superstitious!”