The Ballad of L.W. Wright: NASCAR's D.B. Cooper
A journey into the life of a man who doesn't exist.
Racing drivers can come from all kinds of backgrounds. Some come from royalty or powerful industrial families, some need to work their way up from nothing and hope for that big break, while others are destined to become racing stars by blood.
Some drivers however, come from thin air. They show up to the track, do their laps to the best of their ability and then simply vanish from the face of the earth.
In 1982, the world of NASCAR encountered one such entity. This is the ballad of a mysterious figure by the name of L.W. Wright.
In April of 1982, the phone rang in the offices of Tennessee newspaper *The Tennessean*. On the other end of the line was a man who identified himself as William Dunaway.
The man claimed to represent a local NASCAR driver and asked the paper to publicize his entry into the prestigious Winston 500 NASCAR Grand National race at Alabama International Motor Speedway, Talladega on May 2.
Dunaway sweetened the deal by promoting his driver as a native of Nashville who had taken part in 43 Grand National races, using the apt Music City Racing team name and fielding a car bought from fellow driver Sterling Marlin. Most importantly, the operation was sponsored by country music royalty in the form of Merle Haggard and T.G. Sheppard.
Country music star T.G. Sheppard apparently backed the local team.
The driver in question was known only as L.W Wright. But how did we actually get to this point? How did this 33-year old racer from Nashville actually set up the promising new team he wanted to promote so desperately?
The story of Music City Racing begins in the office of Space Age Marketing, also in Nashville. Wright convinced B. W. "Bernie" Terrell, head of the company, to loan him $30.000 to buy a NASCAR-chassis, $7.500 to cover expenses and a massive tractor-trailer to haul everything to the track. Starstruck by his experience, charisma and famous sponsorship, Terrell agreed.
The third, slightly smaller generation of NASCAR stock car was born in 1981.
Wright took the money scored at Space Age Marketing and started shopping around for a car. . In 1981, NASCAR mandated a switch to 110 inch wheelbases to better reflect the downsized models on showroom floors. This meant L.W. couldn't just buy an old junker. He needed a relatively fresh chassis.
These requirements lead him to Sterling Marlin's shop, where a chassis clad in 1981 Chevrolet Monte Carlo sheet metal was waiting for him. Marlin and Wright agreed on $20.700 for the Chevy, but despite his recent cash injection, L.W. elected to pay just $17.000 in cash. The remaining $3.700 was written out in a check.
The #34 Chevrolet of L.W. Wright behind the #27 Pontiac of Steve Moore, Talladega 1982.
Next up on the agenda was actually securing entry to not just the race, but NASCAR in general. As it happened, L.W. Wright did not hold a competition license. Using stories of his experience, the star power of his sponsors and sheer confidence, Wright was able to gain access to a competition license and pit passes for his crew, among which was William Dunaway.
Naturally, all fees were paid in checks: about $1.500 in total. Further expenses were made to Goodyear for racing slicks ($1.800), $168 for team jackets from the Southern Textile Association and $1.200 worth of parts from driver Travis Tiller to get the Monte Carlo running. Further budget was found from United Trappers Marketing Association in Goodlettsville, Tennessee to the tune of $10.000.
Seeing all that money being thrown around and Wright managing to pull all those strings around piqued Sterling Marlin's interest, so he agreed to join the team as crew chief. A week before the race however, controversy was already surrounding L.W. Wright.
William Dunaway's correspondence with The Tennessean had lead to an interview over the phone with Wright, discussing his upcoming entry in the Winston 500. A day after the interview was published in the paper, T.G. Sheppard was approached by reporters over the news he was sponsoring a NASCAR outfit.
As it turned out, that was exactly what it was to him as well: breaking news. Sheppard stated he'd never even heard of L.W. Wright or his team and denied all involvement with the project. Gary Baker, Nashville Speedway's owner and tax attorney to Sheppard, echoed these statements.
In the same interview, L.W. had claimed Merle Haggard would be present at the track to support him and Music City Racing. However, Haggard never commented on the veracity of that statement. His absence the next week said all that needed to be said.
Merle Haggard never bothered with Music City Racing at all.
The ensuing media storm hadn't exactly blown over when the team finally arrived at Talladega. Everyone wanted to talk to the man who had apparently lied about his famous sponsorship.
During trackside interviews, Wright was forced to admit his announcement of the T.G. Sheppard-sponsorship had been 'premature'. However, he promised talks with other country music stars were still underway to justify the Music City Racing-moniker.
However, his shady marketing tactics weren't the only issues L.W. was confronted with at the speedway. His claim of having 43 Grand National starts under his belt were starting to ruffle some feathers. None of the other drivers present could remember ever racing him in the past.
Again, Wright had to amend his story to better represent something closer to the truth. His 43 starts in the top category were changed to have been in the lesser Sportsman Series. But, L.W. claimed, these races were on the same tracks the Grand National Series raced at, so it was all good.
Despite all the controversy, L.W. Wright was still allowed to take part. This had a very good, but by modern standards equally bizarre reason: experience on the racetrack - any racetrack - was not required.
As long as a potential participant could afford the license fees and could provide a car compliant with the regulations, he or she would be allowed to start a race. Not only that: under the 'Right to Work'-law, NASCAR was actually required by law to allow that person entry.
Even though the entire paddock was already suspicious, nothing could be done to bar Wright from taking part.
Even inside the Music City Racing garage, suspicions were rising. Sterling Marlin became increasingly bewildered with Wright, who kept asking the most basic, small-brained questions about his car, setup and the rules of the competition in general.
How little Wright actually knew became apparent on his second ever lap of the Alabama International Motor Speedway, as he never finished it. A spin and a crash promptly ended his session, wrecking the nose of the Monte Carlo.
As if by a miracle though, his first lap was good enough for L.W. to qualify for the race. He wasn't even last: a speed of 187.379 miles per hour (301.557 kph) placed him 36th on the 40-car grid. By comparison: polesitter Benny Parsons managed a speed of 200.176 (322.152 kph).
With the car hastily repaired, L.W. Wright managed to take the start of the Winston 500 as the only Chevrolet-entrant. However, his run didn't last very long. Just thirteen laps in, Wright retired with a blown engine, although some newspapers reported the reason as him being 'too slow'.
A five-lap caution due to David Simko's crash on lap 4 meant Wright only ever raced eight laps under green flag conditions. As the second retirement, he placed 39th, netting him $1..545 in purse money for taking part.
However, Wright didn't take very much time to lament the bad result at all. Neither did he bother to actually collect the purse money.
After the race, he rushed to the big rig given to him by Space Age Marketing, and simply took off. In the process, he left everything behind, including his racecar. A planned entry at Nashville Speedway for the Cracker Barrel Country Store 420 was of course withdrawn.
It didn't take long for his debtors to discover literally all of his checks were bad. Sterling Marlin, NASCAR, Goodyear, Space Age Marketing, Travis Tiller, Southern Textile Association and United Trappers Marketing Association were all out of pocket.
Even outside of the sport, Wright racked up bills: South Central Bell was left with $700 in long distance phone bills, supposedly to Wright's mother, while L.W.'s landlord in Nashville still needed $4.500 in unpaid rent. In total, L.W. Wright owed $59.868 to nine parties.
With Wright on the run, a manhunt was soon underway. Bernie Terrell of Space Age Marketing hired a private detective to ascertain L.W.'s location. His effort was supported by NASCAR, which was overall extremely embarrassed about the whole ordeal and arranged for arrest warrants.
Sterling Marlin wasn't as shocked as the rest of the paddock however. He'd joined up with the team for a reason after all: to find out exactly what the hell was going on.
When his $3.700 check bounced, he got his answer: "[The check bouncing] didn't surprise me, I sort of expected it." As he got his car back, Marlin didn't actually lose very much anyway.
The furious anger caused by L.W. Wright in the NASCAR community was however not met with great vengeance. Despite their best efforts, NASCAR and the eclectic mix of debtors never managed to track the man down.
The phone number Wright had been contacted with by the Tennessean had been disconnected, his home address abandoned, and his identity was never even properly verified. Every single investigation into his whereabouts eventually met a dead end.
After a short article in the Daytona Beach Morning Journal, which asked "Has anybody out there seen or heard from noted check writer L.W. Wright lately?", Wright faded into obscurity.
To this day, the 'D.B Cooper of NASCAR' has not been found. If his stated age was in fact correct, and he is still alive, somewhere in the world a 72-year old man is leaning back, smiling, thinking of the time he scammed his way into the top level of NASCAR competition, never to be seen again.