“Race drivers carry luck charms according to their fancy. ... Practically all the cars carry emblems of St. Christopher, patron saint of transportation, rabbits’ feet or some other talisman. ... Curiously enough, the drivers insist that these lucky pieces are not to charm off accidents but rather to carry them through to victory.”
- “Life Preservers for the Death Cheaters,” Popular Mechanics, July 1932
It's not known if any driver in the Indianapolis 500 some 80 years ago ever considered grabbing the rear end of fellow competitor’s wife before a race to improve his chances. But as the above passage notes, various “luck charms” have been a part of auto racing as long as gasoline and tires.
Pete DePaolo, winner of the 1925 Indianapolis 500 and owner of the first Ford team in NASCAR, raced with his son’s shoes tied beneath his car throughout his career. Legend has it he took them off only once. The result: a Spain crash in 1934 that left him in a coma for 11 weeks and ended his driving career. It’s no wonder that NASCAR drivers like Tony Stewart won’t take any chances with good-luck charms.
“I have never heard of using this type of good-luck charm,” Gregg Steinberg, author of "Full Throttle" and a professor of human performance at Austin Peay State University, told Playbook in an email interview Wednesday. Steinberg said he believes athletes use “lucky charms” or follow certain superstitions because it gives them a sense of control and serenity. "The only problem is if you slap your friend's girlfriend's bottom and he does not like [it], otherwise superstitions are not harmful,” he wrote.
That’s not an issue for Stewart. "It wasn't something that was out of the normal for us," Stewart said this week. "Kevin comes up and gets me, I get DeLana, DeLana gets both of us."
— DeLana Harvick (@DeLanaHarvick) September 18, 2012
The Stewart-Harvick group grope might be the most eye-popping good-luck charm in recent NASCAR memory, but NASCAR Hall of Fame historian Albert "Buz" McKim believes it’s certainly not the most significant.
Two of McKim’s favorite historic all-time NASCAR lucky charms are Dale Earnhardt’s lucky penny and the one-armed doll mounted on the dashboard of the Plymouth Johnny Mantz drove to victory in the first Southern 500 in 1950. Earnhardt’s penny -- given to him by a young girl he met through the Make-A-Wish Foundation -- is still mounted on the dashboard of his Chevy that won the 1998 Daytona 500 (parked at the Richard Childress Racing Museum in Welcome, N.C.) while Mantz’s doll and his Plymouth can be seen at the Darlington (S.C.) Raceway Museum.
“The older drivers were more superstitious of things like green, the number 13, peanuts, shaving the morning of the race. Even ladies in the pits was a superstition at one time. Some drivers didn’t like their photo taken before a race and most did not want to get kissed before a race,” McKim wrote in an email interview with Playbook. How bad was triskaidekaphobia at the track? The 1962 Southern 500 was the 13th annual, but two-time NASCAR champion Joe Weatherly would not commit to it until the official name was changed to the 12th Renewal of the Southern 500, McKim recalled.
Not shaving went to the extreme as Jeff Gordon began to grow back the mustache he sported during the 1990s after he qualified for the Chase but shaved it after a crash and 35th-place finish at Chicagoland this past weekend.
— Jeff Gordon (@JeffGordonWeb) September 18, 2012
While women were once shunned in the pits, NASCAR now has a defending champion driver/owner who routinely gooses the rear end belonging to the wife of a fellow driver to ensure good luck.
“NASCAR had three women racers running the top series in 1949,” McKim noted. “Stevie Waltrip [Darrell Waltrip’s wife] is considered the lady who helped change things. She always did Darrell's scoring so DW named her as his car owner and car owners were allowed in the pits.”
Of course, charms don’t always work. Eugene “Dooley” Chirano, who raced against DePaolo in the 1920s, was killed in an October 1925 crash in Pottstown, Pa., despite always racing with his son’s shoes tied to his car’s front springs.
And no good-luck charm will prevent this:
Found this in my front yard today! Reason 9,765,424 why not to text and drive! twitter.com/JeffGordonWeb/…
— Jeff Gordon (@JeffGordonWeb) September 20, 2012