Patriotism is defined as “an emotional attachment to a nation in which an individual recognizes as their homeland.” Few sights in motorsports are more patriotic than that of Johnny Ray and his iconic diesel big-rig, adorned with a giant American flag, making his way down the Talladega Superspeedway frontstretch during the National Anthem prior to the start of NASCAR races.
The iconic drive-by has become a tradition that has left many emotional and full of American pride – perhaps none more so than the man behind the wheel.
This upcoming race weekend, Ray will once again delight fans with the unprecedented act of patriotism which has been unique to Talladega since 2001.That year, after the terrorist attacks of 9-11 and the tragic passing of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. in the Daytona 500, Ray, along with Talladega Superspeedway Chairman Grant Lynch, searched for something to boost the morale of a country and a fan base that had gone through tough times. They found the answer in Ray’s passion for 18-wheelers and their mutual love of the country.
“The 9-11 attacks had just happened, and Dale had passed away earlier that year,” said Ray, who lives just down the street from the track in Eastaboga. “I had a crazy idea to run my rig out on the track with an American flag attached to the back. It started off as a tribute to the country and to Dale.”
“Johnny’s flag idea really turned out to be something very unique to Talladega. It has become one of the most iconic National Anthem traditions in sports,” Lynch said of the ritual that began in the fall of 2001. “I’ve seen others try things similar, but here at Talladega we have the biggest flag on the biggest track. It can be copied, but can never truly be duplicated.”
Ray, who has owned the “John Ray Trucking Company,” since the early 70’s, actually set the World Speed Record for a semi-truck and trailer around the mammoth 2.66-mile track at 92.083 miles per hour in 1975 - in a powerful Kenworth Diesel that hissed and hummed through the tri-oval at a break-neck speed one fall afternoon. Ray has not always been just a trucker, however – he was a racer. He competed in the Cup Series from 1974-1976, starting eight races, four at Talladega, where he earned a career-best 22nd place finish in 1974 before an accident at Daytona in ’76 ended his driving career.
“I was just starting to get my career going when I had a bad wreck at Daytona,” he said. “I was in the hospital for a while and had a long road to recovery. Safe to say that my driving career was over, but that couldn’t stop my love for racing.”
Ray continued on as a car owner in the Cup Series on a limited basis. In fact, he gave one of the sport’s legends one of his first opportunities - Earnhardt Sr., the 10-time Talladega winner.
“I got a call from an old friend that I raced on dirt with, Dale Earnhardt,” Ray said. “He needed a ride for the upcoming Atlanta race. Needless to say, he rolled the car in turn three and completely totaled it. I was still in a neck brace (from my wreck) when I got to the care center and I asked him, ‘Are you alright?’ He looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, sorry about your car.’ I was just glad he was ok.”
Ray’s story at the Superspeedway continued in the form of volunteering. For nearly 40 years, he has been a member of the White Flag Club, a dedicated service group of local businessmen from surrounding communities that assist the track during race weekends.
For Ray, life has given him some amazing opportunities, and because of that he loves to give back, whether it’s driving the iconic big-rig around the track or helping wherever needed. He will always, like his pace-lap, be unique to Talladega Superspeedway.
Photo: In 1975, Johnny Ray set a world record at Talladega Superspeedway on a closed-course for a semi tractor-trailer at 92.083 mph. Ray now volunteers at the superspeedway as a member of the White Flag Club and will take to the track during pre-race ceremonies as he makes the iconic drive-by in his diesel big-rig, decked out with a giant American Flag.