One of Talladega Superspeedway’s treasured family members – John Ray – whose diesel big rig sporting the giant American flag became iconic during the track’s National Anthem performances, has died. The former NASCAR driver was 82 years old.
Since 2001, few sights in sports have been more patriotic than that of Ray’s gold, brown and chrome Peterbilt truck, adorned with the red, white and blue whipping in the wind, making its way down the Talladega frontstretch prior to the start of races. Over the years, a tremendous chorus has exploded into cheers by hundreds of thousands of fans during each pass by, creating a tradition that has left many emotional and full of American pride – none more so than the man who started it all.
“National Anthems at Talladega Superspeedway are the most iconic, and it’s because of our great friend John Ray,” said Speedway President Brian Crichton. “What he brought to our fans can’t be duplicated. He was an incredible, passionate man who supported the track and all of motorsports with everything he had. His spirit will live here forever. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Ray family.”
Ray’s story at the superspeedway started in the form of volunteering as he always loved to give back. For more than 40 years, he was a member of the White Flag Club, a dedicated service group of local businessmen from surrounding communities that assist during race weekends. In 2001, however, he really stepped up.
That year, after the horrific terror attacks of 9/11 and the tragic passing of his longtime friend Dale Earnhardt Sr., Ray, along with then Talladega Superspeedway Track Chairman Grant Lynch, looked to see what they could do to boost the morale of a country, and a fan base that had gone through tough times. They looked at Ray’s love for 18-wheelers and patriotism and found the answer.
“It was 2001, we just had the 9/11 attacks and Dale had also passed away earlier that year,” said Ray, who lived down the street from the track in Eastaboga, three years ago. “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.
“I never thought it would become the heart-felt moment that it has over the past some-odd years, but I’m glad it has become a tradition that means so much to the fans and the Talladega family. It represents such a sense of pride that we all share together as a nation and as a community. It is my honor and privilege to do it,” added Ray, who eventually gave up the driving duties of his big rig and handed them off to his late friend Roger Haynes, and last year to his son Johnny.
The laps he drove around the high banks of Talladega that October day in ’01 weren’t his first at the 2.66-mile track. Ray, who owned “John Ray Trucking Company” since the early 70’s, actually set the world speed record for a semi-truck and trailer around the mammoth track at 92.083 mph in 1975 – in a powerful Kenworth diesel that hissed and hummed through the tri-oval at a break-neck speed one fall afternoon.
“We were testing brakes for a company out at the track,” Ray said. “One thing led to another — and there I was — truck, trailer, and all — making my way around the track, trying to set a speed record – it was something else.”
But, Ray at that time was not just a trucker – he was a racer. He actually drove in the NASCAR Cup Series from 1974-1976. He competed in eight races, four at Talladega (his best career finish was 22nd at ’Dega in 1974), but an accident at Daytona in ’76 ended his driving career. He continued on as a car owner and essentially gave one of the sport’s greatest legends one of his first opportunities: 10-time Talladega winner Earnhardt. It would be Earnhardt’s third career start. Behind the wheel of Ray’s No. 77 Chevy with crew chief Buddy Parrott that November afternoon in Atlanta, Earnhardt totaled the car.
However, the Intimidator and Ray would stay friends their entire lives. They would go fishing and hunting together, sometimes with another friend and driver, the late Neil Bonnett, who was more than happy to belong to the group. Often, Earnhardt would stay at Ray’s home during his trips to Talladega.
Ray graced motorsports and Talladega Superspeedway with such pride and dignity – no one will ever quite compare. A man who was defined by an 18-wheeler and a small town demeanor – will inevitably be remembered not necessarily as a racer, but as a trucker – and one of the all-time members of the Talladega racing family. He will always, like his pre-race lap, be iconic to Talladega Superspeedway.
*Funeral arrangements are not finalized at this time, but will be released in the near future.