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  • Writer's pictureRick Houston

L.W.: NASCAR's Biggest Mystery Lands Himself in Jail

After a lifetime on the run, NASCAR’s most infamous ghost now sits in an East Tennessee jail cell. It remains to be seen if the person known once upon a time as L.W. Wright will ever again experience life outside those bars.


(left to right) Larry Ernest Wright's booking photo, Knox County (Tennesse) Sheriff's Office, Monday. / Larry Wright's booking photo, Jefferson County (Tennessee) Sheriff's Office, Wednesday.

Following a two-and-a-half week manhunt, Larry Ernest Wright was arrested without incident in Knox County, Tennessee on Monday by an officer attached to the United States Marshals Fugitive Task Force on charges of theft over $2,500, burglary, worthless checks and evading arrest in neighboring Jefferson County.


Wright was transferred to the Jefferson County jail Tuesday and is also wanted in Davidson County, Tennessee for violation of parole; for multiple warrants out of Grainger County, Tennessee; as well as in Alabama and Virginia.


At least one of the issues in Grainger County concerns a substantial amount of property taken from a residence being rented by Wright. Items missing are said to include a four-wheeler, a couple of motorcycles and a Corvette.


It’s the latest in a long series of brushes with the law that date back to at least the 1970s.


Forty years, nine months and two weeks have passed since Wright managed to get himself onto the starting grid for the May 2, 1982 Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR’s longest, fastest and arguably most dangerous race track. He ran just thirteen laps that day before being black flagged for going too slowly. According to legend, he afterward disappeared into thin air, never to be heard from again.


Until, that is, the past several months.


On April 20, 2022, the man who has been called both NASCAR’s version of D.B. Cooper and NASCAR’s biggest mystery sat down for a two-and-a-half hour interview and then again for another lengthy on-the-record conversation on November 3. It was the first time Wright had ever spoken to a reporter about his exploits before, during and after that long-ago race weekend in central Alabama.


Significant parts of his story changed from that first on-the-record meeting to the second, and sometimes even within the span of a few seconds within the same conversation. There can be no doubt whatsoever that sorting fact from his fictions has been one of the most baffling parts of this journey.


Ultimately, there are only two 100-percent certainties about Larry Wright’s story. The man I got to know during those two sessions and in countless phone calls and texts since is L.W. Wright. That … and he’s in a world of trouble right now.



WHY IS THE L.W. WRIGHT SAGA SUCH A BIG DEAL?

The NASCAR of the early 1980s resembled as much an Old West boom town as it did a sport. Like the United States in general coming out of the traumas of the previous decade, NASCAR in particular in the early 80s was a wide-open frontier filled with stunning excess, substantial risk and glorious reward.


It was supposedly possible to bribe technical inspectors with everything from team jackets up to sacks of cold, hard cash.


Cheating was commonplace. Nitrous oxide, voluptuous women at the inspection bay, tire trickery and lasers that could trip qualifying timing lights early are just a few of the countless ingenious methods that were used to circumvent the rule book.


A bomb was found rigged underneath maverick team owner J.D. Stacy’s street car. The case was never solved, quite possibly because there were far too many suspects in and around the sport who had an axe to grind with Stacy. There were even rumors that he’d had the bomb rigged himself, to maybe gain at least a little bit of sympathy in the four corners of the garage.


Driver D.K. Ulrich once asked a nearby fan for a screwdriver in an attempt to fix a problem underneath the hood of his car, but was instead handed a vodka and orange juice. Ulrich then spent the rest of the day in a camper with a newfound lady friend.


Ricky Rudd sustained several broken ribs and burst blood vessels in his eyes during a grinding airborne crash at Daytona. He was still dealing with the aftereffects two weeks later when he drove … and won … a race at Richmond with his eyes taped open.


Asked before the Richmond event how he was dealing with his Daytona injuries, Rudd told reporter Steve Waid, “What am I doing for pain? Cocaine. A couple lines a day.” He was joking, of course, but the exchange simply shows the wide-open and freewheeling ways of the 1980s NASCAR garage.


The period also ushered in the era of rockstar drivers. And if Dale Earnhardt was the Old West boom town’s good-guy/bad-guy marshal, Tim Richmond was the lovable scoundrel most comfortable in its saloons and brothels.


This shot by legendary motorsports photographer David Chobat published in the May 6, 1982 issue of Grand National Scene was for many years the only known image of the driver known as L.W. Wright at Talladega.

In every good Western movie, there’s always a mysterious stranger and onto this stage stepped L.W. Wright. Appearing out of nowhere on the NASCAR frontier’s dusty main street was Wright, the shadowy snake-oil salesman.

Nobody seemed to have ever heard of him. With as many different names as he has used over the years, how could they

have? He allegedly fleeced country-music legends, a Nashville business executive, a future two-time Daytona 500 winner and NASCAR itself out of tens of thousands of dollars to run Talladega.



And then he vanished, so the story the story goes.



HOW WE GOT TO THIS POINT

The first indication received of Wright’s most recent troubles with the law came in the form of a late January phone call with a person who claimed to have been swindled out of $5,000. The person had found Wright’s May 2, 2022 interview on The Scene Vault Podcast and reached out, but then asked about the possibility of being paid for evidence against Wright he claimed to have.


Was this a legitimate complaint, someone trying to con a con or was there more to story? With Larry Wright, there’s always more to the story.


An urgent text from a trusted source arrived a few days later, on January 27.


It is very important that you call me as soon as possible.


Never mind the fact it was my anniversary, and that my wife waited inside a favorite restaurant as I sat in my car and dialed the number. According to the caller, Wright was on the run and had even gone so far as to get into some sort of high-speed chase with law enforcement.


Wright had used no less than five different cell phone numbers since our late-April interview, and I dialed the most recent one I had. After a couple of rings, he answered. I asked what was happening.


“This and that, Rick,” he said. “Ain’t no need talking about it. They may be listening on your phone. You know what I mean? I don’t want to get you in trouble. You’re not involved in any way … and I don’t want to get you in any kind of trouble. So we’ll just leave it at that.”


I urged Wright to somehow make things right with whoever he’d wronged.


“Rick, I’m too old to go to prison, son, for five or six years,” he replied. “I’d never live through it … and I ain’t gonna do it. Ain’t gonna do it.”


He then asked for money to help tide him over. Legally and ethically, I could not and would not provide assistance to a fugitive. Not long afterward, I received one final text message from Wright.


It read simply, “I’m a big boy an i.ve been through this many times so rest easy I’m fine”


And the car chase? Yes. It actually happened.


“I was just given some information that he was at the residence (where) we had looked for him earlier in the day,” said Detective Richard “Rico” Collins of the Jefferson County, Tennessee sheriff’s office. “I went over there, and when I did, I passed him on the road. I just attempted to make a traffic stop on him due to the fact that I had active warrants for his arrest. He fled in the car.”


Detective Collins abandoned his pursuit due to concerns for public safety.


“It was somewhat of a high speed,” Detective Collins continued. “I terminated due to the time of day and the actions he was making to get away from me. I decided to let him proceed on and to not chase him anymore.”


On February 4, I received a phone call from a hotel in Nashville, Tennessee. A person registered under the name Ernest Tuccio had left his cell phone there and, according to the clerk, my name and number was the only saved contact on the abandoned device. It could not possibly have been anyone other than Wright.


So add that one to the list of Wright’s known aliases.


L.W. Wright.


Gary Dean Gilbert.


Robert White.


Ernest Tuccio.


Honestly, I like Larry Wright. He could be funny and extraordinarily quick with a country quip. He ended several phone calls by saying he loved me. Wright told one potential partner in the telling of his life story that any deal involving him would also involve me, or else he would walk away.


But there was also another Wright – let’s call this one L.W. – that seemed to always be lurking just below the surface. L.W. was the hustler, teller of tall tales and con artist. He asked for money numerous times, claiming that he’d lost business due to his identity being revealed on The Scene Vault Podcast. He was uber-persistent about any deals that might or might not have been in the works about his story.


Was his good-guy persona all just another façade? All I know for sure is this. I would consider Larry Wright a friend. But L.W.? Not so much.



THE ODYSSEY

My involvement in this long and winding saga began innocently enough with a social-media posting on the evening of June 19, 2021 from Chris Wright, Larry Wright’s son. I shot Chris a direct message, which began a series of literally hundreds of DMs and texts for very nearly a year.


Time after time, a meeting with L.W. seemed imminent one minute and impossible the next. From the very beginning, a recurring theme was that L.W.’s greatest fear was someone discovering his identity and dying in jail.


At one point, Chris said that he was on vacation with his family. On a whim and hoping against hope that it might work, I told Chris that I would make the long drive from my home in Yadkinville, North Carolina and meet him and his father at a local restaurant.


I waited for a full three hours. They were a no-show, but there was one consolation. The chips and queso were awesome.


Finally, on December 14, 2021, I met Chris in person for the first time in the parking lot of a Wendy’s fast-food restaurant. I’d previously seen one photo of the driver’s uniform his father wore that day in Talladega and Chris had mentioned bringing it to our meeting. I was dubious, at best.


Chris walked me to the cab of his work truck, opened the passenger’s door and there it was. The Holy Grail.

The smoking-gun image of Wright's driver's uniform from Talladega. The Winston Cup and the Speed Sport Nomex III manufacturer's patches, the stripe on the right sleeve on down to the obviously missing Champion Spark Plug patch match the Chobat/GNS image perfectly.

The single-layer, two-piece suit was the smoking gun, proof positive that Larry Wright was, in fact, the notorious NASCAR hoodlum L.W. Wright. It matched perfectly with his only known photo at Talladega.


Chris said I could keep the suit and use it as proof of his father’s story. I didn’t want the responsibility, but Chris insisted. That’s how a priceless NASCAR artifact came to rest in the top of my closet for the next several months.


I was told Wright had serious health problems, that he’d been hospitalized with COVID and then with a near-fatal heart attack. Chris hinted that his father’s stubborn refusal to meet for an interview seemed to be fading. L.W. wanted to get his side of the story out there, before it was too late.


Chris told me, in no uncertain terms, that his father would be calling. And soon. Suuuuuuuuuure, he would. I’d heard that one before.


I was at home on Saturday, April 16, 2022 when my cell phone rang. It was an unknown number, but I answered anyway.


A gruff voice said, “Rick, I think you might know me as L.W. Wright.”


My own heart nearly stopped.


We agreed to meet in person just four days later, on Wednesday, April 20. Did I believe at that point it was actually going to happen? That’s a good question. Let’s call my mood hopeful, but obviously cognizant of the fact that coming up short in this chase once again was an all-too real possibility.


Still, Wright remained exceptionally cagey. I was never given an address at which we would meet. Instead, I was told to come to a certain vicinity and then to expect a call that Wednesday morning. I was wide awake at 3 a.m., waiting.


Just before noon, I was told to get on a nearby interstate, head in a certain direction and which exit to use. There, I was to meet Chris, who would then lead me to the meeting site.


Again, this candid photo of Larry Wright suitably matched the facial features of the person shown in the Chobat/GNS shot.

This was truly mysterious, like something out of a true-crime drama. It didn’t help matters in the least that we then headed down what seemed like a deserted, semi-paved country road.


There was a gun in the glove compartment of my car. I didn’t know what I was going to do with the stupid thing if trouble had broken out, but it was there.


We reached what appeared to be a relatively comfortable home, with a nice garage in back. It didn’t appear to be the O.K. Corral, so I began to at least breathe again.


It was only after setting up the recording equipment, cameras and lights that L.W. Wright himself showed up. I didn’t see him coming. It was Talladega all over again, only this time in reverse. Instead of vanishing into thin air, he’d suddenly reappeared out of the NASCAR hinterland.


Even then, Wright wasn’t giving up on protecting his identity. He wore a surgeon’s mask, like millions upon millions of others in the COVID era, and fully intended to keep it in place during the entirety of the interview. After a brief standoff, he reluctantly lowered it … and then removed it altogether.


At long last, the interview began.



SADDLE UP. IT’S GOING TO BE A BUMPY RIDE

Wright told me about his upbringing in Richlands, Virginia. He’d dropped out of school in the seventh grade to help feed his five brothers and two sisters, after his father broke his back in a coal-mining accident.


At seventeen, he was hauling moonshine. Although Wright stated during that first interview that he’d spent only a single night in custody over the course of his life, he was taken before a local judge and given a choice.


He’d been in jail only once? We’ll get to that one in the second and final installment of this series.


“That evening at 4 o’clock when everybody left the courtroom, I was called up,” Wright said. “The judge pulled up some papers and he said, ‘Larry, you know we have a warrant here for your arrest? And we’re going to put you in prison. Now you can either go to prison today or join the service.’ I said, ‘There’s no decision to be made. I’ll just join the Army.”


Later, he said that the plan had been hatched by his father and the judge, that there weren’t any real charges and that they’d simply wanted to keep him from getting into any further trouble. Still, this being the late 1960s, it was an almost impossible choice to make … jail or Vietnam.



Grover C. Wright, Larry Wright's older brother, who was killed in Vietnam on April 18, 1968.

His older brother, Grover C. Wright Jr., had already been killed in action (KIA) in the Bien Hoa province of Vietnam on April 18, 1968. It was the day after Larry Wright’s nineteenth birthday. Afterward, Wright claimed to have volunteered for duty in the war-torn country as a member of the elite Green Berets.


“They wouldn’t let me go because of that,” Wright maintained of his brother’s death. “They said our family had gave what they needed to give. But I still wanted to go. I wanted to go and get even, just between me and you. But I didn’t ever get to go.”


I wanted to clarify, just to make sure.


“So you did not go to Vietnam?” I asked.


“I never did,” he responded.


This was the first major discrepancy between the first on-the-record conversation I had with Wright and the second. In our early November interview, Wright professed to have not only served in Vietnam, but also that he’d done three tours of duty in the special forces.


When I pointed out the change in his story, he claimed to have signed papers agreeing to serve in Vietnam despite his brother’s death. Later in that second interview, Wright described his best friend, Rudolph Garrett, of Nagodoches, Texas getting killed in a night combat operation.


There is no record of Garrett being KIA in Vietnam. A Rudolph Garrett of Nagodoches, Texas died in June 2012 at the age of 86 in Dallas, Texas. His online obituary stated that he had served in the Army in Vietnam.


Another major problem with Wright’s story was his assertion of Winston Cup and ARCA experience prior to his day in the sun at Talladega. It was easy enough to confirm that Wright had run some short-track bullrings in his native Virginia, but he didn’t want to quit there. He wanted his taste of the big time.


According to Wright, he’d attempted to qualify at Darlington twice.


This shot of Wright appeared on the cover of the September 20, 1973 edition of Thunder Mountain Hot Line, a publication produced by the now-defunct Richlands Motor Speedway in Cedar Bluff, Virginia.

“I had a Chevelle, number seven, gold car, used to be an asphalt car,” he began during our first interview. “I bought the car and I fixed the car and redid it to take to Darlington, South Carolina. And when I got to Darlington, they told me that I wouldn’t be able to qualify because I didn’t have this or that. I said okay, so I dropped out. I couldn’t qualify for that race.


“So the next time it come around, I was ready. And when I went to Darlington, we qualified eighth at the Grand National races. And we was supported by my own pocket, my own car, my own engine, frame, all that. But that got me into wanting to race more, bigger.”


The BS alarm I’d developed long ago as a journalist began to blare. We had a rapid-fire exchange in an attempt to clarify.


You said you ran a Grand National race at Darlington?


We run the Grand National race at Darlington.


What is now known as Cup?


Cup race, right. That’s when we run that Chevelle. We didn’t get to complete the whole race because we had an overheating problem.


So you ran the Cup … or Grand National … race at Darlington in 1979 under the name of Larry Wright?


L.W.


Okay, I’m just gonna ask. Why is it not on the record?


Because when we went to race that weekend … we couldn’t make the field.


So you attempted to qualify?


Right.


But you did not?


Did not make it.


Wright’s story changed that quickly, in the matter of just a few seconds. During our second conversation, Wright claimed to have attempted another Winston Cup effort at Martinsville. He also contended that he’d run ARCA races at both North Wilkesboro and Daytona under the name of either L.E. Wright or Gary Gilbert, take your pick, between the first and second interviews.


“I was trying to … well … not make a career, but I was trying to get in and run the big races,” Wright said. “I wanted to get into the superspeedway races. That’s where they run really fast, and that’s what I wanted. I always thought I could run with them if I had a chance. That’s what I worked toward.”


Other than Talladega, there is no record of a driver with any of Wright’s known aliases ever competing in any Winston Cup or ARCA event anywhere.


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