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  • Writer's pictureRick Houston

L.W. WRIGHT, Part Two -- Talladega and Beyond

How exactly did a small-town hustler like Larry Ernest Wright wind up qualifying for the May 2, 1982 Winston 500, an event at NASCAR’s highest level and on its biggest and fastest race track?


It all depends on which story you choose to believe.


Trust Larry Wright, the gregarious good guy, and Talladega was simply the next step up the racing ladder after graduating from racing on bullrings all across the Southeastern United States. He’d tell you that he’d either run or attempted to qualify for Winston Cup and ARCA races on tracks from Darlington to Daytona before taking on Talladega.


NASCAR legend Bobby Allison once mistakenly calling Larry by the initials L.W., and he decided to just go with them. Both Allison and Dale Earnhardt offered him advice in the Talladega garage, and after Larry wrecked on the second of his two qualifying laps, his team received parts to help repair the damage from Allison’s fellow NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty, Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip.


A detail image of the driver's uniform worn by L.W. Wright on May 2, 1982 at Talladega Superspeedway

And then there was L.W. Wright, a Frank Abagnale from the mountains of southwest Virginia and the more sinister half of Wright’s nature.


L.W. had been in one kind of trouble or another since his youth. He went from schoolyard scuffles to allegedly hauling moonshine to, again purportedly, being shot twice. He was connected to an arson incident at a Chevrolet dealership in Martinsville, Virginia.


At one point, he remembers catching wind that he was wanted by the FBI. In one version of the tale, he was in deep over a big debt for some coal-mining equipment and back taxes, and in another, in connection to a stolen safe. In that one, L.W. hatched a plan to run Talladega to win enough money to get himself off the hook.


When that didn’t work out, he attempted to qualify for the 1982 Winston Cup season’s next race, at the fairgrounds race track in Nashville, Tennessee. He missed that cut, and L.W. began to feel the walls close in around him. It was, he says, it the FBI investigation – and not any of his NASCAR shenanigans – that caused him to afterward go off the grid.


Apparently attempting to hide in plain sight, L.W. even came back to the NASCAR garage a few years after Talladega and worked for both Hoss Ellington and Buddy Baker’s teams … at the track.


This story is that crazy.


JUST A GOOD OL’ BOY, NEVER MEANIN’ NO HARM …

Brawling on behalf of the little guy and moonshining.


That was Larry Ernest Wright’s life growing up.


“I was always the advocate that would try to stop a fight, especially if there was two jumping on one and I would get in and get it even,” he said. “I’d wind up in the fight. I’d be the one in trouble. I’d be the one getting arrested. I hauled a lot of moonshine. I was chased all over the state of Virginia up in the mountains, in Tennessee and in the edge of Kentucky.


“I painted my car a different color about every week because everybody knew the color of the car and I didn’t have the money to buy other cars.”


Sometimes, such capers took place on the fly.


“They got after me one night and chased me,” he continued. “I went in my buddy’s Texaco service station, cut the lights out and put grease on my headlights, the bumper and chrome and windows and spray painted it black.


“I backed it right out and stopped at a roadblock. They were telling me that they was looking for a car just like mine, only it was white. All they had to do was touch it, because it hadn’t dried.”

Long before Talladega, Wright sits behind the wheel of his short-track car.

It's easy to picture the younger Wright as one of the Duke boys from The Dukes of Hazzard television show. As Wright got older, however, his misdeeds got more serious. He recalls being charged with conspiracy to commit arson at a Chevrolet dealership in Martinsville, Virginia.


“The role I played in it … they physically used my truck and I said they could use it. I did go and pick up two barrels of gasoline. I did. Myself. But at the time, I didn’t know they were gonna use that for what they did until later that night … and then I knew. That was my part of the conspiracy.


"I was exonerated in all that. I had cut a deal ... let's say it that way. I didn't walk away innocent, but I did cut a deal. From the information I gave them ... and I didn't rat on anybody ... but I told them my part, what I did and what I knew."


There’s a story about a stick of dynamite and blowing up an outhouse … with someone in it. Another time, he pretended to hang himself in his jail cell after being picked up for forgery. In the hospital, he claims to have faked paralysis.


“I didn’t show any emotions when they’d prod me, pinch me or stick a needle in my toe or back of the leg,” Wright said.


Once security was relaxed, he continued, he got exercise by rolling himself in a wheelchair for laps around the hospital floor. After telling the guard he’d make just one more circuit, he instead headed straight for the nearest elevator and an awaiting getaway driver.


“I hadn’t walked in forty-some days, so I was weak,” Wright figured. “(The accomplice) helped me get in the car. We pushed the wheelchair over behind the dumpster, got in the car and went to Wilson, North Carolina.”


This next part isn’t exactly for the squeamish.


“I stopped in Asheville and took the catheter out myself,” Wright recalled. “I didn’t de-inflate it … I had to yank it out.”


Wright hung the bloodied device on a nearby farm fence and went on about his way.


Or so he says.


THE FBI

Like so many of Wright’s yarns, there are at least two versions of a run-in with the FBI that he maintains hung over his head at Talladega.


Here’s the simplest, from our April 2022 interview.


“Let’s see how to put this … we were mining coal,” he began. “I had my own deed mine, and it was all about a big debt in equipment and back taxes. Nobody could get ahold of us, so they turned it over to the feds to find me. They was looking. They went to my momma’s house and to my brother’s house. They went everywhere looking for me.”


In true Wright fashion, his side of that particular story six months later was a bit more colorful.


“The company that we were doing some work for, they had a safe and they had money put in it,” Wright said. “They told the law enforcement and they told the insurance people that they had $100,000 in there. I’m here to tell you today, there was exactly $1,000 in that safe. I didn’t go and get it, but it was brought to me. They did that so the insurance would pay them … but I’m the bad guy.”


Wright’s short-track dreams and penchant for chaos were about collide. Talladega Superspeedway. That was the big time and where the money was. If he could go there, make the field and finish well, that could take care of all his problems … and he would have one hell of a good time while doing it.


“That was my goal … to make it right,” Wright concluded. “I knew I could do it. I knew I could run fast enough, qualify and all that stuff … but it didn’t work out that way.”


No. No it didn’t.


GETTING READY

It should be noted here that Wright’s account of what happened just before and at Talladega are the most consistent parts of his story, between both of our formal on-the-record interviews and in numerous conversations in between and since. What does that actually mean to the big picture?


Good question.


At the time, Wright claimed to own a bus-repair garage in Hendersonville, Tennessee, just north of Nashville. There, he came into close contact with country-music stars like Conway Twitty, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Ronnie McDowell, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings.


“I worked on their buses,” Wright said. “They’d come in and I’d service them. I’d put booze whiskey, food, service the bus when they’d come in on a Tuesday and they’d leave out again on Thursday, hitting the road. That’s what I did for a living.”


In Wright’s version of the events, it was the country icons’ idea to fund his run at Talladega, not his.


“Waylon Jennings … we was sitting in an apartment studio in Hendersonville,” Wright said. “George Jones and Merle Haggard was there to do a duet on a new album. That evening, they told me to come over. They wanted to talk to me. They was three of them there. Merle … always called me ‘Hoss’ because I was a big ol’ boy. He said, ‘Hoss, we hear you wanna race.’ I said, ‘Well, we’re trying.” He said, ‘Why don’t you let us make up a little bit of money and help you get there? We’re not going to sign a lot of sponsorship, but we’re gonna give you some money to race with.’”


By Wright’s count, Haggard, Jones and Jennings each gave him $3,000.


“They said, ‘Hoss, that’ll take care of your tires and motel bill, won’t it?” Wright continued. “I had a lot of friends that got into music and I didn’t use any of them, other than what they wanted to do.”


According to his 2008 obituary on Hillbilly-Music.com, Jack Johnson was the “brash and colorful manager” of country music entertainers such as Charley Pride, Ronnie Milsap and T.G. Sheppard. According to Wright, he sold Johnson a 977 Caterpillar bull dozer for $17,000, which he in turn used to purchase his 1981 Chevrolet Monte Carlo for famed Nashville independent racer Clifton “Coo Coo” Marlin and his son, future two-time Daytona 500 winner Sterling Marlin.


AASCO Records, a company Wright claims to have been associated with both Johnson and Sheppard, went on the quarter panel of Wright’s car. Today, Sheppard stated through a representative that he isn’t familiar with Wright or AASCO and declined further comment.


Wright allegedly gave the Marlins $17,000 in cash from the sale of the bull dozer and promised the rest of the $20,000 price tag out of his race winnings. Between that and making good on the troubles he was having with the FBI, Wright evidently had his work cut out for him in central Alabama.


“The car was completely red, inside and out,” Wright said. “I said, ‘If you’ll sell me the car and pit it at the first race s my crew can catch on to what you do, I’ll buy it.’”


He had one other condition.


“I said, ‘I’ll buy it only if you’ll paint the car black and put number 34 on it,” Wright continued. “34 came from Wendell Scott. He always tried to race, but didn’t have the means or the money. I picked his old number, plus I was 34 years old when I started racing.”


Actually, Wright was 33 when he raced at Talladega. In the grand scheme of discrepancies in Wright’s stories, however, that’s the most minor details.


Wright celebrated his thirty-third birthday a couple of weeks before Talladega. His cake was decorated in honor of the car and number he would drive there.

TALLADEGA

Because of the alleged investigation by the FBI, Wright found it difficult to concentrate once he got boots on the ground in Talladega.


“Let me put it this way … it was hard because you’ve gotta focus on every face in the crowd,” he said. “You don’t know who’s going to walk up to you at any minute. You wouldn’t know how to handle that, plus the stress on you that you’ve got to do good. You’ve got to qualify. You’ve got to get out there and run this race. You’ve got to finish in the top fifteen.”


Although he professed to have raced previously at Daytona, the sight of Talladega’s 2.66-mile layout brought him up short. It was like a monstrous giant, ready to pounce when disturbed by race cars scurrying around its asphalt skin.


“I remember pulling into the infield and standing at the end of the track and looking down it,” Wright said. “I looked over at my brother and I said, ‘Lord, have mercy. Ain’t no way.’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘You think about holding that pedal flat on the floor all the way around this track. That straightaway is almost a mile long. How much can that car gain before you go into that turn?


“That was my first thought. I got off by myself that day and I said, ‘Lord, I’m down here, but I’m gonna need some help.’”


In the garage, he remembers getting advice from Bobby Allison


If you don’t qualify, don’t feel bad, because there are a lot of guys who ain’t gonna make the field.


Wright had a response locked and loaded.


I appreciate that, Mr. Allison, but I come down here for one reason … to make the field.


Allison’s response was every bit as quick.


Well … you’re cocky enough.


Dale Earnhardt was next.


Look here. When you get out there, you get on the back of someone that’s been here before and follow ‘em. Stay with ‘em and then make your move.


Wright recalled the future seven-time NASCAR champion hitting him in the arm as he began to walk away, and yes, that was a patented Earnhardt move.


During practice, Wright knew that he was committing the cardinal driver’s sin of leaving speed on the table.


“I was comfortable in the car,” he remembered. “The only thing was … I wasn’t getting the most out of the car. Me. I wasn’t getting the most out of it. I thought the car would do more than what I was making it do because I hadn’t run before.


“I found out that I was wrong later. I was going in low and letting the car flow up in the turn and not making it turn. I thought it was me. But to find out, I was doing the right thing … just the car wouldn’t stick.”


Wright turned in a speed of 187.379 mph on the first of his two qualifying laps, nearly 13 mph slower than Benny Parsons’ then-NASCAR record speed of 200.179 mph. That was good enough for 36th in the 40-car field.


All was well in Wright’s world for a few precious moments, right up until the point he crashed on his second time around in time trials. Still, Wright insists that he was undeterred in wanting … or needing … to run the race.


“No sir, (dropping out) never crossed my mind,” Wright said. “I was in the (infield) hospital. The first thing out of my mouth, I asked a buddy of mine with me, ‘How bad’s the car tore up?’ He said, ‘I think we can put it back together.’ I said, ‘Let’s hurry and get out of here and get going.’”


Wright’s team obtained a fender, door and quarter panel off a car owned by Travis Tiller; a windshield from Dale Earnhardt’s team; the chrome windshield trim from Richard Petty’s; and the plastic snaps to hold the windshield in place from Darrell Waltrip’s.


RACEDAY

There was no inspirational theme music for Wright on race morning, the type seen several years later in the opening of the NASCAR-themed Days of Thunder. No. He was too jacked up.


“I was real nervous,” he admitted. “I was there with the biggest names in racing, and me, a nobody from back in the hills of Virginia with no background like that. I knew I didn’t have the ability they had, because they’d done it for years.”


The feeling of foreboding into an even higher gear during driver introductions.


“Every driver went across the stand and that’s when it really set in … that I was there and nobody knew it but me,” Wright continued. “I thought, ‘Well, I finally got here. It doesn’t matter what happens today. I’m here.’ That’s what I was shooting toward … but I wanted to run good, you know?”


NASCAR’s chief starter, Harold Kinder, waved the green flag.


This photograph captured by famed NASCAR photographer David Chobat and first published in the May 6, 1982 issue of Grand National Scene is the only known image of Wright at Talladega.

This was it. Forget about Waylon, George, Merle and Jack Johnson. Forget about the FBI. This was Wright’s moment in the sun, to run with the big boys of NASCAR.


“We all lined up and everybody was antsy,” Wright said. “When I seen the flag drop, the frontrunners took off, the middle of the field didn’t and I was waiting … come on … come on … come on.


“As soon as I cleared the flag stand, I remember dropping the outside lane and going to the front about ten cars. I remember that. I guess it was adrenaline and no sense. But I went to the front in a hurry, and I thought, ‘This is where I’m gonna stay.’”


Staying in front of the cars he remembers passing might have been Wright’s plan, but it’s not the way it worked out. Parsons and the rest of the lead pack flashed by Wright going into turn one on lap 14, just after the newcomer had been black flagged. Wright limped back around to the garage and crawled out of his car.


Wright’s recap of what happened next was an even wilder ride than the legend of L.W. Wright that began to spring up shortly after Talladega.


BERNIE

B.W. “Bernie” Terrell, owner of Nashville’s Space Age Marketing, seemed to have the biggest axe to grind with Wright in the aftermath of Talladega and Nashville. He certainly had the biggest soapbox.


A news item in the July 1, 1982 issue of Grand National Scene reported that Wright had made off with more than $44,000 in cash and equipment, including the race car and tractor-trailer rig used to haul it. To bamboozle Terrell out of the funds, Wright allegedly regaled Terrell with tales of past successes at NASCAR’s highest levels.


Terrell reportedly gave Wright $37,500 for equipment and expenses.


“It was strictly a con operation,” Terrell was quoted as saying in the story. “I didn’t know anything about racing, but he really got me good. I’ve hired a private detective to track him down and he’ll end up in jail before we’re through. We’ll get him sooner or later.”


The piece also listed $1,500 in bad checks to NASCAR for a competitor’s license and pit passes for his crew; a $3,700 bounced check to Marlin; and one for $1,200 to Tiller.


"Who cooked that up, I couldn't tell you," Wright said. "And why, I couldn't tell you. All that stuff is ... it was a myth. It wasn't nothing that was so. If you can find somebody that said that I owed them $30,000, you tell them I'll face them. I want to see who they are."


He fired one last shot.


"So now ... if that makes them stutter, you'll know what I'm talking about," he concluded.


Wright’s side of the ledger wavered a bit between our two interviews. In the first, he paid for the NASCAR license and pit passes with cash. In the second, he still owes the sanctioning body $1,700.


He was still in debt to the Marlins to the tune of $2,000 or so for the car and was to be billed by Goodyear. According to Wright, he gave Dave Marcis a bad check for tires.


All total, Wright owed, “less than five grand,” he figured. “They made it sound like it was millions. I can live with it if they can, so I don’t worry about it.”


Wright says Terrell came to him, not the other way around, interested in sponsoring the car at Talladega. Told that a deal with AASCO Records was already in place, the businessman had another idea.


Rather than his company’s name on the car in the race, Terrell offered up the use of his Space Age-branded bus, just like the fancy ones used by the country music legends that Wright serviced at the time.


The plan then called for Terrell and Space Age Marketing to pay Wright $30,000 for sponsorship of his car at Nashville. There was only one problem.


“We went ahead and put the name Space Age Products on (the car), Wright said. “Saturday morning, when it was supposed to happen, he didn’t show and he called, said he wouldn’t be able to be there and he’d take care of me later.


“At that time, I had another dealership wanting to put their name on the car and they were ready to pay me right then. So I did. I put Music City Chevrolet on the car and took Bernie’s off. Bernie said that I took his money. He never did pay the money at all.”


Of all the issues that arose out of Talladega, it’s the one with Terrell that seems to get Wright spun out the most.


“It would be back like my bar fights because I wouldn’t talk to him … I’d reach out and get ahold of him like Ma Bell,” Wright said with a grin, before turning more serious.


“If I’m guilty of something, accuse me of something and I’ll say, ‘Yes, I did it and I’ll live up to it,’” he continued. “But when you stand like that man did and his friends and tell a blatant lie … I can prove it.


“I was false accused. I couldn’t stand up in front of everybody and say, ‘Hey … just lied on me.’”


Why couldn’t he?


“I couldn’t find him, to tell you the truth,” Wright added. “I was gonna go see him. I was going to his house and knock on his door, but I didn’t never do it.”


Why not find a camera and respond through the media?


“Well … I didn’t want to be on camera back then,” Wright concluded. “Never stand in front of a fan and pee.”


Think what you will about Larry Wright, but he does have a way with words.


ON THE RUN

After Talladega, Wright did not fall of the face of the Earth. Instead, he headed to Nashville and attempted to qualify for the May 8, 1982 Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 420 Winston Cup event.


A short item in the May 13 edition of Grand National Scene confirms two things … that Wright was at Nashville and that he failed to make the starting grid for the race.


He hadn’t fared as well as he planned at Talladega and he failed to qualify at Nashville, and as a result, his house of cards came tumbling down around him. He didn’t have the money to make any kind of restitution to the FBI, much less anybody in NASCAR.


“I didn’t panic, but I felt like, ‘Well, it’s time to back up and have another plan,’” Wright began. “That when I said, ‘It’s time to pack up my family and just quit. I’m done.’ They were shocked, because they didn’t know a tenth of what was going on with me and all this. They was honest in everything. They were.


“They didn’t understand why I had to be pressured to move. I didn’t tell them until after the fact. I said, ‘It’s in your best interests just to not ask no questions. Let’s just do this.’ And that’s what I did.”


According to Wright, he, his wife Sue and their four children lived in a home on Lakeshore Drive in Hendersonville. He left the hauler and race car in the driveway, and both were later recovered by the Marlins.


“The race car stayed in the back of the trailer, right there at the house when I left it,” Wright said. “I didn’t even open the door and look in it. I just drove away.”


About a year after Talladega, Wright says he was apprehended by the FBI, held overnight and then released due to a lack of evidence.


"I was picked up in West Virginia ... hauled me to Knoxville, Tennessee," Wright said. "Stayed in Knoxville, Tennessee twenty-six hours and they come, unlocked the cell door and told me, 'Mr. Wright, you can go. We're done.' That was the end of it.


"If I knew that when I run Talladega, that would've been a different outcome because I wouldn't have got up and left Nashville. I wouldn't have moved. I would've took care of what I needed to take care of and went on back to racing."


NASCAR AGAIN?

From information gleaned from our first interview, Wright and his family headed straight to North Carolina. In the second, the Wrights moved to Jacksonville, Florida; to Bastian, Virginia; to Wilson, North Carolina, where he said he worked for Hoss Ellington, although the NASCAR team owner’s shop was more than 120 miles away; and finally to Denver, North Carolina.


There, the story goes, he worked in both the shop and at the race track for Buddy Baker’s Crisco-sponsored race team. Yes. You read that right. This near-mythological figure in NASCAR history claims to have returned to the fold, hiding right there in front of everyone under the name Larry Wright.


A check with several of NASCAR’s old guard from that era turned up nothing conclusive. A couple might have known Wright as a crew member, vaguely recognizing the name. True or not, that’s not surprising. Larry Wright isn’t exactly an unusual name.


Asking former Junior Johnson & Associates jackman Pete Wright if he was L.W./Larry Wright resulted in a resounding denial.


Still, the notion that this alleged crook would return to NASCAR and tempt fate is something almost beyond comprehension. There’s an obvious question.


Why?


Wright’s answer might very well describe his entire life, from his Virginia childhood … to racing … to Talladega … to every encounter he’s ever had with the law, including the one that has him behind bars at this very moment.


“I like the rush of danger,” Wright explained. “I like pain, believe it or not. I used to box. See this ol’ nose? I had thirty-one Golden Glove fights, and out of thirty-one fights, I won twenty-nine. But just to get out and deliberately do something to somebody? No. I don’t do that.


“But the excitement of … being in the middle of it, for me, was a rush. You don’t think about the danger around you. I mean, you’re standing in front of a pistol and it fires at you. You’re looking at him dead in the eye and you’re saying, ‘You’d better make it good, because I’m gonna gitchya.’ I guess it’s excitement. I may not be right in the head, you know?”


And then Wright grins that rogue-ish grin of his.


WHERE THINGS STAND NOW

Wright remains in the Jefferson County, Tennessee jail on charges of theft over $2,500; burglary; worthless checks; and evading arrest. What happens from here on out is anyone’s guess at this point.


A few months after Wright’s wife, Sue, died in 2022, he was introduced to Melissa Owens. They became close and moved in together. According to her, the Larry Wright she knows and the Larry Wright currently behind bars are two completely differently people.


“He is kind-hearted as can be,” she said. “He treated me just like a princess. He is so good to me. I can’t say anything bad about him.”


When Owens experienced severe dizziness and headaches after a bad fall, Wright came to her rescue.


“He went and got me a pillow, came back and he just laid both hands on my head,” Owens continued. “He just said, ‘Lord, please just take this from her and give it to me. Let me have it.’ He told God … he said, ‘If you take care of her, Lord, I’ll work as hard for you as I have the devil.’”


If ever a single anecdote could fully encapsulate Wright’s story, it’s that one. The angel Larry on one shoulder, and L.W., the devil, on the other.


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