Confidence is essential to succeed in a career like motor racing, whether it's on two wheels or four wheels. Even people who've claimed they don't really believe in superstitions, like pro driver Danica Patrick, have admitted that certain pre-race rituals can help calm the jitters. Some of the superstitions we'll talk about go beyond the paranoia or predilection of a specific racer, and some have become so prevalent that even the fans abide by the unspoken rules.
While some of these superstitions might seem kind of outdated, most contestants don't want to take any chances with fate. Racers with NASCAR and MotoGP have always had permanent numbers, but Formula One drivers' numbers could change from year to year based on rankings. When Formula One announced that, as of the 2014 season, drivers could choose permanent numbers, there was a flurry of excitement as F1 competitors applied for a lucky digit [source: Hallam]. Some of the drivers were eager to explain their choices, showing that superstition is still alive and well in the racing world.
It's not just about dodging bad luck, either. Some racers think there are ways to cultivate good luck. Everyone who puts his or her life on the line for a race, whether the motivation is for fame and glory, or just for the fans' excitement, probably has a preferred way to spend those crucial pre-race hours. Some drivers are willing to share their superstitions; others won't talk, for fear of giving their opponents a competitive advantage. Some of the superstitions we'll discuss are pretty common, with fairly obvious roots. The origins of others are still up for debate. We'll take you through some of the superstitions that play into race day strategy, all the way from a driver's bedroom habits to the stadium concession stands.
Plenty of people probably get dressed the same way (or close to it) most days, without even thinking about it. But some motorsports pros believe that donning their duds in a specific order can make the difference between success and failure. Driver Brian Scott has said it's a superstition he's heard from other drivers, that the right side of the body holds all the luck, at least when it comes to getting dressed. Boxers, pants, socks, shirt sleeves, and gloves should all go on the right leg or right arm before pulling on the left side. Other drivers will cop to following a particular dressing ritual, but don't specify whether the right side or the left side comes first. And it's not just race car drivers who are superstitious about getting ready for the day. MotoGP rider Valentino Rossi also gets dressed in the same order before every race.
Once you've started off your day on a superstitious note, it might be hard to shake the habit. Some racers admit that the theme carries on throughout the morning. For example, on a related note, some drivers won't shave the morning of a race.
Alex Wurz, an Austrian racing driver, is perhaps the driver most commonly known for wearing mismatched racing shoes -- although there have been others. This particular, less common clothing ritual supposedly brings good luck, yet it's hard to track down the origins of this custom. It hasn't been widely adopted, but it's not totally uncommon, either, and it seems to make some drivers happy. Have at it, fellas.
Other variations on the mismatching theme have also come to light, such as deliberately mismatching socks. Stefano Modena used to take this an extra step, and drove with one of his gloves inside out, which couldn't have been all that comfortable. When abiding by a superstition that potentially creates a handicap, it might be time to draw the line.
A lot of people keep good luck charms in their cars, even if they're not really thought of in that way. Such an adornment could be as obvious as a picture of a Catholic saint taped to the dashboard, or as subtle as a photo of the family tucked away in the glove compartment. Of course, lucky coins or rabbit-foot key chains are other examples of this custom. And it makes sense. We spend a lot of time in our cars, and they can be dangerous, so a token of significance can help put the mind at ease.
We can't really blame pro racers for doing the same thing. Tazio Nuvolari, and Italian motorcycle racer and racecar driver, wore a tortoise pin as his lucky charm. The pin itself might have been unique, but the idea of hiding a talisman under clothing is not. Sebastian Vettel, a German Formula One driver, is rumored to keep a lucky coin tucked somewhere nearby. Other racers, over the years, have admitted to doing the same thing, and it's fairly easy to imagine there are many more that have chosen to keep that information to themselves. It's an easy (and personal) way to bring a little bit of comfort to a driver during all those lonely laps.
Talking to the Vehicle
Some people talk to their cars, and others don't. Some people urge the cars to go faster, while others hope they can just sweet-talk their ride into making it home without breaking down. It's not all that uncommon. And if your vehicle was largely responsible for the success of your career, it might make even more sense. Motorcycle racer Valentino Rossi is known for kneeling next to his bike before mounting it. Rossi says he uses those last few moments before the race to talk to his motorcycle, which helps him mentally prepare for the challenge ahead. It's been said that other pro racers also share a few words with their cars, but perhaps they don't like to make this particular ritual public.
Some competitors like to spend quality time with the chariot, but aren't quite so somber. Dancing is always an option, too. At least, that's what one of the co-owners of Michael Andretti's car did, while wielding a cigar, of course [source: Snopes].
Entering the Vehicle from One Side
This superstition probably goes back to the idea that if you do something once, and it works, you should keep doing it to see if it brings good luck. It's a little odd, though; after all, most drivers enter the car from the designated side, the driver's side. Nico Hulkenberg and Mark Webber are two F1 drivers who believed it was good luck to always climb into the car from the left side. Juan Pablo Montoya is another driver who chooses to enter his cars from the same side every time -- he also buckles his belts exactly the same way, whether he's practicing or competing.
This superstition can also be seen in motorcycle and motocross racing, where racers get a choice of how they prefer to mount the bike. This is another of Valentino Rossi's many rituals, mounting the bike the exact same way every time -- after talking to it, of course.
The Number 13
The number 13 is considered unlucky practically everywhere, but the superstition has some interesting consequences in the racing world. NASCAR numbers the pits so that no crew gets stuck working in the number 13 spot, lest they bring bad luck to the driver or the car. Championship driver Joe Weatherly once qualified 13th for a race, but NASCAR allowed him to start in position 12a instead. And though F1 driver Michael Schumacher established a preference for odd numbers, 13 wasn't among them. However, when Formula One drivers were offered the chance to pick permanent numbers for the 2014 season, Pastor Maldonado, a Venezuelan racing driver, decided to take his chances with number 13.
The unlucky 13 was a big deal in two-wheeled motorsports, too; but according to Motocross Action Mag, a few prominent racers have managed to reverse the trend. A handful of riders, over the last decade or so, have chosen to wear the number 13. The American Motorcyclist Association, the organization that manages motocross racing, won't force riders to associate themselves with the number 13, so intentionally bearing those digits is a sign of confidence. It takes a lot of chutzpah to win such a race, and maybe that's also what it takes to change the flow of fortune.
The average person certainly doesn't earn as much as a pro racer, so the thought of avoiding a high-denomination bill might be a little strange. But this superstition began when Joe Weatherly, a two-time NASCAR champion, had two $50 bills in his shirt pocket during a 1964 race. Unfortunately, it was Weatherly's last race; his car crashed and he died in the wreckage. When the cash was found in his pocket, the legend of the unlucky $50 bill began. Even though a good deal of time has passed since Weatherly's fatal crash, this well-known, and slightly odd, racing superstition is still very much in force. Dale Earnhardt was perhaps the best-known driver to avoid $50 bills, but the superstition didn't end with his death in 2001, either. Other NASCAR drivers, such as Sterling Marlin, also won't touch a Grant. Of course, fifty bucks in cash is fine -- it just better be made up of a few different denominations.
Eating Specific Foods
Danica Patrick has said that she tries not to let superstitions develop, because she thinks that they're all in your head, and they're not real until you start to believe in them [source: Gaudiosi]. However, she's also said that certain foods help her get in the right frame of mind on race morning. She's known to be particularly fond of eating healthy foods, which help her stay sharp on the track.
Sterling Marlin won his first Daytona 500 in 1994, after chowing down on a bologna sandwich. So that became one of his personal rituals before each race. And Marcos Ambrose, a NASCAR driver who is an Australian native, is fond of his native country's distinctive Vegemite spread as part of his pre-race meal. With these three drivers as examples, it just goes to show that even a shared tradition can be deeply personal, and thus totally different, for each racer on the track.
Peanuts in Shells
It's true. Shelled peanuts are permissible at NASCAR events, but specimens still encased in their fibrous jackets are universally frowned upon in motorsports. In fact, a lot of concession stands at racing venues won't even sell them; but even if they are available, most drivers will not allow peanut shells in the pits. They're bad luck.
According to Snopes, the urban legend experts of the Internet, two separate incidents (both in 1937) are widely blamed for the peanut ban. In the first incident, at Langhorne Speedway (near Langhorne, Pa.), two vehicles strayed off the road, seconds apart, both injuring or killing spectators. At the Nashville fairgrounds later that year, four or five cars collided, resulting in the death of one driver. In both incidents, witnesses claimed that peanut shells were prominently visible in the wreckage, even though official reports mentioned nothing of the sort. Other documentation dates back before the 1937 crashes. It's actually somewhat logical: Before World War II, car races mostly took place at local fairgrounds, where peanuts were a popular treat. Even at state and county fairs today, peanut shells tend to get scattered everywhere. So inevitably, peanut shells would end up in or near the cars, and if a crash occurred, the shells were to blame. Obviously.
The Color Green
The green car superstition goes back to 1920, when Gaston Chevrolet, the brother of Chevrolet Motors co-founder Louis Chevrolet, was racing a green car when he was killed in an accident. After that, the color quickly slipped in the popularity rankings (even though British Racing Green has always remained a high-class shade ... for civilian cars, anyway). A lot of pro drivers strongly prefer not to get behind the wheel of a green car, but it's not always up to them.
This superstition brings a logical problem: sponsorships. The entire racing industry, no matter what kind of vehicle, depends on corporate sponsorships, and corporate sponsors want their cars to be in the company's colors. If the car isn't a rolling advertisement for the company, the company isn't getting its money's worth out on the track. And some companies simply chose green, without considering that the color might someday make a race car driver a little nervous. Some brands, such as Skoal and Mountain Dew, sponsored highly successful NASCAR vehicles in the 1980s, which has helped decrease the prevalence of this superstition somewhat. The FedEx Ground car is another, more recent example of a successful green sponsorship in NASCAR. After all, money is green, too. Just as long as we're not talking about $50 bills.
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Author's Note: 10 Superstitions from the World of Motor Racing
It's not all that surprising, I suppose, that some of the most common superstitions in motorsports aren't really that different from the superstitions that are commonly associated with other sports. I haven't heard about pro athletes who have a fear of peanut shells, but plenty of them do have well-known food, clothing and hygiene rituals. It's funny how a belief or tradition can exist just for one person, or it can spread and be adopted by the community at large. For a high-stakes, dangerous pastime such as racing, though, it can't hurt to have as much luck as possible on your side.
- Daily Kos. "Morning Open Thread: NASCAR Superstitions." Feb. 24, 2013. (April 4, 2014) http://www.dailykos.com/story/2013/02/24/1189382/-Morning-Open-Thread-NASCAR-Superstitions#
- Estes, Cary. "Peanut shells, $50 bills and other superstitions that anger Lady Luck." Sports Illustrated. July 8, 2011. (March 28, 2014) http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2011/writers/cary_estes/07/08/NASCAR.superstitions/
- Gaudiosi, John. "NASCAR Star Danica Patrick Races Against Sonic in New Sega Game." The Hollywood Reporter. Dec. 21, 2012. (March 28, 2014) http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/nascar-star-danica-patrick-races-406086
- Hallam, Mark. "Drivers show superstitious side as F1 introduces permanent personal numbers." Deutsche Welle. March 14, 2014. (March 29, 2014) http://www.dw.de/drivers-show-superstitious-side-as-f1-introduces-permanent-personal-numbers/a-17485884
- Motocross Action Mag. "Debunking the myth of triskaidekaphobia & motocross numbers." (March 29, 2014) http://motocrossactionmag.com/features/debunking-the-myth-of-triskaidekaphobia-motocross-numbers
- Newlin, John. "Zimbio Exclusive: Interview with Valentino Rossi." July 2, 2009. (April 4, 2014) http://www.zimbio.com/Valentino+Rossi/articles/VyUzAroFUYH/Zimbio+Exclusive+Interview+Valentino+Rossi
- Snopes.com. "NASCAR Peanuts Superstition." (April 4, 2014) http://www.snopes.com/autos/cursed/peanuts.asp
- Spencer, Lee. "Superstitions remain part of NASCAR." Fox Sports. March 8, 2012. (March 28, 2014) http://msn.foxsports.com/nascar/story/Do-NASCAR-Sprint-Cup-drivers-pay-attention-to-superstitions-030712
- Widdows, Rob. "Motor racing superstitions." Motor Sport Magazine. Jan. 13, 2012. (April 2, 2014) http://www.motorsportmagazine.com/race/racing-history/motor-racing-superstitions/