John Ray is the best kept secret in trucking. But, if you are a fan of NASCAR, there is a good chance that you have probably seen his truck. Since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, John and his Peterbilt have proudly carried “Old Glory” around Talladega Superspeedway before each and every Sprint Cup race while the National Anthem is sung. It is arguably the most stirring moment of the entire race – and we’re talking about Talladega, here – the steepest, fastest and longest track on the Cup circuit! But carrying the flag is not all that he is famous for. John Ray has also been trucking for over 50 years, was once a NASCAR racer himself, and he even put a young Dale Earnhardt in one of his racecars, way back before anyone knew who he was.
Born and raised in Eastaboga, Alabama, John (79) has lived in this small town for nearly his entire life. Where he lives now is only a mile or so from where he was born in 1937, and the only time he lived elsewhere was during a four-year stint in the Air Force and a few years in California. When John was a kid, his father farmed on a piece of land that was located where Talladega Superspeedway sits today. John can remember watching his father fight the plow under the hot Alabama sun as he struggled to grow cotton in the rough red clay. His father died two years ago at the ripe old age of 98, and his mother passed away two years earlier. The two were married “forever” and had five kids, including John.
After graduating from high school in 1955, John joined the Air Force and spent the next four years traveling around the country and studying diesel mechanics. When he got out, he was in California, so he stayed there for about three years and, among other things, began flat-track motorcycle racing on dirt ovals, until an injury sidelined that career. One of the tracks he used to race at was the famous Ascot Park in Los Angeles. As a kid, growing up nearby, I could hear the noise from that track at my house. I also spent many Friday nights at that place watching demolition derbies and figure 8 races!
Returning to Alabama in the mid 1960s, John began his trucking career when he bought a White truck, leased-on to a company called Colonial, and started pulling a reefer. He drove for several outfits over the next few years until starting his own company, John Ray Trucking, in 1972. He also got married that year to the love of his life, Kay, and the two are still happily married today. Over the next 15 years, they built their operation up to about 45 trucks, and then sold out in 1988. Unfortunately, the new owner went belly-up shortly thereafter, so John bought a bunch of his old equipment back from bank and started over as John Ray Enterprises in 1991.
In its heyday, during the 1990s, John Ray Enterprises (JRE) grew to 50 trucks, but today they have eighteen. Unfortunately, many of those trucks are currently parked because they can’t find good drivers to put in them. Hauling mostly flatbed freight, the typical JRE rig looks nothing like John’s gold, silver and dark brown “Talladega Truck” Peterbilt – most of them are Kenworths, and most of them are painted black with red, white and blue stripes. Today, John’s son Johnny (43) runs most of the company, as John is now semi-retired. But, he is still the first one at the office every day, and he still answers the phones and helps out. Kay keeps busy, too, as they have worked side-by-side for decades.
As much as John enjoys trucking, he likes racing even more. After racing on his Triumph motorcycle in California, he moved on to dirt cars when back in Alabama. Moving through the ranks, he eventually found himself competing at the highest level – in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. In 1974, he ran in both of the races held at Talladega in his #84 Dodge, finishing 41st in one and 22nd in the other. In 1975, he ran in four races in his #77 Dodge – Talladega twice (where he finished in 48th and 40th), Michigan (24th), and Daytona (30th). But it was the 1976 season that John would remember the most.
Racing at the season-opener in Riverside, California in 1976, John ended up with a 31st place finish. A few weeks later, at race two in Daytona, John was involved in a terrible crash that almost took his life. “They say Ramo Scott blew an engine and I got into his oil,” John said. “People said I spun and I was just sitting there on the apron. Skip Manning got in there sideways and just drove right into my door. It was one of those T-bone deals. I’ve seen films of the wreck and the race, but I don’t remember any of it.”
The horrific crash John was involved in broke 52 bones in his body, including several in his neck, and caused him to have a punctured lung and severe head trauma. As he laid in a coma for over 30 days in the hospital, the doctors did not think he would make it and, if he did, he would be paralyzed, for sure. But none of that happened – he recovered. Although these injuries ended his racecar driving career, they didn’t end his involvement in car racing.
Starting his own team later that year, he put driver Johnny Rutherford in his #77 Chevy and raced at Daytona in July and Charlotte in October. A few weeks later, he put an unknown driver, that had only competed in three big NASCAR races, in his car for the Dixie 500 in Atlanta – that driver was Dale Earnhardt. And although he barrel-rolled John’s car in Turn 3 at that race and completely demolished it, Dale Earnhardt would go on to become the biggest name in the history of NASCAR.
Dale and John became great friends, and anytime Dale was in town for a race, he stayed at John’s place. Dale Jr. (AKA Junior), who is a NASCAR star today, used to spend months at a time at John and Kay’s place in the summer when he was just a kid. John told me a funny story about what happened in 1976 when he told a NASCAR executive that he was going to put Dale Earnhardt in his car. The guy said, “Who in the hell is Dale Earnhardt?” Two years later, when he ran his first complete season, Dale earned the NASCAR “Rookie of the Year” award in 1979 and, the very next year, became the Winston Cup Champion of 1980. Finding that same NASCAR executive, John said to him, “Who in the hell is Dale Earnhardt!” Dale went on to win seven championships before being killed in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001.
Part of Talladega Superspeedway’s “White Flag Club” since the late 1970s, John is the second oldest member (one other guy joined the club a few days before John) of this volunteer service organization that helps out with all sorts of activities at the track – especially when there is a race going on. After the terror attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, there was a resurgence of patriotism in this country. In preparation for the first Talladega race since those tragic events – the Aaron’s 499 held on April 21, 2002 – someone suggested that they put a big American flag on one of John’s trucks and run it around the track before the race. “I didn’t think at the time it would become that big of a deal,” said John – but it did!
Although John’s original “Talladega dreams” included a race car and thousands of cheering fans, this lap around the track in his Peterbilt was pretty special, too. The crowd loved it – there was just something about that big Peterbilt truck, roaring down the front stretch, with a huge American flag waving in the wind behind it – and it quickly became a track tradition before every Sprint Cup race. John told us that he gets his rig up to about 100 mph on the parade lap, and takes it all the way up into the center lane around Turn 1. And having spent an entire day at the track doing the photo shoot with John, I can tell you from personal experience, those corners are super steep – you can hardly walk up them!
Performing this “special service” for the track requires a special rig – and John’s 1999 Peterbilt 379 is certainly that. With a 120-inch Double Eagle sleeper, a 280-inch wheelbase, and a flashy Champagne-colored paint job with Dark Metallic Brown and Metallic Silver stripes, John’s rig turns heads, on the track and on the road. Powered by a 3406 Cat with 550 hp, the truck also has matching Talladega Fiberglass fenders, single-round headlights on Double JJ brackets, 8-inch Dynaflex pipes and a louvered grille. Covered in stainless accessories from top to bottom from Rig Skirts, the truck, when hooked to its matching trailer, has over 500 lights.
The interior of John’s truck is amazing, too. Featuring more custom stainless from Rig Skirts, including the floor of the cab, a steering column cover and all of the dash goodies you can buy, there is a lot to look at from the driver’s seat. But, the best view is the one looking back into the big, beautifully-appointed Double Eagle sleeper. With a hardwood floor and all of the comforts of home including a sink, refrigerator, convection oven, air conditioning, a table and fold-down bed, and a tracking-satellite television (you can watch it while on the move), you might never want to leave. But, if you do need to make a quick getaway, the sleeper is also equipped with a quilted-stainless-covered back door.
With about a million miles on the odometer, this truck has done its fair share of work, but these days, most of its “work” comes in the form of parade laps at Talladega Superspeedway. Back at the shop, Pope (who has worked with John for 47 years) and Edward keep everything running (and looking) in tip-top shape. Up a few stairs into the office areas, you find what looks more like a NASCAR museum than a trucking outfit headquarters. The walls, shelves, tables, cabinets, desks, floor – and anywhere else you look – are covered with NASCAR memorabilia and collectibles. Much of John’s collection is dedicated to his old friend, Dale Earnhardt.
Outside, in their beautiful, grass-covered, 75-acre yard, is the actual “76 ball” that used to stand on a tall column at the track, before Sunoco began providing the fuel for the race cars and it was removed. John cut windows into the sides and built a permanent ladder up to it, creating a fun space for the kids to play in (John and Kay have two now-grown boys – John Jr. and Kevin). Also on their property, in addition to a pond with a gazebo, they also have a log cabin that was built in the 1860s. Recently purchased from a neighbor and then moved to their property, the neat old relic has been updated on the inside and is now a wonderful guest house for visitors.
Being a longtime NASCAR fan, I was excited to spend some time at my absolute favorite track – Talladega! Who knew we would also get to drive around it, up in Lane 3 by the wall, at about 110 mph with the track’s Director of Public Relations. Seeing the track on TV does it no justice – the turns look high and steep, but when you are actually standing there, at the bottom of Turn 4, looking up at the banked corner, it is hard to describe how steep and tall it is – I would guess it’s about three stories tall at the outside wall, and the angle is far steeper than I would have ever imagined.
Talladega Superspeedway is special – which is what it was built to be. During the 1960s, Bill France Sr., who founded NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) in 1948 and built Daytona International Speedway in 1959, set his sights at constructing a track that was bigger, faster and longer than any other. He broke ground at an old airfield near Talladega on May 23, 1968. The track would be named Alabama International Motor Speedway until 1989, when the facility’s name was changed to Talladega Superspeedway.
The track opened on September 13, 1969 at a cost of only $4 million. The first race on the 2.66-mile tri-oval configuration was unlike any other – many of the original drivers boycotted the race and abandoned the track on the day before the race was to be held because of tire concerns, which forced Mr. France to hire some substitute drivers to fill the field. The winner of that first race was Richard Brickhouse. Soon thereafter, the tire companies were able to produce suitable tires for the extreme conditions Talladega created, and the track went on to host two Cup Series races a year ever since, along with countless other events. Since its opening, the track has been repaved four times.
Given the extreme competitiveness of this facility, Talladega is famous for having many first-time winners. One of the reasons is because of the location of the start/finish line, which is usually in the middle of the front stretch. Wanting to create exciting finishes, Mr. France moved the start/finish line further down the front stretch, near the beginning of Turn 1. This extra little bit of straightaway at the end of the course has caused many drivers to win (or lose) in the last few feet of a race. Some of the popular first-time winners at Talladega include Brian Vickers, Brad Keselowski, Davey Allison and Ken Schrader.
Another thing that makes Talladega a more competitive track is NASCAR-mandated restrictor plates. Talladega has always been fast – at the first race back in 1969, drivers were running just below 200 mph. As cars improved, so did the speeds. Bill Elliot set an all-time qualifying speed record on a closed course in 1987 at Talladega, surpassing 212 mph to win the pole. For safety reasons, in 1988, NASCAR imposed a new rule requiring cars running at Talladega and Daytona to use restrictor plates, which limit the amount of fuel and air entering the engine, greatly reducing the power and speed. Now, for the most part, the cars on the track are equal, which puts the skills of the driver ahead of everything else.
We would like to personally thank Russell Branham, Director of Public Relations, and Grant Lynch, Chairman of Talladega Superspeedway, for helping us put this photo shoot together, and for allowing us to fulfill some childhood dreams. For about five hours, it was just my partner Erik (Big E) and myself, along with John and his truck, out on the track taking pictures – they closed the gates of the huge facility (for our protection) and just left us out there – it was pretty amazing. The pictures here (and the cover and centerfold) are proof that we got the job done! The next Sprint Cup race at Talladega will be the Geico 500 on May 1, 2016. For more details or to buy tickets, visit www.talladegasuperspeedway.com.
Whether you are a racing fan or not, you can certainly appreciate John Ray’s long trucking career, his awesome Peterbilt, and his patriotic parade lap. I suppose his identity is no longer a mysterious secret, but we sincerely believe that his story needed to be told. And like the track slogan says, “This is more than a race… this is Talladega” this is also more than just a truck driver – this is the legendary John Ray!
EDITOR’S NOTE: We would like to thank Russell Branham and Talladega Superspeedway for allowing us to share some neat old black and white pictures of the track being built, as well some pics of John’s truck making actual parade laps in front of the crowd before a race.