The Dreaded Color Green

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One of the more powerful superstitions from the early days of racing seems to have lost some steam over the years. Driving a green racecar was once considered an absolute taboo in the racing world. Now it hardly raises an eyebrow among the younger crop of drivers.

When I attended my first Indianapolis 500 in 1965, it was considered almost blasphemous when Jim Clark pulled into Victory Lane. Not only was this the first rear-engine car to ever win the 500, along with the first foreign driver to win the race since Dario Resta won in 1916, but also – the car was green. Green had been considered to be extremely unlucky in racing almost since racing began.

It is not exactly known when or why the color green was deemed unlucky. Some say it goes as far back as 1911, shortly after the first Indy 500. At a race near Syracuse, NY, a green car driven by Lee Oldfield blew a tire, lost control and plowed through a fence killing eleven spectators. Oldfield received only minor injuries. A more popular belief involved 1920 Indianapolis 500 winner Gaston Chevrolet. Just six months after winning Indy while on a Beverly Hills board track, the youngest of the Chevrolet brothers crashed his green Frontenac into the Duesenberg of Eddie O’Donnell. Both drivers and O’ Donnell’s riding mechanic lost their lives in the crash.

Whatever the origins of the belief, it was very prominent in the early sixties when Clark first appeared in his green Lotus. Clark’s was not even the first green car of the sixties, however. That distinction belonged to Jack Brabham when he turned the Indy racing establishment on it’s head in 1961 when he qualified his rear-engine Cooper-Climax which happened to be painted – green.

When Clark died from injuries received in a crash at Hockenheim, I can recall hearing explanations as a ten year-old that his death was due to the fact that he had driven a green car at Indy. To a gullible kid in the sixties, it made perfect sense to me. I do know that, to this day, no other green car has ever won the Indianapolis 500.

This curious belief wasn’t just held by a few crazy drivers or chief mechanics. It was widespread even into the eighties and still has a few followers today. Four-time winner Rick Mears was terrified of the color green. So was his brother, Indy 500 driver Roger Mears – who is also the father of NASCAR driver Casey Mears. In Rick Mears’s book, it is told that one night Roger Mears had parked the trailer holding his racecar at a track. During the night, another driver with a green racecar pulled next to the Mears car. Roger Mears immediately moved his car – trailer and all – to the other side of the track to get away from the green car. Rick Mears even went so far as to paint any green wires in his car red, just to avoid any contact with the color green.

The former medical director for CART, Dr. Steve Olvey, wrote a tale in his book about a time when AJ Foyt invited him to be in his pit at Daytona. Being at the Daytona 500 just as a precaution, Olvey had a lot of time on his hands. On race morning, he loaded a cooler up with drinks and stuck it out of the way in Foyt’s pit. The only problem was, the cooler was green. Foyt spotted the cooler shortly before the race, grabbed something resembling a baseball bat and proceeded to smash the cooler scattering ice and drinks everywhere. He then went on a tirade asking who had put something green in his pit. Olvey never fessed up.

Pat Flaherty, the winner of the 1956 Indianapolis 500, had a tradition of wearing a giant shamrock painted on the front of his helmet, to proudly display his Irish heritage. Of course, Shamrocks are green. He created quite the stir among his fellow drivers – so much so, that they banded together and insisted that he paint it another color or remove it altogether. Of course, he didn’t and proudly drove his green shamrock into Victory Lane.

Old superstitions die hard – no matter how silly they are. It wasn’t until just a few years before Janet Guthrie made her first Indy 500 start in 1977, that women were allowed in the pits or even the garage area. In the 1950’s, it was a common belief that peanuts were bad luck in racing. If anyone ate peanuts in the pits, in the garage area or near a racecar – it would almost certainly doom the car.

The phobia for the color green has subsided, but hasn’t gone away completely. The belief started weakening in the eighties, to some extent. If you’ll notice, when Kevin Cogan was sponsored by 7-Eleven in 1986 – he wasn’t driving the familiar Tony Kanaan livery we see today. Although 7-Eleven had the same logo and color scheme then as they do today, Cogan’s car was painted blue instead of green.

Although a few green cars have dotted the grids from time to time, it wasn’t until the nineties that green cars such as the John Menard cars or the Kenny Bernstein Quaker State cars became really accepted. But look at what happened to the 1992 pole-sitter, Roberto Guerrero. He crashed his Quaker State Lola-Buick on the parade lap and never took the green flag.

The fear of the color green has not been limited to the Izod IndyCar Series. NASCAR driver Darrell Waltrip reportedly had misgivings about driving a green car sponsored by Gatorade and then Mountain Dew. Although Waltrip ended up being a Winston Cup champion, I’m sure he would tell you that NASCAR invented the fear of the green racecar.

Lately, there is one full-time green car in the Izod IndyCar Series – the 7-Eleven car of Tony Kanaan, although Danica Patrick will drive a green car in 2010. Kanaan’s car has had a noticeably star-crossed history at Indianapolis, although it has won a series championship. Nelson Phillip didn’t fare too well in his green racecar this past year. EJ Viso had some green trim on his predominantly black car. Apparently, it was enough to affect his driving.

So is there anything to this green racecar superstition? Logic would say there is not. But even the very best drivers need a little bit of luck on their side every now and then. If I were Tony Kanaan, I might want to change to the Oscar Meyer or Frank’s Energy Drink livery full-time for this coming season. It might be the difference-maker.

George Phillips

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24 Responses to “The Dreaded Color Green”

  1. Drayton sawyer Says:

    I think Steve Kinser has proven this myth wrong many times over.

  2. That would explain Kanaan’s last season.

    I choose to believe it. I’m removing everything green from my room in hopes that Versus comes back to Direct TV.

  3. Three words. British Racing Green.

    • that’s what I thought… my family is of British herritage, and Green is the color (colour?) of British racing

    • BRG: Last used on the Jaguar F1 effort :shock: :) :) :) :) :)

      • Sure, Jaguar didn’t do so good with British Racing Green. However, Lotus, Brabham, BRM, and Aston Martin have done very well with Green. British drivers have used green as far back as 1903, so that definately tells you this green phobia was a USA only issue. Great article though, because I honestly had never heard of a fear of green.

      • Steve: I’m a BRG “fan”… but besides Bentley & Aston @ LeMans… BRG has lived up to the curse :idea:

        Mario’s Martini Lotus 80 was doomed

        Zanardi, Mika, & Herbert’s 90′s era Lotus cars had BRG & were back markers… just sayin’ :idea: :idea:

        Having said that I do NOT believe this GREEN CURSE deal :!: :)

  4. Don’t forget “Ethanol Green”. Ethanol from corn grain is not simply the environmentally friendly biofuel it’s been made out to be.

    This is especially true of E85, a mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline promoted by corn growers in the U.S.
    E85 in many ways is the most irresponsible use of ethanol there is … since there is so little of it and the environmental costs of producing it are so high.
    “Ethanol Green” and related entities were soon deflated at the end of the decade…

  5. What came after Ethanol “Green”?
    Apex-Brasil
    At the moment, Apex-Brasil gives support to over 70 sectors of the Brazilian economy, ranging from agribusiness to machines, technology, architecture and civil construction, entertainment and services to fashion and industrial equipment. The Agency develops and builds the image of these productive sectors by means of solid marketing activities and publicity campaigns directed to entrepreneurs and consumers of highly potential purchasing power. Every year, Apex-Brasil provides assistance to Brazilian companies’ participation in more than 600 events – both in Brazil and abroad.

  6. When he came to CART, Stefan Johansson repainted the green spades on his helmet sides after he’d been told by his colleagues that green was unlucky. Paul Tracy drove a green-and-silver Team Kool Green CART car. Adrián Fernández has raced red,white and green cars to victories in CART and IRL…

    • Brian: Those were “Little Leaves” as Johansson’s child hood nic-name was Little Leaf. Remember he did drive for Tony Bettenhausen Jr & he subscribed to the “old school” deals George wrote about :idea:

  7. JamesO has it right. Brabham’s Cooper-Climax didn’t “happen” to be green any more than Clark’s Lotus “happened” to be green. Green was the traditional color of British racers in international series. The Germans raced in silver, the French in blue, and, of course, the Italians in red. This has faded in the past forty years or so as sponsorship became the financial base of racing. So the phobia about green is pretty much limited to this side of the Atlantic.

    I think Bobby LaBonte’s green Interstate Batteries car is the only green car to win a championship in a major US series, BTW.

  8. Nothing’s happened to Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti, Paul Tracy, or Steve Kinser. Silly myth…

    • Devil’s advocate Sean: Dario & PT didn’t race @ Indy under Team KOOL Green colors :idea:

      Tony Kanaan has had some pretty crappy Indy luck in his green machine… Porsche’s Indy effort in the late 80′s was GREEN… Team owner Al Hobert died in a plane crash…

      I agree though… silly myth. Dale Jr’s AMP car is green & Junior won Daytona “Dual” race & @ MIS in 2008… but does GREEN explain his dismal 2009 :?: :?: Casey Mears drove a GREEN car in NASCAR (it was a shampoo sponsor…) So even a Mears will drive a green car, eh :)

  9. George: Kevin Cogan’s Patrick Racing 7-Eleven (& then Emerson Fittipaldi’s ;idea:) MARCH was Blue/ White / Red due to an exclusive sponsorship arrangement with Ford Motor Company :idea: :idea:

    7-Eleven (then still American owned) had agreed to support Ford’s IMSA GTP effort (called the Probe :?:) & Michigan native Pat Patrick had a good relationship with the Dearborn MI based auto maker, so the 24 hour convenience store chain supported Patrick’s CART efforts too.

    Ford insisted on Ford Blue being used on these “corporate” race cars & 7-Eleven agreed to drop their corporate Green. Both companies used/ wanted white & red. Ford likes to have their race cars subtly “wave the USA colors”… branding Ford an American favorite :?:

  10. I, like Brian, was hoping we had seen the end of MARS and the diatribes, but that is up to George. Please, PLEASE ban this person, permanently.

    Now, on to the blog subject, I don’t buy the “green is an unlucky color” philosophy. As has been shown by other posters, drivers have won championships in cars that were green, so there is no truth to the myth in my eyes. I can understand that some believe that the color green is unlucky, but factually, that has been disproved many times over.

  11. I’m fairly sure this is an American phenomenon, you don’t hear of it in racing outside of America although as you say, you don’t really hear of it in American racing all that often any more either.
    British Racing Green has meant that generations of British fans, including myself although perhaps not so many of my generation as past ones, consider a certain shade of green to be very lucky, or if not lucky then patriotic in some way (despite green bearing no relation to any British national symbol that I can think of).
    Then again, given the general unreliability of British cars in the era when running BRG was popular, no matter how fast they were, perhaps the theory holds water..

  12. I also grew up learning from an early age that Green was bad luck in racing. I could never quite square that up with the British Racing Green tradition though, so I assume the green phobia is only an American thing. Silly though it may be, I love the tradition of it.

    BTW – Not only does Viso have green in his livery, he also sports the number 13. I wonder if he has a black cat in the pits too?

  13. Edward, do yo work for AA? Or are you the apart of the enterage?

  14. bickelmom Says:

    While I don’t believe in “bad luck”, I think stories like this make racing more fun. It is another kind of human interest-type story that is great to tell. I love the AJ story, for example. Sometimes it is the stupid little stuff that captures people’s attention.

    I was a theater major in school and found it endless amusing that we couldn’t say “MacBeth” in the theater for fear of bad luck during a show. Legends and tall tales make things interesting.

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