The Dreaded Color Green
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.