Patriotism is defined as an emotional attachment to a nation that an individual recognizes as his homeland. Few sights in motorsports are more patriotic than that of Johnny Ray and his iconic diesel big rig, adorned with a giant American flag, making his way down the Talladega Superspeedway front stretch during the national anthem prior to the start of NASCAR races.
The iconic drive-by has become a tradition that has left many spectators emotional and full of American pride – perhaps none more so than the man behind the wheel.
This upcoming race weekend, during prerace ceremonies for both the Sparks Energy 300 NASCAR XFINITY Series race on Saturday and the GEICO 500 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event on Sunday, Ray will again delight fans with the act of patriotism that has been unique to Talladega since 2001.
That year, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. in the Daytona 500, Ray, along with Talladega Superspeedway Chairman Grant Lynch, searched for something to boost the morale of a country and a fan base that had gone through tough times. They found the answer in Ray’s passion for 18-wheelers and their mutual love of the country.
“The 9/11 attacks had just happened, and Dale had passed away earlier that year,” said Ray, who lives in Eastaboga, just down the street from the track. “I had a crazy idea to run my rig out on the track with an American flag attached to the back. It started off as a tribute to the country and to Dale.”
“Johnny’s flag idea really turned out to be something very unique to Talladega. It has become one of the most iconic national anthem traditions in sports,” Lynch said. “I’ve seen others try things similar, but here at Talladega we have the biggest flag on the biggest track. It can be copied, but can never truly be duplicated.”
Ray, who has owned the John Ray Trucking Company since the early 1970s, set the world speed record for a semitruck and trailer around the 2.66-mile track at 92.083 mph in 1975 in a Kenworth diesel. Ray has not always been just a trucker – he was a racer. He competed in the Cup Series from 1974 until 1976, starting eight races, including four at Talladega, where he earned a career-best 22nd place finish in 1974.
“I was just starting to get my career going when I had a bad wreck at Daytona,” he said. “I was in the hospital for a while and had a long road to recovery. Safe to say that my driving career was over, but that couldn’t stop my love for racing.”
Ray continued as a car owner in the Cup Series on a limited basis. In fact, he gave the 10-time Talladega winner one of his first opportunities.
“I got a call from an old friend that I raced on dirt with, Dale Earnhardt,” Ray said. “He needed a ride for the upcoming Atlanta race. Needless to say, he rolled the car in turn three and completely totaled it. I was still in a neck brace (from his Daytona wreck) when I got to the care center and I asked him, ‘Are you all right?’ He looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, sorry about your car.’ I was just glad he was OK.”
Ray’s story at the Superspeedway continued through volunteering. For nearly 40 years, he has been a member of the White Flag Club, a dedicated service group of businessmen from surrounding communities that assists at the track during race weekends.
Ray has had some amazing opportunities, and because of that he loves to give back, whether it’s driving the iconic big rig around the track or helping wherever needed. He will always, like his pace lap, be unique to Talladega Superspeedway.
This story originally appeared on the Talladega Superspeedway site.