The Numbers Game

Watching last weekend’s broadcast of the U.S. Grand Prix (Formula One race) from Austin TX; I had a difficult time figuring out who was driving which car. Not because each team fields two virtually identical entries, but because the car numbers have become less prominent than they were in year’s past. I picked out the numbers on the winning Mercedes mostly because its flanks aren’t cluttered with corporate logos (unlike the Ferraris) but the third place Red Bull? Forget it!
In the modern age of transponders and computerized scoring, the legibility of car numbers isn’t as critical as it once was. I certainly hope they aren’t considering eliminating them altogether. Growing up, a numeral emblazoned on the side of most any vehicle is what made it immediately identifiable as “a racer”.
NASCAR Cup racing is a series in which the car numbers still play an important role. I think because the Fords, Chevrolets and Toyotas are all the same shape and color schemes change frequently, car numbers are critical for identification purposes. You can easily follow a particular team’s progress throughout the race if you can pick out the number. Take for example the Petty Enterprises forty three. If you’re a Petty fan, that number carries a ton of history for you. You’re rooting for Bubba Wallace today but you’re also honoring the owner, Richard Petty’s legacy. It’s hard to imagine a Cup race without a forty three in the field. Richard chose that number because his father Lee was still in competition when Richard started and he ran forty two. When Richard’s son Kyle turned pro, he logically ran forty four. No one can tell me these numbers aren’t meaningful to thousands of Petty fans.
Consider the Childress three… I doubt that any car number in American racing history conjures up deeper emotions. Even though Dale Earnhardt is gone, I think it gives fans comfort to see a number three out there circulating.
Sometimes car numbers have emotional attachments from the get go. Accomplished northwestern driver Monte Shelton chose fifty seven because that was the year his son Neil was born.
Sometimes numbers are earned. I can’t think of any driver more deserving of number one than San Franciscan Nick Rescino. During his career the short track legend won six season championships, some on pavement and some on dirt. Interestingly, he reportedly sold his right to that number one season to a fellow competitor. Joey Santos exchanged his three for Rescino’s one. The cost was $100.00 and a new tire!
And sometimes the choice of car number is sort of an evolution. “We don’t really have a car number,” said the late Merle Brennan looking to his wife to help with an explanation. Like Shelton, Brennan was a successful club racer that held his own when he ventured into a national event. He ran seventeen on his Genie Chevrolet when he raced in the Can Am in the late sixties. Built his own sports racer from a wrecked formula car and numbered it fourteen. When the Can Am was revived in 1977, he procured a McLaren M8F and raced it as nineteen. For whatever reason, Brennan clearly preferred a number in the teens.
My choice of number was an evolution as well. I numbered the first car I raced thirteen because though I wasn’t superstitious, I knew I was in for the biggest challenge of my life. Along came a professional mechanic offering help but only if I would change my number. “With all the things that can go wrong,” he explained, “you don’t need that working against you!” I wasn’t attached to the number and needed his help so I switched to four. The number four had no significance to me- it was simply the lowest number that was available. A few years later I wanted to update with a newer, lighter car and sold the four. The new owner assumed the number was part of the deal and balked when I suggested he change it. Not wanting the transaction to fall apart in the eleventh hour, I conceded and selected six instead. Again, the number had no significance to me other than I liked the single digit and it was available. My new number six was an awesome car and with it I won my first feature. I raced that car pretty successfully for a few seasons, sold it and eventually bought it back. It was always number six for me and after I sold it the second time, it won in the next owner’s hands. It was a great car!
As I mentioned, I’m not superstitious but I do believe in luck. My fortunes changed with the purchase of my original six car so every car I raced going forward was also numbered six.

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