One of Talladega Superspeedway’s most endearing and popular figures has passed away.
John “Johnny” Ray, whose diesel big rig carrying an American flag around the 2.66-mile track has been a fixture during the playing of the National Anthem at NASCAR Cup races for the past two decades, has died at the age of 82, the track announced Monday.
Ray began the tradition behind the wheel of his gold, brown and chrome-colored Peterbilt semi-tractor in 2001, with an oversized American flag flowing in the breeze behind the tractor.
The procession quickly became a significant fan favorite, eliciting loud cheers and applause from fans in the stands each time it passed by on the track’s front stretch.
“We just had the 9/11 attacks and Dale (Earnhardt) had also passed away earlier that year,” Ray, who lived down the street from the track in Eastaboga, Alabama, said in an interview three years ago. “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.
“I never thought it would become the heart-felt moment that it has over the past some-odd years, but I’m glad it has become a tradition that means so much to the fans and the Talladega family. It represents such a sense of pride that we all share together as a nation and as a community. It is my honor and privilege to do it.”
Ray, who started his own trucking company in the early 1970s, and also had a brief NASCAR racing career of his own, ceded driving duties of the big rig several years ago to his late friend, Roger Haynes, and then last year to son Johnny Ray, to continue the tradition.
“National Anthems at Talladega Superspeedway are the most iconic, and it’s because of our great friend John Ray,” Speedway President Brian Crichton said in a media release. “What he brought to our fans can’t be duplicated.
“He was an incredible, passionate man who supported the track and all of motorsports with everything he had. His spirit will live here forever. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Ray family.”
Funeral arrangements for John Ray are pending, according to the track.
Our hearts are heavy as we mourn the loss of one of our most cherished friends. John Ray was a racer, trucking legend, and a treasure in our community and Talladega family.
Our love and prayers are with the entire Ray family.
— Talladega Superspeedway (@TalladegaSuperS) January 27, 2020
My hero; best friend; Dad.
Johnny Ray, as most people called him, was more than a successful business man, lover of racing, trucks and aviation. Most importantly to me, he was my Dad. The bond I experienced with him was simply amazing.
Rest easy, Dad! Til I see you again. pic.twitter.com/y9JtrZOVVy
— Kevin Ray (@kevinray77) January 26, 2020