Drivers’ Aliases Have Storied Racing History
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published Oct. 27, 2010.
In French they are called “noms de course” — racing names, and they have been used since the infant days of the sport in the 1890s.
One of the prominent competitors in the pioneer city-to-city races appears in the results as de la Touloubre, but he was actually Captain Genty of the French Army. Presumably, his commanding officer didn’t know he was taking leave to race from Paris to Vienna.
In the USA, we are more likely to call them professional names assumed names, or aliases, depending on how polite we wish to be. Whatever term we use, the practice of creating a new identity for the track has a long and colorful history.
In the era up through 1955, when the mighty AAA Contest Board ruled its domain, including the Indianapolis 500, with an iron fist. The desire to race outside the AAA without detection and the inevitable suspension was the biggest inspiration for noms de course.
If caught straying from the AAA ranch, a driver was branded an outlaw, an epithet that was adopted by racers as a badge of honor long before World of Outlaws founder Ted Johnson realized its promotional possibilities. While the prospect of being suspended at the time of the Indy 500 was enough to keep the big names in line, marginal AAA drivers took the chance.
After AAA gave way to USAC, the restrictive policy stayed in effect and Indy hopeful Ronnie Lux became Bobby Hodgson to debut one of the most famous supermodifieds in Oswego (N.Y.) Speedway history, the Little Deuce owned by Howard Purdy. If Lux had just run in the pack his deception might have worked, but five-straight wins to open the 1965 season blew his cover.
Other USAC license holders including Bentley Warren tried the same tactic. Some were successful in hiding their true identity, others were not.
Next on the list of reasons to adopt a nom de course was probably the need to keep a budding racing career away from the notice of disapproving family members. New England racer, author and publisher Lew Boyd recalled that Lee Allard, later to become a highly successful modified car owner, went to the extent of creating two identities — at Pines Speedway in Groveland, Mass., on Saturday night he was Stormy Knight, while on Sunday afternoon at Hudson, N.H., he became Windy Day. Perhaps he was a little too cute with his choice of names, as he was discovered and booted out of his parents’ home.
Also a common issue of generations past was the 18-year-old age limit practiced by many racing organizations. While a phony driver’s license usually solved that problem, some underage racers got more creative. Most famous are the Rathmann brothers, who switched names and identities to enable younger brother Richard to pass for legal age. Thus 1960 Indy 500 winner Jim Rathmann is actually Richard, while NASCAR pioneer Dick Rathmann, who later drove Indy cars as well, was actually James.
Many drivers adopted racing names to simplify a long, difficult-to-pronounce ethnic surname. Ron Keselowski, brother of Bob and uncle of Brad, sometimes shows up in 1970s race reports as Ron Kaye, and current ACT late-model star Joey Polewarczyk, Jr., also answers to Joey Pole.
Some have gone further to shed an ethnic stereotype. Perhaps the most ambitious was Francisco Eduardo Menendez, who was of Cuban ancestry, but born and raised in Atlanta. Francisco Menendez became Frank “Rebel” Mundy, and won three NASCAR Grand National races. His first victory, at Columbia, S.C., on June 16, 1951, was a triple record setter. Mundy become NASCAR’s first Hispanic winner, and he gave Studebaker its first NASCAR win in the first Grand National race run under the lights.
Mundy quit NASCAR for the AAA stock-car circuit in 1952, winning its championship in 1955, but returned to NASCAR as a member of the legendary Kiekhaefer Chrysler team in 1956.