There are few things in life as beautiful as a truly great NASCAR paint scheme.
Petty Red and Blue, The Man In Black, even David Pearson's chrome 21 … all are iconic images of the racing world and all were born of artistic decisions made by someone somewhere hoping to sell some product.
When a paint scheme goes right, it is oh so right. But when it goes wrong, it becomes a 190-mph kaleidoscopic nightmare. The escalation in paint jobs started spinning out of control in the 1990s when actual paint gave way to plastic decals and laser-printed shrink wrap. As sponsors poured in more cash they sought more return on their investment with more and more florid paint schemes (they also didn't mind the revenue from diecast sales). Take my man Carl Edwards, who has run five different Cup schemes this year, ranging from the classically cool (dark red Office Depot with black racing stripes) to the downright garish (green and blue with a giant duck head on the hood).
This year the 43 cars of the Sprint Cup Series will combine to field more than 200 variegated paint jobs -- some great (Jeff Gordon's flames still rock) and some nightmare-inducing (Ken Schrader, do us a favor and park that green, orange and purple Health Life Dodge forever).
In honor of Halloween, here's a look at the top five scariest -- as in butt-ugly (one literally) -- paint schemes in recent memory.
5. No 90 Boudreaux's Butt Paste Ford -- Junie Donlavey Racing, 2004
In 2004 one of the great gentlemen in NASCAR history, car owner Junie Donlavey, was struggling to make ends meet and to lure media attention away from the Hendrick-Roush-Gibbs super teams. Then he asked for -- and received -- approval for a sponsor that would take care of both problems at once. Turns out, it could also help rid you of any embarrassing rashes you might have been living with.
Journeyman driver Kevin Ray fulfilled a lifelong dream of getting behind the wheel of a Cup Series car in the summer of '04 … but chances are that dream hadn't included a ride with "BUTT PASTE" slapped on the rear quarter panels in giant red lettering and a cartoon baby riding on the hood.
Sadly, the effort never really got off the ground and Donlavey auctioned off his remaining equipment the following winter. But Boudreaux's baby is still finding its way onto lower-division cars and occasionally pops up on a third-world Cup ride at Daytona. As for Ray: "It worked out great. We had two kids at home and got all the butt paste we needed."
4. No. 89 Racing With Jesus Dodge -- Morgan Shepherd, 2003 to present
Let me preface this entry by saying this: I think Jesus is great. But no matter what your religious background, the idea of Jesus riding on the hood of a race car at 190 mph just feels wrong, doesn't it? What's more, his name is always presented in giant Day-Glo orange lettering, trimmed with a purple cross, on a car body bathed in yellow, bright green or blue.
It could be worse. The ministry considered putting his face on the hood, but opted for the simpler logo. Heads on the hood are always uncomfortable. From Little Debbie to Arnold Palmer, it always makes you worry about them being smacked in the mouth by someone's rear bumper during the "big one."
"This is making me nervous," country singer David Lee Murphy told me at Daytona one year as his giant mug rode on the hood of Jeff Purvis' Chevy. "I'm afraid it's going to be like a voodoo doll and I'm going to feel it if my picture catches a tire in the nose or something."
3. No. 9 Powerpuff Girls Ford -- Jerry Nadeau, 1998
It was pink with superhero cheerleaders on the hood. Do I need to say anything else?
Sadly, it might not have been the ugliest car that Nadeau drove that year. He started the season in a ride co-owned by Bill Elliott and Dan Marino, sponsored by FirstPlus Financial, painted in Miami Dolphins turquoise and orange and sporting the quarterback's No. 13. Like Marino, Nadeau got no help from the number when it came time for the big game. It also didn't help the team collect sponsorship funds from FirstPlus, which ended up being sued by Marino and Elliott.
2. No. 3 Peter Max Special -- Dale Earnhardt, 2000
Nowhere do paint schemes affright the night quite like they do in NASCAR's All-Star race. Amazingly, the ultimate hue-powered horror was driven by NASCAR's ultimate hubris-powered superstar.
Peter Max is (his words) a "multidimensional creative artist" and "a master of cosmic imagery." Max's trademark style is to create images using thick swaths of paintbrush-stroked colors. Apparently, he is also really, really into pink.
In March, two months before he was to drive the Peter Max Chevy in The Winston, Dale Earnhardt unveiled the car on the Las Vegas Strip in front of several hundred fans. When he jerked the cover off the car to reveal a yellow car with pink and aqua blue accents, they gasped.
It was not a good gasp.
1. No. 28 Gray Ghost -- Buddy Baker, 1980
The scariest cloak ever worn by a NASCAR race car had nothing in common with the sickening explosions of color listed above. It was spine-chilling due to its simplicity.
When Buddy Baker unloaded his No. 28 NAPA/Regal Ride Oldsmobile for the 1980 Daytona 500, it was bad fast from the first test lap. What's more, its flat silver, gray and black paint job was so close in color to the Daytona asphalt that it spooked his competitors when his car seemed to appear out of nowhere in their rearview mirrors.
"Have you ever seen one of those underwater documentaries where these crazy crabs can hide in the sand?" Benny Parsons once asked me. "That's what Buddy Baker's car was like. All the sudden he pops up and he's got you."
Baker's rivals went to NASCAR and asked it to make him do something about his stealthy paint scheme, so the league made him trim the car in red so drivers could see him coming. It didn't matter. He led 143 of 200 laps to win the fastest 500 of all time.
"All I needed was a radio that would let me talk to everybody as I passed them," Baker said during a 2006 interview. "When I popped up in their mirror I could have gone BOO!"
Now that's scary.
Dishonorable mentions: 1998 Get Back With Big Mac Ford (tie-dyed car and team uniforms, not good), 2003 YJ Stinger Dodge (looked as if it had been driven through a Pepto-Bismol factory), 2004 Redneckjunk.com Dodge (NASCAR made them shorten it to RDJ.com), 2007-08 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota (yes, I know they were designed by kids in a contest, but that doesn't mean they weren't hard to look at).