|PHOTO: Sue George and Roger Newman, |
Nicknamed “Soapy” because his first racing experience was in the soapbox derby, it wasn’t long before Castles began to climb his way up the NASCAR ladder. A race shop was on his paper route, and he would often stop by to help clean parts. In time, he was able to tune his own midget, then a Ford sports car. By 1951, the 17-year-old Castles had made a name for himself, and was given the opportunity to help spearhead Ford’s effort in the second annual Southern 500 at Darlington. Working with car owner R.H. Yandell, Castles helped prepare a 1951 Ford for Buddy Shuman. One of them, driven by Buddy Shuman, finished 3rd in the 500, trailing the Hornets of Herb Thomas and Jesse James Taylor.
Castles’ own NASCAR driving career began in 1957, where he competed in both Grand National and the short-lived Convertible Series. His first NASCAR start came in the convertibles on March 17, 1957 at the Greensboro (North Carolina) Fairgrounds. Still running Fords, Castles brought his own #55 1956 Ford to the track, qualified next-to-last in the 21-car field, and made his way to 14th before overheating issues ended his day. His debut in what is now the Cup Series came three months later on June 20, where he finished 18th of 21 drivers in another Ford belonging to owner-driver Bill Champion. In early 1958, he finished 26th of 30 at Concord, then had his best run at the time, a 15th at Columbia.
Next on the schedule came the Piedmont Interstate Fairgrounds (formerly known as the Hub City Speedway), a half-mile dirt track in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Castles had raced at the track once before the previous May, finishing 15th of 18 drivers in a convertible race won by Curtis Turner. He qualified 17th a 27-car field led by defending Southern 500 winner Speedy Thompson. Starting last was fellow Convertible Series driver Billy Rafter, who finished 3rd in NASCAR’s first trip to his home track in Hamburg, New York on September 18, 1949. Rafter ended up 10th at Piedmont while Castles’ oil line issue left him last. It was the first of three last-place runs for Castles that year, securing him the 1958 LASTCAR Cup Series title.
26th in the final running order was Cotton Owens, another prolific mechanic and driver from the modified ranks. After scoring his first of nine career wins on the treacherous Daytona Beach-Road Course in 1957, Owens started outside-pole in Jim Stephens’ #6 1957 Pontiac before the fan belt snapped. 25th went to Pennsylvania driver Carl Tyler, who had started alongside Castles in his fourth series start. A spark plug was to blame for the Lap 31 exit of Tyler’s #85 1957 Ford. Rounding out the Bottom Five were 24th-place Billy Carden, who would go on to win his only convertible race at Columbia on May 2, and Monroe, North Carolina’s Jimmy Thompson, who finished 10th in the first NASCAR race ever run on June 19, 1949.
Castles would go on to have one of the longest careers in Cup Series history, making 498 starts over 19 seasons. He earned his first of 178 Top Tens at the Hickory Speedway on April 15, 1960, finishing 9th in a 1958 Ford. The first of 51 Top Fives came three years later at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where he ran 4th in a race won by Ned Jarrett (and was the first Cup start for 24-year-old J.D. McDuffie, who came finished 12th in the field of 18). It was that same 1963 season when Castles drove for Hall of Fame driver Buck Baker, switching from Ford to run a year-old Chrysler alongside Baker’s Pontiac. When Castles returned to the Piedmont track in 1966 driving Baker’s car, Castles scored the first of four runner-up finishes, trailing Elmo Langley by four laps.
Castles returned to owner-driver duty in 1967, continuing his relationship with Mopar and switching his car number to the #06. It was with this number, and a clean white paint scheme with a few red flourishes (“It looks better,” said Castles of the paint scheme), that Castles enjoyed the best years of his career. His best points finish came in 1969, when he ranked 4th behind David Pearson, Richard Petty, and James Hylton. Despite running just 52 of the 54 races that year, he scored 14 Top Fives and 30 Top Tens. He led his first laps that year as well, pacing the field at Hickory for 29 laps before Bobby Isaac made the winning pass with 61 remaining. He’d also finished runner-up to Isaac at Beltsville earlier that year.
Like Jimmy Massey, whose runner-up finish to Richard Petty became the subject of a song, Castles’ near-misses also fell into legend. According to Peter Golenbock’s book American Zoom, Castles was lapping Curtis Turner. Knowing of Castles’ winless record, the flagman didn’t believe he was on the lead lap, and kept waving the “move over” flag to Castles as he drove by. “The starter kept doing this,” said Castles, “and I was getting real mad, so I just picked up my gun and when I come by the stand the next time I took aim and shot that. . .flag out of his hand.”
Castles finished 5th in the 1970 standings, his second year campaigning the winged Dodge Daytonas and Plymouth Superbirds, acquiring cars from Cotton Owens and Ray Fox in addition to cars he modified himself. Sponsorship came from the local Dodge dealers who provided him parts and sheet metal for his race car: “Every town we went to,” said Castles, “we went to the Dodge dealership, the Chrysler dealership, and all the used sheet metal they had took off, we looked at fenders and doors, whatever. Back then in sheet metal, anything that was used they could give to you. And in turn, we would put their name, the Dodge dealership name on the car. We had on the car--Dodge Dealer--and we'd just take whatever town we were in, we'd make up little decals for the last guy there and stick them on there and that was the guy that got the advertisement. We did that all over the country.”
Castles scaled back his Cup operation in 1971, and would run a partial schedule for the rest of his career. He would find success in the NASCAR Grand National East Series, the championship consisting of tracks removed from the Cup Series schedule. Castles won two races in the 1972 East campaign – one over Elmo Langley at Greenville-Pickens Speedway and another over H.B. Bailey at the Smokey Mountain Raceway in Tennessee – and edged Langley for the season championship. He then finished second in the standings to Tiny Lund in the East’s final season in 1973.
Though he would go winless through his final start at Dover on May 16, 1976, where he finished next-to-last ahead of Bruce Hill, Castles would also field cars for other drivers, including Harry Gant, Dave Marcis, and his rival Bobby Isaac. Castles retired with 16 last-place finishes in the Cup Series, which currently ties him for 9th in the all-time Cup Series rankings with Todd Bodine, Junior Johnson, Kyle Petty, and Darrell Waltrip.
Since his retirement, Castles has been active in film, and now boasts his own IMDb page. He has three screen appearances to his name including feature films “The Night of the Cat” and “Thunder in Carolina,” and has also provided cars, transportation work, and even stunts in other feature films.
For more on Castles, I’d highly recommend checking out this extensive 2006 interview with him by Sue George, from which many of the above details were taken.
*This marked the first-ever last-place finish for car #86 in a Cup Series race. As of this writing, the number has trailed just 17 Cup Series fields and none since July 15, 1969, when Bill Champion took his own turn in Castles’ #86 1969 Dodge at the Beltsville (Maryland) Speedway, retiring with ignition failure after 3 laps.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
27) #86-Neil Castles / 6 laps / oil line
26) #6-Cotton Owens / 14 laps / fan belt
25) #85-Carl Tyler / 31 laps / spark plug
24) #9-Billy Carden / 44 laps / axle
23) #55-Jimmy Thompson / 49 laps / oil pressure
*Golenbock, Peter. American Zoom: Stock Car Racing – From the Dirt Tracks to Daytona, Macmillan General Reference, 1994.
*Legends of NASCAR – Neil Castles
*Neil Castles Interview at Winged Warriors / NBOA 2006 Fall Meet In St. Louis