Neil Castles, a NASCAR Cup Series driver from 1957 to 1976 who also worked in the film industry as a stuntman and transportation coordinator, died Thursday at the age of 88. News of Castles’ death was shared by longtime NASCAR journalist Deb Williams.
A native of Charlotte, N.C., Castles earned the nickname “Soapy” after getting his very first experience in racing through a soapbox derby, and he started his career at age 17 by helping prepare a car that would be driven by Buddy Shuman in the 1951 Southern 500. Castles would make his debut as a Cup driver in June 1957, completing 51 laps at Columbia Speedway before dropping out with engine failure.
Castles would go on to have a long career in Cup, making a total of 498 starts from 1957 to 1976. Castles never won a single race — his best-career finish was second on four occasions — but he was credited with 51 top fives, 178 top 10s and finished in the top five in points in 1969 and 1970. Castles’ greatest success in NASCAR came in 1972, when he won the championship in the short-lived Grand National East Series — a second-tier division designed to accommodate tracks that had been dropped from the Cup Series schedule due to contraction brought on by the entry of Winston as series title sponsor.
In addition to his racing escapades, Castles also made a name for himself as a stunt driver, mostly for movies about racing produced in the 1960s and 70s. Castles’ film credits included Speedway starring Elvis Presley (1968), Greased Lightning starring Richard Pryor (1977) and Six Pack starring Kenny Rogers (1982). Castles also had several acting credits in movies like The Night of the Cat (1973) and Challenge (1974), and he also had multiple transportation department credits as either a picture car coordinator or driver — most recently in Homeland (2011) and The Hunger Games (2012).
Castles was also the subject of a short story in the book American Zoom by Peter Golenbock, which encapsulated Castles’ legacy as an also-ran and character of his time. According to Castles, he had been running well in one race and had put a lap on Curtis Turner, but a flagman — knowing of Castles’ reputation — did not believe he was on the lead lap and kept waving a flag signaling Castles to move over.
“The starter kept doing this,” Castles said, “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’ 498 Cup starts are the third most all-time of any driver without a single victory, trailing only J.D. McDuffie (653) and Buddy Arrington (560). Arrington, whose career overlapped with Castles’, died Tuesday at the age of 84.