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Neil ‘Soapy’ Castles, racer and movie stuntman, dies at 87

Neil “Soapy” Castles, who enjoyed a two-decades-long career in NASCAR while doubling as a Hollywood stuntman, died Thursday. He was 87.

Castles made 498 starts in what is now called the NASCAR Cup Series, netting 51 top-five finishes without a win in a career that spanned from 1957-1976. The former driver’s passing was first reported by veteran journalist Deb Williams and later confirmed Friday by McMahan’s Funeral Home, which is handling memorial service arrangements in Rutherfordton, N.C.

RELATED: Neil Castles’ career statistics

Castles picked up the nickname “Soapy” from the legendary Buddy Shuman, who provided him with a set of wheels for a soapbox derby racer when he was 9 years old. He stayed close to Shuman, cleaning up tools in his shop and eventually tinkering on his cars through his teenaged years.

Castles won twice in the former NASCAR Grand National East Series, claiming that short-lived circuit’s championship in 1972. After years of trying, he soaked in his first victory at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in South Carolina that spring, edging Elmo Langley in a photo finish.

“We had been racing close together for a long time, but you always get that urge to win,” Castles told the Greenville (S.C.) News. “The car ran as good as it ever has. There was no trouble. I knew I could get under him. I knew I could do it. Winning … that’s the name of the game.”

Castles frequently competed in cars that he owned, and he also briefly fielded entries for stock-car luminaries such as Bobby Allison, Buddy Baker and Cale Yarborough. He was also credited for wins in a pair of 25-lap qualifying races — one at Darlington in 1967 and another at Rockingham two years later.

“Racing, as everything else, has its ups and downs,” he told The Charlotte News in 1969. “I’ve been in it so long, I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else. So long as I can feed my wife and kids, I’m staying in the sport.”

Castles said he got his big break into the film industry in the 1950s, around the time his racing career took flight. He and some friends had signed on as extras during filming at Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsborough, N.C. When the stuntman’s arrival from California was delayed, Castles piped up: “Let me wreck that car so we can go home,” he recalled telling the director. “I can tear that thing up for you and we can all go home tomorrow.”

The director prepared a slapdash contract that evening. “I went out the next morning and flipped the car,” Castles said.

Several movie roles followed, some credited and some not. Among them were racing-themed motion pictures such as Six Pack, Greased Lightning, The Last American Hero and Speedway — the last one starring Elvis Presley.

“I doubled for Elvis and I wrecked five or six cars pretty good,” Castles told the Orlando Sentinel in 1973, adding that the dual careers proved to be lucrative. “I had a real good year. Between NASCAR and the Screen Actors’ Guild, it’s the best thing I ever tied up with. I like to race — and do motion-picture work — if I have the time.”

Memorial services are scheduled Wednesday at Mountain Creek Baptist Church in Rutherfordton. Visitation with the family is scheduled at 11 a.m. ET, with funeral services to follow at noon inside the church.