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Johnny "Madman" Mantz
Born: September 18, 1918  (Hebron, Imdiana)    Died: October 25, 1972 (Non-racing auto accident)
Home: Long Beach, CA

Johnny Mantz's first and only Nascar victory came in the inaugural 1950 Darlington Southern 500 that carried a stock-car record purse of $25,000. Over 80 cars showed up and it took two weeks to get them all qualified. After filling all 9,000 seats fans were directed to the infield where a sea of over 6,000 people watched the race. The race started with a 75 car field aligned in 25 rows, three abreast, and Mantz was the slowest in the field.  

Californian Johnny Mantz drove a 1950 Plymouth owned by France, Westmoreland, and a couple more guys and took more than six hours to cover the full 500. Johnny won by nine laps (!) over Fireball Roberts with an average speed of 75.250 mph. The Southern 500 was NASCAR's only paved track event in 1950.

His first Nascar race in the Strictly Stock division was the 1950 Occoneechee Speedway and his last was the 1956 Willow Springs Speedway. Through 12 total starts he compiled an amazing 8 Top 5's.

Hello Dolly

Johnny Mantz most likely knew he would need a bit of luck to win the inaugural Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 4, 1950, but a little girl's doll carriage was probably the last place he expected to find it.

Mantz faced numerous challenges. A 500-mile stock car race on a paved, banked speedway was an unknown commodity; most of the regular drivers on the newly-formed NASCAR circuit had never driven a race on a paved surface at all. Labor Day in Darlington tends to be so hot it is often said that the shade trees wear sunblock, and the creation of high-tech in-car cooling systems was still years in the future.

Mantz was a late entrant in the race, and posted the slowest qualifying speed in the 75-car field, nearly 10 mph slower than pole winner Curtis Turner. His 1950 Plymouth, co-owned by NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr. and Alvin Hawkins, a NASCAR starter and flagman, had previously been used for nothing more taxing than running business errands.

NASCAR competition prohibits passengers in the cars during the race. However, when one of Hawkins' daughters offered Mantz her doll as a good-luck charm, it is unlikely that anyone noticed the petite, blue-eyed hitchhiker riding shotgun in the black Plymouth when the green flag waved.

Mechanic Hubert Westmoreland, who had signed on as the team's third partner, did his best to get the car ready to race. "Madman" Mantz, who had experience driving open-wheel cars, suggested using hard compound truck tires similar to the ones used at Indianapolis rather than the traditional softer tires chosen by the rest of the competitors.

The strategy paid off. Mantz spent the majority of the day cruising around on the apron and watching his rivals take to the pits to replace blown tires. Red Byron, in fact, ran 24 tires off the rims in the six hour, 38 minute-long event.

At the end of the day, Mantz finished nine laps ahead of the second-place car driven by Fireball Roberts.

The famous black 1950 Plymouth is a permanent resident in the Darlington Raceway Stock Car Museum. Thanks to a little girl's generous nature, the doll offered for good luck lives there as well, making for an unusual pair of winners on display at the track "Too Tough To Tame."

"Once upon a time there was a little black Plymouth that did”

You would ask did what? Well what the little black Plymouth did, on September 4, 1950, it lined up against 74 other cars consisting of BIG Cadillac’s, Lincolns, Oldsmobile’s and Buick’s for the first every 500 mile stock car race and beat all of them, and to add to the drama, the driver was a little known west coast open wheel driver, Johnny Mantz.

There are many stories about that wild day of the first running of the Southen 500. Hershel McGriff drove his ‘50 Olds from Portland, Oregon to Darlington, painted the number 52 on the roof and doors and raced it in the First Southern 500, starting 44th and finishing ninth, collecting $500 and then drove home.

When Mantz arrived at Darlington he didn’t have a ride lined up for the 500 but the race promoter Bill France Sr. had a black ‘50 Plymouth that was being used as a “Gopher”, running to get food and drink during the busy week. Mantz talked France into letting him run the “Gopher” in the race and drawing on his experience in running 500 mile races at Indy, he knew tires would make the difference, Mantz got his hands on some Firestone racing tires and the rest is history. Mantz and that little black Plymouth in just over 61/2 hours won the race by nine laps, beating NASCAR legion Fireball Roberts, collected the winners purse of $10,510 and returned to Hollywood, California.

Johnny ran second to Marshall Teague at Gardena, California in ‘51, and won the Inaugural USAC National Stock Car Championship in ‘56.

Mantz, ran stock car races when ever he could, as a driver he could drive anything and he did, midgets, sprints, Big Cars, later to be called Indy Cars and he ran well winning many times. Being an early day outlaw he didn’t win many championships, because the money wasn’t in championships, but in winning races.

A lesser-known fact of Mantz was that he was the first to try and bring NASCAR sanctioning to the west coast in 1951. The race was successful for the promoter but not for NASCAR, stalling their move back to the west until 1954. Mantz was JC Agajanian’s first Indy car driver, qualifying the cream and red colored No. 98 Grant Piston Ring Special 8th and finishing 13th.

Besides winning countless races he also ran in the first Carrera Pan Americana Mexican road race in 1949, a 2,135 mile race through Mexico. Joining Ford's first ever involvement in endurance type racing with his own 1949 Lincoln, prepared by Bill Stroppe and his Indy car mechanic and crew chief Clay Smith, Stroppe rode as his co-driver and the venture was sponsored by Inglewood car dealer Bob Estes. The team of Mantz, Stroppe and Smith ran at or near the lead right up till the final leg when the big Lincoln couldn’t take the punishment any longer. With the finish line in sight and no more spares tires to run on, Mantz was forced to run on rims and limped across the finish line, Stroppe and Mantz had held the lead in a number of legs and could have won, but they ended up 9th overall, winning enough to pay for the trip. That first race was won by Hershel McGriff but that’s another story. With his success at the Mexican road race and his connection with Bill Stroppe and Clay Smith he played a major role with Fords racing program leading the Lincoln-Mercury division to many stock car victories. Mantz continued to race and was killed in a highway accident on October 25, 1972.

Johnny Mantz Racing Career:

Champ car

He made 17 starts in the AAA Championship Car series from 1948 to 1952, capturing a victory in his rookie season at the Milwaukee Mile as well as winning the Indianapolis Sweepstakes at Williams Grove Speedway.


Stock car

He was the first USAC Stock Car national champ in 1956. Mantz also made 12 NASCAR Grand National starts from 1950-1951 and 1955-1956. He won his third race, the first Southern 500 held at Darlington Raceway. It was his only NASCAR win.

Indy 500

Two starts in 1948 & '49. Started 8th in '48 and finished a black-flagged 13th, completing 185 laps. In 1949 Mantz started 9th and finished a respectable 7th, completing all 200 laps. In 1953 Johnny drove in relief for William Faulner.

World Championship career summary

The Indianapolis 500 was part of the FIA World Championship from 1950 through 1960. Drivers competing at Indy during those years were credited with World Championship points and participation. In the 1953 Indianapolis 500, Johnny Mantz drove in relief of Walt Faulkner. As a result of this shared ride, Mantz participated in 1 World Championship race.

Ford Spokesman

1950 Darlington Southern 500

Fin St # Driver Sponsor / Owner Car Laps Money Status Led
1 43 98 Johnny Mantz Hubert Westmoreland '50 Plymouth 400 10,510 running 351
2 67 82 Fireball Roberts Sam Rice '50 Oldsmobile 391 3,500 running 0
3 7 22 Red Byron Parks Novelty   (Raymond Parks) '50 Cadillac 390 2,000 running 0
4 23 59 Bill Rexford Julian Buesink '50 Oldsmobile 385 1,500 running 0
5 15 77 Chuck Mahoney Brooks Motors '50 Mercury 381 1,000 running 0
6 35 42 Lee Petty Petty Special   (Petty Enterprises) '49 Plymouth 380 800 running 0
7 38 71 Cotton Owens F.J. Bland '50 Plymouth 380 930 running 23
8 64 2 Bill Blair Sam Rice '49 Cadillac 375 600 running 0
9 44 52 Hershel McGriff City of Roses   (Hershel McGriff) '50 Oldsmobile 374 500 running 0
10 26 61 George Hartley Julian Buesink '50 Oldsmobile 371 450 running 0
11 16 9 Tim Flock Buddy Elliott '50 Oldsmobile 370 400 running 0
Lap leaders: G. Sosebee 1-4, C. Turner 5-26, C. Owens 27-49, J. Mantz 50-400

9 Lap Winning Margin! 75 Cars started the race! 6 1/2 hours long!

Grand National race number 13 of 19
September 4, 1950 at Darlington Raceway, Darlington, SC
400 laps on a 1.250 mile paved track (500.0 miles)

Time of race: 6:38:40
Average Speed: 75.25 mph
Pole Speed: 82.034 mph
Cautions: 2 for 13 laps
Margin of Victory: 9 laps +
Attendance: 25,000

Other significant Drivers in the race: Curtis Turner, Buck Baker, Lloyd Moore, Jim Paschal, Jack White, Gober Sosebee, Bob Flock, Fonty Flock

Johnny Mantz Strictly Stock & Grand National DRIVER Statistics

Year Age Races Win T5 T10 Pole Laps Led Earnings Rank AvSt AvFn
1950 31 3 of 19 1 1 2 0 400 351 10,835 6 43.0 7.7
1951 32 6 of 41 0 2 4 0 332 28 2,025 21 16.0 21.2
1955 36 2 of 45 0 0 1 0 148 0 245 116 13.5 18.0
1956 37 1 of 56 0 1 1 0 79 0 1,130 98 5.0 3.0
4 years 12 1 4 8 0 959 379 14,235   17.2 15.8

8 of 12 races run were in the Top 10!

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