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.
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.
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
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.
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
At the end of the day,
Mantz finished nine laps ahead of the second-place car driven by
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”
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,
There are many stories about that wild day of the first running of the
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
collected the winners purse of $10,510 and returned to Hollywood,
Johnny ran second to
at Gardena, California in ‘51, and won the Inaugural USAC National Stock
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.
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
and his Indy car mechanic and crew chief
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
but that’s another story. With
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,
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.
Darlington Southern 500