Great Races that Changed the Course of Racing History – Part 2

Part 2. Darlington 500 – Labor Day 1950 The First running of the Darlington 500

If you are not a big fan of NASCAR, you might still find this interesting because of the strategy involved by the winner. Last year, I met a 72 year old CEO and Chairman of a company in Greenville who attended that race in 1950. His name is Harold Gillespie and the company is Freeman Mechanical. He told me the story and I didn’t really understand or grasp it until I did some research. So…here it is.

It’s 1950. First race at the new paved and banked track…big winners from Daytona and top names from last few years are all present. None of the 75 drivers had run on a paved superspeedway track like this before and were used to sand at Daytona and dirt elsewhere.

An open wheel Champ car driver named Johnny Mantz drives from California to Darlington SC to watch the race at the new track… after seeing the track, he decides he HAS to run this race. He goes to Bill France, Sr. and begs him to let him run and find him a car. The only car Bill has is a “Gopher”… the Plymouth they used for going for food and errands around the track and in town. He figures there will be a small crowd and a small entry list so he agreed. Mantz was THE last entrant into the race and qualified to start in the last position on the grid. He qualified at 75 MPH and pole was 82 Mph. He was a back marker at best. From his open wheel experience, he was used to running on harder tires on more abrasive surfaces. he noticed that everyone was running the softest rubber they could find for traction on the new track. Johnny found two sets of Firestone truck tires hard as rocks and prepared for the 6 hour race.

There were seats for 9000 fans at the track and 15,000 showed up to watch the big race. At the start, every one walked away from Mantz. He continued consistently to make slow lap after lap on the inside of the track… slow in comparison to everyone. Then the pitstops started and he kept running. When he did stop, it was a quick stop for gas and no tires. Under a hot sun, the race went on for 6 hours… and while most drivers like Red Byron had worn out 6 sets of tires during that time, Mantz had only changed tires once. The time lost in those long pit stops for tire changes and overheating cars constantly bumping each other, and bending fender metal off tires …it all added up to a 9 lap lead for Mantz at the end of the race. His harder tires held up with the surface and heat. Others ran the tires until they blew and then slowly limped back to the pits for a lengthy tire change.

Mantz collected $10,510 that day. Herschel McGriff was also an interesting story that day. Herschel drove his 1950 Oldsmobile from Portland, Oregon to Darlington, SC, painted 52 on the top and doors…qualified 44th…ran and finished 9th, collected his $500 and drove back home the next day.  Harold Gillespie told me he will always remember seeing that slow pitiful little Plymouth and laughing at how he was driving around the inside of the track out of everyone’s way… and then watching him win the race. Crazy like a fox.That 1950 Plymouth is on display at the Darlington Raceway Stock Car Museum and stands as a reminder that the “race does not always go to the swift nor the battle to the strong.” If the fastest car always won, I would suggest that competition racing would be so boring and statistically predictable that it would have drawn very little interest from fans or sponsors or media …and would have ceased to exist long before now. That qualifies the running of the Darlington 500 on Labor Day in 1950 as… a Race that Changed the Course of Motorsports history.

There’s a bit MORE to this story. I stopped in at Cotton Owens shop in Spartanburg and asked him about that 1950 race… and of course he ran it. He said when they arrived in Darlington, they got out of the car and walked out on the track and just stood there… they had never seen a paved race track and were in awe. He talked about Mantz and those hard tires and how people laughed at him. He had stories about the old barn they ran tech out of at Darlington and rumors about how some cars got special treatment. He said another friend of his ran in that race and passed away a year ago. I told him I was sorry to hear that and he said “’s okay. His mind went a long time ago with that old timers disease.”

He told me more about the race and the team owner for Mantz’s car running off road races in baja. We ended up back at his shop looking at those beautiful old cars of his. He was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame last year at Talledega. They told him he had to wear a tux for the ceremony. He told me “Ted, I figured it was my show so I could wear what I wanted. I wore jeans… good ones. Plaid shirt with a bolo tie and a jacket. No one said a word about it.” 82 years old and sharp as a tack. We all learn a lot from books and from the net and from teachers. Sometimes, that boils down to “regurgitation of undigested particles of existing available information and trivia.” I can’t put into words how much more exciting it is to hear it from the real source.. .the colorful stories. The tidbits that got left out of the books. Things like “Fireball Roberts was called Fireball not because of the way he drove. He used to be a minor league pitcher and he had a mean fast ball. Other drivers called him Balls…but not to his face.” Or about the Dodge Charger Cotton built that ran in the Cannonball Run. Or the day he hired Junior Johnson to drive for him.Get off the computer and out of the books now and then… and go talk to an old guy. You’ll be amazed. If you are in Spartanburg at lunch time, stop by the Peach Blossom Restaurant just off 85 and Boiling Springs Rd. You will most likely find Cotton, Dot and Bud Moore having the vegetable plate. They are always friendly, glad to tell a story or ten.. and will probably tell you something that no book or internet site will ever hold. That’s kind of special.


Article by Ted Theodore
Copyright 2008 – No reprint without written consent of author and The Southern Driver