VALLEY STREAM, N.Y. — I have always been a very logical guy. Things have to make sense to me. I am in my 60th year of watching races. I picked the most illogical sport to follow.
All major races are followed by a box score with various facts. Most of us look at them, accept what was published and move on. There is one race in which the stats don’t make sense.
I’m talking about the first Southern 500, held at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. This is one of the truly noteworthy events in history. It was NASCAR’s first superspeedway race and was the keynote event of the first full “strictly stock” season in 1950.
The Grand National circuit was the precursor of what is now the Sprint Cup Series. The race presented other firsts. For many, this was their first race on a paved track. It was also, by far, the longest race any of them would compete in. One driver had run a 500- mile race before — the Indianapolis 500. His name was Johnny Mantz.
Harold Brasington’s new track would run a 500-mile race on Labor Day. It would be sanctioned by the Central States Racing Ass’n. When the CSRA couldn’t promise a full field, Bill France was called and NASCAR got the nod. France’s assurance of a large roster was met. Seventy-nine cars signed in.
With all those cars, it was decided to run time trials “Indy style” with the field set by qualifying day. The hot set up seemed to be an Oldsmobile Rocket 88. The Olds had the only OHV V-8. The Hudson Hornet was also one to beat. It had a flathead six but was more than 300 cubic inches.
Mantz arrived with strategy. He picked a 1950 Plymouth, a few hundred pounds lighter that the bigger more powerful rivals. Mantz figured tires would be a problem for them. He was right on target. He had larger truck tires affixed to the Plymouth.
But the Plymouth was a slug. It had a 217-cubic-inch flathead six under the hood. A road test for that car showed a top speed of 84 miles per hour in more than a quarter mile. It produced fewer than 97 horsepower. It weighed less than 3,000 pounds.
Many early pioneers in racing came up with ways to cheat the strictly stock rule. Trouble is, there were no speed parts made for this car. Most were supplied for the Ford V-8 flathead, the choice mill of the day.
Mantz, who was J.C. Agajanian’s first Indy driver, qualified in one of the mid sessions. He was the slowest qualifier at 73.460 mph. The pole speed, set by Curtis Turner’s Olds was 82.034 mph. There were eight other Plymouths in the race. Mantz, who went 43rd at
the post was slower than all of them. With four cars withdrawing, 75 cars — 25 rows of three started the race.
The early pace was fast but soon it was obvious, the stock street tires would not hold up. Drivers would fight their way to the front but the tires would wear out. Some entrants used as many as 30 tires. No one was prepared for this and many spectators “volunteered” their rubber.
Mantz, meanwhile chugged around as his tortoise would outrun the hares. On lap
50, Mantz took the lead. He was never headed. This is where things seem wrong to me. It took six hours and 39 minutes to run this race, almost the same as the first Indy
500. Mantz’s average speed was 75.250 mph. This was two mph faster than he qualified.
Now wait a minute. There is no way this is possible. The race could not have run its
500-mile posted distance.
Surprisingly with cars all over the place, there were only two caution periods for 13 laps. This indicates that often the yellow wasn’t used. I researched many articles about this race. I do not know how many times Mantz pitted, since his tires weren’t a problem. He’d had to stop at least six times for gas. There were no 13-second stops in those days.
There is no way he was able to run his 73 mph qualifying pace in the race.
There were too many cars in the way. 54 cars were still running after 300 laps. He also didn’t have to run full out because he led by nine laps.
The way I look at it is darkness must have been approaching. The 25,000 fans sat there for a long time. Yet, the fact sheet shows Mantz running 400 laps with summary for all others. I think there was creative scoring used. Mantz certainly deserved the win, but it sure wasn’t close to 500 miles.
This has been a year of upset winners. First Trevor Bayne at the Daytona 500 but how about Mike Conway at Long Beach? What an impressive win and he earned it as he made two key passes at at track that’s hard to run side by side on. He then pulled away.
Michael Andretti pulled a rabbit (OK, a hare) out of his hat. Maybe Penske and Ganassi will have a challenger. Penske had to suffer through his drivers in both NASCAR and IRL knocking teammates out on the same day.
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