Thursday, December 13, 2007

Speaking of Fords, La Carrera and 9th place...

If I have only learned one thing about endurance racing it is the fact that it is never boring. With all the strategy, teamwork, car preparation and so on that is involved there is never a guarantee that things will go as planned. That's where the difference between winning and almost winning endurance teams differ. Winning endurance teams develop a plan on how they want things to go and then plan on things not going as planned. For that reason they come more prepared than others and that is key in winning endurance races and then there is Lady Luck....

Luck can work for you or against you and in this case it was the later for Johnny "Madman" Mantz who was a Hall of Famer from California. Mantz was well known and besides winning countless races in the early Nascar days he also raced in the very first La Carrera Panamericana in 1950. I am a big time fan of Mantz but another reason I like this story so much is because this was Ford's first ever involvement in endurance racing. Mantz's car was prepared by another Hall of Famer, Bill Stroppe and his Indy car mechanic and crew chief Clay Smith who was also a Hall of Famer and so Stroppe rode as Mantz's co-driver.

Mantz and Stroppe ran near the front of the pack and just before the final leg of the race with the finish line in sight a couple of tires let go and they were forced to limp across the finish line on bare rims! Mantz had done extremely well during the entire race and held the lead in several stages and very well could have won but when the dust settled they took 9th overall. (Why does this sound so familiar? LOL) Due to his success in the La Carrera and his friendship with Stroppe Mantz went on to play a major role with Ford's racing program and took many Lincoln and Mercury victories.

The man who went on to win that race was Herschel McGriff, a Motorsports Hall of Famer, who like myself was from Oregon and it was McGriff who won the very first La Carrera Panamericana in 1950. As an endurance racer and car builder I found it very interesting to learn that McGriff not only won that race but in fact did it on the original set of brake shoes while other teams had to change their brakes every night. Kiddingly it made me laugh and I couldn't help but wonder... maybe the reason he won was because he never used the brakes. Hmmm. And speaking of finishing in 9th place for the first running of the Southern 500 in Darlington Herschel McGriff drove his 50 Olds from Portland, OR to Darlington, painted the number 52 on the roof and doors and raced it . After starting 44th he finished ninth overall, collected $500 and drove home.

Even when we look all the way back to 1950 history proves that preparation and knowledge and dedication is what wins endurance races and in doing so carried these great men even further into the history books.

On a sad note, Mantz raced right up until he was killed on a public highway traffic accident at the age of 54 in 1972. And like my own father who passed away with Alzheimer's disease at the age of 76 Bill Stroppe also had Alzheimer's disease and passed away at 76. He built and campaigned Indy cars and managed the team of Lincoln's that finished 1-2-3 in the 1952 and 1953 Pan-American Road Races in Mexico and often rode shotgun with Parnelli Jones in Baja California off-road races. Stroppe also built vehicles for many actors but one Hall of Fame Inductee comes to mind which was Steve McQueen another well known Ford driver in his own right.

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