Johnny Mantz was a Hollywood stuntman who raced stock cars, midgets, sprint cars and Indy Cars. He frequently won but didn't win many championships as the money was in winning races not series.
Johnny Mantz was a Hollywood stuntman who raced stock cars whenever possible. He also race midgets, sprint cars and Indy Cars. He not only drove them but frequently won. However, in the early days of racing, he ran as an 'outlaw' and didn’t win many championships, because the money was in winning races.
In August 1949, he won the inaugural 50-lap AAA Championship Car sprint race on the half-mile dirt oval at Williams Grove, Pa.
But it was in 1950 that Johnny achieved ledgendary status . On September 4, in NASCAR's first ever 500 mile stock car race, he lined up against 74 other cars, consisting of BIG Cadillacs, Lincolns, Oldsmobiles and Buicks, in a little black six cylinder Plymouth.
There are many stories about the first running of the Southern 500. There's the story of Herschell McGriff and his '50 Oldsmobile.
Herschell drove the Olds from Portland, Ore., to Darlington, painted the number 52 on the roof and doors and raced it. He started 44th, finished ninth, collected $500.00 and never even took off the Oregon license plates, due for renewal Jan 1951 #695-760, and drove it back to Portland.
Then there's Curtis Turner and Red Byron, Curtis started on the pole but finished 60th, after blowing 27 tires. Curtis collected $320.00.
Red had better luck, he started seventh and finished third but he was 10 laps down at the end. Not bad considering he blew 24 tires, but he did collect $2,000.00 for his efforts.
However this tale is about Mantz and the Plymouth. Bill France decided since NASCAR was going to sanction it's first 500 mile race he had better get to Darlington a little early. So a couple of weeks before the race Big Bill, Alvin Hawkins and Curtis Turner all headed for Darlington.
On the way they decided they might need an extra set of wheels for extra transportation and running errands. So they bought a little black Plymouth two door sedan right off the show room floor and parked it in front of race headquarters, the Darlington Motel.
The little car performed its duties well. It made many, many trips back and forth to the Elk's Lodge in Florence. It made many trips to get food, and sometimes liquid refreshments, for the busy race planners. It hauled many people hither and yon for various reasons. It earned its nickname "The Little Black Taxi".
Enter Johnny Mantz. Johnny had been in town for several days looking for a ride in the upcoming race, with no luck.
The day before the race he walked in to race headquarters and asked where the black taxi was, someone said it was on an errand. Johnny said well when it gets back let me know because I'm going to drive it in the race tomorrow.
Now Johnny's nickname was Madman Muntz, but he sure was no madman when it came to figuring out what he and the little six cylinder Plymouth had to do to beat the 74 monster V8s they were lined up against.
Madman had heard the story of the hare and tortoise, and he figured tires would be the key to the race. He reasoned that about 75 mph hour he could make not only the tires last, but the Plymouth as well.
It worked to perfection, the big V8s flew by Johnny with great regularity and he putt-putted past them as they set in the pits getting tires with even more regularity.
The big V8s crashed and broke and the yellow caution flag would fly and the Madman would putt-putt into the pits for tires and service.
Well to make a long story a little shorter, about six hours and 39 minutes after the green flag fell, Johnny Mantz, and the little back Plymouth won the race by two laps over second place Fireball Roberts, driving a V8 Oldsmobile.
Oh there were many disbelieves and protesters who said it just couldn't be that the little black Plymouth had won the race. NASCAR officials tore the Plymouth down, looking for something illegal. They could find nothing.
So Johnny "Madman" Muntz won the first Southern 500, collected first place money, $10,510.00, and went back to Hollywood.
The Little Black Plymouth, well today it sets in the place of honor in the Joe Weatherly Stock Car Museum located on the grounds of Darlington International Raceway in Darlington, South Carolina.
After his limited exposure in 1950, Johnny Mantz tried to bring NASCAR racing to the west coast. In 1951 a race was held on the west coast. The race was successful for the promoter but not for NASCAR and the series did not return until 1954.
Mantz campaigned a Nash in 6 Grand National races in 1951 finishing 2nd at Gardena and 3rd at Detroit. In 1955 he drove Bill Stroppe's No.5 Mercury at the 1-mile dirt Las Vegas Park Speedway and finished 7th.
In 1956 he finished 3rd at the 2.5-mile road course at Willow Springs Speedway, Lancaster, California and, later that year, won the Inaugural USAC National Stock Car Championship.
Mantz became JC Agajanian’s first Indy car driver when he entered the 1948 Indianapolis 500. He finished 13th in the Offenhauser powered Grant Piston Ring Special No.98 Kurtis Kraft. He returned in 1949 finishing 7th in a Kurtis Kraft. His last appearance at the Indy 500 was in 1953, when he finishing 17th.
He entered the first Carrera Pan Americana Mexican road race in 1949, driving his own Lincoln. prepared by Bill Stroppe and his Indy car mechanic and crew chief Clay Smith.
Sponsored by Inglewood car dealer Bob Estes, Mantz, Stroppe and Smith ran at or near the front up untill the final leg when, with the finishline in sight, he ran out of tires. Mantz, who could have won, limped over the line on the rims in 9th place.
He was back in Mexico with the works Lincoln team in 1952. Chuck Stevenson, Johnny and Wall Faulkner took first, second and third place with their 205 horsepower Lincolns. Captain Bob Korf from the “Wright Patterson” Air Force Base in Ohio, drove the fourth place Lincoln to victory after loosing his co-driver, who fell out of the car on the first leg.
Mantz set a new record for stock cars on the last leg of the route, completing the distance at an average speed of 186 kh/hr.
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.
In his 4 year NASCAR career, Mantz made 12 starts in the NASCAR Grand National Division and recorded 1 win, 4 top-5s and 8 top-10s.