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.
Mantz 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 errands.
NASCAR competition 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.
Mechanic Hubert 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 event.
At the end of the day, Mantz finished nine laps ahead of the second-place car driven by Fireball Roberts.
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."
The Darlington Raceway Stock Car Museum and National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) Hall of Fame are open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 843.395.8821.
NEXTEL Cup and Busch Series racing returns to Darlington on Mother's Day weekend 2007. The Carolina Dodge Dealers 500 weekend will include practice and qualifying for both series on Friday, May 11, followed by the Diamond Hill Plywood 200 NASCAR Busch Series race under the lights that evening. Denny Hamlin won the event in 2006.
On Saturday, May 12, Darlington Raceway will host Cup Series racing for the 58th consecutive year. The 2007 Carolina Dodge Dealers 500 will be run under the lights in its entirety. Greg Biffle has won the event two years running.
Ticket renewals are now underway; the renewal deadline is August 21. Any remaining tickets will go on sale to the general public on September 16. For more information, call the Raceway ticket hotline toll-free at 866.459.RACE, or log onto www.darlingtonraceway.com.