John Potts · Friday October 22, 2010
I’ve mentioned the late Tommy Thompson of Louisville and the Motor City 250
NASCAR Grand National event at the Detroit Fairgrounds in 1951 before in this
column. Tommy was a friend of mine, and was president of the old Fairgrounds
Motor Speedway in Louisville when it first opened. I had heard a lot from
him about that race because he won it.
Tommy told me once that his ’51 Chrysler was the only entrant in the 59-car
field which was equipped with a windshield washer. In fact, he said if Big Bill
France had stuck to his “strictly stock” guidelines, the car might have failed
post-race inspection, because that washer was far from a factory item.
Something about a quarter-inch copper pipe and a hand pump, I think.
Anyway, I recently came across more information on that August 12th, 1951 race
on a website I frequent. I hope I’m not castigated too soundly for using
information from a 1950 issue of Motorsports magazine.
Big Bill wanted to stage an extravaganza in connection with Detroit’s 250th
anniversary, and do it in front of the automotive industry’s top brass.
The story says 58 shiny cars started around the mile dirt track behind a
“brilliant yellow” Packard convertible pace car driven by Karl M. Greiner, VP of
the Packard Motor Car Co. The official NASCAR records show 59 cars starting,
but either way, that’s a bunch of cars.
The pole was won by Marshall Teague in a ’51 Hudson Hornet, with a speed of
69.131 mph. He was joined on the front row by Tim Flock and his ’51 Olds. In
the second row were Gober Sosebee with a ’50 Cadillac and Fonty Flock with a ’51
Olds. Thompson started on the inside of the third row, with Herb Thomas, on his
way to the Grand National championship, on the outside in another of the factory
The story calls it a “slam-bang” affair from the drop of the green flag,
with the early laps proving tough for those in the rear. Clods of “salt-sodden
clay ripped from the track by spinning wheels ahead…” caused some stopped up
radiators, among other problems.
There were 12 lead changes among five different drivers. Fonty Flock took
the lead from Teague after a few laps, until Thompson got in front for the first
time after 26 trips around. Those two swapped the lead until the 62nd lap, when
Thompson pulled in to replace a right front tire.
What was described as a “rapidly developing hog-wallow” in one of the turns
caused a multi-car accident at 94 laps, with Herschel McGriff, Bill Holland,
Tony Melvin, Bud Riley, Ray Duhigg, Frank Mundy, and Lee Petty involved.
Despite serious damage, Petty managed to struggle out of the melee and
continued to race, eventually finishing 13th.
(Incidentally, Petty’s Plymouth carried the name of Hodges Dodges in
Ferndale, Mich., a historic name in motorsports sponsorship. They were the
sponsors on the Ramchargers drag race cars in the ’60s and maybe before. I heard
recently that it is now a Subaru dealership. Horrors!)
When the green flag came out again, Sosebee took the lead, holding it until the
130th lap when he retired with a broken tie rod. Fonty Flock took over again,
but on the next lap Bob Greer hit a pothole and rolled. Fonty was unable to
miss the car and plowed into it, flipping end-over-end. Johnny Mantz, in a Nash
Ambassador (imagine that), Jack Smith in a Plymouth, and at least one other car
became involved. All the cars were badly mauled, but no one was injured, and
Mantz actually continued.
That put Curtis Turner into the lead in an Olds 88, with Thompson and the
Chrysler on his rear bumper.
Ol’ Pops stayed up there until Thompson got in front on the 212th lap, but
Turner came back four laps later to take over again. Thompson took over on the
225th lap, and on the next trip around Pops tried to pass on the outside while
both were “wallowing” through the beatup southeast turn. They locked hard,
according to the story, with both broadsliding and stalling.
Thompson got started first and continued the race, with Turner driving hard
(did he ever do it differently?) until his damaged radiator gave up.
Thompson went on to beat Joe Eubanks by 37 seconds, with Mantz taking third in the
Rounding out the top 5 were Red Byron and Paul Newkirk.
Thompson earned $5,000 and the Packard pace car, which he sold for another
$5,000 as soon as he got back to Louisville.
Looking over the finish, I see a couple of other old friends. Les Snow
finished 21st in a ’50 Olds, and Iggy Katona was 22nd in a ’51 Ford, both
running at the finish.
Lee Petty, as noted, was 13th, 17 laps down.
There were three Indianapolis 500 winners in that race. Holland, who had
won in 1949, was credited with 80 laps and a 48th-place finish. Pat Flaherty,
who would win the 500 in 1956, was the first car out at 13 laps, and Jim
Rathmann, the 1960 Indy winner, was 52nd.
The magazine states that automotive executives “remained aloof” about the
event, but there’s no doubt it got their attention. Hudson, Olds, and Chrysler
were already involved to a degree.
I still think it’s a good story. But then, the winner was a friend of mine.
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