Race Weekend Central

Driven to the Past: Getting Detroit’s Attention…

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 Hudson entries.

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 HollandTony 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 racecars 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 mangled Nash.

Rounding out the top five 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.

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.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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