Monday, December 5, 2016

Midget Hall of Famer Johnny Mantz
On Friday January 13 2017, in the Exchange Center on the Tulsa State Fairgrounds in Tulsa Oklahoma the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame (NMARHoF) will induct eight new members - two car owners, a race promoter and five drivers. As a preview, we share the biography of one of the driver inductees – Johnny Mantz.

Mantz was born in Hebron in Northwestern Indiana in 1918 but grew up in Southern California and worked on the family farm before he started racing motorcycles. By 1940 he switched to racing midgets with the United Midget Association (UMA) as a teammate to his car owner hall of famer Gib Lilly before he enlisted in the military in April 1942.

After World War Two was over and racing resumed, the brown-eyed driver with dark curly hair resumed action with the United Racing Association (URA) and raced with Johnny Garrett, the father of fellow 2017 National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame (NMARHoF) inductee Billy Garrett and posted three wins during 1946 - two at Bonelli Stadium (later known as Saugus Speedway) and once at the famed Gilmore Stadium (now the site of CBS Television City)

Mantz finished second in the 1947 URA ‘Blue’ circuit for Offenhauser powered machines and eleventh in the ‘Red’ or non-Offenhauser Circuit with twenty total feature victories, nine on the “red” circuit and eleven with the “Blue” circuit. Johnny was particularly successful during early June when he won five races in a three-week stretch and again in September when he won three races in a six-day stretch. 

“Joltin’ Johnny’s” 1947 URA season wins came at tracks in Bakersfield, Culver City, Carpinteria, the Rose Bowl and Balboa Stadiums, and the Orange Show Speedway where Mantz won four “Blue” features and scored a season-high six wins in the 3-lap trophy dashes.  In October, Mantz finished second to Ronnie Householder in the final race of 1947 at Chicago’s Soldier Field in an American Automobile Association (AAA) 200-lap feature.

In 1948, “Madman Mantz” mostly drove racing promoter JC Agajanian’s #98jr Western Racing Association (WRA) ‘big car’ although he drove several midget races for car dealer Hart Fullerton in a car reportedly fueled by a distilled orange juice mixture due a nationwide shortage of methanol. The 1948 season also marked Mantz’ first foray into AAA championship cars as he drove JC Agajanian’s Kurtis-Kraft 2000 in eight races and scored a victory in a 100-mile race at the Milwaukee Mile in August.   

Johnny continued his same racing focus in 1949, and finished the Indianapolis ‘500’ in seventh place as he completed the race without a pit stop, the last man in history to do so. By finishing with an average speed of 117.601 miles per hour (MPH), Mantz earned membership into the vaunted Champion Spark Plug 100-MPH club. Mantz won again on the 1949 AAA Championship Trail in the July ‘Indianapolis Sweepstakes’ at Williams Grove Speedway. In April 1949 Johnny Mantz was crowned the AAA Pacific Coast ‘big car’ champion after he posted six wins in the eight-race series.     

Although he was already entered for the 1950 ‘500,’ Mantz suddenly retired from racing in April 1950 as he accepted a job offer that he told reporters was “too good to turn down.” Later that month Mantz raced “one last time” in the inaugural 1950 Carrera Panamerica Mexican road race in Bob Estes’ Lincoln Cosmopolitan with car builder Bill Stroppe as his co-pilot. The pair led at the end of the first 329-mile stage but ran into tire troubles in stage two, lost eleven minutes and finished ninth. 

For a retired driver, Mantz stayed busy as on Labor Day 1950, in just his third National Association of Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) start Mantz drove Hubert Westmoreland’s 1950 Plymouth coupe sponsored by 2016 NMARHoF inductees Zeke and Ed Justice to victory in the 500-mile ‘Strictly Stock Car” race at Darlington South Carolina, then the longest such race ever held. Mantz’ car used heavy duty truck tires and won by six laps over the second place finisher and Johnny banked $10,520. Despite his early success, Johnny only ran twelve NASCAR races, the last in 1956.

Mantz never returned to open-wheel racing, but continued to race stock cars on occasion particularly in the Carrera Panamerica as a member of the powerful Lincoln team in the Large Stock Car class, and finished second in class in 1952 and fourth in 1953. In 1951, Mantz went to work for NASCAR as their West Coast representative and also promoted the 1951 Pacific Coast Roadster Racing Championship at Oakland Speedway.

With the departure of AAA from race sanctioning at the end of 1955 and replaced by the new United States Auto Club (USAC) for 1956, Johnny retuned to stock car racing at the wheel of Peter DePaolo’s factory-backed 1956 Ford. Over the 18-race season, Johnny recorded three victories and eight top five finishes and was crowned the inaugural USAC stock car champion.  Johnny continued to race a USAC stock car for three more seasons with a total of 26 race appearances.

With his reputation as the first ‘Southern 500’ race winner and USAC stock car champion, Johnny forged strong relationships with the automobile manufacturers. In 1951 he represented Nash in a nationwide newspaper advertisement campaign in which he proclaimed the benefits of the Ambassador sedan with “Jetfire Power” (a six cylinder engine with dual carburetors).  Mantz propelled a bathtub-styled Ambassador to a speed of 102.46 MPH across the El Mirage dry lakebed and raced one several times at Carrell Speedway.

In 1958 Johnny sold a line of quarter midgets, the Mantz ‘500’ complete with torsions bar suspension, two horsepower Continental engine, two-tone paint and naugahyde upholstery for $495.  In 1961, Mantz appeared in a magazine campaign for the new Ford Galaxie as the ads recounted the details of his 4000-mile “torture test” conducted at the Ford Motor Company’s Kingman Arizona proving grounds.

In 1962, the driver who bragged that he had suffered seven concussions, three skull fractures and a broken back during his 22-year racing career suffered a near-fatal crash on the road.  On January 11, while traveling on Route 66 near Rolla Missouri he slowed for icy road conditions and his pickup truck was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer.  Mantz’ truck flipped between 8 and 10 times and Johnny was trapped in the wreckage for over two hours in sub-freezing conditions.

Once he was removed from the truck and reached the hospital Mantz was diagnosed with fractures of every rib, both lungs punctured, a compound fracture in his right leg, right hip was broken in three places and his left arm was shattered from the elbow to the wrist. In addition to multiple internal injuries, the right side of Johnny’s face and neck were badly lacerated, and he had bitten through his tongue.

Dr. Harry Moran worked in surgery for seven hours to staunch the bleeding and repair the injuries. After his condition stabilized, doctors encased Johnny practically from head to toe in a plaster cast. By February 7 due to an infection, it became necessary to amputate Johnny’s left arm.  

Four months after his accident Mantz was transferred by air ambulance to the Long Beach California General Hospital to complete his recovery. After months of physical therapy and fitted with an artificial arm Johnny recovered sufficiently to return to Indianapolis during the month of May 1963, where he was elected the President of the Champion Spark Plug 100 MPH Club.

As the decade of the nineteen seventies dawned, Johnny Mantz returned to his first love and opened a Kawasaki motorcycle dealership in Ojai California. In early 1972, Mantz bid on and won the lease to stage speedway motorcycle races at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. After weeks of remodeling the arena into a 1/12-mile dirt track, on April 25, Mantz Enterprises presented the first of a planned slate of 27 Tuesday night races with points counted towards the ‘West Coast Championship’ race scheduled for October 31.        

Johnny drove home the early hours of the morning following the penultimate speedway sportsman race on October 24 1972. Northbound on Highway 33, near the tiny community of Oak View, Mantz apparently fell asleep behind the wheel and his truck left the road then struck a utility pole. Johnny was pronounced dead at the crash scene.  

The ‘West Coast Championship’ race was postponed until December 10 and was re-named in Mantz’ honor in a race promoted by his widow Peggy. Johnny Mantz was inducted into the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame in 2004, and since 2009, the NASCAR Southern 500 has awarded the winner the “Johnny Mantz Trophy.” On January 13 2017, in Tulsa Oklahoma the name of midget racing pioneer Johnny Mantz will be proudly added to the roster of the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame.

If you would like to attend the 33rd Annual Induction Ceremony and Luncheon contact for details. The event is by reservation only and all reservations must be made by December 30th, 2016. Come join the fun and learn about the other seven inductees and the history of midget auto racing.

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