Thursday, September 1, 2016

9/3/51: Polesitter Frank “Rebel” Mundy finishes 82nd in the Southern 500

On September 3, 1951, Frank Mundy picked up the 4th last-place finish of his NASCAR Grand National career in the Southern 500 at the Darlington Raceway when his #23 1951 Studebaker lost oil pressure after 12 of 400 laps.  The finish, which came in Mundy’s 31st series start, was his second of the year and first since the Fort Miami (Ohio) Speedway, three rounds earlier.

Like many of NASCAR’s first drivers, Mundy, born Francisco Eduardo Menendez, served in World War II, and was in fact the personal driver for General George S. Patton.  Back stateside, Mundy happened to meet Bill France at a Daytona Beach gas station.  Both shared an enthusiasm for promoting auto racing, and thus began a long friendship.  Mundy joined France as one of NASCAR’s founding members who worked over the details of the sport at the Streamline Hotel.  For more on Mundy’s contribution to NASCAR history, check out this short video.

In his driving career, which crossed between NASCAR, USAC, and the American Automobile Association (AAA), Mundy took on a “Hollywood” name to market himself.  He picked the nickname “Rebel,” often running the confederate flag on the side of his cars.  Unfettered by the cultural baggage the symbol has since been given, Mundy was very proud and open about his Hispanic heritage, and in fact remains one of the most successful multiethnic drivers in the sport’s history.  He finished 3rd in his second-ever race on the demanding Daytona Beach Road Course and ranked 10th in the 1949 point standings.  Coming into the 1951 Southern 500, he’d scored his first pole and win at the Columbia (South Carolina) Speedway, leading 167 of 200 laps on the dirt track to beat Bill Blair by more than a lap.

Mundy’s ride for the 1951 season was also unique as one of the only drivers to run the bullet-nosed 1951 Studebaker.  Fielded by car owner and car dealer Perry Smith, Mundy’s black-and-white machine with the #23 on each front fender stood out from the rest of the field, the short-bodied car riding high with skirts over the rear wheels.  Sometimes, that uniqueness led to a number of mechanical issues, and in fact by the summer of 1951 Mundy had already become NASCAR’s leading driver in last-place finishes with four.  But much like Buddy Baker and Cale Yarborough, who also earned many last-place finishes in addition to wins, Mundy’s aggressive driving style earned him several strong finishes.  On top of the Columbia win, he entered Darlington with eight Top Tens in 18 starts, including runner-up finishes at Hillsboro and Martinsville.

When 40,000 fans filed into the Darlington Raceway for the second annual Southern 500, Mundy was again the talk of the track.  He’d earned his second pole of the season, clocking in a lap of 84.173 mph to put his Studebaker up front.  It was a tremendous accomplishment, not simply because of the demanding track, but because a NASCAR record 82 drivers would roll off three-wide at the start.  To put that in comparison, 87 drivers attempted to make the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994, and only 43 of them started.  Curiouser still was the fact that there could have been 83, had future NASCAR champion Joe Weatherly not withdrawn his #29 Oldsmobile.

Starting 82nd in the massive contest was one Everett “Cotton” Owens.  A decade before he became one of the sport’s most successful car owners, earning 38 victories over 17 years, the 27-year-old Owens was making his fourth career start.  He drove a #71 Plymouth for car owner F.J. Bland, a union that began in the inaugural Southern 500 where Owens surprised with a 7th-place finish.  In fact, it was Owens who drew the short straw in the winning pass on Lap 50, from which point Johnny Mantz led the final 351 circuits on his way to victory.  Owens started 38th of 75 drivers that day.  Now he had 81 cars in front of him.

Meanwhile, up at the front, Mundy didn’t have long to enjoy his pole position.  Outside-polesitter Herb Thomas’ fleet #92 Fabulous Hudson Hornet blasted past the Studebaker on the first lap.  Much like Mantz the year before, Thomas would go on to dominate, pacing 311 of 400 laps to come home a full circuit in front of fellow Hudson campaigner Jesse James Taylor.  Mundy, however, would lose oil pressure on Lap 13, dropping him out of the event.  Last-place starter Cotton Owens came home 23rd, 30 laps behind.  And coming home 25th, his #83 Danton Racing Stable 1951 Ford wrecked in the closing stages, was Red Byron, NASCAR’s first champion.  It was Byron’s 15th and final start.

Finishing 81st that Sunday was 16-year-old Georgia driver Bobby Booth, who made his third and final Cup start that day in his #73 Oldsmobile.  80th went to owner-driver Lee Connell, whose #19 Pontiac crashed out after 58 laps, ending his first and only NASCAR start.  In 79th was New Yorker Lloyd Moore, 4th in points the previous year on the heels of a win at the yet-unpaved Winchester Speedway.  Moore’s #59 1951 Ford, fielded by defending car owner champion Julian Buesink with teammate Bill Rexford, dropped out after 51 laps.  Eleven circuits later, the Bottom Five was complete with the ill-fated 3rd career start of Sonny Black, whose Plymouth pulled into the infield after 73 circuits.

The 82nd-place finish at Darlington was the 4th last-place finish of Mundy’s career, making him the first driver to trail that many races.  It was a record he’d hold until 1956, when Jimmie Lewallen became the first driver to earn five.  But in that same 1951 season, Mundy would score two more victories, leading 114 of 200 laps in his return to Martinsville, then another win from the pole at the Lakeview (Alabama) Speedway.  Mundy ran just 26 of the 51 races that season, but still ranked 5th in points, excelling in qualifying with an average starting spot of 5.2.  He’d make 14 more starts through 1956, ending his career with Carl Kiekhaefer at Martinsville, where he finished 9th.  He also attempted the field for the 1954 Indianapolis 500, but missed the cut along with fellow NASCAR drivers Marshall Teague and Jim Rathmann.

Mundy lived to 91 years old before he passed away in 2009.

*Mundy’s finish in 1951 remains the only by the #23 in a Cup race at Darlington.  This Sunday, David Ragan will run the number for BK Racing on the Dr. Pepper / I’m A Pepper Toyota.
*The #23 would not finish last in another Cup race until May 29, 1960, when Doug Yates’ 1959 Plymouth lost the brakes after 16 laps of the 110-lapper at the Orange (North Carolina) Speedway.
*Studebaker would go on to score 17 last-place finishes in NASCAR’s elite division.  The final came on August 5, 1962, when Hank Grillot’s #74 fell out with handling woes after 1 lap of the Nashville 500 at the Nashville (Fairgrounds) Speedway.

82) #23-Frank Mundy / 12 laps / oil pressure
81) #73-Bobby Booth / 53 laps / unknown
80) #19-Lee Connell / 58 laps / crash
79) #59-Lloyd Moore / 61 laps / unknown
78) #35-Sonny Black / 73 laps / unknown

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