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Time Machine: Switching Brands Is Old Hat

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, October 23 2009
A Carl Kiefhaefer Mercury driven by Tim Flock in 1955. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

A Carl Kiefhaefer Mercury Outboard Motors-sponsored Chrysler driven by Tim Flock in 1955. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

If Richard Petty Motorsports adds a Ford to its line-up later this year, it will not be the first time a front-line team has raced both the Ford and Chrysler brands in the same season.

Domineering, rich and uncompromising, when Carl Kiekhaefer headed south from Wisconsin to race in NASCAR’s Grand National division in 1955, he intended to win. With drivers such as Tim Flock, Buck Baker and Frank Mundy, the team of Kiekhaefer –sponsored by his own Mercury Outboard Motors company – dominated NASCAR for the two seasons he raced, including one lone victory with a Ford.

Running Chryslers and Dodges, Kiekhaefer’s team once won 16 straight races, a record unlikely to ever be broken. But during the 1955 season, when the rules didn’t suit him Kiekhaefer added a Ford to his line-up of Chrysler brands and won a race near Memphis with driver Alfred “Speedy” Thompson on board.

An industrialist who would eventually sell $2 billion worth of his Mercury Marine engines around the world, Kiekhaefer had a personal relationship with executives at Chrysler in Auburn Hills, Mich. Fully informed about the development of the C300 with its 300-horsepower hemi-headed engine, Kiekhaefer showed up at Daytona for his first race in 1955 as a quasi-factory team with one of the first of the new Chrysler models.

The best-financed team owner since Atlanta bootlegger Raymond Parks had retired from pursuing Grand National events, Kiekhaefer introduced many things that are now commonplace in NASCAR’s top division, at that time a “gypsy tour” in the words of one competitor. Kiekhaefer was the first to bring his cars to races in enclosed haulers, the first to have major corporate sponsorship and the first to have his entire team dress in uniforms.

An engineer and inventor with patents related to both general manufacturing and his own outboard company, Kiekhaefer was the first to build a space frame, or roll cage, inside the production cars for improved safety and enhanced chassis performance. When the dual four-barrel carburetors of the C300 began loading up with dust on the era’s dirt tracks while using the standard oil bath air cleaners, Kiekhaefer used fruitcake tins to create the first paper filament air cleaner.

At the team’s first race in Daytona, Tim Flock won the beach race driving a C300 with an automatic transmission. When Flock complained about the transmission, the team owner told him, ”Don’t worry. We’ll get Chrysler to make us a manual model.”

Flock went on to win the championship in 1955. During that season, after a Saturday race in Hickory, N.C., Kiekhaefer flew Flock and one of his Chryslers in a cargo plane to a race in Phoenix on a Sunday to take advantage of the fact a driver could score points in two races on the same weekend.

In a similar pursuit of perfection, Kiekhaefer decided the rules favored the Fords so much that he would race one.

“We had trouble buying the high performance parts we needed because Ford wouldn’t sell them to us, a problem we resolved by using truck parts,” said Kiekhaefer during an interview in 1980.

Following Thompson’s victory at the Memphis-Arkansas Speedway Kiekhaefer delighted in the dilemma he created for Bill France Sr., the NASCAR president who wanted to keep all the factories interested in racing. “After winning that race in Memphis,” said Kiekhaefer, “I guess it made the Ford and NASCAR people wonder, ‘What in the hell do we do now to beat Kiekhaefer?'”

Pete DePaulo, the factory racing team manager for Ford, was so flummoxed he insisted he was the car owner, not Kiekhaefer.

“After the race, Pete was kind of hanging around the car answering questions,” recalled Mundy. “Mr. Kiekhaefer made sure he told people old Pete didn’t have anything to do with the winning car.”

DePaulo succeeded in one respect. The NASCAR record book still incorrectly lists him as the winning car owner.

A tough taskmaster as well as a perfectionist, Kiekhaefer demanded the utmost from his drivers and crew. Flock eventually tired of the strain brought on by the demands of the team owner, who had a short fuse and a strong temper.

“I had ulcers,” said Flock of his decision to quit midway in the 1956 season. “I was so skinny I looked like a damned skelton.”

A young Bobby Allison worked in the Charlotte shop for Kiekhaefer. “There must have been 20 guys who got fired while I was working there,” said Allison. “His favorite saying was, ‘You’re fired, but you can’t leave until the car is ready.'”

The team owner was no less sparing of himself. During the racing season, he worked daily at his factories in Fond du Lac, then flew by private plane to Charlotte to oversee the work on the race cars, often burning the midnight oil.

Kiekhaefer and his Chryslers helped accelerate the first factory era, initially fueled by the Hudson Hornet. Ford, for example, responded to Chrysler’s hemi engine with a supercharger while Chevy introduced fuel injection. The number and variety of entries at Daytona increased dramatically by Kiekhaefer’s second season in 1956 due to factory interest.

Beating Kiekhaefer was a tall task, said Smokey Yunick, the legendary mechanic who ran a Chevy team. “We never went up against somebody so completely organized and well staffed,” he said. “Things we did in four or five weeks he did in four or five days. Most of us had other jobs and we worked our ass off all week and then went to the track and picked up a crew there. He had engine men, chassis men, brake men. We never experienced anything like that. Sometimes he brought four or five cars. But he was a tough s.o.b. and he worked hard himself. And he was ruthless. He had enough money to pay anybody he wanted.”

The fans had never seen a team owner like Kiekhaefer either. At dirt tracks in the South, some threw Coca-Cola bottles at the invading Yankee and his upscale C300 cars. He was even caricatured in the movie Thunder in the Carolinas as mean-spirited and cruel.

It was research as well as his joy of competition that brought Kiekhaefer into NASCAR. He knew four-cycle engines were destined to become more popular than the two-cycle outboards prevalent in the 1950’s. Once his engine research was complete, Kiekhaefer quit racing cars after winning 53 races in two NASCAR seasons and two championships, including one with Buck Baker. On the AAA stock car circuit, Mundy won the championship for Kiekhaefer in 1955.

Inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association’s Hall of Fame in 1980, Kiekhaefer concentrated on building a line of power plants for boats known as stern drives once he returned full-time to his work in Wisconsin. The stern drives had a V-8 engine mounted inboard and the propeller at the rear.

The ultimate irony was that Kiekhaefer decided Chevrolet engines were best suited to the stern drive design. Although he didn’t race them, at the height of his company’s production Kiekhaefer bought 60,000 engine blocks a year from GM!

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, October 23 2009