When Richard “Mike” Martin of Oshkosh, Wis., passed away on April 7, another part of the NASCAR legend was lost to history. Known as “Mike” by most of his car-collecting friends, Martin was born in the spring of 1933 and was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1953. He served until 1955.
Shortly after leaving the service, Martin read a newspaper ad that said the “motor company” in Fond du Lac was hiring. Locals knew that meant that industrialist Carl Kiekaefer’s Mercury Outboard Corp. had jobs available. When Mike applied he found that the openings were for driver-mechanics to work on Kiekaefer’s NASCAR racing team.
Martin became a member of the team. He drove the trucks that carried the racing cars to the tracks. They were box trucks that traveled, mostly to the South, with the tail ends of the cars sticking out of the back. Once the trucks arrived at the tracks, drivers like Martin were expected to “switch hats” and turn wrenches as pit crew mechanics.
During Martin’s tenure, the Mercury Outboard Racing team won many races and two NASCAR championships. Kiekaefer was most famous for his Chrysler 300 racing cars, but the team also raced 1955 Chevrolet V-8s and Mercurys. The boat motor maker was intensely focused on winning and always wanted to have his drivers in the fastest stock cars of the day. However, it was the Chrysler 300s that won championships.
The 1955 Chrysler C300 was introduced on Jan. 17, 1955, with an announcement carefully timed to precede the Speed and Performance Trials being held at Daytona Beach, Fla. The 1955 NASCAR racing season opened with a race at the West Palm Beach on Feb. 6. There were few 1955 cars in the field, since most drivers then were still campaigning 1954 models. However, among the 1955 models racing that day was a single Chrysler 300. It wouldn’t be long before many 300s were showing up at the races.
The Chrysler C300 “Letter Car” had a 331-cid 300-hp Hemi V-8 and became known as “the Car that Swept Daytona.” At Daytona in February a Chrysler 300 came in fifth. It was the last race a ’55 Chrysler 300 entered without taking a checkered flag. In the Daytona Flying-Mile, Warren Koeschling, an Eastern Airlines pilot at 127.580 mph in a Chrysler 300. The Standing Start Mile went to a 300 with a speed of 76.84 mph.
The big contest was the 160-mile NASCAR Grand National on the old 4.1-mile beach road course. Glenn "Fireball" Roberts won with a ‘55 Buick Century, but a post race teardown found shortened push rods in his “nailhead” engine. The victory was then awarded to Tim Flock, who drove a Chrysler 300. Flock had set a qualifying speed record of 130.293 mph and he took the checkered flag with an average speed of 92.05 mph.
300s dominated 1955 NASCAR Grand National racing. They took three checkered flags. By the time it was over, 1955 went down as a Chrysler year in NASCAR. Tim Flock (13 victories in a row) won the championship. Chrysler had 27 wins in 45 events. Chrysler 300s also won 10 of 13 AAA stock car racing event. Frank “Rebel” Mundy won the title. 300s took 37 major victories, the first time in history that a car won big in both leagues.
The rash of Chrysler 300 victories in 1955 was largely due to the efforts of Kiekhaefer and his mechanics like Mike Martin. Mercury Outboard NASCAR Drivers included Tim and Fonty Flock and Speedy Thompson. Mundy, Nelson and Tony Bettenhausen raced Keikaefer cars in AAA events.
The Kiekhafer 300s of 1955 were dialed-in by “engineers” like Mike Martin in his Fond du Lac factory and came out ready to roar. "Our two national championships won during 1955 were not gained by accident or luck," Kiekhaefer told Speed Age magazine. “Our cars quickly established a reputation of being properly set up for competition."
Kiekhaefer lived by rigid standards, which included no cheating. His cars were frequently inspected by officials and were checked more than any others on both stock car racing circuits. They were never found to be outside the rules. Kiekhaefer drivers and their wives were separated and were not allowed to see each other until after a race.
Factory participation in stock car racing began in 1956, but was short-lived due to the Automobile Manufacturing Assoc. banning racing and other performance promotions mid-way through 1957. When the factories pulled out, the racing fraternity applauded, but it was too late to get Carl Kiekhafer back, though he fielded a successful 1956 team.
Both Tim Flock and Frank Mundy drove cars prepared by Kiekhaefer in 1956. The Kiekhaefer cars were meticulously race-prepped by the “Kiekhaefer Krew” that Mike Martin was part of and the professionalism of his organization set new standards for the racing industry. Unfortunately, Kiekhaefer showed the factories how to do things the right way, but he did not have the financial resources to keep up with the big automakers.
The ’56 racing cars were more sophisticated than the ’55 models. Stick-shift cars used a 1955 Chrysler dash with a ’53 Chrysler steering wheel. A tach was added and the radio gave way to an ignition cut-off switch.A hole was cut in the firewall and fender aprons and a light was added so the driver could monitor tire wear. Oil pressure lines were run and a roll bar replaced the rear seat. Another hole allowed viewing the rear tires.
Shortly after Daytona, Carl Kiekhaefer decided to concentrate his Chrysler attack on NASCAR Grand National racing instead of running in the new USAC (formerly AAA) races. His cars took 22 first place finishes out of 56 races. Following a clash over Kiekhaefer’s stringent policies, Tim Flock left and Buck Baker came aboard. He teamed with Speedy Thompson and the two drivers took 16 straight Grand National wins!
Carl Kiekhaefer stopped sponsoring racing teams before the end of the 1956 season. He said that factory competition, NASCAR/USAC rules problems and the increasing expense of building cars were too much for him. It didn’t take long before his beloved white Mercury Outboard Chryslers were gone and very much missed by fans.
After putting in two years with the Mercury Outboard Racing Team, Mike Martin went to work at Oshkosh Truck. He spent 30 years there before retiring. After that he traveled extensively, making trips to six of the seven continents. Mike was a people person and made friends all around the world. He loved to share his Mercury Outboard stories with many of his car-collecting friends and he had many “inside” stories to tell because Carl Kiekaefer was kind of a character who thought outside the box.
Mike Martin's greatest passion was always interesting cars; whether it involved building them, selling them, showing them off or restoring old cars with his enthusiast friends. He was immersed in the world of automobiles. He belonged to a group called Central Wisconsin Auto Collectors. Mike's day would start with a cup of coffee at LaSure's restaurant and he would never miss the opportunity to have breakfast with an informal Central Wisconsin group of hot rodders and collectors called the "Coffee Clutchers.”
Mike is survived by his wife, Doris; sisters-in-law, Germaine Nelson and Elaine Bradley; numerous nieces and nephews; other family members and cherished friends. The family held a private memorial service to remember Mike. Anyone who knew him through the car hobby and cares to make a memorial donation in his name can do through the Oshkosh Corporation Cares Fund, 1917 Four Wheel Drive, Oshkosh, WI 54902.
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