"Strictly Stock"
The Champions of 1955 & 1956

by Dan Elliott

      Perhaps** a good starting point for Kiekhaefer auto racing history is Hershel McGriff's foray into the first Mexican Road Race, the Carerra Panamericana. At age 21, Hershel was a promising local Portland, Oregon stock car driver who had persuaded a well-healed sponsor to buy him a hot new 1950 Oldsmobile 88. On a whim, Hershel decided that he would take the factory-fresh car to the Mexican race. Before leaving Portland, he persuaded local policeman Ray Elliott to make the trip with him as co-pilot/mechanic. Against the odds, Hershel and Ray won the race in the Olds 88, aptly named "Portland Rose". For the two racers and the car's owner, the reward was unexpected celebrity; this of course baited the hook for the team's entry into the next Mexican race. As lady luck would have it, the 1951 event was a bust for Hershel and Ray: The pair were charging along at 115 MPH in the mountains near Mexico City when the Olds engine and interior firewall/bulkhead exploded into flames. After some dramatic moves to stop the car without catching themselves on fire, McGriff and Elliott quickly exited the burning car just before the whole thing exploded. The young minister's son explained the risks of the Mexican race in 1954 after he'd been racing on the NASCAR Grand National circuit for a few years: "Road racing is twice as dangerous as competing on a closed track. Sure, track competition is a tough, grueling business. Many a good professional has lost his life at it. But road racing is Russian roulette on wheels. You don't get to make but one big mistake on a highway."

      The same 1951 Carrera was a successful first race effort for E.C. "Carl" Kiekhaefer and his Mercury Marine business. The small outboard boat engine business he acquired in early 1939, commonly known later on as Kiekhaefer Mercury Marine, had participated in boat racing during the late 1940's. However, by 1951 automobile racing offered engineering challenges pertinent to development of inboard boat engines, and a potential for much wider publicity for what had grown to be a very large manufacturing company under Carl's direction. On a whim somewhat similar to Hershel's 1950 decision, Carl decided to enter the 1951 Carerra just three weeks before the race was to start in November. In typical Kiekhaefer fashion, he and his Wisconsin-based crew worked almost 24/7 to put into racing condition two new 1951 Chrysler Saratoga's. Following this whirlwind of activity, the crew drove the cars 4,000 miles to the start-line in southern Mexico. A third car, a van full of parts and Carl's private airplane, accompanied the two racecars. As the race unfolded, one of Carl's drivers, 1951 AAA stock car champion Tony Bettenhausen, may have passed Hershel McGriff's burned-out Olds on the way to a 3rd place showing just south of the US border. Carl's #7 Saratoga finished just behind two well prepared factory-financed Ferrari's. The fever for this race that had overcome Hershel now infected Carl.

**Perhaps it is proper that written history of the 1950's era Kiekhaefer Mercury Marine auto racing efforts include a word that, when used, evokes a thoughtful distinction between what may have been, and what actually occurred. I will use the word "perhaps" as a marker to denote less-than-perfect information about this romantic era. Perhaps someday the records still existing in Wisconsin will be made available so as to expose important details leading to full clarity of this rare story. Until that time, we are left with educated interpretations of publicly available information from the 1950's, and with relatively recent writings based on interviews conducted year's after-the-fact with people who lived with and worked for Kiekhaefer Mercury Marine.

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