Skip to main content
Original Issue


The Carolina partnership of John Holman, junkman extraordinary, and Ralph Moody, Model T U. cum laude, has helped put Ford on top in big-time stock-car racing—and In many markets

On the one-mile NASCAR racetrack at Rockingham, N.C. in the middle of a surly afternoon this spring, 43 quick and nimble stock cars were growling along in pursuit of each other. Through the afternoon the weather varied from ominous to foul. It rained and hailed. A strong wind sprang up from the west and died away and came back still stronger from the north, filling everyone's ears with red grit.

As the cars swirled around, in the infield of the track a Mr. Eddie Smith from the Iron Mountain corner of east Tennessee was seated on top of his 1968 hardtop Ford Fairlane Torino, drinking beer, ignoring the elements and enjoying every decibel of noise. Before the cars had gone half of the 500 miles they hoped to travel that day, in Eddie Smith's mind the outcome was no longer in doubt. Wagging an empty beer can toward a howling clot of cars, Eddie Smith spoke up loudly enough to be heard almost four feet away. "There's your winner right there," he bellowed. "That little old orange Ford Torino, No. 71."

As it turned out, Eddie Smith had picked the right stable but quite the wrong horse. The Rockingham race was won by the incumbent NASCAR champion, David Pearson, at the wheel of a blue and gold Ford, No. 17. The orange "Ford Torino" No. 71 that had caught Mr. Smith's fancy was not a Ford at all but a Dodge. It placed seventh.

All automobile companies cherish owners who have product loyalty, particularly a devotee like Eddie Smith, whose love is so blind that he can root for a rival make under the delusion that it is the living image of the car he owns. Although modern cars can be handsomely displayed on television and on the printed page, the car company that wants to whet the appetite of the truly devout buyer also spins its wheels on racetracks. That is why, in almost every kind of competition today, there are Ford cars—or at least Ford engines—showing their stuff. Most of the wedge-shaped, coffin-sized Formula I cars that are ripsnorting around the road courses of the world these days are powered by Ford, and so are many of the machines that gather for the annual 500-mile bash in Indianapolis, conspicuously Mario Andretti's winner last month. Although the strips are still dominated by rival marques, an increasing number of Ford engines are being used in the weird, fuming, hydra-headed, supercarbonated, twinkle-cammed, discombobulated drag machines that are vying for honors throughout the land.

Since the dragsters and the Formula I machines and the Indy cars bear little resemblance to ordinary vehicles, naturally the advantage gained from participation in such types of racing cannot be precisely measured. But in stock-car racing the effect is more tangible. If, for example, some hero drives a Ford Fairlane Torino Cobra 427 C.I.D. to victory in the International 50-miler on the ‚⅛-mile dirt oval at Bumbershoot, N.C., well, sir, the next week all sorts of folks are tracking red clay into the local dealer's showroom to look at the little old Ford car like the one that blew everybody off the course. To be sure, when a stock car is stripped down and restructured to make it safe and competitive, its interior is about as inviting as a Trappist monastery cell, and its exterior is usually decorated as gaudily as a Mexicali hustler. Be that as it may, in overall appearance and mechanical essence it is the same vehicle that can be bought from the local dealer.

Jacque Passino, the overseer of Ford's major racing efforts, puts the proposition most aptly. "When you sponsor a television show, like The Robe," Passino observes, "you have an audience of 18 million, maybe. They get out their beads and watch The Robe, but do they watch your commercials? When the commercial comes on, they go get a beer.... But you get a guy who paid six or seven bucks to sit on a damn hard concrete seat at the Rockingham track, where there was wind, rain, hail and just about everything except a flood—he's got to love high-performance cars or he wouldn't have been there. He doesn't rush out and buy a Ford because David Pearson won in a Ford, but it's a drop of water on his forehead. When he finally gets ready to buy a car, he says to his wife, 'Mabel, the payment book has run out. We've got the car purchased, so let's go down and look at a new Ford.' "

The statistics bear out what Passino says. Last year 9.4 million cars were sold in the U.S. The Ford company got 23.7% of the action; General Motors, 46.7. But in the South—the throbbing heartland of stock-car racing—Ford got 25% and General Motors 44.9. The 1.3% gain by Ford seems small, but it amounts to about $55 million worth of business. In California, the second most race-conscious area, last year foreign cars took a 22.8% slice of the pie, more than twice the foreign percentage elsewhere. Despite the foreign intrusion, in California the racy Ford company held its own, getting 23.3% of the total sales, while General Motors got 36.6%.

The Ford Motor Company first went into stock-car racing on a serious basis in the mid-1950s, primarily because its Southern dealers were howling that rival makes were winning on the tracks and, as a consequence, were also winning the sales race. Ford had scarcely entered the fray with well-organized and subsidized troops when the Automobile Manufacturers Association decided that the war on the tracks was unbecoming, since its corporate members were supposedly producing vehicles for use at legal speeds on public byways.

In June of 1957 an antiracing resolution was passed by the manufacturers. Two warriors of the Ford camp, John Holman and Ralph Moody, used their modest reserves and a bank loan to buy a good deal of the specialized machinery and spare parts that were no longer needed by Ford. Five years later, when Ford decided to abrogate the antiracing agreement and began looking for a subcontractor to carry its racing banner once more, there at trackside were Holman and Moody, by then a million-dollar partnership engaged in the business of racing cars, preparing cars and selling the sophisticated addenda required in high-performance machines.

Holman and Moody succeeded in the racing game primarily because they are what technicians would call a good stoichiometric mix—a balanced combination of diverse talents. Fifty-year-old John Holman (who is the "junior partner" because he is two months younger than Moody) has the acquisitive zeal of a common crow and an uncommon knack for spotting the long-range value of seemingly worthless equipment and ideas. If someone put the polar ice cap up for sale tomorrow, Holman probably would buy it and eventually turn a profit.

It would be a shame if Holman and Moody, Inc. ever went broke. In a bankruptcy proceeding, the accountant hired to inventory the physical assets at the main Holman and Moody plant outside Charlotte, N.C. would risk his sanity. The plant has a good stockpile of the latest hot equipment from Ford, and the machinery and gauging devices necessary to refine these items to the point of ultimate efficiency. The value of such modern stock is easily determined, but heaven help the appraiser who has to put a price on all the memorabilia and all the uncataloged bits and pieces that Holman has collected over the years.

Gathering dust at one end of the main building of Holman and Moody there is an open sports car called "The Honker" that was driven unsuccessfully by Andretti a few seasons back on the Can-Am race circuit, where Chevrolet power consistently prevails. Nearby, under the same blanket of dust, there is a once-famous yellow Ford sports coupe, the first of the rare Mark IV breed to win a major endurance race.

Across from the main building there is an aircraft hangar that Holman bought surplus and had reassembled on the plant grounds. Inside the hangar there are a number of spiffy boat hulls that serve primarily as test beds for the marine conversions Holman and Moody make out of basic Ford street engines. The hangar also contains several Ford vehicles that were deliberately bashed in impact tests, as well as a few golf carts that have been dinged up a bit. The golf carts were formerly used in the main plant until employees got to horsing around, doing wheelies in the carts, like hotshot drag-strip drivers. A large part of the hangar floor space is taken up by 70 crumpled English Ford Cortinas, damaged in a freighter accident. Holman got them for almost nothing and has already sold half of them to people who want some kind of topless buggy for use off the public roads.

Outside the hangar there is a stack of 9½-by-15½-foot, heavy-framed glass windows that came out of the State of Wisconsin building at the New York World's Fair—another of those bargains that Holman could not resist. The windows got to the Holman and Moody plant in good condition. Today, however, the windows look as if they had been through the Battle of Stalingrad, and it's all John Holman's fault. Holman loves to operate forklift trucks. A short time ago, while forklifting the huge Wisconsin windows from where they were to where he thought they should be, Holman dropped them. ' "Employees warned me that the windows were not secure and might fall off," Holman confesses, "but I didn't listen to them. I did a no-no right in front of everybody."

Because his father died when he was young, Holman was obliged to go to work at the age of 15 in his off-school hours. From the mid-1930s through the early '50s he worked for a variety of auto body shops, machine shops and salvage yards in the Greater Los Angeles area, but the occupation most responsible for his later connections with the Ford company was one he undertook on his own. Even in the '30s, before Los Angeles had a super freeway system on which the populace could rumple their cars en masse, a good number of drivers were smashing into each other. As a consequence, in Southern California the demand for used parts—particularly bumpers, grilles, headlights, fenders and paneling—exceeded the supply. In Texas the situation was the opposite. There was an excess of used parts. Although in their big country Texans wore out their cars, in the tired heaps that went to the salvage yards there were many parts almost like new, particularly exterior components that suffered relatively little in the arid climate. On and off, from the late '30s through the early '50s, Holman made a decent, albeit taxing, livelihood trucking through the Southwest, buying car parts cheap and selling them high back in Los Angeles.

In 1952 the Lincoln-Mercury Division of the Ford Motor Company decided to enter a factory team in the annual 2,000-mile Mexican Carrera, a combination road race and survival test that is no longer held for humanitarian reasons. Lincoln-Mercury needed a good parts man who could also drive a maintenance truck in slam-bang fashion over Mexico's unpredictable roads. John Holman not only filled those requirements but had another strong point in his favor. Even in the poorest Mexican restaurants along the route he could usually keep his food down while those around him were losing theirs. Holman served the winning stock Lincolns in the Mexican ordeals of 1952, '53 and '54, and in one way or another he has been working with high-performance Ford products ever since.

Holman's "senior" partner, Ralph Moody, has been devoted to high-performance vehicles for more than 35 years. Moody's love of racing is easy to explain: as a small child he received a severe blow on the head. It happened this way. In the 1920s Moody's father—Ralph (Pop) Moody Sr.—ran a garage and a construction business in Taunton, Mass. Pop Moody housed the larger vehicles used in his construction business—including a splendid Larrabee truck—in a flimsy shed.

One day, in the absence of his elders, 9-year-old Ralph Moody Jr. decided to start up the Larrabee. Since he weighed less than 80 pounds, it was impossible for him to turn the 18-inch crank of the truck over in the normal manner. After giving each cylinder a dribble of ether to help things along, young Moody stood on the crank handle and pushed down with his feet while he pressed upward against the left headlight with his hands. The Larrabee kicked back hard, sending Moody into the air. He came to a halt with his head and part of his body sticking through the roof of the shed.

To divert his son from any further foolish acts, Pop Moody did absolutely the wrong thing. He gave young Ralph a Model T Ford that did not work. As any sociologist knows, the motor mania that afflicts many 50-year-old American males today can be traced directly to a boyhood association with a barking, chortling, cantankerous, secondhand Model T. After three days of cranking the car—without getting a single burst out of it—Moody discovered why the machine did not work: it had no ignition.

Thinking back on his boyhood now, Moody reckons that before he was old enough to have a driver's license, he owned about 30 cars—Fords, Chevies, Pontiacs, Buicks, Oaklands, Hudsons, Franklins, Hollywood Grahams, Airflow De Sotos, floating-power Plymouths and God knows what else. He would tune each of his acquisitions to perfection, then trade it to some other juvenile car nut for a little cash and a classier heap that was not in running condition.

In his prelicense days, young Ralph Moody did his speed work surreptitiously on back roads. Pop Moody approved of any vehicle that served as an honest beast of burden, but he was opposed to speed machines. Ralph Moody particularly remembers the day he was trying out a four-in-line Indian motorcycle. He had just blasted off in the driveway of the Moody home when his father suddenly appeared in the path of the motorcycle. "Get off that thing," Pop Moody commanded, expecting his son to stop. Moody would have stopped except that his only means of braking the machine was by dragging one foot.

"I ran right into Pop," Moody recalls. "Goldang, I really hit him. Knocked him over a hedge." Subsequently, the elder Moody discovered that his son was racing ungodly midget cars on the dirt ovals of New England. For money. The elder Moody kicked up such a fuss in the infield before one race that his son was obliged to summon a cop and have him ejected.

During World War II, Moody served in an M-24 reconnaissance tank, a hard-shelled hunk of vehicle which, despite its wide tracks and twin Caddie engines, could not drag a quarter mile in much less than 32 seconds. After the war Moody went back to the midgets and then into the stock-car whirl, naturally gravitating south of the Mason-Dixon line into the classic land of rumble, tumble and crash. In his early stock days he frequently ran an ordinary gasoline-fed sportsman car in races for hopped-up modified machines. Despite the handicap, he often sat on the pole and he often won, in part because he was a hot driver but more because he was a master of the art of setting a car up for a particular job.

It was largely because of this virtuosity that Moody was taken onto the Ford racing team, for which he drove and mechanicked for about a year before the antiracing resolution went into effect. After forming their partnership, Holman and Moody decided they needed to make a name for themselves outside the NASCAR circuit, where their reputations were already well established. The rival USAC circuit was far smaller, but it drew crowds and got attention in the press because in its driving ranks there were a number of the hotsy-totsy Indianapolis stars of that time, notably Sam Hanks, Jerry Unser, Jimmy Bryan and Troy Ruttman. In the first year of the Holman-Moody partnership, Moody drove in only seven of the 16 races scheduled by USAC, but still ended second in the driver standings, taking four firsts and a third.

In the first of the big races he won against the Indy stars, Moody was disturbed by the way Troy Ruttman kept cutting deep down into the turns—almost across the infield, as it seemed to Moody. Rather than join in any sort of spooky dice game, Moody simply put his car outside of Ruttman's, and insofar as the rest of the traffic allowed, kept pace with the Indy star. By so doing, he was in effect handicapping himself about a half a car length on each lap, and for sure driving a course that required superior handling. As Moody remembers the race, "I sat on the pole, but old Ruttman was the hot dog of the race. When I saw him running across the grass, bouncing all over, I just thought 'to hell with him, I'll just run outside.' He never got away from me, and the crowd was going wild. About 15 laps to go, I just squirted out in front. After the race John Holman asked Ruttman, 'How do you like racing country style?' and Ruttman was so goddam mad he could have killed somebody."

Last year the Ford cars prepared by Holman and Moody won the manufacturer's championship on both the NASCAR and the USAC circuits and are a good bet to repeat. David Pearson, whose car is both prepared and crewed by Holman and Moody personnel, won the NASCAR driver's title and is leading in championship points again this year. "I expect a lot of people would like to know why Holman and Moody are the best in the business," Pearson observes. "About the most I can say is that the men in their shop are the best you can hire. When I get out on a track I really feel like there isn't supposed to be anybody out there who can beat me when I'm in a Holman-Moody car."