Ralph Moody, Racing Hall of Famer
By William F. Hanna
Of all the men and women from this area who have participated in professional sports, among the least famous — but most successful — was Ralph Moody. Born and raised in Dighton, Massachusetts, Moody spent his life trying to make automobiles run faster. As a teenager in the mid-1930s, he rebuilt a Ford Model T and ran it at area race tracks on weekends. Not only was he interested in driving fast cars, but even as a young man he was captivated by the principles of physics and engineering that allowed competitive drivers to continuously push the envelope of speed. That fascination would one day make him a legend in the racing industry.
Moody was 24-years old when the U.S. entered World War II and he enlisted in the army in April 1942. Assigned to the Third Armored Division, he saw service in Europe under the command of General George S. Patton. After being discharged he came home, took a mechanic’s job in a Taunton automobile garage and returned to racing.
The period between 1946 and 1951 saw Moody establish a reputation as a top tier race car driver. Beginning his career in midget cars, he soon moved up to stock cars and consistently placed among the top three finishers on tracks in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Racing in front of crowds numbering in the thousands, it was a grueling and dangerous sport, and Moody had the scars to prove it. During a 1946 race at Ponta Delgada Speedway in North Tiverton, Rhode Island, for example, his midget car slammed into a guardrail at high speed leaving him with a concussion and other injuries. On another occasion, he narrowly averted serious harm in a pileup at the Norwood, Massachusetts track. A Boston Globe story written before the 1951 New England season reported that up to that point in his career, Moody had suffered a broken shoulder, nose and ribs in car wrecks.
In 1950, Moody won the New England Auto Racing Association championship, having defeated the incumbent titleholder in the final few days of the racing season. Tom Cotter and Al Pearce, while researching for their 2013 book, Holman-Moody: The Legendary Race Team, talked to one of Moody’s early racing friends. Recalling the passion and fearlessness that Moody brought to each race, the man said simply, “If his car stayed together, nothing could touch it.” By the early 1950s, write Cotter and Pearce, Moody was making good money, in some cases receiving $500 just to compete in a race, and collecting thousands if he won.
In 1949, Moody married his longtime girlfriend, Marjorie Ann Tobin. “Mitzi,” as she was called, joined the world of stock car racing and for the next fifty-five years shared the highs and lows of her husband’s career. Not long after their marriage, and in order to race year-round, the Moodys left Taunton each autumn and headed for Florida, often stopping in Virginia to race on tracks around Richmond. In Florida, they wintered in the Fort Lauderdale area, where Moody’s racing celebrity matched his acclaim throughout New England. He was a frequent winner at Florida tracks and his name and image were used to advertise upcoming races. At one of those events, held at the Hialeah track in Miami, a teen-age Bobby Allison was so inspired by Moody’s performance that the memory of that day never left him. The young man went on to have a storied racing career of his own, one which culminated in his induction into the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1993.
It was during the early 1950s that some U.S. auto makers recognized a marketing opportunity in racing their cars at events sponsored by the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). One of these companies was Ford, which in 1955 recruited Peter DePaolo, the 1925 Indianapolis 500 winner, to organize a stock car racing team that featured Ford’s passenger cars. Because Ford didn’t want to be directly associated with the racing venture, the cars would be managed by a poorly disguised entity called DePaolo Engineering, located in Charlotte, North Carolina. Among the first drivers hired for the Ford team was Ralph Moody.
As the Moodys relocated to North Carolina, Ralph was about to enter the most challenging and rewarding period of his career. In 1956, DePaolo hired John Holman to run the Charlotte operation. Born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1918, Holman had lived most of his life in Southern California. As a gifted manager and relentless salesman, Holman brought a culture of hard work and intense competition to the DePaolo company. He also had a thorough knowledge of the non-technical side of the racing industry. His organizational talent would prove to be a perfect match for Moody’s desire to design and drive the fastest cars in the world.
On June 10, 1956, one month after Holman arrived in Charlotte, Moody brought DePaolo Engineering its first NASCAR victory when he won the feature race at LeHi, Arkansas. The win came early in the season, and Holman used the remainder of the summer and fall to full advantage. According to Cotter and Pierce, during that time DePaolo Engineering fielded cars for a team of twelve drivers. One of them was Moody, who competed in twenty-six races. That season would give him four out of his five NASCAR career victories, and several other races found him among either the top five or top ten finishers. Within one ten-day period in 1956, the DePaolo team raced in New Jersey, California, Virginia and South Carolina. Moody finished eighth in NASCAR points that year.
The 1957 racing season officially began in November 1956, and as it progressed the DePaolo Engineering team was enjoying steady success. But by then it had become apparent that as much as he loved driving, Moody’s talents were more useful when directed toward overseeing the technical aspects of the team’s race cars. Although he picked up his fifth and last NASCAR win at the end of March 1957, thereafter Moody’s exploits behind the wheel would be limited to those rare occasions when he raced under an assumed name.
In June 1957, the Automobile Manufacturers Association, which included the Ford Motor Company, agreed to discontinue its association with racing. With that decision, there was no further need for DePaolo Engineering and the company folded. But Ford still had race car parts stored in two warehouses, one in California and the other in North Carolina. The company was willing to sell the equipment at a reasonable price and Holman seemed to be the logical buyer. Money, however, would be a problem.
Cotter and Pierce write that Ralph Moody didn’t remember what he was doing when he heard about Ford’s withdrawal from the racing business, but he did recall the long-distance phone call that he received from Holman shortly after. His soon-to-be-partner explained to Moody that for $12,000 they could buy the Ford equipment and continue in business by fielding an independent racing team. Holman had big ideas — but not $12,000. He proposed a partnership and Moody accepted. A licensed pilot, Moody refinanced the note on his airplane, the surplus parts were purchased, and Holman-Moody was born.
The Holman-Moody partnership lasted for fourteen years, until 1971. Those who knew them said the two men had almost nothing in common except the overwhelming desire to build and race the fastest cars in the world. In that, they succeeded. Between 1958 and 1971, cars owned by Holman-Moody won 93 races in what is now NASCAR’s top circuit. The drivers who raced and won in those cars comprise a veritable “Who’s Who” within the racing industry. They include Al and Bobby Unser, Cale Yarborough, Mario Andretti and Richard Petty. Overseeing the technical aspects of the operation was Ralph Moody.
In 1962, the AMA ban was lifted, Ford rekindled its relationship with racing and spent liberally. Coincidentally, during the 1960s Holman-Moody expanded its interests to include not only stock cars, but also sports cars, drag racers, and even boat racing. Meanwhile, the company’s cars and drivers raced and won on tracks around the world. In 1968 and 1969, for example, the Holman-Moody racing team won the NASCAR championships with David Pearson behind the wheel.
After the 1970 season Ford once again withdrew from racing. Holman-Moody had another good year in 1971, but then Ralph sold his shares back to the company and departed. He opened Ralph Moody, Inc., in Charlotte and spent the rest of his career building race cars and engines. Ever the technician, he was interested in the development of high mileage automobiles as well as safety features for race cars. John Holman, incidentally, died unexpectedly in 1975, but his family continues to operate Holman-Moody — the company’s name has remained the same — to this day.
Ralph Moody outlived his old partner by almost thirty years. He died in June 2004, at age 86, leaving his wife Mitzi, two children and three grandchildren. He lived long enough to enjoy the accolades that came with a famously successful career, and that would have included his induction into the International Motor Sports Hall of Fame in 1994. Moody is buried near Charlotte, North Carolina.
David Pearson, yet another racing Hall of Famer who drove for the Holman-Moody team, said of him, “Ralph had a lot of good ideas. He more or less told people there at the shop what to do to the cars. He was a pretty smart fellow. Whenever I was in one of his cars, I felt pretty good. You felt like you had a chance to win.”
“His place in life was making a car go fast around a race track,” said Lee Holman, John’s son. “If you were a racer, you and Ralph Moody could get along.”