1958 Mercury racer

The legends and their contribution to modern auto sports

John Gunnell - October 27, 2011 10:00 AM


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In the ’50s, I was only in racing for the sport. I was not in it for money

because I had a job and I had to earn my income. That took priority then.

When you get a chance to see a historic race car, take it. It will give you plenty of insight into the times.

The Fall Vintage Festival at Road America, in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, has showcased NASCAR racing cars of all ages. The one that stood out the most was a bright orange 1956 Mercury Monterey hardtop owned by Russ Truelove. It was a true slice of racing history.

Truelove was born in 1935 and started getting interested in racing cars when he was 10 years old. “My friend Juney’s dad had a racing car that was painted Coca-Cola yellow and red and had No. 26 on the side,” said Truelove. “As a boy, I watched them working on that car and trying it out on a private road next to the Chase Grass Co. It was an open-wheel, ½-mile car like those you saw back East then. It had a McDowell engine, which was built on a Ford B block.”

Russ got out of high school in 1942 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy, serving aboard the USS Sherwood in the Pacific Theatre. After he was honorably discharged in 1946, Truelove started racing at East Coast tracks, driving on the NASCAR circuit seven years later.

He became acquainted with Bob Sahl, the Northeast representative of NASCAR. Most of the action was modified stock car races on smaller tracks. In 1955, Truelove purchased a 1955 Ford and took it to race on the old beach racing course at Daytona. Back then, the four-mile beach course consisted of sand and a paved portion of highway.

The cars driven by independent drivers like Russ were usually purchased at a local dealership and driven to the track. They were basically production cars with taped headlights, a roll bar inside and the doors chained shut with the chain I-bolted.

“Bob Sahl and I went hunting in the latter part of 1955 and he told me that because I had gone to Daytona with a Ford in 1955, I should go with a Mercury in 1956. The Mercury Monterey was heavier than the Ford, but it had a 312-cid V-8 compared to the Ford’s 292-cid engine. I bought it on the installment plan. You paid $50 a month for six months and then you got a big surprise.”

In 1956, while he was racing the Mercury on the sand at Daytona Beach, Truelove got his picture in Life magazine. He had downshifted while entering the North Turn at 130 mph and his right tire dug in. He went into a skid and rolled the car over six times.

After he was released from the hospital, Russ started rebuilding the Mercury. He got a new hardtop body from the factory and put the car back together again into the form it is now.

Russ said he made “piecemeal” repairs because he actually used the Mercury as his pleasure car for a while. Then, it stayed at his dad’s house when he went to Michigan. It stayed at his dad’s house for years and has been very well preserved.

“In the ’50s, I was only in racing for the sport,” Russ pointed out. “I was not in it for money because I had a job and I had to earn my income. That took priority then.” He believes that NASCAR played an important role in keeping racing alive in the United States during a very difficult period for motorsports in general.

Russ still lives in Waterbury, Connecticut, and has served as a director of The Living Legends of Auto Racing, Inc. This group was founded in 1993 to recognize, honor and promote the pioneers of beach racing and stock car racing. The organization has over 600 members from around the world and is a 501(c)(3) non-profit group. The all-volunteer Daytona-based organization hosts a variety of activities throughout the year and publishes a quarterly newsletter called The Cannonball.

The “Stock” Car That Russ Truelove Drove

Election-year 1956 sent American voters flocking to the polls to pick Dwight Eisenhower over Adlai Stevenson for the second time in a row. It was a year of entertainment epics with My Fair Lady packing them in on the Great White Way, while blockbuster films like The Ten Commandments and Around the World in 80 Days filled motion picture houses coast to coast.

A tune about a “Heartbreak Hotel” introduced a hip-swiveling Mississippi native to fans of the new rock-and-roll craze, while wacky comedian Jerry Lewis did his last show with his 10-year partner Dean Martin at the Copa in New York City. Mercurys proved to be one of the hottest tickets in motorsports in 1956 and the “Big M” racing cars won five NASCAR Grand National races.

The ’56 Monterey was the basis for Russ Truelove’s stocker. It looked a lot like the previous year’s model. The hooded headlights, vertical “chubby cheek” taillights, and bumper-integrated grille were little changed. Montereys featured heavy chrome trim around the side windows and chrome rocker panels. The side body molding made a sort of lightning bolt pattern. “Monterey” was written in chrome on the front fenders.

Russ’ two-door hardtop originally sold for $2,630. It weighed 3,590 pounds and his racing car was one of 42,863 total Monterey two-door hardtops built. The Monterey’s bigger-for-’56 V-8 was bored and stroked (3.80 x 3.44 inches), which brought it up to 312 cubic inches. Truelove’s stick-shift version generated 210 hp at 4,600 rpm and 312 lbs-ft of torque at 2,600 rpm. A high-performance M-260 package — with two four-barrel carburetors for 260 hp — was offered in all series late in the year.