50 Years of NASCAR Racing ~ Post 45
By Matt McLaughlin
Editor’s note: This article is part of a special reprise of Matt McLaughlin’s “50 Years of NASCAR Racing”, written and published in 1998 in commemoration of NASCAR ‘s 50th Anniversary celebration that year. In keeping with the RacersReunion mission of passing the history of our sport down to younger fans, Matt has kindly granted us permission to run the entire series. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two. Many thanks to Matt for his generosity in sharing. God bless you, my friend.
In the late sixties, Ford and Chrysler were engaged in a no holds barred, budget be damned battle for supremacy on the NASCAR Grand National circuit, and of course in the hearts and minds of NASCAR fans, who made up a lot of their customers. That “Win at any cost” attitude gave rise to some pretty odd looking race cars, the automotive equivalent of the platypus, both on the street and the track. It was Richard Petty’s dominance in the 1967 season, that caused Ford to fire off the first salvo in the great aero wars of 1968-1970.
Ford executives were grinding their teeth to calcium powder after watching Petty streak to 27 wins in 1967, behind the bellowing 426 Hemi that was already the stuff of legends. Ford had already decided they would build a Hemi engine of their own, and stylist Larry Shinoda gave the engine its moniker, “Boss 429″. “Boss” was a short lived part of American slang, that meant “The coolest.” But a new science was in its infancy at that point, aerodynamics, with the first wind tunnels large enough to accommodate a full size automobile having been built. As speeds increased it became more and more necessary for the designers to try to find a way to make their cars, most of which looked like taxi cabs at that point, get on friendly terms with the wind. Ford was first to experiment, and in 1968 the lovely but boxy Fairlane was replaced with the Torino, a fast back body style with a sloped rear roof that stretched almost back to the end of the rear decklid. David Pearson would dominate that year in a blue and gold Torino.
The Chrysler camp was caught with their corporate pants around their ankles. While to most eyes the Road Runners and Chargers of the era were a far better looking car, to the wind the boxy Mopars were an affront the equivalent of a barn door. A recessed grill trapped air rather than letting it flow evenly over the car. A concave rear window actually produced lift taking weight off the rear wheels, making the cars, “bad loose”, which led to bad wrecks, and of course bad results. Work quickly began on the Charger “500″ (so named either after the length of a typical speedway race, or the fact NASCAR rules at that point required 500 street going versions be built before the car could be raced, depending on who you talk to.) The grill was extended forward to the front bumper and the rear window area was filled and laid even with the body work, which took extensive retooling and left the car with a trunk opening about the size of a mail slot. As an interesting foot note, when Chrysler tried to rush the car into production to get it legalized, they could not build 500 cars fast enough. When a NASCAR inspector came to make his count, cars from the beginning of the line were driven out the front door and around again to the back of the line so they would be counted twice. Only 392 of the vehicles were actually built. The Dodge boys may have been grinning that they got away with their chicanery but the smile was about to be wiped off their faces. Big time. Ford had a secret weapon of their own and showed the car to one driver in particular, who after seeing the car, decided the Fords would be faster. In December of 1968 Richard Petty stunned the racing world by announcing he was terminating his long association with Plymouth and would be driving a Ford in 1969, a move that had flags flying at half staff at Plymouth dealers all over the Southeast. Imagine the producers of ER telling the NBC execs he was moving his program to CBS effective immediately.
The car Petty had seen at the Ford skunkworks was to be dubbed the Torino “Talladega” after the as yet unfinished track Bill France was building in Alabama. The nose of the standard Torino had been extended forward several inches and allowed to droop in a concession to aerodynamics. The grill had been moved forward, and conveniently enough, the rear bumper to a Torino was found to fit the front end of the new car almost flush and served as a crude front spoiler. While no one would call the result pretty, (it looked rather like the clay model styling buck for the car had been left in the sun too long) the wind loved it. Petty won his first race out in a Ford at Riverside, California in January of 1969. The Ford teams did suffer a minor setback at Daytona. They arrived with their own Hemispherical head “Boss” engines at Daytona, but Bill France was not convinced enough of the street counterparts had been built as of yet. Interestingly enough, street versions of the Talladega (and later its sister car, the Mercury Cyclone Spoiler II) were fitted with the standard head 428 Cobra Jet engine, while Ford legalized the Boss 429 by shoehorning it into the Boss 429 Mustang. The Ford teams were forced to yank their Boss engines and go back to the tried and true 427 mills. Still, the Fords stomped the Dodges at Daytona, and embarrassed Chrysler executives had to admit they had been outfoxed. So it was back to the drawing boards.
Dodge’s answer to the Talladega was a cartoonish looking car they would dub the “Daytona” as a shot at Ford for using the “Talladega” name on a car that debuted at Daytona. And the target date to debut the Dodge Daytona was naturally enough the grand opening of the Talladega speedway. A picture is worth a thousand words so here is Bobby Isaac’s K and K Insurance Dodge Daytona.
At least a bunch of those thousand words would be “ugly.” The nose of the car was extended down to a pointed beak, and the huge rear wing was added to the decklid of the car. There are at least some hints that a shorter spoiler might actually have been more effective, but there was the glaring problem of having to be able to open the trunk on the street legal version. In testing at Chrysler’s private 5 mile oval, Charlie Glotzbach was able to circle the track at 243 miles per hour in a race trim Daytona. The Dodge boys were back in the game.
The street legal variants were a bit of a problem. The flip open headlight doors looked like they were carved in a with a chisel in a kindergarten sandbox by the dumbest kid there. Making the fragile extended nose enter combat in a crowded parking lot was like running naked through a briar patch. Customers showed up at the lots to ogle the beasts and left in droves without buying them, the more aesthetically delicate stricken with hysterical blindness. As hard as it might be to believe, with a Dodge Daytona a high-dollar collectible today, they were a slow seller in their time, and some dealers actually replaced the nose with a standard piece and removed the rear wing just to unload the cars. On the other hand, I did have the privilege of driving a Dodge Daytona years ago, and short of piloting a Rose Bowl float loaded with naked woman in a funereal procession, nothing gets more attention.
The Daytona’s big coming out party was marred by the PDA strike at Talladega (See “Showdown In Alabama”) but the cars did finish one-two at that event. After that, the Fords reasserted themselves, and won most of the races, with the notable exception of Bobby Isaac taking the season finale at College Station in his winged thingy. David Pearson took the title in his Ford Talladega.
But there was still more behind the scenes plotting going on. Richard Petty had not had the best year of his career in the Ford. He won “only” ten races (as compared to 27 in 1967) and finished second in the points. Plymouth lured him back to the fold with their own winged warrior, to be dubbed the Superbird, a play on the standard car’s Road Runner nameplate. Street versions of the car featured a cartoon of the popular Warner Brother’s cartoon nemesis of Wile E. Coyote, carrying a crash helmet, but there was nothing funny about how blindingly fast Superbirds would be on the track in 1970. Production of the Daytona stopped as NASCAR allowed cars up to three years old to compete in Grand National events, and Dodge dealers weren’t exactly hollering for 500 more of the slow selling cars. NASCAR had upped the ante and required that to be legal for stock car racing 1000 units, or at least one for every two sales agencies that sold the car, be available to the public, whichever number was greater. Plymouth bit the bullet and eventually cranked out 1920 Superbirds for public consumption to a less than enthusiastic response by the buyers, to lure back Petty . As a side note there may have been as many as three Daytonas built, officially titled as 1970s, one complete with a power sunroof, a 440 Six Pack engine, leather interior and a retina burning “Plum Crazy” purple paint job. An informed source and owner of Ramo Scott’s old Superbird, Ken Noffsinger, tells me while these cars were built, they probably lacked the flush rear window glass.
(Editor’s note: It is my understanding that the car pictured here is not a factory-built 1970 Dodge Daytona, which means someone did this on purpose. Lacking any of the pictures that originally accompanied these articles, I substitute as best I can when necessary. Therefore, it is not the “sunroof” described by Matt, but it gives you the general idea of how “lovely” those Daytonas were not.)
Though the cars look similar, building the Superbird was a lot harder challenge than the Daytonas , and the major parts, even the rear wing, are not interchangeable. (I’m told a few parts of the headlight assembly were the only interchangeable body parts.) Differences in the front fenders forced Plymouth to McGuyver on Dodge Coronet front fenders to their car in order to accommodate the pointy beak. The rear window area was not as easily modified as the Dodge, and the resultant surgery required a vinyl roof on street cars to cover up the butchery of the operation. Lessons learned in the wind tunnel led to a subtle redesign of the rear wing. And of course, most importantly, Plymouth installed Richard Petty behind the wheel of one of their race cars.
There was a major shake up at Ford that off season. Fearing the new Superbird would dominate the series, and facing a full redesign on the Torino, the Ford engineers developed a new aero warrior, complete with a pointed beak even more awkward then the Mopar efforts. The result, the King Cobra, was so awkward the window sticker probably would have had to be printed in Braille to appeal to the only buyers who would consider the car. But the King Cobra was stillborn. Lee Iacocca, who would have you believe he loved performance cars but did not, became president of Ford. Muscle car sales were declining due to the evil tag team of high insurance rates and government emission regulations, and Lee decided the future lay in such automotive atrocities as the Pinto and Maverick, not big block muscle cars. He slashed Ford’s racing budget 75% and cut funding to the King Cobra project. In doing so Ford sent up the white flag in their battle with Chrysler.
The Superbird won its first time out at the Daytona 500. Richard Petty lost an engine, but his teammate Pete Hamilton carried the Plymouth colors across the line for the biggest win of his career. Chrysler entries would win 38 of 47 races that year, and Bobby Isaac drove a year old Daytona (the car pictured above) to the Grand National championship. Let me point out here, the winged Dodges and Plymouths were normally only run on the Superspeedways. Their aerodynamic edge was not of any benefit on the short tracks or the few remaining dirt tracks on the schedule, and the nose was too fragile to survive the abuse. Still, the Mopar boys’ winning percentage was a fitting swan song for the last year of the Superbirds in NASCAR competition. At the end of the 1970 season, Bill France, who wanted the cars on his tracks to resemble more closely what Mom and Pop drove to church on Sunday, issued an edict that starting in 1971 any aerodynamic special car could only run a 305 cubic inch engine, while the standard cars could still run 426 Hemis and Boss 429′s. Thus the aero wars died not with a bang, but a whimper, at the whim of Bill France. Both Ford and Chrysler race executives were enraged after having invested all that money, thinking the cars would be legal at least three years, and the stage was set for the factories to pull the plug on their racing programs in NASCAR.
AFTERMATH- At the end of 1970 Chrysler announced they would only sponsor two drivers in 1971, Richard Petty in a Plymouth and Buddy Baker in a Petty Enterprises Dodge. Among those that got the ax were Grand National champion Bobby Isaac, and Bobby Allison, who came in second in the points in 1970. November 19th, 1970 Ford went one better and announced they would not sponsor any cars at all in 1971. Chrysler withdrew in 72. Those street versions of the Dodge Daytona and Plymouth Superbirds that were such slow sellers in 69 and 70 are now highly sought after and expensive collectibles. A prime car with the Hemi powerplant can bring upwards of $100,000. The Talladega and the Spoiler II are a bit more modestly priced, and if you look hard, you might find a Mercury with a factory option naming the car in honor of either Cale Yarborough or Dan Gurney, a USAC racing standout of that time, the first production cars ever named in honor of race drivers.
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