Inside Chrysler: NASCAR and Daytona, 1960
I cannot make any claim to accuracy for the materials that I have used to make these articles. In some cases, the journals go back 50 years. — Curtis Redgap
I had said that 1957 was about the last year for the Speedweeks in a previous installment. It was officially no longer recognized, but the madness on the sand went right on.
1957, 1958, and 1959 were challenging years for NASCAR and the American automobile industry, but when Bill France finished building the Daytona Beach race track in 1959, NASCAR got attention. This was the first super speedway. Nothing like the modified tri-oval track had ever been built before. Its turns were banked at 31 degrees, the most that construction equipment of the time could build.
As a prelude to the race, NASCAR heavily promoted the “assault on the beach,” a throwback to the old sand races and time trials. Chrysler had hardly participated in 1959, but they assaulted the Beach in February 1960 with six big 300Fs.
Henry Ford II was openly contemptuous of the AMA and its racing ban. He, then President of the AMA, came out and openly declared that he was “going to ignore the provisions of the AMA ban, and go racing in any manner he saw fit.” Only General Motors observed its provisions to the letter.
It was widely held that Henry Ford II put together the ban to frustrate General Motors. It worked, because Chevrolet and Pontiac were fairly dormant in their racing for a couple of years. Chrysler and Ford kept their hand in by using “police” components and “export” parts; Ford also openly developed engines designed especially for NASCAR. To keep pace with Ford, whatever a NASCAR team needed, Chrysler tried to develop it.
As an example of how Chrysler was operating then, a certain big camshaft manufacturer was grinding a model for the big V-8s that was putting out some tremendous numbers. Rather than go through the fits and jerks of trying to make a camshaft like that of their own, Chrysler simply bought it from the manufacturer, put their own parts number on it, and stuck in the parts bin as one of their own. This was smart marketing because the over the counter price was less expensive that if Chrysler had built it. That, my friends, is the way Chrysler should have been operating all the time.
In a way, Chevrolet, recognizing the potential for its V-8 in 1955, did exactly that. They made parts and bought aftermarket parts for racers, selling them as their own through a separate marketing group. Finally, Chrysler, through “Direct Connection,” began to compete with GM and Ford on the aftermarket.
Chrysler’s arrival at Daytona with six mighty 300s sent a ripple through the automotive world. “Here we go again. Chrysler is back, and I think they are pissed off this time,” is what one automotive wag said.
The prevailing attitude was that Chrysler was there to raise hell and smash every record that needed to be smashed. Maybe the 400 horsepower rating satisfied NASCAR and the general public; many felt Chrysler was packing more. They showed it well, setting a top speed record of 144.927 miles per hour. None of the 300s were less than 141 miles an hour.
The car was later shipped back to Michigan for trials at the Chrysler Proving Grounds. There the “velvet beast,” taking advantage of the paved surface, ran out to a booming 157 miles per hour!
Included among the smiling faces in the group of engineers was my cousin, James. His work over the past two years with Plymouth had won him a place alongside Chrysler's best. He was also working hard with the Ray Nichels group, which controlled of all the performance parts for Chrysler cars.
The second NASCAR Daytona race
In February 1960, the second big race was held at the nearly new Daytona Beach Speedway in Daytona Beach Florida. NASCAR was drawing some big attention.
All the cars racing in NASCAR were now hardtops, and the Pettys took delivery of four 1960 Plymouth Fury two-door hardtops. They were supposed to be strictly stock, but safety upgrades could be made, including rudimentary roll bars and larger brakes; engines were supposed to be stock, that anyone could buy.
The Plymouth in the first part of the model year had a 325 horsepower 383 cubic inch V-8. By the time Daytona came around, the Pettys had installed the larger 413 cubic inch engine. If you notice the photos of the cars, the engine size had been taken off the hood, and the horsepower figures were substituted. They claimed 325 horses for the 413, a little understated. It was still no match for the special engines installed in the Pontiacs and Fords.
At the start of the 1960 Daytona 500, two Pontiacs sat on the front row. Lee qualified in the 14th spot, and Richard was in the 19th position. By the end of the 500 miles, the Plymouths tended to equate themselves, propelling Lee to third place, and Richard close behind in fourth.
Over the period of the forty-race Grand National NASCAR season, Richard Petty and Plymouth were always a force to be reckoned with, though Rex White, a Chevrolet driver, won the Championship for 1960. In second place was a young Richard Petty in his second year as a driver. Lee was the 6th place finisher, with Ned Jarrett in 5th place. 1961 would be a bitter season as was the style of the Plymouth that year.
As the race ended, it was becoming clear that Plymouth would never be allowed to stand alone. Dodge officials were upset and jealous of the position and attention Plymouth was drawing with the Petty clan, and set off to the South to knock Plymouth out of that seat. They approached a successful racer with offers of money, cars, wine, women and song, if only he would accept. He did. It was also a means to drive a deep wedge into the Plymouth and Petty alliance. The man they got was Cotton Owens, whose daughter was married to Richard Petty!
Their ploy didn't work. Instead of creating a rift in the family, it strengthened the clan. Cotton Owens took the deal at the urging of Richard Petty; he wasn't about to make a fool of, or fight with, his “daddy in law.” The Pettys gladly shared preparation tips with Cotton. Since the cars were basically alike, even chassis were sent back and forth, and engines were regularly swapped. My father found the situation delightful, and was annoying as hell to any Dodge man who didn't want to hear it.