Engage! The story of the 200+ mph Dodge Charger Daytona
A major speed-record feat stood tantalizingly close at the beginning of 1970. It was to be attempted with a car that at one point was a derelict, left as a potential candidate for scrap in a junk yard.
Dodge had committed itself to an all-out effort to win NASCAR races, first through the Dodge Charger 500, then through their development of the Dodge Charger Daytona.
Introduced in time to make the first race at the huge new NASCAR complex in Talladega, Alabama, the engineering mule was given the number 88 by the Ray Nichels racing team — at the time, the sole distributor of the Chrysler racing parts. He also built cars for other racers, though not Petty Enterprise, which did their own development.
The lead engineer for further racing development for the Dodge Daytona was Larry Rathgeb. He had somehow cajoled, begged, and pleaded that he be allowed to get the engineering mule qualified for the first Talladega race in September 1969. He felt that he had to ensure that the car qualified fast enough to sit on the pole of the race. His belief was that if the car did not qualify first, the money allotted for further development might be pulled away.
At the time, a lot of the team owners had not even seen a Dodge Charger Daytona. The kit pieces were being fastened on Dodge Chargers to turn them into Dodge Charger Daytonas as the qualification for the race was going on. The appointed drivers had no familiarity with the smooth wind cheater characteristics of the new car at all. No one outside the Chrysler Corporation engineering staff or upper management had any idea just how fast this new car was.
The engineering-mule Daytona was built strictly within the guidelines set down by NASCAR. It was a closely guarded corporate secret that Buddy Baker had routinely run laps with that very same mule, at the Chrysler Corporation Proving Ground in Chelsea Michigan at 235 miles an hour. That wasn't the full potential either — Charlie Glotzbach had taken the mule to laps over 240 miles an hour at Chelsea! The hottest was 243 miles an hour. If anyone had been armed with news like that, other competitors would have been howling in protest, trying to ban the car out of fear. After all, the stock Dodge Charger Daytona, for regular sale by dealers, was upwards of 45 to 50 miles an hour faster than anything from GM or Ford.
The true impetus to seeing if the wing car could break the record came at great expense to Larry Rathgeb at Talladega on September 9, 1969. Ronnie Householder, head of all Chrysler Racing, gave Mr. Rathgeb the OK to get the engineering mule qualified — with a huge caveat. Householder, who was tough and usually never backed down from a decision, tended to be abrupt, direct, and often came off as being demeaning; and he instructed Larry Rathgeb in no uncertain terms that the car was not to go over 185 miles an hour in any qualification attempt. Ultimately the car really belonged to Chrysler Corporation, and the thin disguise of being under the Nichels umbrella could easily be uncovered, especially if someone in NASCAR came asking. It was a concrete rule that the factory did not qualify or race cars of its own.
Bill France, the undisputed king of NASCAR, didn't care much for the factory teams, their factory representatives, and the factory supported drivers, likely because he could not control them. It was his racing organization, and he intended to run it entirely his way. Uncovering a factory owned car, racing in the guise of something else, would have dire consequences, far beyond just a slap on the wrist. The whole factory team concept would be in jeopardy, handing Bill France the exact charges he would need to throw everything out. Millions of dollars were at stake, beside the specter of a huge scandal.
So, on that September day, Larry Rathgeb grabbed Charlie Glotzbach. Charlie was, like all drivers, pretty independent. He didn't always follow the rules, and occasionally didn't take orders too well either. Larry probably should have chosen Buddy Baker to make the qualification run. Buddy was much better about grasping research and stuck to the plan. But, Charlie was there.
Larry instructed Charlie carefully and exactly, repeating over and over not to take the car over 185 miles an hour and just do the two practice laps, like everyone else to set the car up to be qualified. Charlie said, "Sure, Larry," put on his helmet, went to the pits, strapped himself in the #88 mule and fired the engine.
Everyone took note of that car. It was the first time many had seen the big car in action. It was a strange looking vehicle for the time, unlike anything ever seen on a NASCAR or any race track [especially in those days of block-shaped cars].
Charlie brought the car out of the pit without fanfare, and slowly worked his way around the big Talladega track. Thousands of pair of eyes followed every inch of his progress. Coming out of turn four, heading for the front stretch, Charlie pressed the accelerator. The big Dodge roared by the pits, the Hemi starting to make its full belly deep throated song. Everyone's eyes were glued to that car. Old experienced veterans that knew speed sucked in their collective breaths as Charlie put the Daytona into the wind. Down the back stretch, the old racers knew that they were witnessing a new breed in action. One mumbled, “must be doin' 230 by now.” And so it was, as verified by the many stop watches that were clicking all over the pit road area. The timing tower operators were glued to their sets. Out of turn four again, the 426 now up at full bellow, with the wind singing over the rear wing, Charlie blasted past the start/finish line. The timing tower electronic eye clicked and nearly instantly the time flashed up on the big board.
Everyone was simply stunned. Some claimed that the timing equipment had malfunctioned. The old hands knew that the time was true, and they had witnessed a new type of car that was making history as they watched.
Charlie had run the first timed practice lap at 199 miles an hour. The entire place just simply went silent in awe. Larry Rathgeb felt the blood rushing from his head. For him, the shock became a pain, and it was not over yet. Charlie didn't let off. He kept his foot in it all the way around again. Once more, thousands of eyes were glued to the blue #88 as it filled the 2.6 mile oval with its defiant powerful deep belly roaring noise bouncing off everything all around the track.
Once more, the hugely powerful Hemi Daytona came bellowing off turn four, flashing by the start/finish line and the electronic eye. Even in that era, usually the second lap was somewhat slower than the first. However, Charlie lived up to his nick name, “Chargin' Charlie,” when he set the clock at 199.466 miles an hour. It was a perfect back up to the first lap.
Somewhere on the back straight, Charlie shut the engine down. The slippery Daytona, without power, flew into the pits, coasting far longer than normal, confirming what the old hands had suspected. It was truly a wind cheater.
Larry Rathgeb said nothing. He was in a state of shock, which the sum total had not sunk into his mentality as yet. He just covered the car up and waited. The inevitable dressing down from Ronnie Householder followed.
The only reason that it all got set aside was the political situation around NASCAR at the time. The drivers, back in August, had formed a union called the Professional Drivers Association (PDA), electing Richard Petty as President. The PDA drivers claimed that the track was unsafe; at 190 mile an hour speed, the tire compound lasted about five laps, then the tires blistered and shredded. Bill France had paved the track with an experimental surface, which was very abrasive, ostensibly to prevent rubber from building up on the track in the racing groove.
The drivers had all threatened not to run the race. That only made Bill France that much more determined that this race would be run. On the day before the 500 miler, Bill France announced that anyone not running the Talladega 500 should leave the pit area so that the crews that were going to run could work on their cars. Richard Petty led a string of 30 of the top NASCAR drivers, all PDA members, out the front gate.
The #99 Daytona vacated by Charlie Glotzbach, who had left due to the PDA walkout, was driven by Richard Brickhouse, who drove a smart race: he kept up with the field, and didn't try to be flashy. His talent more than made up for his lack of Grand National experience. It shone through when at one point he thought he had lost a lap, due to a score-board miscue. Richard really cranked the big car up, and found that, by staying up near the top of the track, his tire wear was substantially diminished.
The combination of his high speed, along with running way up high on the track, scared his crew into believing he was just on the edge of control. He began turning regular laps at over 197 miles an hour in the race, blowing through racing traffic. Since this was before the two way radio era in the cars, Brickhouse had no way to convey to his crew that it was like driving the car to church. He took the #99 Daytona across the finish line some 7 seconds ahead of everything else. It settled the question that the Daytona could win races. However, it was a hollow victory because the real NASCAR competition had all left.
The season settled down after that, and the PDA gave no more trouble to Bill France. The Dodge teams concentrated on winning races and accumulating points. Dodge should have listened to Richard Petty to begin with; he came in second in points for the year, unusually driving a Ford rather than his customary Plymouth or Dodge.
200 miles per hour - achieved!
Frank Wylie, the head of Dodge's Public Relations Department, was faced with Ford's winning of the 1969 season's points race. This was shortly after a Plymouth Superbird built by Petty Enterprises (driven by Pete Hamilton) had won the Daytona 500.
Now, he wondered if the closed-circuit 200 mile an hour barrier could be broken. After all, at Talladega, Charlie Glotzbach had blown the house down with a 199.466 mile an hour qualification lap. How far away from 200 miles an hour is that? And hadn't that same car run 243 miles an hour at Chelsea Proving Grounds? Hadn't Buddy Baker gotten the mule up to 204 miles an hour with the ridiculous small carburetor that had been originally been fitted to hold the speeds down while they were being spied on at Chelsea? He needed those questions answered.
Frank connected to Larry Rathgeb, the Lead Engineer of the Daytona project. Unless the right personnel were present, and the correct equipment was available to time it, you could run 250 miles an hour for a week, and it wouldn't count.
Larry Rathgeb knew that he had just such the vehicle to smash the 200 mile an hour barrier. The teams racing the Dodge Daytona had flirted with 200 through the 1969 season. The Dodge teams had started out the 1970 season just the same way. However, that 200 magic number had never come up. Officially, no one had ever run 200 miles an hour on a closed circuit in any kind of auto.
Buddy Baker came to Detroit in March 1970. The #88 racing mule was gone over to insure that it met all the NASCAR requirements within the exact strict limits of the rules. No modifications were thought of, much less suggested.
In the third week of March 1970, a small caravan arrived at the Talladega Race Track in Alabama. The Dodge Charger Daytona engineering mule, #88 was among that caravan, along with technicians from Chrysler, Larry Rathgeb, and Buddy Baker. They were met by several NASCAR officials, including Bill France. The Chief Inspector checked the car, and the Chief Timer set up the equipment to record the speed. Breaking the 200 mph barrier would be good for NASCAR, since it was their track and their equipment, all certified.
It sounds easy; Charlie Glotzbach had nearly done it. How difficult would it be to nudge the big Dodge up just 534/1,000 more of mile an hour faster to get over the 200 mile mark? Half a mile per hour.
March 24, 1970 in Talladega was blustery, wet, and cold. The Chief Inspector had carefully examined the #88 car. It was correct right down to the decals. The timing equipment had been mounted, checked, and was tested. It was accurate to 1/10,000 of a second. The track was wet. There were some long faces. But, suddenly, about 9:00 a.m., the sun broke through, and began to dry the big track.
At noon on March 24, 1970, Buddy Baker strapped himself into the #88 Daytona and fired the engine. With a growl and a rumble, he took it out on the track, warming it up slowly. Buddy cruised around the track for four laps. On the fifth lap, he cranked it up. Bringing it to speed, lap five was 191.985 miles an hour. He made two more circuits and brought the car in on the eighth lap. Buddy ran 194.200 and commented that the car felt good. Flat down the straights. Wide open all the way now. Car tended to dart a bit going into turn one and coming out of turn two and four. Noting this, the crew made some suspension adjustments, and put new jets in the carburetor. Buddy then rumbled back onto the track.
On lap twelve, Baker had reached 197.839 miles an hour. He pulled the car back in and reported that the car had felt much better. No darting in the turns. Buddy again aimed the car out of pit road onto the track.
He pulled 198.050 miles an hour in this session. He pulled back in and reported that it has a slight push coming off turn two. The crew went to work.
They adjusted the wing, put on a fresh set of tires, retimed the Hemi engine, and added three inches of tape over the front grill opening to cut wind resistance. At 3:30 p.m. Buddy returned to the track.
On lap 26, he was very close, as he turned 199.085 miles an hour. Buddy brought the big Daytona back in. He reported that the push was gone, but the crew added camber to the left front, took camber away from the right front, moved the toe an eighth of an inch out, timed the Hemi one degree more, and added 5 pounds of air pressure to the rear tires.
At 4:25 p.m., Buddy took the car back out. Lap 29 timed out at 199.879 miles an hour. He had beaten Charlie Glotzbach's record at Talladega. He kept his foot in it.
Lap 30 and Buddy Baker had kept his head of steam. He put the car perfectly through turns one and two. Heading for the 4,000 foot long back stretch, Buddy placed the big Daytona squarely where it needed to be. He never let off the engine. Whipping through turn three, he had taken a perfect angle. Slicing now through turn four, he approached the timing equipment. Everyone was holding their breath. They just knew that this lap had to be the one.
It was. 200.096 miles an hour! Buddy had done it! He was the first man to break the 200 mile an hour mark on a closed race track. It is a record that will stand forever.
The March 1970 session wasn't quite done yet. All day long, between runs, Buddy Baker had been using a roll of duct tape to spot over areas that he had thought would improve the air flow of the Daytona body. The 200 mile an hour run had about shredded all the tape off that Buddy had long labored putting on over the entire day. Larry then wanted to see what the car would do without all the tape. So, what little of all Buddy's day long taping labor was removed. Buddy then took the car back out on the track.
On lap 33, 34, and 35, he ran them consecutively at 200 mile an hour. Lap 34 was the fastest at 200.448 miles an hour. It became the new track record, and the new world record. Buddy then brought the car back in, got out, ceremoniously retrieved his roll of duct tape, and threw it into the big trash can.
When the crew left Talladega, the whole racing world knew about the record. Not bad for a car that had been left a derelict on the mean streets of Los Angeles. Chrysler had sent a Dodge Charger Hemi out to California for testing by a major magazine. It was stolen one night; after quite a while, L.A. police found the stripped out body on the mean streets of Watts. There wasn't much left; it had been left sitting on cement blocks. The police hauled it into their impound lot.
Notifications were made, and at first, nothing was going to happen, but it was the time of the Riverside race. One of the guys involved had taken a car out to Riverside to sell. His trailer was empty for the return trip, so he was asked to pick up the hulk from the L.A.P.D. lot. He did so. That car became the #88 engineering mule and the 200 mile an hour record holder.
Eventually, #88 was purchased by Greg Kwiatkowski, who is restoring it in Detroit; the #88 car in the Talladega MotorSports Museum actually started out life as the red #71 car.
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