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On The Wings of a Snow White...Dodge

Click here to read Part I. Click here to read Part II.

Dodge determined to win at NASCAR; development of the Charger Daytona

charger daytona

What no one truly recognized was that the work for a new Charger had already begun. Somewhere up in the corporate hierarchy, a decision was made. An order was issued. The new Charger was to be race ready by September 1969. A couple of proposals had been sketched out on paper. Taking the proposals, which were the 1969 Charger with a sloped nose and a huge wing on the back, the two engineers involved went to Bob McCurry, the Vice-President and General Manager of the Dodge Division. Just to show what sort of sway Chrysler VPs had, it was his decision that led to the Dodge Daytona racing car. Without as much as making a phone call, he ordered the car to be built, on the spot. He asked a couple of questions, after stating that it was the ugliest car he had ever seen. "Can you build it quickly?"  Which of course they could do that. "Will it win races?" Most naturally he was assured that it could and would easily win. "Go ahead an' build it then," McCurry said. As they were leaving, McCurry throw them one over his shoulder. "If anyone gets in your way on this, just let me know. I will keep the way clear for you on this." And he was as good as his word.

There wasn't much time. There was a lot of money. And they were determined to win! In a huge corporation, a sort of bureaucratic mind set takes over in most decisions. Such was not the case for the Daytona. The program was lean and moving fast. Three different angles had to come together to make it all work. They did bring it all together and very quickly. One group was working the car over in real time at the Chelsea proving grounds with NASCAR speed drivers, Buddy Baker and Charlie Glotzbach. The second group was laboring in the aerodynamic area, seeking speed solutions with a wind tunnel program. The third group was engaged in setting up production with Creative Industries, which would actually be building the Daytona for Dodge.

1970 plymouth cars

A stated goal was to create an increase of 5 mph over the lap speeds at Daytona. That would have put the target at around 193 or 194 miles an hour. To achieve that speed without the aero package, the engineers would have to find about 90 more horsepower out of the hemi. That could be done, but not quickly. The engine seemed to be out as far as it could go in the present package. Quickness was the key. The Daytona had to be publicly introduced by April 15, 1969 in order to homologate for the September 1969 races. Specifically, Bill France had built a new super speedway near a small Alabama town called Talladega. It was higher banked and a little longer than Daytona. Dodge wanted the Daytona on that race track when it opened. That opening was set for September 1969.

The aero group was working with the test track group seemingly minute by minute. Results were telephoned back and forth. The rear wing had been planned all along; however, the total development fell to the aero group. They proposed using a "Y" airfoil, only placing it upside down. Instead of pulling the car up, it would be pushing it down. At first a height of 12 inches was tried. It worked; however, it made the access to the trunk impossible. Measuring it out, it was found that in order to be able to lift the trunk lid, the wing foil had to be at least 23 inches tall! Undaunted, the aero team went ahead. Along the way they developed the wing supports into a nice set of stabilizers. The whole thing just worked out excellently. It provided one of the most stable race cars that has ever been. The wing moved the gravity center to where it was supposed to be. That meant you could steer this car where you wanted it to go without it feeling "squirrely" in any way. Then, if the tail started to come, the further it went the more the stabilizer was exposed, pushing the tail back in line. 

Superbird interior

It came together. Two days before the April 15 deadline, on April 13th, the new Daytona was shown to the press corps. This car wasn't really the Daytona, but a test mule with a fiberglass nose and a winged spoiler. But the veil was off. Talk was wild.  Automotive press had a field day. Chrysler had set the circuit on fire.

Along in the middle of June 1969, simultaneous with the Apollo 11 lunar landing space effort, the real Daytona mule was set for testing. For comparison, a Nichels-prepared Charger 500 was brought to the Chelsea Proving Grounds.

road runnerChrysler's Chelsea Proving Grounds was unique. Opened in 1954, it had drawn many a snicker from the automotive press. One wag suggested that such a magnificent facility could be rented out since Chrysler wasn't building anything that could get up to the top of the wide 6 lane track. Chelsea was 5 miles long. High banked corners up to 31 degrees (the same as Daytona since that was the extent, at the time, of the ability of pavement laying machines), with the turns being made like a spoon. You could let go of the steering wheel at speed, and the car would track itself through the corner. With six lanes in gradients, if you wanted to go faster, you just moved up a lane, until you were at the top.

The original test Daytona had been a Charger that NASCAR had banned because it had been set two inches lower than the rules allowed. (The Petty built GTX/Road Runners were also set two inches lower, but that seemed to pass inspection every time.) Because the nose and wings were all experimental, the actual top speeds had been kept down to avoid destroying the fragile fiberglass structures. Now, the actual mule with the hard nose and tail was present in the hands of the Chelsea test team and ready to go.

On the same day that the first Lunar Exploration team landed on the Moon, July 20, 1969, the Daytona mule was tested. The results were unexpectedly disappointing. The Daytona was faster than the Charger, but just barely. The Daytona topped out with a run of 194 miles an hour. The car had reached its supposed speed goal as was set by the aero team at the wind tunnel. Glotzbach and Baker were very puzzled. Coming in and stopping by the timing shack near the pit area, they raised questions. Up flew the hood. It was a standard appearing race Hemi engine. Baker suggested that something was broken in the engine as it didn't "lift up" like the Charger. The tests were over for the day as Baker climbed out of the car. The test manager pointed up towards the sky. More than a dozen small airplanes were busy flying around, trying to avoid running in to each other. The manager, who did not look at Buddy, stated, "Ford." 

winged warrior

Later on, in the cover of the garage area, the engine was exposed when the air cleaner was removed. Baker sputtered as he looked at the carb. "Why, that is a tiny little pot," he exclaimed. "No wonder it wouldn't run!" The engine had been built to specs just for the tests, so it was virtually brand new. However, in a deliberate and deceptive move, a very small carburetor had been put on to hold down the speed. Chrysler was well aware that there was no way to keep the test a secret, so knowing that it was going to be observed, they set the car up to hold it back. Not letting the drivers in on it insured that the tests were conducted like a blind study. Glotzbach and Baker were amused by it all.

Notwithstanding some very real results were had at the end of the day. When the Charger went by within 3 feet of the timing shack, it almost blew it off its foundations. When the Daytona went by within the same distance, there was just a whistling rush of air, like a whoosh!  There was a landmark on the back stretch where the engineers had told Glotzbach to shut off the engine and see how far the cars would coast down. The Charger barely made it back to the timing pits. The Daytona was rolling so fast that he had to slide the tires, causing a spin out to get it stopped! It was that good.

Testing with the mule continued. With such an untried system of a nose cone and an aileron, many runs were had to determine where the best balance for the car was obtained. Usually the speed was held down to 180. Within a couple of days, no planes were flying around. By the end of the first week, Glotzbach had sneaked up on 204 miles an hour with the Daytona. That was accomplished with changes only to the aero package and the same small carb!

window inserts

Buddy Baker was effusive about praise to the Daytona. He could not believe the stability of the wing with the stabilizers. He reported that once the balance was correct on the front spoiler and the wing, you drove this racer just like you were going to church. He went on to prove it. He went on so much, that Larry Rathgeb; the lead engineer climbed in the car and told Baker to "hit it."  Buddy did, and Larry just sat on the floor, hanging on to the crash bar, unconcerned that there was no seat or protection for him. He could only agree with Buddy after the run. After that, the other engineers also climbed in at various times to check the performance for themselves. They added extra testing instruments and taped tuffs of ribbons at various places on the mule. The drivers took them out and ran the car.

Dodge Charger Daytona - at Daytona Speedway

Finally, when there were no questions seemingly unanswered about how to adjust the front nose spoiler and the rear wing, the Daytona was unleashed. The engine manifold and carburetor were changed to the racing spec set by NASCAR. Slowly the two drivers worked their way up to running the Daytona at flat out speeds. The results were gratifying and by then, very predictable.

Buddy Baker experienced a real time problem as he reached up for speed. Coming out of turn two, he saw a huge white tailed buck deer standing right in the middle of the back straight. The deer turned his head, looking right at the car coming at him and did not move. Baker had barely time to react. He turned the wheel and the big Daytona responded like the champion that it was. He blew past the deer, just barely. As the front left fender neared the buck deer's rump, he sort of "hunched up" as Buddy said. It was a good thing. Baker was at 235 miles an hour at the time!

Testing continued as the September date for the opening shot at Talladega grew closer. The speeds of the Daytona also kept going up.

Charlie Glotzbach recorded the highest trap speed during those tests, just shortly before the program came to a halt at the Chelsea facility. It was a marvel of top shelf engineering. Like "no sweat" reported Glotzbach, who by the way had earned himself the NASCAR moniker of "Chargin' Charlie." At a real terminal measured speed, beyond a doubt Glotzbach had reached 243 miles an hour! Keep in mind that this was a "stock" car with a NASCAR spec Hemi V-8 that had no modifications to ensure eligibility to race.

The folks at Creative Industries had also worked their magic: shortly before September 1 1969, 500 Dodge Charger Daytona models were available for sale, to Dodge Dealers, for public consumption. The total number of cars built came to 503. A team from NASCAR came to the facility and actually counted the cars! Big Bill France was still not going to be easy on Chrysler. But, there they were, all set for shipment. As well, on hand Dodge had fully committed sales orders for over 1,500 of the Dodge Charger Daytona.

dodge daytona

In the first part of August 1969, it was time for the bird to leave the nest. The egg had hatched, so to speak. The entire team packed up and headed for the place that the car had been designed for, Daytona Beach International Speedway.

In a sort of noted oddity, when the wing car arrived at Daytona, it was painted a shade of blue that suspiciously resembled the trademarked Petty Blue. It stayed that color and it is still the same color today, as it sits in the Talladega raceway museum on permanent display. Just why will be explained later.

Charlie Glotzbach and Buddy Baker began a series of tests at the speedway designed to bring out all the characteristics of the new racer. Speed was gradually built up, and it was never run wide open.

A strange phenomenon occurred while at Daytona. It was brought to the attention of Lead Engineer Larry Rathgeb. Charlie Glotzbach would not go into turn one at the track without backing off the throttle. It was very obvious and confusing since he was well known for keeping his foot all the way down to the floor with every chance he had. When asked about it, Charlie explained that if he went into turn one wide open, with the bumps, it made his eyes chatter. So, he closed them through the turn! When he backed out of the throttle the car would run through the corner almost by itself. Larry asked Charlie if he would not back out of the throttle, as it was important. Charlie said, all right, but I may not bring the car back. So, throttle set wide open, Charlie Glotzbach took the Daytona through the first turn, and kept his eyes closed. Typically at Daytona, drivers experienced about 2 g's downward force, and about 1.5 g's in lateral forces. It was not easy. Trying to write on a clipboard at that speed resulted in a bunch of wiggly lines. It was also found that the neck muscles at speed did not have enough strength to lift the head up with a helmet on. So, you had to have your head placed before you went into the turn, otherwise you wouldn't be able to see where you were going.

plymouth superbird

With the tests concluded at Daytona, the entire team packed up and headed towards the West, and the brand new 2.6 mile super speedway, Talladega.

Talladega had some very real problems. The Ford Torino Talladega drivers had been practicing on the track in August, about the same time that the Dodge boys had been at Daytona. The Ford teams reported it to be a bone jarring experience at 190 miles an hour. The surface was very rough. In July, racer Bobby Allison had cruised the track in a regular passenger car and had reported the surface to be extremely rough. Further complicating the problem, the surface itself had been done in a very abrasive material so as to not build up rubber during a race, something believed to be like a self cleaning scrubber. Unfortunately, neither Firestone (very much involved in racing at the time) nor Goodyear had been given any sort of time to develop a racing tire compound that would meet racing requirements on a surface like rough sandpaper. Ford Torino drivers had been shocked when after just 5 laps, their tire surface was nearly shredded.

At Talladega the regular Dodge team drivers were augmented by Bobby Isaac, winner of 3 Grand National races and 27 top fives finishes. When the tests began, all three drivers began to report blurred vision and feelings of physical discomfort. On investigating, Larry Rathgeb discovered that at speed, the Daytona was bouncing up and down about three inches every half-second, resulting in an effect was not unlike the experience astronauts felt during their rides into space. It was called the "pogo effect." Pogo effect aside, it was quickly found that what the Torino drivers had reported the same problem; and tires did not last much over 5 laps for either team. That was a huge problem.

There were other developments in August that would build around the race and the Dodge Charger Daytona. Around the middle of the month, Richard Petty and a group of 11 other drivers met in secret to form a Professional Drivers Association, the PDA. After making the decisions of what they wanted to do to bring changes to the Grand National Races, they began to actively recruit other drivers. Many of the old pros quickly signed on. It began to appear more and more like there would be a big showdown between Bill France and the PDA centered around the Talladega race.

Bill France had banned Curtis Turner for life, claiming that Turner was betting on races to try to "fix" the outcome. France was accused of kicking Turner out because he tried to form a drivers union. The PDA also faced that challenge, although they felt fairly secure when they elected Richard Petty as their President. Immensely popular, with a huge amount of fans, Richard was also very well liked and respected by his fellow racers, who considered him always a gentleman. They believed that France would never act against Richard. Lee Petty was also popular, though he had not raced in 4 years. Lee had been a strong supporter of NASCAR when France had begun to put it together, and still believed in NASCAR itself.

The PDA besides making some demands that the way things worked be changed also raised the very real issue that the Talladega race track was not safe to race on. France was livid. He had vowed many years ago that no one would ever dictate to him on any issue, large or small, when it came to NASCAR. He intended to embarrass the PDA out of existence.

Another issue loomed large over the Dodge Daytona. Owners were given kits in which they were converting their Chargers to the Daytona. Some owners hadn't even seen the car yet, and most drivers had never experienced racing it. Larry Rathgeb was nearly beside himself with worry over that the Daytona would not be the fastest qualifier. He called his boss, Ronnie Householder, the head of all Chrysler Racing Programs, who was tentative at first, but after considering Rathgeb’s plan, Householder told Larry to go see Ray Nichels. The Daytona mule was technically owned by Nichels Engineering, even though he had given it to Chrysler.

Nichels was to arrange an entry and give the car a NASCAR-issued number. The next day, the mule became number 88 (Dale Jarrett's car number today). What Householder would not agree to do is allow that car to go on the race track. He argued with Larry that it was for the teams to look at, measure, and set up the way that car was set up for the race. That was all it was to do, and that was the only reason that it was at the track to begin with. That did not bring any satisfaction to Rathgeb.

NASCAR had a regulation that if a certain car had not run at least two practice laps, it would be disallowed and could not enter the race. Rathgeb again engaged Householder. Rathgeb allowed that with the racing surface as it was, no one was going very fast. He was certain that the Daytona would be as fast as and predictably much faster than the Torino. Householder was adamant. No way! The number 88 was a Chrysler car, an engineering mule, and Nichels Engineering had only been marching to Householder's orders to give it an entry number. Factories do not enter cars! That was set in concrete and inviolate.

Rathgeb persisted. He shot back that he knew that this car was better than anything at Talladega, and he had to get it on the racetrack to convince all the Dodge teams that it really did what it was supposed to do.

Finally, Householder relented. That was a rarity. In general, Ronnie Householder was very blunt. Richard Petty reportedly never liked the way he ran the racing programs. Just getting Householder to agree with you was a true accomplishment.

There were a couple little caveats that went with his permission. The car was to run two laps, and only two laps, and in no way was it to be taken over 185 miles an hour. To insure that Rathgeb understood, Householder forcefully reiterated what he had just said. Larry said he understood.

On September 9, 1969, Larry Rathgeb put Charlie Glotzbach in the Daytona for the qualifying laps. Maybe he should have had Buddy Baker do it, but Charlie was there. Larry told Glotzbach, only two laps, and never, ever, under any circumstances are you to take the car above 185 miles an hour. Glotzbach smiled at Larry, and said, "Sure, Larry." With that, he put on his helmet, strapped in the car and went out on the track.

Glotzbach put the Daytona in the wind for three full laps. The first was a warm up lap, and the very next lap he blew past the timing tower at 199 miles an hour. The whole place fell out! The run absolutely blasted the place apart. The next lap was even hotter. Glotzbach had the Daytona up near the wall, and flew by the timing tower at a 199.987 mile an hour clip. No one in a stock car had ever come that close to 200 miles an hour! Just 13/1,000 of a second slower than the magic double century mark! The entire area just blew up, virtually just plain exploded, with watching that car and that time. When Glotzbach came back into the pit, Rathgeb said nothing. Just covered up the car, and waited. Householder called him on the phone screaming. He used names and language that professional cusses could have taken lessons from. He threatened Larry's job while he disparaged Larry, who was left to feel simply awful. However, Larry also well recognized that he had done something that was necessary and good because he had dedicated all his efforts to the Daytona despite Householder.

There was a near explosion of political shenanigans and back channel deals going on all around Talladega. The Rathgeb - Householder personal situation was but one indicator of what was going on.

Larry Rathgeb was devastated. However, it only burned into his determination that # 88 was going to be on the pole, despite what Ronnie Householder said, did, or threatened. Larry fervently believed that he had to get the car qualified to get the pole. He came up with another plan to do just that. Even in the face of losing his job, Larry Rathgeb went way out on a limb.

The car had the practice laps. Now it needed to be qualified. Along about now, everyone that came by the Daytona sort of looked at it either with reverence or askance because it was that sort of a vehicle. You either liked it or you didn't. There were many mixed emotions as well as opinions.  There were also the vicious rumors about the car being a “ringer,” specially set up and highly modified to scare the living hell out of all the rest of the competitors.

Larry Rathgeb knew he couldn't possibly speak to Ronnie Householder about running #88 for qualification. Householder probably would have flown down to Talladega and personally chopped Larry off at the neck! So, Larry did the next best thing. He skipped the chain of command.

Larry called his own immediate boss, Paul Bruns, who commanded a whole lot of sway at Chrysler at the time because he was an engineer. Chrysler was still considered as "the engineering company," even if it was sort of in name only. Paul Bruns was engineering! He commanded the whole engineering department at the corporate level. When Larry presented his problem to Paul, there was no hesitation on Bruns’ part. He told Larry to get the car qualified.

With that blessing, Larry believed he would be all right because even Householder had to hold back from someone up the food chain at that level. It is difficult to be exact about just what level they may have been since the corporate flow chart didn't always fit the position. A lot depended on the respect given by the rest of the corporation. However, it was felt that certainly Paul Bruns outranked Ronnie Householder, and far enough above to have the blessing for qualification easy brush aside any complaints from anyone else, even Householder.

That left only one minor problem. Larry had to get someone to qualify the car. Charlie Glotzbach had just signed a contract to race for Ray Nichels Engineering. That made Ronnie Householder his boss outright, just above Ray Nichels himself. However, since the ink was hardly dry on the paper he signed, Charlie agreed that he would qualify the number 88 for Larry because he had been working for Larry Rathgeb a long time.

September 10, 1969 was an auspicious day. Charlie Glotzbach was preparing to enter the #88 Chrysler Engineering Mule to qualify that car for the Talladega 500 race. He hesitated a moment and spoke to Larry Rathgeb. "Hey Larry, what do you think Nichels might do?" Larry spoke with vehemence, "I don't care what Nichels does, I don't care what Householder says, I don't care if I do lose my job, this car is going to be on the pole!" Charlie said nothing more, just strapped on his helmet, sat in the seat, and buckled up. He fired the big Hemi engine. The entire pit area looked up. The Daytona was going to be out of its cage once more.

Of course, Charlie easily qualified the Daytona. The first timed lap was set at 199 miles an hour. The second timed lap came back at 199.466 miles an hour. The pole position was handily won. Internally the politics exploded within Chrysler. The best part is that Larry Rathgeb actually intended to put the car in the race! If it hadn't been for the PDA walkout, he would have pulled it off. Of course, it didn't happen.

On the lighter side of politics, one example of intrigue centered around the local county sheriff. By now several of the completed Dodge Daytona Chargers were being shown by Chrysler officials, driving them around. The sheriff had made inquiries the cost of one of the cars, a shiny black model. Without a Marony MSRP sticker affixed to the cars, no one really knew. Finally one enterprising young Chrysler employee called Bob McCurry (Dodge General Manager and Chrysler Vice President) and asked him if he knew! McCurry thought for a moment. With Mr. McCurry still on the phone, the employee asked the Sheriff, "how much can you spend without having to go out to bid?"

The Sheriff replied that he could authorize up to "$1200 without having to advertise to bid."

McCurry responded nearly instantly. "Tell him that is exactly the price that we need. ... You give him my name, company business address, and have him send that check to me. ... I will make sure that he gets the title, but tell him if he is serious, he has to take possession of the car right now, or the deal is off!"

Startled, but not rattled, the Sheriff held out his hand for the keys. Without hesitation, the young employee gave him the two sets. As the Sheriff was driving away in his new car, Mr. McCurry asked the name of the young man that had called. He gave the kid a promotion and a pay raise for some truly "great PR work for the company at the local level." 

The next day, at the entrance to the race track, sat that new shiny black Charger Daytona with big official sheriff department stars on both doors, and a big rotating blue light smack in the middle of the wing! It must have grated on all the Ford teams along with their fans that a Dodge Daytona was guarding the race itself. If there was a race.

It was seriously looking like the initial running of the 'Bama 400 would not take place. The PDA insisted that the racetrack was unsafe. To prove them wrong, Bill France got into a Holman & Moody Ford and ran the track for 50 laps. As the PDA pointed out, though, the car was a USAC racer and not as fast as the Grand National cars. The GT race (like a Busch car today), the first race on the new track, was held with no incidents.

Bill France met with all the PDA drivers after that. No compromise was reached. Later in the afternoon, Bill France made a fateful announcement over the loud speaker system in the pits. "All those who are not going to race, leave the garage area so that those who are going to race can work on their cars."

The first engine that started belonged to Richard Petty. The #43 team was the first one out of the gate, followed in quick succession by 30 of the other Grand National Drivers, Charlie Glotzbach and Buddy Baker among them.

That left Dodge with Bobby Isaac, who did not join the PDA, and a young Richard Brickhouse, who had been trying to break into Grand National Racing. Only two Dodge Daytona cars were prepared and both made the field, Brickhouse in the Glotzbach vacated ride #99 and Bobby in the #71. The rest of the field for the 500 mile race consisted of a smattering of independent cars.

The Talladega 500 went off as scheduled.  Bobby Isaac was on the pole virtually because he was the only initial qualifier left. All the cars that had gone faster were not there.

Lead Engineer Larry Rathgeb was heartbroken. After all his hard work, and the specter of Ronnie Householder making good his threats, the race started off without the best Grant National Teams (he particularly wanted the Ford teams there), amidst a bunch of junk, as Larry later described it. All that hard work for the glory of it, and there was no glory to be had.

The race started off with Isaac in the lead, but he experienced problems. Eventually, he finished the race in fourth place. That left young, inexperienced Brickhouse to hold up whatever could be salvaged from this race for Dodge and its debut of the Dodge Charger Daytona. Fortunately, what Richard lacked in experience he made up for in talent and quick learning. He paced the race, running along with the rest of the field, holding his own. Near the end of the race, he glanced up at the scoreboard, and nearly swallowed his Adam's apple. The board showed him a lap down. Before the era of radio, he had no way of knowing or communicating to the crew except for the chalk pit board that the crew held up when he was to pit. He had no way of knowing that the score was a mix up, and it was totally wrong.

Brickhouse then began to press the Daytona, finally letting it loose and putting it into the wind, holding the engine wide open. He began running laps so fast, the crew became sorely afraid that he would blow a tire, and end all the effort. He had discovered that if he ran up high on the 33 degree banks, as close to the wall as he could get, tire wear seemed eliminated, so he hung the big Dodge right up tight to the walls and the guard rails. The crew went into a frenzy, fearing that the handling had gone away, and he had become dangerously loose, just short of smashing into the wall or guard rail. Brickhouse had no way to tell them that it was about like driving Miss Daisy in the car. He just hung there, with no sweat, peeling off 197 mile an hour laps. No one could touch him. Brickhouse later recalled that he saw his pit man jump the pit wall, run across the pit lane, and continued to run far out into the grass along the racetrack with the pit sign written in big letters admonishing him to; SLOW DOWN! No one counted how many laps he had covered at high speed, however, he ended up across the finish line a full 7 seconds ahead of the second place car.

So in the first outing, despite all the things that were going on, the Daytona had won. It did not bring elation as it should have, beating the Fords fair and square.

There are two more things to mention before moving on.

During the build up of tension between Bill France and the PDA, when it looked like there would be a driver walkout, Larry Rathgeb convinced the head of Chrysler Public Relations to let him talk to Richard Petty. Nominally, Ronnie Householder was Larry's boss, but with the considerable tension raised by Householder, Rathgeb didn't want to deal with him. Sending along George Wallace, who was the head of the Special Vehicle Group, the two went quickly going through the Alabama night straight to Richard Petty's motel.

First the two talked to Dale Inman. Dale then woke up Richard, who had gone to sleep. Larry wanted Richard to drive the #88 engineering car. It had already qualified. It was blue, and some decals for #43 were in the trunk of the car that Rathgeb had driven over for this meeting. He was blunt with Richard, stating that at best the Ford deal they had made was only for one year, and that he was technically no longer in that contract if he walked out on the race. Richard listened attentively. Politely, however, he turned Larry and George down. He was firm about it because that is the way that entire Petty clan is. They honor their commitments. What had not been said at this meeting brings us to the second part of the intrigue.

Larry Rathgeb had no knowledge that in June, Richard Petty had been visited by high ranking officials from Plymouth and the Chrysler Corporate office. George Wallace knew something was up but not to the level of commitment set at that meeting in June. It had been an auspicious meeting, due mainly to the hell being raised by CEO Lynn Townsend to get Petty back! Plymouth had hat in hand and was willing to eat a whole bunch of humble pie.

Richard was again the gentleman, and made everyone at ease, all around. At the time, Richard was assured that Plymouth was already committed to building a wing car. It would be based off the Road Runner body and chassis. Richard was also assured that it would be pretty simple since Creative Industries had a line already left over from the Charger, and that the Plymouth would be just as fast. Based upon all that he heard, Richard Petty committed to coming back to Plymouth at the end of his November 1969 contract with Ford.

Richard also asked for one other thing. He wanted all, and he meant the entire racing program, to come through Petty Enterprises in Level Cross. With that request Richard had sort of put Ronnie Householder out of the program in that end. A series of carefully orchestrated meetings ended up with a memo being drafted for Lynn Townsend to read. Within a few moments of its delivery to his office, Townsend made a telephone call to the Plymouth General Manager. "Do it!" That was all the conversation consisted of at the time.

Petty Enterprises then became the sole supplier of all of Chrysler's racing parts, engines, chassis, bodies, and everything else you would need to build a race car.

The Plymouth Superbird is created

That set the engineers to get busy. They had about seven months to get the car homologated for NASCAR. Bill France was openly hostile to the aero cars, and not just the ones from Chrysler. He didn't like the Ford efforts either. So, he changed the way that cars were accepted for NASCAR. He demanded that at least a 1,000 were built, or half of the number of dealerships. In Plymouth's case, they had no dealerships of their own, always having been attached to the other Chrysler car lines dealerships. However, the ACCUS required that 1,500 cars be built. The method of assembly was also changed by Plymouth. Creative Industries were going to make the parts, and the car would receive final assembly in a Plymouth Plant on Lynch Road.

Suddenly in August of 1969, Plymouth sent a message to the aero group developing the Plymouth "Superbird" that it was calling a halt to the project. Unlike the Dodge development team that had the Corporate Vice President running interference, Plymouth had the entire division involved.

1970 superbird

Styling was aghast at the proposal represented by the aero changes to the Road Runner. Styling had become involved in the Superbird when it was learned that nearly 2,000 of the Superbirds had to be sold. However, the leader of the intermediate styling studio was openly hostile towards the aero effort. Things seemed to stop. Suddenly, two weeks later the project was back on, with a vengeance. Styling was very quiet from then on about the Superbird. CEO Lynn Townsend had applied some of his not-too-deft personnel techniques. Sprinkled in the "twinkle dust" were some well chosen expletives to some of the folks involved in styling. No more such foolishness occurred.

But two precious weeks were lost. The car had to be up for sale by January 1, 1970 to make the big show. In the end, a set of Dodge Coronet front fenders had to be grafted on to the Road Runner body. The Belvedere fenders would not lend themselves to having a nose cone fitted. Further, testing revealed that the rear window was not as slippery as the Daytona; it was causing about a 4% aero drag at speed.

When asked to make a change of the body to reshape the contour, the aero group was flatly told that it would cost way too much to make. They would have to hand install the modifications for that small number of cars. Engineering railed about the Coronet fenders, but someone up in the organization squelched that. "Just get on with what the aero guys want!"Apparently someone finally realized that the time was short, and interference of such sorts could not be tolerated. So, when a slightly modified Coronet hood was fitted, there might have been some tight jaws, but nothing was said about it.

Superbirds at Chryslers at Carlisle

However, a war almost erupted when the aero guys ran up against the engineers in fitting the nose cone on the Superbird. The engineers, seeking fast and cheap, intended to put the Daytona nose cone on the Superbird. The aero guys said that it would not work because the front of the Superbird is as unique as the nose of the Daytona. The styling leader stepped in and agreed with the aero team. So the Superbird got its own special beak.

With the changed rear fender pattern of the Belvedere, a different style of wing had to be developed. Even though most of the original problems arising for the Daytona helped solve the ones for the Superbird, there were still issues. The same shape and style for the Daytona would not do well for the Superbird. The stabilizers were wider, set back further, and the airfoil was formed in to smooth transition from the vertical to the horizontal. The aero group also wrangled a concession from engineering and production to make a plug and special glass for the rear window. While it didn't achieve what the aero group originally requested, it did help the drag issue in that area.

One cannot help but wonder, when it was said that the Plymouth was somewhat less than the Daytona, if it wasn't part of the corporate mentality to keep Dodge superior. It also gives one pause to think, what if someone like the Petty clan had gone outside the box and found say, 100 more horsepower out of the 426 hemi?

Finally all the pieces came together. The engineering test mule vehicle was quickly assembled after that. All around, all involved agreed that while the Superbird was better than anything out there, it would never be quite as good as the Daytona. The Plymouth developed a little higher drag.

The 1970 season started just like other seasons, except that Ford now had three different engines to race with against the single Chrysler 426 hemi. NASCAR had approved an absolutely absurd tunnel port 429, with hemispherical heads. The 427 was allowed extensive improvements increasing its power, even though Ford had stopped producing the FE 427 at the end of model year 1967.

A few FE 427 engines had been made available for 1968; however, they had been emasculated in a deliberate attempt by Ford to turn away from the "racing only" image that the 427 presented. A carefully orchestrated engine replacement had been dubbed the Thunderbird 428 V-8 which made its debut in model year 1966. Methodically, the new 7 litre 428 had been carefully phased in to appear to be little more than a workhorse engine, meant to pull the big Galaxies and Thunderbirds around in everyday tasks. It had been rated at an incredulous 335 horsepower. Later additions to this engine brought forth the Cobra Jet, the Super Cobra Jet and Ram Air to both.

In between, Ford had restyled their 1970 model cars. The company ended up in distress when they found that no matter what they tried, the 1969 bodies were just plain faster than the 1970 cars. To save victories, Ford would race their 1969 model cars for the 1970 season.

Rumors had been floating around that Ford was engaged in a "secret project" to fully engage Chrysler's wing cars for the 1971 season. The so-called secret Ford prototype had been built by the Holman & Moody racing shop in North Carolina. It was being tested in April 1969! However, the design for the front end was too efficient. It put so much down force on the front that it was literally lifting the rear wheels off the ground at speed!

Cale Yarborough had been selected to drive the test runs for the new Ford called the King Cobra. He couldn't get the car, after much modification, over 190 miles an hour, even when powered by the huge 429 tunnel port V-8. He reported that it just wouldn't keep the back wheels down enough to feel safe at high speeds. It didn't matter anyway. Lee Iacocca had been appointed President on December 10, 1970, and immediately canceled the entire project and any related programs.   

In the first race of the 1970 season, ol' A. J. Foyt wrestled his way to the front in a Ford and managed to win the twisty Riverside road course race. The 1970 Superbird of Richard Petty blew its engine near the end of the race; even so, Richard finished in fifth.

At Daytona, the Superbird did not put on a special show of magic as many expected. No 199.987 mile an hour laps, or in fact, anything out of the extraordinary. Driving a Petty Prepared Plymouth for the Petty team, a young Pete Hamilton scored the Superbird in the win column for the first time. Richard blew his engine on the 7th lap and was scored 39th.

Richard would not be able to capture a championship in his Superbird. At Darlington, he was involved in the most serious crash of his career, one of the most serious ever seen by NASCAR. The direct results were mandatory window nets. Richard lost out on six crucial races, effectively putting him out of Grand National Championship reach. He finished 1970 in fourth place. Bobby Isaac in the #71 1970 Dodge Charger Daytona won his only Grand National Championship. All year long, it had been a classic battle, Ford against Dodge, Mercury against Plymouth, back and forth.

The end of “traditional NASCAR” 

Then, suddenly, it was all over. In November 1970, near the end of the racing season, Henry Ford II announced they were cutting the racing budget drastically by 75% or more.

Chrysler Corporation waited until the celebration for the K & K Dodge had died down. Even though the team had handed Chrysler a Grand National Championship, the company announced that it was only going to be sponsoring two cars in 1971, one Plymouth and one Dodge, both through the Petty Enterprises garage. Richard Petty took the news stoically. Richard had wanted to keep Pete Hamilton on as the driver for the Dodge, but Ronnie Householder, probably in a swipe at Richard, set Buddy Baker up for the job. Since they were paying the bills, Richard honored the deal.

There was one last gasp, however, for the winged wonders from Chrysler. In conjunction with the current Dodge Daytona and the Plymouth Superbird, the new 1971 model intermediates from Chrysler were already developed with the machine tools ready to take up production in steel.

Both the Dodge Charger and the Plymouth Road Runner 1971 cars had models that were being wind tunnel tested, fitted with nose cones and rear wings. The final designs had a shortened front cone, and instead of a single plane wing across the two stabilizers in the rear, it had the two stabilizers topped by two airfoils split independent of each other with no cross section in the middle. You could have been able to "tune" each side of the car separate of the other. The possibilities were endless. The new cars were looked at by the sole remaining racing team, Petty Enterprises. They were willing to try them.

Author's note: It certainly could be inferred that the drastic cut back in factory support of NASCAR racing were a direct result of the announced new rules NASCAR instituted for the 1971 season. No one said it that way, but I sure believe that is what happened. Big Bill France made it very clear, that it was his picnic and you didn't get to eat unless you received his invitation delivered in his own way.

Bill France and NASCAR exerted pressure on the factories. He wanted to get rid of factory drivers, bringing them back into NASCAR as sort of "independent contractors." France wanted control, and could not exert influence over the factory representatives, nor the factory drivers. Until the 1971 season, Detroit appeared to be in charge of the situation in NASCAR; and NASCAR couldn't keep up with the changes, gimmicks and new cars streaming out of the factories. It all had to go, and Bill France sent them all packing.

Some of the new rules for 1971 were aimed right at the heart of the winged cars. Ford Torino Talladega, Mercury Cyclone, Mercury Cyclone Spoiler, Dodge Charger, Dodge Charger Daytona, and Plymouth Superbird were limited to an engine of 305 cubic inches. Even with the superior aero qualities of the winged cars, they could not overcome that restricted engine lack of horsepower.

No one could fathom how Bill France must have felt in February 1971 when the Red and Gold 1970 Dodge Daytona owned by Mario Rossi arrived at Daytona for qualification. He probably danced a jinx combo against it making the field.

Mario Rossi was very upset with Chrysler about dropping support. He had Bobby Allison as his driver in 1969 and 1970 and had done extremely well with the car. When the support went away, so did Bobby Allison. Rossi plotted a way to show Chrysler and NASCAR that they were wrong to do what they did.

In the off-season, Rossi contacted the legendary Keith Black in California. Learning of what Rossi was up to, suddenly, Chrysler corporation reps appeared with offers of money to help him out. Together, they outlined what they wanted for the engine from Black's shops.

Black was very familiar with the hemi, building several versions of his own design. He also had many small blocks already in place that he was selling to other racing enterprises. It was simple for him to build the 305 Hemi. In an era where brute force made motive power, this engine would have to be very special to compete. Keith Black had every confidence in the finished project.

Installed in the Daytona, Dick Brooks recalled that it sounded odd. He was used to the powerful thumping of the big V-8s. The little engine had been given the nickname of "the lunchbox." Everyone that had come by the pits remarked how small it looked in the engine bay. Finally one wag called out to the crew chief that "hey, someone had stole your motor and left you a lunchbox in there." Everyone fell out and the moniker stuck.

As Brooks took the car to speed, coming out of turn two, heading for the back stretch, he looked at the tachometer measuring the engine revolutions. Used to see high marks of around 6,500 rpm he was stunned to note that the lunchbox was turning 9,800 revolutions a minute! He thought for certain that at any second it would blow apart and he would be cut to shreds by the flying pieces.  However, the lunchbox just sort of had a smooth screaming hum to it, and easily, repeatedly and happily turned rpm to over 10,000! Unheard of engine speeds in that time! Gaining confidence, Brooks easily qualified the Daytona. Bill France was then calling upon anything of a higher power to visit mayhem on the car.

Race day came. In the field sat the bright and shiny gold and red Dodge Charger Daytona with the 305 cubic inch lettering emblazoned across the hood. When the race started, Brooks paced easily with the rest of the field. Cautious, well aware that this was the only wing car left in NASCAR, along with that special little hummer up front, Brooks worked his way forward in the field. Rossi and the Chrysler people must have been delighted. Clouds were forming over the NASCAR offices.

Then it happened. On lap 60, coming out of turn four, there was that Gold and Red special car, firmly in the lead! People say that a roar came from the grand stand as the car went by. Each succeeding lap for the next 18, every time the Daytona passed the main grand stand, the crowd roared its approval. Bill France probably was wondering just how he had failed. Not even the mighty Big Bill France could doubt how aerodynamics worked, and how cubic inches really didn't make the entire world in winning. 

But it was not to be. Dick Brooks was hit, which caused damage to the Daytona. To repair the car cost him a lap, and he couldn't make it up. He finished the race in seventh place. It was the final chapter in the winged car history for NASCAR. Somewhere in the middle of the 1971 season, Ford made it final. They pulled all support out of NASCAR and would no longer be involved in any way with racing teams. It sent a shudder through the racing circle.

Richard Petty won that 1971 500 race in the new bodied Plymouth Road Runner, followed in second place by his teammate in the Dodge Charger, Buddy Baker. Petty went on in the 1971 season on a tear not unlike his championship year of 1967. He was the Grand National Champion that year, his third, garnering the Petty Enterprise outfit with a total of six when added to his father's three.

1971 was a year of huge changes, with a new point system, Winston (R.J. Reynolds) taking over sponsorship, and American Motors making its debut with a competitive Matador for NASCAR. General Motors, claiming they were not involved in factory support of racing, had Junior Johnson building Chevrolet Monte Carlo cars that were also competitive. The one thing that all the cars had in common was that they appeared to be stock bodied cars. No special spoilers, nose cones, wings, sloped noses, or other gimmicks.

Richard Petty continued his winning ways in 1972. He had entered into the longest running sponsorship deal when he signed on with STP, changing the color scheme of his cars to the famous red and blue. In May, he entered the Talladega 500 driving a Dodge Charger, not the Plymouth Road Runner. He finished that race in fifth, two laps down to his team mate, Buddy Baker, also in a Charger, who finished third. All of the wins that Richard made in 1972 were done with the Road Runner, not the Charger. When it was all done, Richard won his fourth championship, the second Winston Cup.  Chrysler then turned around and thanked him by pulling all support, no longer participating in any way in NASCAR. Holman & Moody, long Ford’s partner, announced that they were splitting up. Buddy Baker, no longer obligated to Chrysler, moved on picking up the K & K Insurance ride for 1973.

Part I | Part II

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