NASCAR WARS - Part I

Copyright © 2001 by Lawrence A. Cole. All rights reserved. Printed by permission. February 2001.

To many, the return of Dodge to NASCAR Winston Cup Racing is viewed as just something new and different. Many people who will be watching them weren't even born when a Dodge last saw a Winston Cup start (1985), let alone victory (1977). And they are totally unaware of the long-standing war that Chrysler and NASCAR have fought over the years. Will this war now continue? Or will peace finally prevail? If we are to learn from the past, then we can assume that the war will continue. It just might be more polite, or behind closed doors.

race group 1978

To get to the root of the war, you must go back to 1962. That is the year that car manufactures re-entered NASCAR racing after a self imposed exile since 1957. It was in May of 1957 that a car driven by Billy Meyer's left the track at Martinsville Speedway and hit a group of spectators, killing an 8 year old boy. The Automobile Manufacturers Association a month later, issue a statement that said "That the automobile manufacturers should encourage owners and drivers to evaluate passenger cars in terms of useful power and ability to provide safe, reliable and comfortable transportation, rather than in terms of capacity of speed." The AMA went on to state that the automobile industry "should not advertise or publicize actual or comparative capabilities of passenger cars for speed, or specific engine size, torque, horsepower or ability to accelerate or perform, in any context that suggests speed." Since the AMA was made up of heads of several car companies, it became the law the auto industry followed.

With the opening of Daytona Speedway in 1959, and the growing popularity of auto racing, it became apparent to the car companies that this policy was self-defeating. And while the manufactures didn't openly admit to backing cars, it was known that many heads were looking in a different direction come race day. Increasing sales pressure was brought on various car companies to embrace, rather then turn away from auto racing. Then, on Monday, June 11, 1962, the Ford Motor Company announced that it was re-entering NASCAR racing. Henry Ford II, board chairman of Ford and now president of the AMA stated in a letter to the Automobile Manufacturers Association, that the resolution adopted in the past by the AMA ""no longer had either purpose or effect. Accordingly, we are withdrawing from it." With this stand, Chrysler announced that the past AMA resolution was now made "inoperative" by Ford. GM on the other hand, decided to stay with the resolution, saying that is was "continuing to endorse the soundness of the principles of the resolution." This stance by GM would later come back to haunt NASCAR in just a few years.

With the factories back into racing, it was only a matter of time before something would have to happen. NASCAR was growing by leaps and bounds, and various car dealers followed factory teams with close interest. It was becoming clear what won on Sunday, sold on Monday. But NASCAR still faced the growing pains of any new company, and was destined to make a few mistakes along the way. Hoping to prevent exotic specialized engines, Bill France Sr. established a 428 cubic inch limit for NASCAR engines. Ford immediately began financing racing teams, and Chrysler announced it would now start making "high performance" parts. Pontiac, under a no racing policy, continued to pour equipment into NASCAR racing, and dominated the 1962 season.

The 1963 season saw limited action by Chrysler, and Ford and Pontiac dominated NASCAR until someone at GM realized that they weren't suppose to go racing. Even then, a new GM 427 engine was released for NASCAR competition, but it did not have the endurance to finish a race. So Ford bathed in its limelight of the 63 season, and Chrysler found itself running well on the short tracks, but sadly under powered on the large tracks. But that was all to change in 1964.

Chrysler reached into its past for the future, and decided to bring back the Hemi engine. The Hemi, around since 1951, hadn't been used in racing since 1956. But engineers at Chrysler were soon to make up for the absence. While rumors flew around of this new engine, most were not believed. During the winter of 1963-64, test were being conducted at a Goodyear test track, where the Hemi was rumored to be running at speeds of 180 MPH, a speed not known to that point.

When the first race of the season came around, Ford scored a 1-2-3-4-5 finish at Riverside, CA., and boosted confidence of another easy year. That confidence was quickly shattered at the very next race, when the Chrysler camp rolled out its new 426 cu in Hemi at Daytona. Richard Petty qualified at 174.418 mph, and Paul Goldsmith was the top qualifier at 174.910. For a comparison, in 1963, Petty's qualifying speed was 154.785 MPH. The best the Fords could do were the high 160s, and they were quickly outclassed as Chrysler took 1-2-3, and led 198 laps of the 200-lap race. Ford led for only two laps, and that was when Richard Petty pitted, who led for 184 laps. The King was to go on to win his first of 7 NASCAR crowns in 1964.

However, as speeds increased, so did driver fatalities. Tires were hard pressed to keep up with the increasing speeds. NASCAR lost 3 drivers in 1964, Joe Weatherly, Fireball Roberts, and Jimmy Pardue, who was killed while conducting tire tests for Goodyear. NASCAR assured the drivers that they would look for ways to make the cars safer and slower if need be. For awhile, they toyed with the idea of a 396 cu in engine limit. This brought about a wave of protest from both Ford and Chrysler, as it was clear that this rule was meant for GM cars only. NASCAR quickly abandoned the idea though, when it learned that rival USAC would stick with a 427 cu in limit, and they feared losing most of their top teams to them.

Faced with the problem of Ford's complaints about the Hemi, the lack of GM involvement, and a promise to slow the cars down, NASCAR announced near the end of the 1964 season their new rules for 1965. The engine was now limited to 427 cu in, but all engines had to be production design only. This meant no overhead cams, high risers, or hemispherical heads. The Hemi was dead. Said Dodge's Cotton Owens, this would put Chrysler cars "out to lunch." Owens spoke the feelings of many of the Chrysler camp when he also said "This puts us out of racing."

The first shots of the Chrysler/NASCAR war had begun.

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Once...as Jerry Olesen wrote..."The cars were production line models, which were reinforced at key points...These days, they race 'cars that never were,' so to speak, and much of the relevance to actual automobiles has been lost. "

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