Which came first, the Plymouth or the Petty?
Copyright © 2003 by Curtis Redgap, Orlando, Florida. All rights reserved. Contact Allpar for reprint permission.
Plymouth by Petty?
Petty by Plymouth?
Which came first? The Plymouth or the Petty?
The picture of Richard Petty leading Matt Kenseth (2003 Winston Cup Champion) set off some controversy. The car Richard is driving is painted in Winston advertising, probably in a salute to R.J. Reynolds and Winston for their 32 year sponsorship of the NASCAR racing series, a relationship that has finally ended.
The reporter did not do his homework; it shows a 1969 Dodge as being Richard's. In 1969, the Pettys had no MoPar products in their stable, instead racing Ford Torinos in a lucrative deal. By then, Richard was pretty wise in business and made certain that it was an "experimental" type of relationship, and good for one year only. It sent shivers up and down spines at the Chrysler along with grumbles of displeasure from the Ford teams. The 1969 model Road Runner, which had little change from the 1968 model, had prompted Richard Petty to request being given a more aerodynamic Dodge Charger to drive. He asked twice. He was told no twice.
To establish the story, I need to go back to the early years when Lee Petty, the father of Richard, started his NASCAR racing career. In part, the storied history of stock car racing claims to trace its roots back to modification of stock cars to haul moonshine (homemade illegal liquor) so that they could outrun the tax enforcement people. Lee and a brother named Julie (like a boy named Sue?) were running a trucking business that had been started by their father. Part of their recreation was to go and watch the car races that had begun to grow in popularity.
The dawn of stock car racing
No one has ever even hinted that the Pettys were ever involved with hauling "moon." I am reasonably certain that they were well aware of the practice, and probably tolerated it only for the fact that they did not want to cause trouble. As long as it didn't touch them, it can be presumed they choose not to see it happening. After all, Randleman, North Carolina was (and still is) a small community where news travels fastest by passing over back fences.
Whenever the local "runners" weren't out hauling moon, a sort of rivalry developed over who had the fastest car. Impromptu races resulted, late at night. As it grew, so did the size of the betting. Sometimes a couple of thousand dollars could be had for the winner of one of these late night, unsanctioned contests.
Lee Petty and his brother admitted that when they were not running the trucking business they joined in a few of the races. The bug then bit Lee pretty hard. Before World War II (exactly when is not clear), he and his brother knew they could build a car that was every bit as fast as what they had seen already running.
Their car of choice was a 1937 Plymouth coupe. They modified it, and put a much larger Chrysler inline engine in it. Probably one of the big straight 8 cylinder jobs that Chrysler was famous for at the time. Lee won his first race out of the box, along with a big share of other contests, which netted nice sums of money, in most cases. It appeared to be better than the pay days from the trucking concern. Lee enjoyed the heat of competition along with the adrenalin rush that accompanied it.
After World War II, word about a promoter named Bill France got around the southern communities quickly in 1947. Something like NASCAR was needed if only to get rid of the shady promoters, establish some guidelines, and ensure that the drivers got paid for their efforts. NASCAR's early years were fraught with tough times, but Lee Petty saw the value in having an organization establish stock car racing as a legitimate enterprise. Lee also saw it as making it a clean, fun entertainment for families. He supported Bill France's efforts entirely. His unabashed admiration for NASCAR translated into a mode of life for his son, Richard, as well as his entire family. Undoubtedly Richard Petty is the most recognized name to date in NASCAR history. Further, #43 is also the most recognized car number in NASCAR history.
Lee Petty's career starts in earnest
Lee Petty's first real foray into racing came at a dirt track on June 19, 1948, when he was already 35 years old. He had fast talked a family friend into loaning him (just try to imagine that) his brand new 1948 Buick Roadmaster which included inducements of earning the kind of big money that staggered the imagination. Well into the race, Lee was digging (almost literally) his way to the lead, when a sway bar broke on the big Buick. It barreled rolled four times, spewing parts and body pieces all over the track. Lee was fortunate, getting only a very small cut. Crawling out of the car after the wreck, Lee was sick at the sight of the big car. It was gone beyond any repair. Hasty arrangements were made to buy the friend a new car. Whether they remained friends after that is not known. However, Lee decided that big and powerful is not the best way to go to win races.
In 1949, Lee bought a brand new '49 Plymouth coupe with a 97 horsepower flat-head 6 cylinder engine. In 1950, he had a new '50 Plymouth Coupe. He finished third in points in 1950. In 1951 he raced another Plymouth Coupe. He finished fourth in points for 1951. 1952 saw more of the same, where he finished third in points.
In 1953, Dodge introduced its first Hemi V-8. Lee saw the advantage of having that engine in a light car such as the new 1953 Dodge coupe. The major differences, other than the Dodge having a Hemi V-8 over the Plymouth, were in wheelbase and weight. The 1953 Plymouth coupe, with virtually the same drivetrain that it had in 1949, had a slightly longer wheelbase for 1953. It was increased from 111 inches to 114 inches. The Plymouth weighed in at around 2900 pounds. The new '53 Dodge coupe also had a slight increase in wheelbase, from 115 inches to 119. It weighed about 3100 pounds, so that when equipped with the new V-8, it was very fast.
However, for the Daytona Beach race he drove a 1953 Chrysler. We don't know if he bought it, or if it was furnished to him by Chrysler Corporation. It appeared that he alternated between the large Chrysler and the Dodge for certain races. The Dodge was best suited for the majority of NASCAR's events, which were held on dirt tracks. He garnered Dodge's first NASCAR win, as he had already done for Plymouth, and went on to finish second in Grand National points.
In 1954, Lee switched to the Chrysler two door Club Coupe Windsor model. The Hemi now packed a 235 horsepower punch. With his tuning, it put out much more. The Hemi engine was backed by a Dodge truck transmission. It made Lee unstoppable at the Daytona Beach race course in that car that year. Yet, it appears that he did not abandon his Dodge cars for 1954. It is not clear whether they were 1954 models or just reskinned 1953 cars, since there had been little design changes in the Dodge between those years. Dodge did make horsepower increases in its Hemi V-8 for 1954. With 37 races slated for 1954, Lee Petty participated in every one of them. He won his first Grand National Championship in 1954 in the Chrysler. That included the beach race at Daytona, which even then stood out as "the big one."
The association with Chrysler Corporation cars continued in 1955 and 1956 with Lee Petty continuing to drive Dodges along with the most powerful cars in America at that time, the Chrysler 300s. Again, it is not known if Lee had to buy the cars, or if he was given assistance from Chrysler. More than likely he had to buy them himself.
Tim Flock was Grand National Champion in 1955 driving a Chrysler. Lee finished third in points.
In 1956 Buck Baker, Buddy's father, won the Championship, in a Chrysler. Lee Petty finished 4th over the course of 56 races alternating between Dodges and Chryslers.
The automakers get serious - and the "sponsored racing ban"
There was an event that occurred in 1956 that finally got Chrysler's attention. It did not happen in a race, but it certainly shook the racing circles. Coming "out of the closet," Ford Motor Company hired Pete De Paolo to form a factory backed circle track racing team.
1957 was a tough year for stock car racing. First, General Motors President Red Curtice persuaded the American Manufacturers Association to pull out of providing any more factory participation or assistance in racing events. It was believed that Henry Ford pulled a political end run to get Curtice involved so that General Motors in particular would no longer be making special or export parts for their cars.
Ford, in gesture only, said they would observe the ban, while continuing to supply parts to racing teams through an outside agency. Pete De Paolo quit the factory backed Ford racing effort, which lead to a future major NASCAR race preparation team being formed. It was called Holman and Moody. Under the guise of being an independent company, the H & M team worked closely with the Ford factory in development of "export" parts for Ford engines.
Chrysler Corporation closely followed Ford's lead in that area, except they labeled their development "police packages" or "severe duty" parts. A group of Chrysler engineers on their own formed an organization which provided assistance to any one that asked for help. They were not paid through any funds from Chrysler itself. Only General Motors strictly observed the racing ban participation, which is exactly what Henry Ford II wanted.
Secondly, in the Spring race at Martinsville, Virginia, a 1957 Mercury jumped the outside wall in front of the grandstands. Without a catch fence, the resulting crash into the main bleacher seats resulted in a highly publicized loss of life, among them a young girl. Accordingly there were quite a few spectator injuries as well. Suddenly, safety became a large issue. The public expressed their concern by staying home. Income at all the races went way down, and the future of NASCAR to continue as it was, became doubtful.
Certainly, the AMA racing ban was not something that Bill France wanted to see happen coming right at the time that his organization was gaining national recognition. The ban did not prevent the automotive factories from cranking out more horsepower for their engines. 1957 marked a banner year for the horsepower race out of Detroit. To continue racing, owners and racers found the money to buy what they needed to compete.
Eager to showcase its power, Oldsmobile division of General Motors came calling on Lee Petty in a deal that took place prior to the AMA racing ban. Olds had introduced its J-2 model V-8 engine for 1957. It was a 371 cubic inch beauty that had three, two barreled carburetors, along with dual exhausts. After initial preparation, Lee Petty took the J-2 powered Olds down the beach in the 1957 speed week contests at 144.9 miles an hour! Remember, this was a strictly stock car! Bill France took one look at the numbers and promptly banned the engine in that configuration. He was correct in citing that it was not a regular production engine when it was initially introduced. Olds quickly changed that, but, by then the ban was in place, and France's ruling would not be rescinded. It was 20 miles an hour faster than anything else. That, combined with the strict compliance within the GM corporation to the AMA racing ban put Oldsmobile's active participation in Lee's racing activities in a sort of standstill.
The Plymouth and Dodge season in 1957 was dismal at best. With some of the best designs on the market, and some of the hottest engines, Plymouth did not score a single win in 1957 or 1958! There were no hot teams to field the cars since Lee had switched. The other major Chrysler user, Carl Kiekhaeffer abruptly left NASCAR altogether. Bill France probably breathed a sigh of relief. The Kiekhaeffer Dodges and Chrysler 300s (Karl owned Mercury outboard boat engines) had dominated NASCAR in 1955 and 1956.
Richard Petty joins in
At that time, there were two divisions in NASCAR. One for steel roofed cars and the convertible division where the cars ran with the tops down. Lee Petty had received two 1957 Oldsmobile cars that consisted of a 2 door hard top and a convertible. He competed in the 1957 season in both divisions. By this time, Lee's youngest son was fully involved in the racing enterprise. Richard Petty acted as everything that involved racing, except for driving. He spent many hours on the road driving cars and/or parts to all sorts of destinations for his father. He wanted to race and so indicated that to Lee. Lee said that Richard should wait until he was 21, and then he would make a decision about having Richard go out and race.
For 1957, Buck Baker, the 1956 Grand National champion had switched from Chrysler to Chevrolets. He won his second Championship in a Chevrolet. Lee Petty finished '57 in 4th place.
Sponsorship as we have come to know it in NASCAR today just did not exist in 1958. NASCAR was more known for organizing races at your local friendly dirt track for county fairs, instead of at the huge paved tracks we see today. Money was there, but in no way was there any sense that you could afford to go outside of a meager budget. So, it was with Petty Enterprises in 1958. Not one to waste anything, Lee elected to stay with the 1957 Oldsmobiles for 1958. Most cars in '58 were sort of "stand pat" vehicles in that they did not change too much, with the exceptions of the General Motors cars. They grew in size and weight. Ford and Chrysler made some styling changes, however, the drive trains were nearly the same as was the weight. Please keep in mind that these cars were held to "strictly stock" standards. Very much unlike the NASCAR mandated units of today.
Richard Petty turned 21 years old on July 2, 1958. He again approached his father about driving a race car. Lee gave him a rather tired, but true 1957 Olds convertible that he was no longer using. On July 12, 1958, Richard, accompanied by his brother towed the Oldsmobile behind Richard's 1956 Dodge to a dirt track in Columbia, South Carolina. Richard acquainted himself well for his first race. He survived and finished in the money in 6th for a pay day of $200. Richard went on to compete in 8 more races in 1958. He finished 36th in points. Lee, on the other hand, competing in all 51 races sponsored by NASCAR. He ended up winning his second Grand National Championship in the 1957 Oldsmobile.
Money was always tight in the early years. Nothing existed of any sort of sponsorship except small amounts that vendors would pay if you won and had their logo on your car. Prize money, while being decent, seemed like it was just about enough to keep everyone coming back, waiting for the big pay check.
1959 found Petty Enterprises in the position of being able to buy one new car. With the completion of the new high banked, two and a half mile long oval built by Bill France in Daytona Beach, Lee felt a large, heavy car would be best suited for that race. Seeking assistance, he found that Oldsmobile was willing to help in his purchase, at cost, (imagine) of a 1959 Oldsmobile Super 88 coupe. The support came from the Oldsmobile dealer association, not the factory. It was equipped with a three speed transmission and a 394 cubic inch V-8 that was factory rated at 315 horsepower. That relegated Richard to make due with the older model 1957 Oldsmobile for 1959. This is the first time that Richard choose to use his own number, picking the famous 43, one number after his Father. It was also clear that the Petty organization now had two full time drivers. Richard emerging as a fast rising NASCAR star in his own right. The 1959 Daytona 500 found Richard in his '57 convertible starting in 6th place. He lasted 8 laps before the engine expired in the 57 Olds. A first for #43, along with a 57 place finish in a 59 car field. Richard won $100 for his first Daytona race!
Lee Petty wins the first Daytona high-banked oval race and rejoins Chrysler
Lee Petty won the first race ever held at the Daytona Beach high banked oval. He was locked in a three way dual on the final lap. An unusual angle for the finish line camera seemed to show that John Beauchamp had won the race. However, other pictorial evidence indicated that Lee Petty had won by a width of the Oldsmobile's bumper. Finally, after three days, a lap recount was made, and it turned out that not only was it a length of a bumper, it included one full lap. Beauchamp had only turned 199 laps to Lee's 200. Lee Petty was declared the outright winner. Lee reverted back to the trusty 1957 Oldsmobile for short tracks. The 1959 model was to big.
Lee knew the 1957s were too old. He had his eye on a certain make of car that would lead him back to his earlier philosophy that lighter is better. He made a few inquiries and was rewarded with a phone call from Highland Park, Michigan. Within a few hours, 4 "in white" 1959 Plymouth Fury cars were on their way to Level Cross, North Carolina. Plymouth was rather eager to help. They had not recorded a single win in two NASCAR seasons when Lee Petty had left them for the Oldsmobile. Dodge went one full season without any wins in 1958. 2 of the cars were convertibles for Richard, and two of the cars were hardtops ostensibly for Lee. Just about the time that the deal was struck in the spring of 1959, NASCAR announced that 1959 would be the last season for convertible racing. Too dangerous for the driver was their conclusion. Top down racing provided no protection in a roll over. And there were plenty of them on short dirt tracks. With no thought to that, Richard competed heavily in his new Plymouth convertible. Lee responded to the help given him by Chrysler Corporation by winning the very first event that he ran his new Fury in June 1959. After using the Oldsmobile cars for 20 races, the Plymouth's took over, and the Petty organization never looked back.
Richard's Fury wasn't ready until just before the July 4 Firecracker 250 at Daytona. Both Lee and Richard competed in the hardtop Fury's in that race. Lee lasted 77 laps, only to watch his son make one more circuit and retire on lap 78. However, things like that were not the norm for the Pettys. They prided themselves on being prepared before getting to a race track and it showed. Richard competed in 21 races in 1959. He came in 4th in the convertible division and 15th overall in the Grand National points chase. Doing Plymouth and Petty Enterprises proud, Lee Petty won his third Grand National Championship. The cement that made the organization had Plymouth written all over it. 1959 also marked the first use of "Petty Blue" for the paint on the Petty built cars.
When asked directly about the "Petty Blue" color, Richard related, years later, that indeed, it had been a fluke. Late in the 1959 season, after having to rebuild one of the '59 Plymouth Fury's, Maurice told Richard that they didn't have enough white paint for the painting of the entire car. Being brought up to waste nothing, Richard found some dark blue paint, but not in a sufficient amount to paint the whole car. Richard said they he looked at Maurice, and Maurice looked at him, and they just dumped the two paints into one tub, then proceeded to paint the Plymouth in the color that came out. When they got done, they were impressed themselves with the hue. Lee came back from an out of town race, and marveled at how that color set the car off. Almost electric is what he said. Of course, Richard and Maurice had to scramble to remember the right mix. Once they did, the formula became their secret, even to the point of being patented by a paint company as Petty Blue.
When the 1960 season dawned, their was only one color on the Petty cars. The "electric" Petty Blue. It became their trademark.
Power continues to escalate as NASCAR racing gets more popular
1960 was a very good year for Petty Enterprises. Plymouth sent two hardtop Fury models to Level Cross, North Carolina. They were prepped exactly the same, leaving no further doubt that the racing efforts were meant for two drivers of equal measure. In a lot of races that year, the two Petty men competed against each other. Both cars were equipped with the 383 cubic inch V-8. Factory horsepower was rated at 330. The good news about the '60 cars were that they had top speeds of near 150 miles an hour.
The bad news is that Pontiac had made some well prepared moves for NASCAR. The 1960 Daytona race saw the pole position occupied by Cotton Owens in a 1960 Pontiac. It was becoming well established that the Chrysler Corporation wedge designed engines had real wallop in the low end with copious amounts of torque. On short tracks, they were unbeatable in the hands of drivers like Lee and Richard Petty. But, on long high speed tracks, where they had to turn up high engine speeds, they gave up about 50 horsepower to the Pontiac's and Chevrolet's. However, the '60 Fury models equated themselves well in the Daytona race with Richard coming in 3rd place with his father, Lee, right behind him in 4th. The season turned into a see-saw battle over the 40 race schedule between Richard in his Plymouth and Rex White in a Chevrolet. Each week seemed to put one above the other, back and fourth. In the final tally, Rex White won the 1960 Championship battle, with Richard Petty coming in a close 2nd . A truly amazing achievement since this was only his first full year of competition. Lee Petty finished the season in 6th place.
A couple of other important things happened during 1960. CBS Sports decided to include the qualifying runs for the Daytona 500 in the "Sports Spectacular" coverage. For two hours, images of NASCAR racers filled TV screens everywhere in January 1960. A later TV rating found that 17 million people had been watching! Big time TV discovered NASCAR racing. It was a portent for the future and would catapult NASCAR and Richard Petty into national fame and fortune.
The Petty organization began to experiment with the larger 413 cubic inch V-8 towards the end of the 1960 season. Chrysler helped by labeling it as being "over the counter available" for anyone that wanted to buy it. Factory wise, it was only 30 more cubic inches and 20 horsepower better than the 383. In the hands of tuner Maurice Petty and Dale Inman (Lee's nephew, and Richard's cousin), the 413 proved to be much more competitive on long, high speed tracks. Further, with its monstrous low end torque, it proved nearly unbeatable on the short, dirt tracks.
The racing group at Chrysler decided to make the 413 more eligible for NASCAR by dropping the 413 in 100 vehicles as homologation. The lucky recipients were State Police agencies around the country. I recall taking delivery of some 413 cubic inch V-8s in the 1960 Plymouth for the State Police through our dealership. This was the Chrysler New Yorker engine with a 350 horsepower rating, making it only 20 more than the standard 383. At least 100 cars were equipped with the 413 and it is said that upwards of 150 may have been completed, with one agency in particular making it a requirement.
The 1961 season dawned with high hopes. Plymouth again furnished two 1961 Plymouth Fury hardtops to the Petty Enterprise organization. These were fitted with 413 cubic inch V-8 engines. They were extremely fast, and Lee said, "stout and capable." They just didn't handle like the other Plymouths that they had driven. The body style was quirky, and it translated that to the way the cars drove at high speed. The rear deck was sloped downward, providing no down force at all to the rear end. The rear fender areas were concave which caused the wavy air forces to buffet the rear of the car around. But, Lee, the head of the organization was confident, and that meant Richard was too.
Lee Petty leaves racing and Richard Petty takes over
The qualification runs for the 1961 Daytona 500 saw some odd coincidences that did not bode well for the Petty men personally or the organization overall.
There are two forty lap qualification races to get into the 500. Richard Petty in # 43 was in the first qualification race. Richard completed 39 laps. Going into the 40th and final lap, entering turn 1, Richard tangled with Junior Johnson in a Pontiac. Junior swerved when a tire blew. Frantically trying to avoid the spinning car, Richard angled towards the infield on the inside of the track. Junior's car was gyrating wildly, and it slammed into Richard's Plymouth on the right, rear corner. It immediately turned #43's nose towards the outside guard rail. At that point, Richard became just a passenger as dynamic forces took control. #43 slammed head on into the heavily reinforced guard rail. Turning about 35 degrees to the left, it mounted the rail and rode along on top of it, for a couple hundred yards. With the front and outside right tires out of contact with the pavement, the brakes did nothing to slow the car down. In the blink of an eye, air caught the front end, suddenly lifting the car, whereby #43 was catapulted upwards, flying out over 200 feet into the parking lot, where it slammed devastatingly onto the ground.
Young Richard was extremely fortunate. He hastily crawled out of the wreck, having sustained only a small cut. In his haste to get away, he turned his ankle, causing it to be tender and painful. Checked out by medical personnel, he hobbled back to the Petty Pits.
Lee was about to get going in the second 40 lap (100 miles!) qualifying event in #42, when Richard began to experience much pain in his eyes. Rushed back to the infield medical center, it was discovered he had hundreds of tiny glass particles in them. Removing the glass bits took some time, and just as Richard stepped out the medical care center, he heard the announcement that the second race had completed the 39th lap, with just one more to go. Right at that moment, he heard a terrible sound of a collision. Looking to the first turn, in almost the same spot that he had gone off the track, he saw John Beauchamp's '61 Chevrolet and Lee's #42 Plymouth airborne, tangled together. When they both hit the outside guard rail, it slung both cars high into the air. Bad ankle or not, Richard ran as fast as he could to the spot where #42 lay in a tangled, crumpled mass of twisted metal. It was only just a few feet away from Richard's earlier crash site.
Seeing the crash site as he looked at the wrecked Plymouth, Richard first thought that his father was dead. He certainly seemed to be, at first. Yet, he clung to life. There is no explanation for Lee being able to survive the devastating trauma and injury to his body other than sheer will power to survive.
It took a long time to cut Lee out of the wreck. There were no helicopter air care units in 1960, so a quickly assembled cadre of various police units at the track gave the ambulance a 100 mile an hour, screaming escort to the Halifax Hospital in Daytona Beach. Fortunately, there were was a trauma trained doctor on duty. Richard believed that he had witnessed his father's last ride.
Lee Petty had previously been voted as the most popular driver in NASCAR several times. Word of his awful crash spread quickly through the Daytona Beach community. When the police and ambulance arrived at Halifax Hospital, a large crowd of well wishers had already gathered. A watch was established at the hospital by members of the Petty family. A group of the well wishers established their own watch both outside, and inside, the hospital lobby. This impromptu group rotated watch duties and stayed until Lee was able to leave and travel to his home for long months of rehabilitation. Even with the terrible specter of Lee lying near death inside, one of the members of the Petty family came out daily to express their gratitude. It was touching and it went a very long way to establishing the Petty clan as a class act, with or without NASCAR recognition.
At first, Lee slipped in and out of consciousness. Each lapse sent a terrible sense of immediate loss through the family. Yet, Lee showed small signs of rallying. He suddenly began demanding that Richard and Maurice be at the hospital. Fighting off another lapse of unconsciousness until both of them got there, Lee then dictated that they get back to the shop at Level Cross and get busy putting the cars back together for the rest of the season. After he had made the order, he seemed to gain strength. He then became convinced that he would be back racing within a week. That was a good sign, but it was not meant to happen. Lee's racing career was over. He just did not know it then. It would take months of rehabilitation for him to fend for himself, let alone apply the skills needed to pilot a race car.
Hastening to follow their Father's directions, Richard, Maurice and Dale went back to Level Cross. They rebuilt both '61 Plymouth cars. It marked the first time that specialization was considered. One car was for the short tracks, and the other for the big, long high speed runs.
Richard drove both under the number 43, not wishing to compromise any of his Father's recognition that he had gained with #42. Of the 47 race schedule, Richard competed in 41. He ended up the 1961 season 8th place in Grand National points. While not extremely prosperous, it did keep the shop open while providing wages for all that were involved. It was a great effort. It tested Richard Petty for certain, because now, the whole organization rested squarely on the decisions he made. Lee Petty was no longer able to be involved.
1962 dawned with a totally different atmosphere at Petty Enterprises. Lee Petty was home, but was not an active participant in the decision making process. Heavy rehabilitation efforts were his only focus. As well, due to a judgement blunder made by the former Chrysler President, Newberg, both Plymouth and Dodge makes were downsized. In the process, Virgil Exner's original designs for the 1962 models were horribly applied by a non supervised styling staff. As a result, the 1962 Plymouth and Dodge rode on a truncated 116 inch wheelbase. The styling was just plain outrageously ugly. Still assisting Petty Enterprises, Plymouth furnished two sedans for 1962. They were not the Fury. Instead they were the least expensive Savoy, 2 door, post models. Faced with having to build another totally new car, their 4th such effort since 1959, the new '62 model, while ugly, soon became Richard's car of choice. He had used the 1961 model for a few races early, before the Daytona 500 in February.
It was at the 1962 Daytona 500 that Richard Petty showed how driving skill could mean just as much as brute horsepower in winning races. For 1962, Pontiac had made an all out effort to dominate NASCAR. They had quietly introduced a "super duty" engine of 421 cubic inches in limited quantities in 1961. The 1962 effort put the 421 available to anyone that had the down payment. "Fireball" Roberts, in a 1962 Pontiac, prepared by Daytona Beach garage owner and self made automotive genius, "Smokey" Yunick, put on a show that up until that time in NASCAR, had never been seen before.
First, Roberts went out and ran a qualifying lap at 156.99 miles an hour! Everyone just looked at each other. That was about 10 miles an hour faster than anything that had ever gone before. Second, in his qualifying race, Roberts dominated it, beginning to end, winning it convincingly. Third, at the end of the 500 mile race, Roberts won, from the pole position, another first. Yet, even though it was obvious that the little Plymouth of Richard Petty was giving up at least 50 horsepower to the Pontiac, Richard used the draft and his skill, and put the Savoy sedan into second place, and held on! He had started in 10th place, moving right up as he put the Plymouth out in front three different times, leading for 27 laps! If Richard Petty had not been noted before, he certainly was then. TV sports and large news organizations actually made more of his second place finish in the obviously underpowered Plymouth than they did of Robert's dominating performance. Richard Petty still talks about this race, and remarks to this day, that the 1962 Daytona was his all out favorite! After that race, the 1961 cars were never used again. Lee Petty never got into a race car in 1962, still recovering from his near death accident in 1961.
The NASCAR factory sponsorship ban ends
Ford Motor Company introduced the Galaxie sedan for 1962. It lacked the slippery roof line of the 1961 Starliner coupe. In an effort to help the NASCAR teams, Ford introduced a "Starlift" top, especially made to turn the convertible models into a car with the roof line that mimicked the 1960 and 1961 Starliner. NASCAR let it race in one competition and then banned it. With that ban, Henry Ford announced he was no longer (not that he had made much of an effort to stop before) going to observe the AMA ban. Promptly, Chrysler Corporation followed suit. The open factory backed "war" was back on! General Motors seemed reluctant to step up, leaving teams to soldier on with whatever they had, or so it was made to seem.
1962 saw Joe Weatherly win the Grand National title. Close on his heels, after a hard charge came Richard Petty for second place. It was clear to everyone that Richard Petty had the "stuff." He just needed the equipment to make it happen.
Lynn Townsend, Chrysler's new president, who had emerged after the Newberg and Colbert internal scandals, had made his plans well known. Townsend's two teen aged sons had told their Dad that the Chrysler Corporation cars were "non-existent" on the street.
The 400+ engines take over
In the spring of 1962, Chrysler engineering introduced an all out effort with the "short ram" 413 cubic inch V-8 engine. Right out of the box, the light weight Plymouth and Dodge cars absolutely dominated drag racing efforts. As was the usual for Chrysler engineering in that time, the Super Stock 413 had more than been built to be rugged and reliable.
Over the spring and into the summer, well into the fall of 1962, Dodge and Plymouth stock cars terrorized drag racing tracks all over the country. Plymouth made the most inroads. In July 1962, a young kid out of Oakland, California set the stock car world on its ear. He accomplished what no one thought could be done up to that time. He posted a record of under 12 seconds for a stock car in the 1/4 mile. His elapsed time stood at 11.93 seconds with a speed of 118.57 miles an hour. The '62 Plymouth was ugly, but it sure moved out! Townsend was elated. He called his engineers and ordered to start building something for Richard Petty "to whip the ass off Ford!"
Rumors had been circulating for weeks about what Chrysler had in store for the 1963 season. What Chrysler had not taken into account was the will of Henry Ford II. Stung at the ban of the "Starlift" top in '62, and challenged by the statement of Lynn Townsend that Chrysler was set to "whip Ford's ass", Henry threw a lot of money into the NASCAR racing effort.
Billed as "1963 and ?", the Ford line introduced a big block, 427 cubic inch FE V-8, for the newly designed Galaxie called the "Sports Hardtop." While it didn't have the sloped back glass of the '60 and '61 Starliner models, it sure was meant as a slippery aerodynamic fastback. The introduction was timed just right for Ford's race teams to be able to build that body style for the upcoming Daytona 500.
Certainly not asleep, Chrysler had made major sheet metal changes for the 1963 Plymouth and Dodge models. Engineering wise, the 413 had been bored out to 426 cubic inches (NASCAR limited engine size to 428 cubic inches). Internal changes resulted in a "Stage 3" version of the engine that substantially increased its power. The 426 Stage 3 engine was rumored to put out over 600 horsepower in the NASCAR trim. Styling changes in the Plymouth improved the aerodynamics in spite of having the "square back" looking roof line. Richard Petty seemed poised to be a dominant factor in NASCAR in 1963.
Chrysler sent three 1963 Savoy sedans to Level Cross that year. Each was loaded with the stage 3 426 V-8. With Lee Petty still not fully comfortable from the near death situation in 1961, Jim Paschal had been hired in the off season to be the other driver in the Petty organization. On occasion, brother Maurice raced #41 Petty Plymouth, thereby finding three Petty Blue machines charging around a race course. It was a sight that filled Plymouth fans with pride and hope.
Preparation for the '63 Daytona was meticulously done. Three identical cars had been prepared. #41, #42 and, of course, #43. Maurice was not comfortable with the idea of driving in such a big race, so USAC Plymouth driver Jim Hurtibise was recruited to sit in #41. Jim Paschal was set to go with #42, and Richard was all smiles in #43.
The qualifying races did not inspire much confidence in the new cars. Richard finished his 40 lap run, covering 100 miles, in 12th place. Jim Hurtibise managed to get into 17th place and Jim Paschal started out in 23rd spot and finished in 23rd place.
When the checkered flag fell on the 1963 Daytona, Ford had proven its point. The first five places were all Fords. Richard Petty was the first non-Ford, in 6th place. Jim Paschal in #42, lasted only 72 laps, and Hurtibise in #41, went out on lap 113. A one time deal, Jim Hurtibise went back to USAC. In August, Jim Paschal left the team to go drive for Pontiac. Bob Welborn was hired to drive #42. #41 was driven occasionally by Maurice Petty. Neither was very successful. Richard finished second, again, in the Grand National points race in 1963 after battling "little Joe" Weatherly all season. Weatherly astounded the NASCAR establishment with the Championship because he had no regular ride that year! He pulled off his accomplishment with 8 different owners that were considered nowhere near capable enough to win, with teams that no one had ever heard of before!
There was an interesting development at General Motors in 1963. Chevrolet arrived at Daytona with a 427 cubic inch V-8. Modestly, it was advertised to have 425 horsepower. The upper GM brass was upset and nervous about this engine; Chevrolet had built it without letting the top hats at GM know that it was to be used for racing. Until its appearance in Daytona, most GM executives thought it had been built to power Chevrolet station wagons. Not much was known about it around NASCAR; it was labeled the "mystery engine." To further put a dark side to this engine, only 50 blocks were ever built, and NASCAR let it run, despite their own rules that it be an available production engine!
Junior Johnson was so impressed with the power that he jumped off Pontiac's ship and landed on Chevrolet's deck. Smokey Yunick, the legendary engine builder out of Daytona Beach, was heavily involved in preparation of these engines. He claimed that there had been only 48 of them built. The reason for the difference is that, somehow, the Ford racing team of Holman and Moody had obtained two of them! No one has ever determined how they did it, nor exactly who was involved in the surreptitious adventure that spirited two of the top secret Chevrolet engines into the Ford camp.
It was from H & M that details of the engine became known. The true secret to Chevrolet's 427 Mark IV V-8 engine were the heads, which housed a near hemi combustion chamber, and the multi angled valves. Someone remarked that the way the valve stems stick out of the head made it look like a porcupine. The tag stuck. Junior Johnson put everyone on notice when he set the 1963 hot lap record in a Chevrolet Impala at 165.183 miles an hour! It beat Fireball Roberts’ hot lap, set just one year earlier, by 9 miles an hour. Junior Johnson went on to win the 40 lap qualifier with his fellow Chevrolet driver Johnny Rutherford easily capturing the second 40 lap race. It had began to look like Chevrolet had become the car to beat.
There was a big glitch in the whole thing, however. Nervous GM executives decreed that the 427 porcupine engine was a violation of their non-racing policy under the AMA. That frustrated the GM camp because Ford and Chrysler had clearly declared they were not going to follow the AMA ban nearly a year earlier. What made matters worse that after the 50 engine run, no spares were available. Junior Johnson, as the standard bearer for Chevrolet, was clearly worried. He was noted for his wide open throttle style of driving. He put his foot on the accelerator and held it to the floor. When the Daytona race qualifications began, he had only the one engine that was in his car.
Junior knew he needed to have back up engines. He also knew through Smokey Yunick where two of the precious V-8s were. You can imagine the surprise that shot through the headquarters of the Holman and Moody building when Junior himself showed up wanting to have them do a huge favor and let him buy those two engines!
Of course, there was immediate denial by H & M personnel that they had any such Chevrolet stuff. Junior had no other choices, so he hung on, enduring the repeated denials, like a bull dog to a soup bone. Smokey Yunick may have had something to do with H & M getting the engines in the first place, although he always sort of denied any hand in such action. Junior evoked Yunick's name a lot in what little is known of the delicate, but desperate negotiations.
In the final tally, H & M somehow found out that one of the engines that they didn't have had been mysteriously shipped in error to a warehouse close to their HQ. In the spirit of the "good old boy" racing circles that existed (and in some cases still do) Junior Johnson was able to obtain that mis-shipped engine from that warehouse, if he used an unmarked truck, and came after dark. How much money, if any, was involved is not known. Junior won't talk about it, even today.
It was all for naught anyway, since the Chevrolets ended up involved in accidents or had engine failure. The Ford cars finished 1 to 5, with Richard in 6th. It did make it more imperative that Chrysler work up a different engine.
Certainly by this time, it was plainly obvious that Petty Engineering had all it would take to win championships. Richard had won 14 races in 1963! The only ingredient it lacked was an engine that had all the "stuff" that the other competitors had. They had nothing to worry about. Lynn Townsend had sent the Chrysler engineers to the drawing boards with orders to get something together that would beat everything out there........ and do it yesterday!
Birth of the legendary Chrysler 426 Hemi
Chrysler's engineers knew that the basic 413/426 block was rugged and reliable. It had proven itself over and over ever since its introduction in 1959. That in itself was remarkable since the gestation period for the 413 was only 18 months, instead of the usual 30 to 36 months in bringing a new engine to production.
Looking over past performance figures, it was obvious that the technology in the hemispherical combustion chamber engine heads was just the way they wanted to go. Fortunately, most of the engineers that had been involved in the earlier Hemi V-8 development program were still working in Chrysler engineering. They didn't have much time. Therefore, utilizing the basic current 426 block was an imperative and an obvious choice. The final decision to build Hemi heads for grafting onto the 426 block came late in March 1963, after the Daytona 500 race.
Getting the design right proved to be the nagging element in continued development of the Hemi. The current wedge heads had a 4 bolt pattern around the cylinders. With the sort of pressure that was envisioned for the Hemi engine, the engineers knew that at least 5 bolts were needed around each cylinder. The problem was that the fifth bolt interfered with the valve train and push rods. After weeks of wrangling, it was found that the fifth bolt could be put on the underside of the head in the intake valley between the valve push rod guides. Putting the design into castings went pretty quickly after that. Getting the engine all together was a monumental task. While the engine was of 426 cubic inch displacement, essentially it had to have some redesign. The crankshaft web base had to be deepened and increased in strength. It got a four bolt bearing cap bottom end.
After much fastidious engineering, the first engine was assembled by hand. It was the last week in November 1963. It took 80 man hours to put the race engine together. It was set to go to testing the first week of December 1963, only two months before the Daytona '64 race.
Dynamometer test runs revealed a huge amount of horsepower. Just how much has never been revealed by Chrysler! Later insider leaks said about 750 horsepower under racing conditions. An easy 650 horsepower at factory specs!
The tests also revealed some major design faults. The piston walls on the right hand side were cracking. It was evident that the engine would not be able to last out in a race. It needed to have thicker walls.
Engineers worked nonstop in the lab and at the forge to try to ensure proper strength to stand the racing forces. A myriad of problems ensued. Day after day went by with the engineers trying every thing they could imagine to get the casting correct. Each new day sent them back with discouraging results.
Finally, at the end of January 1964, after working 24 hours straight, one engineer came up with a series of techniques that garnered a good casting. Cast in groups of 12, the final casting was successful. Taking a risk, because the engine had to be in Daytona Beach on February 4, 1964, an original design Hemi engine was sent out to Ray Nichols for testing. Ray had been given a Belvedere to run, and he had put Paul Goldsmith in to drive it. In unmarked vehicles, Ray took the Belvedere to Goodyear's 5 mile long testing facility in San Angelo, Texas.
In total secrecy, Goldsmith put the Belvedere into the wind. Untested up to now, the first run off the truck gave a 180 mile an hour lap speed. Goldsmith had said that the surface was very rough. Indeed it was. A bump in the back stretch put the rear end right off the ground. When it came back down, it burned rubber! At 180 miles an hour!
Afterwards, Ray Nichols remarked that while all Chrysler engines have a distinct exhaust note and heavy intake roar, the Hemi had made a sound that was more bellow than roar, like it was coming from deep inside the belly of the Plymouth. It was a sound never to be forgotten.
In a huge gamble, the original design Hemi engines were shipped to Daytona Beach for installation in the team cars. They arrived on February 4, 1964. Teams promptly went to installation and setup concerns. The engineers were betting that the original design engines would last through qualifying and the 40 lap long elimination races. They had no other choice as the first casting for the "thick wall" Hemi had been cast one day before on February 3, 1964!
All the MoPar drivers were keeping the power of the Hemi a closely guarded secret. Not one of them ran a full out lap. Not in on the track testing, not in pre races, not in time trials and not anywhere. They were holding around 165 miles an hour. Right with the 1964 Fords.
Chevrolet was almost non-existent in 1964. The mystery motor was no where to be seen, and the 409 cubic inch V-8 just wasn't a contender.
Junior Johnson had come to the Chrysler camp for 1964. He remarked how much difference there was between the Chevrolet 427 of 1963 and the Hemi 426 of 1964. He said he had never felt the kind of power ever before in any car he ever driven. He held the Hemi in awe. Even on the back stretch at Daytona, you could push down on the accelerator and the Hemi would just pick up and go some more.
Of course, the plan to hold back was designed to put NASCAR at ease, along with Ford. Had they used the full power, before the race, it was a very real risk that Ford would protest because the Hemi was not, at that point, a full production engine. It was also known that going full bore would have seen lap speeds 20 miles an hour faster than anything that had ever been at Daytona!
That did not mean that they held back all the way. In the qualification lap, Paul Goldsmith set a two lap record of 174.91 miles an hour. Not to be outdone, Richard Petty set his two lap qualification run at 174.41 miles an hour. In the February 7 respective 40 lap races, Junior Johnson's Dodge won the first at 170.77 mph with Bobby Isaac in another Dodge winning the second at 169.81 mph. Ford immediately became suspicious. After all, the lap speeds in a race with other cars around, was 10 miles an hour faster than Junior Johnson had been able to go in 1963 in a timed run, where he had the track all to himself! Chrysler pleaded that it was all aerodynamics. NASCAR let it all ride, for the time being.
Not quite all went as planned. Junior Johnson finished his 40 lap run with only 20 pounds of oil pressure. When the engine was torn down for inspection, the block had cracked right down the oil line between the camshaft and the main bearing bulkhead. Much worse than expected.
The February 3 castings had been meticulously cleaned, machined and assembled. They were roaring at full throttle in the Chrysler testing labs. So far, so good.
On February 9, 1964, more molten iron began flowing into a dozen molds in a forge plant owned by Chrysler in Indianapolis Indiana. It was one of the best facilities in the entire world. Earlier castings were hand assembled with some set to go to the teams, and others for testing.
Acting quickly, but deliberately, the engine blocks were meticulously checked and then, cleaned. After that the blocks were x-rayed, zyglowed, baked out, and re-checked. All the parts were cleaned, x-rayed, shot peened and meticulously hand assembled. Millions of dollars had been expended by Chrysler to get those engines to this point. Not wishing to take a chance of having those engines lost in a plane crash, the Hemi engines were crated up and trucked from Michigan to Daytona!
The miracle had happened. All the teams got the thick walled 426 Hemi racing engines just before the February 23 date of the 1964 Daytona 500 race! The next day, spare engines and Chrysler racing group director Ronnie Householder arrived in the pit area.
February 23, 1964 in Daytona Beach was cool, but clear and sunny. A good day to go racing. Paul Goldsmith in his red Nichels prepared Plymouth Belvedere sat on the inside front row at the pole position. Richard Petty sat beside him on outside pole position. Behind them, in the next 5 positions were Dodges and Plymouths. Buck Baker was behind the wheel of the second Petty car #41 in the 5th starting spot.
The green flag fell around 12:30 p.m. They were off! Now, all the hopes, fears, trials, triumphs, and yes, dreams, rested in the hands of the drivers behind those big engines.
The 426 Hemi takes its shot
The race did have its moments. Around lap 25, one by one, the Chrysler team cars came into the pits. Immediately the hoods flew up. That was a sure sign of big, big trouble! Ronnie Householder recalled that he felt the blood rush from his head. Then after a few seconds, the Hemi bellow resounded as the cars flew back onto the track. What had happened there? Were the engines wounded so badly that they were sent back out to run until they just blew up? With deep fear inside, Householder made his way through the pits. Relief! The track was so covered with debris, that paper and junk had been sucked up against the radiators causing heating problems. After the garbage was cleared, the Hemi engines distinctive bellow dominated the entire race.
Three hours and fifteen minutes after the first green flag, Richard Petty crossed the finish line, in first place. Behind him was Jimmy Pardue in another Plymouth. Right behind him was Paul Goldsmith with yet another Plymouth. A 1-2-3 sweep. Exaltation sweep through the entire Chrysler Corporation camp, but nowhere was the pride in product bigger than at the Plymouth division. Right after the race, banners, flags, jackets, hats, pins and dozens of other memorabilia broke out all over the Plymouth factories, as well as at the Chrysler Corporate offices. In fact, the very next day, hundreds of buttons appeared throughout the corporate headquarters that read: "Total What?" It was a mimic in response to Ford's 1964 ad campaign that said "Total Performance."
As an aside, Lee Petty was back in apparent good health and fully recovered when the '64 season started. He mostly worked in the pits since he was a mean mechanic in his own right. Lee drove a couple short track races in the #41 car, choosing not to participate in any high speed tracks. His last race effort occurred at Watkins Glen. He never got back into another race car.
In another important issue, Lee Petty for all practical purposes no longer ran Petty Enterprises. He deferred the decisions to his son Richard. After the dominating 1964 Daytona win, Richard was no longer referred to as"Lee's son", having won his "bones." He was Richard Petty, winner in his own right and a man no longer standing in another man's shadow. Richard had emerged to cast his own shadow in the sunshine.
Richard went out to garner his first Grand National Championship. It was remarkable because the 1964 schedule was the highest total ever in NASCAR at 61 races! It was not as easy as it might seem. One could easily say that "yea, with gobs of horsepower, winning was easy." That was not the case. Sorting out how to harness the Hemi engine's power was a trial and error process. The twister under the hood made so much power that at full throttle in was just simply spun the rear wheels continually on short tracks. In the same vein, over a dozen events were lost because the differential failed. The Hemi just was a torque delivery monster that had not gotten the time devoted to it to try to foresee developmental problems before the engine got on the race track. The teams ended up being the testers as they competed over the season.
The 1964 season also just wasn't as lopsided as it may appear. Richard Petty was locked in a heated three way battle for the Championship. The Ford cars were not "lay downs" by any means. They were competent, powerful, and fast in their own right. Ned Jarrett in his Ford and David Pearson in a Dodge gave the Petty organization fits all year long.
The final tally rested on one critical area. So close were Ned Jarrett and Richard Petty that the Championship came down to number of events entered. Richard had competed in all 61 events. Ned Jarrett had been in 59, two less than Richard. That was the main difference that clinched the Grand National Title that year!
However, Bill France was not happy. Before the final race in 1964, he made an announcement that chilled the Chrysler camp. In one sweep, he eliminated the Hemi engine from competition, along with the newly introduced Ford 427 "hi- riser." Ford was pleased. Chrysler was not.
Ten days later, Ronnie Householder issued a statement that no Chrysler supported teams were going to participate in any NASCAR event under the current dictated rules. He blasted NASCAR, at times appearing furious with the decision handed down by France. It had started when Ford officials had been making it known that if NASCAR did not declare the Hemi engine illegal as a non production item, they would boycott the 1965 season. Their suspicions about the Hemi were confirmed in their mind with aerodynamics having nothing at all to do with the winning ways for Chrysler.
When France made his decision to ban the Hemi, Householder called Ford and NASCAR to task. Without a doubt, the threat of a boycott from Ford prompted Bill France to write the Hemi out. Yet, he did not specifically refer to the Chevrolet 427 "porcupine" engine, encouraging the GM teams that it would be welcomed on NASCAR tracks. Certainly, he had looked the other way in 1963 when the mystery Chevrolet engine appeared. So the lines were drawn. Chrysler turned to other events, USAC and drag racing.
It is unfortunate that the United States Auto Club didn't tried harder. They were a great racing sanctioning body whose rules were applied fairly across the board while encouraging racing development. They were also better than NASCAR because they were not a dictatorship style of management.
The decision by Chrysler not to race in the 1965 NASCAR season was a setback for the Pettys. Richard had been eager to defend his title. The new Plymouth Satellite was essentially the same car as the 1964 Belvedere. Along the way, the techniques for utilizing all that the Hemi engine had to give were ready for application to the new 1965 cars. Richard accepted the decision by Chrysler. After all, at that point, he was on Chrysler's payroll. How he or any of the Petty clan felt about the loss of their independence has never been talked about. However, I am certain that they did not easily accept being ruled by outside forces. Steps were taken to insure that they would never have to follow the lead of any influence other than their own in the future.
Richard, Maurice and Lee went drag racing in 1965! Supplied with a new Plymouth Barracuda fastback, Maurice set out to make it a drag racer to be the one to beat. He succeeded. The highly modified Plymouth, called 43 Jr., had a 426 Hemi that was warmed over by Maurice and Dale Inman. Richard made appearances in events all over the Southeastern United States. In every place that he ran, it was standing room only. Not quite satisfied with the first Barracuda, Maurice built another one. This one had an altered wheelbase, and different suspension modifications. It too, had a 426 Hemi, that was modified even more than the first. The torqueflite was replaced with a 4 speed manual transmission. This Petty Blue Plymouth was named "Outlawed." The first run out of the box was at 140 miles an hour in the 1/4 mile. Over the course of the spring and summer of 1965, Richard lost only 6 events between the two Barracuda cars.
NASCAR did not fare well with the Chrysler teams sitting out. Even though Bill France had set rules that clearly favored Chevrolet and the 427 Mark IV engine, GM sat tight on its racing ban observance. Ford and Mercury were the only cars out on the circuit. The public stayed home in droves. Financially, it drove NASCAR into dire straits.
Bill France faced one of his worst crisis ever. It was an awful position. Race track owners were unhappy and angry. Car companies were unhappy and angry. Promoters were howling angry. Race car companies were unhappy and angry. Race car drivers were unhappy. The paying public was disgusted, unhappy and angry. Something had to give. France tried everything that he know how to get the public back into race track grandstands. Not one thing worked! Specters of bankruptcy loomed right ahead.
Finally, late in July, France relented. On Sunday July 25, 1965, the entire Chrysler factory sponsored teams returned to NASCAR. There were some rule revisions that allowed the Hemi engine back, however in a clear indication of how he felt, France favored the Ford cars.
The '65 Satellite used by the Petty team equated itself well. In 14 NASCAR races that he got to compete in, Richard won 4. He placed in the top ten in the rest. With the short season, he was 38th in points. Petty Enterprises had made more than enough money for all it's racing efforts so that 1966 promised to be a very good year.
Racing changes from stock to special
1965 marked the very first start of what could be called the modern era. Even at that time, with all the rules, the cars appeared stock, but teams were involved with such modifications that the outward looks of the cars were about all that was "stock" any more. With the advent of the 1966 season, more silliness, rule bending, manipulation, and yes, outright NASCAR favoritism, set the norm for the future. It wasn't a good old boy thang anymore. It was big business with millions of dollars starting to change hands. With that kind of money, major influence could be had! Bill France sat on top of it all. He had established a virtual one man lock on any and all competition. In no other sport would that have been allowed to stand. Yet, it exists exactly the same way, right to this moment, just as it was when France started NASCAR.
1966 saw the Hemi allowed to race again, but only with 405 cubic inches in the 116 inch wheelbase class. A myriad of rule changes favored the Fords, and definitely shined for Chevrolet. France may have relented on Chrysler, but it was well known that he was not a forgiving or forgetting sort of person. He had taken set in particular over the fact that Chrysler had nearly done NASCAR in by their boycott. It was well established that if France had not brought Chrysler back to the fold, NASCAR could not have made the cut for the next year!
France also faced the fact that Lee and Richard Petty had gone a long way in promoting, supporting, and establishing what NASCAR was in the eyes of the public. Both Lee and Richard had been voted most popular NASCAR driver several times apiece. If he reached out and smacked down Chrysler, he would be slapping around one of the most popular, highly visible and dedicated NASCAR image defining teams that he ever had. It was a tightrope walk for him. He had been heard several times telling anyone that he didn't give a "goddamn if Chrysler never won another race."
Richard Petty won his second Daytona 500 in the 1966 Belvedere. He went on to win 7 more races. He also registered 19 pole positions. 15 outside pole positions, 20 top five finishes and 22 top ten finishes. Unbelievable as it may seem, he did not win the championship. He was third that year.
Ford kicked up a fuss about not being allowed to run their overhead cam 427 cubic inch top oiler in anything but a large, weight penalized Galaxie body. Ford claimed that it was putting out 625 horsepower. NASCAR did not change their ruling. To emphasize that he meant what he said, Bill France visited both the Ford and the Chrysler engine factories in 1966. Ford showed him the huge overhead cam V-8. He just said no. When he got to Chrysler's factory, he saw that the 426 racing Hemi had been changed to enable it to be a normal street application engine. It was made clear to him that the Hemi 426 was now a regular production engine, available to anyone that had the money to buy it.
He also saw Chrysler's answer to the overhead cam Ford engine. Chrysler had a double overhead cam 426 cubic inch V-8. It was a monster. It had already turned over 800 horsepower in factory tests. France took one look at that engine and exclaimed that it would never be allowed at NASCAR. As well, neither would the Ford cammer engine. Ford's answer was to pull out of racing on April 15th 1966. It did not have the effect that Chrysler's pull out had on NASCAR.
Bill France got a wake up call when it was clear just how much clout Chrysler seemed to have with the fans. He was still not one to forgot however. Junior Johnson showed up at a race in August with a Ford so radically altered, that the drivers called it the "yellow banana" because it was so obviously chopped, dropped, and channeled. Yet, it sailed right through the pre race technical inspection! In that same pre-race technical check, Cotton Owens was informed that David Pearson's Dodge had to be raised 1/4 inch in the front. He was furious. In a highly visible and well publicized gesture, Owens made his feelings known and loaded up the Dodge. He left the race track in a cloud of smoke, and not just from the tires.
In the very next race, NASCAR brought in the stock shaped body templates that all cars had to match. Templates are still in use today, however, they now conform to a NASCAR configuration, and in no way resemble a stock car.
Ford drivers as a whole refused to heed the boycott. Ned Jarrett, a famed Ford pilot made a deal with independents and got back into competition quickly. So did many other drivers. In the end, Ford did not obtain the impact that they thought that they would. The drivers just wanted to compete. Many hooked up with independent car builders so they could race. After failing to achieve what they thought they could, Ford quietly came back to NASCAR in September. Rather than run the big cars, a few Comets and Fairlanes were built to take advantage of the smaller wheelbase. David Pearson driving a Cotton Owens Dodge won his first NASCAR Grand National Championship. Richard Petty won only 8 races, and they were towards the end of the season. The new body style and changes to the Hemi took some time for Maurice to sort out. As a result, Richard finished in third place in points.
1967 found everyone sort of settled down. The rule squabbles and threatened boycotts seemed behind everyone, well, almost. The differences between the 1966 and 1967 Plymouth Belvedere were minor trim changes. Otherwise, they were the exact same body style and undercarriage. Yet, the 1967 was just not as fast as Richard needed. After losing the Daytona 500 in February, Maurice took the winning 1966 car and reskinned it to look like the 1967. It was the start of something that earned Richard his crown as "King" as well as a season of records that will probably never be broken. Yet the winningest single season in NASCAR history was put under a cloud when Chrysler started complaining loudly about the Ford advantages. The Chrysler factory representatives kept up the rhetoric for several races, even though Plymouth and Dodge won in 6 of the 9 races after Daytona! When the complaints were not addressed, Chrysler Corporation declared publicly that all Chrysler teams would boycott the Atlanta race on April 2, unless NASCAR did something about the Ford advantages. When asked about it, Richard sort of laid back with a small frown, and replied: "we are a racing organization, and that is what we do. We are going to Atlanta with one car, and likely two cars, and maybe three if we feel it is the thing to do."
Not one Chrysler team stayed home. Not a single one observed the called for boycott. They all showed up at Atlanta. Which Richard handily won. Chrysler executives said no more about any boycott. Nor did they continue with their constant complaining about Ford.
The car of the ages gives Plymouth and Petty win after win
It was a good thing. The 1967 looking 1966 Plymouth was just a car of the ages. It was seemingly unbeatable. Of the 48 races in 1967, Richard Petty put that Plymouth into first place an unbelievable 27 times! 10 of those victories were in a row. Along the way, the Plymouth scored 11 top fives, and 10 top ten finishes. Just to give you an idea how good this car was, in Nashville, Richard crashed during the race and hit the wall. The front end was knocked out of alignment, and a rear spring was broken. The crew said: "park it." Richard said: "fix it." With a sort of guess on the alignment with a string and a wire, along with replacing the rear spring, Richard went back on the track, 7 laps out of the lead. In a few laps, Richard had run the field down, and one by one, he began to pick off the leaders. At the end of the race, not only had he made up the 7 laps to take the lead, he finished the race 5 laps ahead of second place! That car was that good.
Ford teams and officials were beside themselves! They just couldn't believe that no matter what they did, the Petty Plymouth just keep blowing them away. How could a year old car be that good? Maurice Petty just smiled and shrugged his shoulders saying: "damned if I know." Uh.... right. From one of the best crew chiefs ever in NASCAR. Richard won his second NASCAR Grand Championship with that 1967 looking 1966 Plymouth. However, he was looking at the 1968 models as the season ended. The new Dodge Charger certainly appeared to be a lot more aerodynamic than the up coming Belvedere-based Plymouth Road Runner.
Taking a cue from information supplied by Cotton Owens, Richard made a request that should have been heeded in Highland Park. He asked Chrysler to be able to switch to the Dodge Charger for 1968. He was rejected.
1968s season was one of some frustration. The new Plymouth Road Runner was about as aerodynamic as a brick. Of course, Richard had seen that coming in the latter part of the 1967 season. That is the reason for the request for a Charger to drive.
However, the new restyled 1968 Dodge Charger, for all its slippery looking shape, had some real aerodynamic problems that were causing it to lose speed and handling. The grill was sunk inside a surrounding rectangular body. The rear window was sunk between two sail panels from the roof. The grill area was acting just like an air brake. The rear window was actually causing lift, due to the vacuum created when the air passed over the roof to the trunk, forming a low pressure area on the window itself. It was making the rear wheels loose, skewing the rear end around at high speeds.
In earlier tests, Buddy Baker had repeatedly said that the front end acted "funny." Like when you turned it left or right and nothing happened! However, when a qualifying speed of 184 miles an hour was achieved with the '68 Charger, everyone just sort of laid back and smiled. It was, after all, faster than the track record set in 1967 by the earlier first design Dodge Charger!
These things were not clear prior to the start of the 1968 season. Aerodynamic testing was unheard of prior to that. If the styling looked OK, then it would probably run well. That was the current thinking. Ford had also been busy in their styling department, coming up with the Ford Torino Talladega and the Mercury Cyclone Spoiler II. Styling wise, they looked every bit as slippery as the Charger.
Anticipation for the Daytona 500 race was high at Chrysler and Ford. Tension increased as race day neared. Millions of dollars rested on being able to capture the Daytona 500 race. It had evolved that quickly from its first 1959 running.
As the '68 Daytona 500 progressed, it was very clear that the 1968 Chrysler products were no match for the Ford products. Fords finished the 1968 Daytona 1-2-3, with USAC driver Al Unser in a Cotton Owens prepared Dodge Charger in 4th. Richard Petty was 8th, his Plymouth being two laps down. The fact was that the Torino and the Cyclone were superior. They were smaller and had better performance.
Working diligently, Maurice Petty and his crew did everything trick that they could think of to get the Road Runner competitive. He stated flatly that the '68 was the most "tricked" up car that they had ever tried to run. To his credit, eventually, he got the Road Runner to be faster than any factory team, and that included quite a few of the Charger cars as well.
It appeared to the folks at Plymouth that Dodge was getting all the assistance they needed, while Plymouth was left to fend for itself. (Sound familiar?) This perception was reinforced when Dodge announced the new 1969 Charger 500 in June 1969! This was a car model completed in record time. Initially intended to be a 1970 model, suddenly it became a 1969. The engineers mounted a Coronet front grille flush with the front body, eliminating the air brake effect. Lifting a rear window from another Coronet coupe, the rear sail panels were eliminated and the window was mounted flush to the outside of the roof. Since 500 units were needed to qualify for NASCAR, Creative Industries in Detroit was selected to make the 500 cars necessary to race. The actual cars began to show up in August, ready for public sale in September 1968. More than enough time to get some racers built for the upcoming year.
Richard Petty was increasingly concerned. The Road Runner was just not getting it done the way he wanted. After the previous season, it was no wonder that he felt that way. The 1969 Road Runner was going to be exactly the same car as the 1968. He again asked for a Charger towards the end of the 1968 season. Chrysler again said "no."
The end of the '68 season saw Richard finish third in NASCAR points. David Pearson took the Championship, his second. Pearson was not in a Dodge however, having left to go drive in the winning Fords.
On November 25, 1968, Richard Petty made a fateful announcement. He was not going to be driving Plymouths in 1969. He had accepted a deal with Ford to race their Torino. Chrysler fans were despondent, but Plymouth fans were prostrate in agony on the floor! The move caused regular Ford teams to wonder if they shared much of what they learned with the Pettys, would the Petty clan add their own formula and not share it with Ford? Then would they go on to perform their winning magic? Much grumbling resulted from the Petty decision to drive in the Ford camp, from other Ford teams.
Chrysler President Lynn Townsend took the announcement in rare form by reverted back to his un-corporate self, which had earned him the nick name "flamethrower." He was spitting bolts in between sheets of hot flaming invectives. He wanted Petty back in a Chrysler product, and "by damn somebody down there in engineering and racing better goddamn see to it right now!"
1969 started out totally different at Level Cross. Many a tractor trailer truck was spotted with large Ford markings all over them heading for the Petty garage. Totally different was the way in which the race Torino was built. Holman and Moody, which in reality was a subsidiary of the Ford Motor Company, shipped all the parts and body pieces necessary to make a race car.
Ordinarily, Maurice got the Plymouth cars, took them apart and put them back together the way he wanted them. Ford supplied everything including the engines through Holman and Moody. All Maurice had to do is put the bits and pieces together.
The first race of the 1969 season was the road course in Riverside California. Despite spinning out twice, Richard Petty put his Torino in the winner's circle. A howl went up in the Ford camp. Already suspicious, the other teams were certain that the Petty clan had found a way to beat them all and wasn't sharing any of the knowledge.
Things went sort of sour for Richard at the next race, which was Daytona. His engine just didn't seem to develop the power that the other teams had. He qualified in 12th spot and finished the race in 8th place. After hearing much from other individuals about political shenanigans directed towards them, Maurice followed his instincts. He "appropriated" another engine that was supposed to go to another team. Richard gained over 10 miles an hour with that engine. It took a little while, but Maurice quickly learned how to make the Ford engine run. The power problems never occurred after that. They also didn't rely on Holman & Moody for engines anymore.
Tension and excitement began building for the 1969 Daytona 500. In the first 40 lap qualifying run, the Ford products finished 1-2-3. Elation over at Ford. Grim determination over at Dodge.
The second qualifying 40 mile race saw a complete turn around with the Dodge cars finishing 1-2-3! The stage was set for one of the fiercest battles ever in stock car history. What a battle it was. It went back and forth with little or any indication that the Dodge Charger was better than the Ford Torino. Going into the 200th and final lap, Charlie Glotzbach in a Dodge was in the lead. He was being drafted by Lee Roy Yarborough in a Torino. Yarborough's crew had mounted a softer tire compound on the Ford so he was able to hold it down tighter at the bottom of the track. He managed to get by the Dodge on the back straight going into the third turn. Glotzbach was not too worried, because it set him up for the perfect "sling shot"out of the fourth turn. Slipping off the 31 degree banking, heading for the finish line, Glotzbach tried desperately to get by Yarborough. He managed to slip up to the left rear fender of the Torino. It was not enough. Ford won. Dodge lost.
Desparation brings the amazing Daytona and Superbird
Chrysler management wanted to win. Even though it was less than a car length, the fact is, they lost. It was just not acceptable within the Chrysler group at that time. Something had to be done, and done quickly. Department heads from Plymouth and Dodge were called to get together for a meeting on ways to improve their cars. Either they had to find 85 more horsepower out of the Hemi engine or they had to decrease drag by 15% to achieve enough speed to put the Fords in the back of the pack.
It was already well documented that the Hemi in NASCAR racing form was developed as much as it would ever be. So, the answer to more speed was to cut the drag. The answer to that was already sketched out by two different designers totally independent of one another. The amazing thing is that their respective designs had the nose of the proposed car nearly the same! The rear wing on one design was a two stage affair, while the other resembled the final result of the proposed Dodge Charger Daytona.
Moving quickly, the engineers got the go ahead from the Vice-President and General Manager of the Dodge division. He promised full support, and to keep everyone else out of their way. They had to move quickly.
Bill France, using his own money, had built a 2.66 mile super speedway in an obscure little town near Talladega, Alabama. He had set the date for its inaugural race as September 13, 1969. The Dodge boys set September 1, 1969 as the date that the Dodge Daytona would be ready to go racing! That meant introducing the car for production by April 15, 1969 so that 500 cars would be in the dealer's hand by September 1. They had only gotten approval at the end of February. It left precious little time to get the job done.
The extraordinary thing about the Daytona program was that it did not follow any traditional rules. For the July 1968 Daytona race, Dodge had built two Charger 500 cars that were known as 2 x 2's. They had been lowered two inches all the way around. They performed well, but had not made that much improvement in speed. After the race, NASCAR banned them. There was one other lowered car. It was a Plymouth, and the Petty crew continued to use it. NASCAR seemed to not see the rake on it. So, there were two test Dodge Chargers already in racing trim, ready for testing with the new designs. The new Dodge Daytona was ready for racing at the first Talladega event. It won. Chrysler was elated.
Richard battled David Pearson all season long for the points lead. Along the way, Richard achieved something that at the time, no other driver had even come close to. On August 22, 1969, in a Ford, Richard won his 100th career victory. A stunning achievement. However, he would have to settle for second place in the points chase. David Pearson won his third and final Grand National Championship.
Richard Petty returns to Plymouth and spurs the Superbird
Prior to the Daytona's introduction, Plymouth officials held a conversation with Richard Petty in June 1969. He was well aware, as was everyone else of the winged Dodge Daytona that was upcoming. Richard wanted one. Instead, Plymouth made their commitment to build a winged car. Their own version. This was based on Richard's commitment to return to Plymouth to drive that creation. Richard also wanted to be the single point distributor of all of Chrysler's racing parts. Up until then, Nichels Engineering in Illinois had been the single source. Chrysler's president was cryptic. "Get it done" he said.
Someone thought that doing the Plymouth version would be easy. Just send a Belvedere two door over to Creative Industries Inc., where the Dodge Daytona for the commercial street market had been built. There they could hang a sloped nose and rear wing on the Plymouth and go racing with it. Faced with having to build 2,000 cars for commercial sale prior to January 1, 1970, didn't leave Plymouth much time. This had to be done in order to qualify the car for NASCAR racing.
The aerodynamic engineers warned Plymouth that it wasn't going to be anywhere near as easy to get a winged car with the Plymouth that was as good as the Dodge. Scoffing, Plymouth went ahead and had Creative Industries literally hang a nose on the front and put a wing on the rear of a stock Belvedere. It was awful! It looked terrible. In that form, it was some sort of monster.
Locked out of the styling of the Dodge Daytona, the styling department at Plymouth made sure that they were involved with the creation of the wing Plymouth all the way. When they saw what Creative Industries had, they threw a fit. Faced with having to build 2,000 cars since NASCAR had upped the ante to get in, commercial acceptance was vital. Plymouth designers balked at what they saw. Something had to be done and done quickly. Pressure built quickly from the top.
A proposal to hang a Charger front clip on the Belvedere was quickly rejected. The two body styles were vastly different. Trying to tinker with the current Belvedere fenders just didn't work out. Wind tunnel testing showed that by doing that, it actually increased drag!
They also had a problem with the rear window on the Belvedere. It, like the earlier Daytona was causing a vacuum and a large drag on the rear of the car. Engineers had the means to cure it, but the surgery to do it stuck out like a sore thumb on the roof. They had some money for development, but to cure the rear window drag would have meant changing the entire rear quarter panels, the rear deck lid, the roof sail panels where it sweep into the truck, and leading edge of the rear window where it went into the roof, the rear window itself, and the back valance where the trunk lid locked down. Essentially, a whole new car. No way, said the top management.
Instead, they concentrated on the rear wing. In the end, the side stabilizer part of the wing were 40% larger than the Daytona. The wing was swept back further, and the stabilizers titled in towards the trunk more. The front "beak" of the Plymouth cut into the air at a slightly higher angle than the Daytona. The front air inlet was redesigned to stop any overheating problems. In the end, what had been achieved without redesigning the entire car was a 99.5% stability rate with a small increase in drag. It was not quite as clean as the Daytona. The numbers looked excellent.
Suddenly the Plymouth styling department put a stop to the whole concept. They would not commit to the current style of the car, and withdrew any further support to the Winged Daytona Belvedere project. They felt that there wasn't enough money to pay for the changes needed to make the car into a viable commercial success.
Suddenly, two weeks later, they reversed their decision, and the project was back on with a vengeance. Rumor has it that Lynn Townsend had put his "flamethrower" into action. Jobs were on the line.
After that, there was no looking back. Things happened very quickly. All around, from the Petty organization, to Plymouth design, to engineering, to the Creative Industries group, nothing but instant feedback on everything. Richard Petty remarked that this was the most enjoyable project he had ever worked with. He said it was just as good as "family."
In the final analysis, Coronet front fenders and a Coronet hood were grafted on the Belvedere body. The lines were the same, but the Dodge was more aerodynamic. Once that decision was achieved, it took only a week to clay in the entire car and get that model into the wind tunnel. With results coming in that looked decent, two weeks later a fully operational car was off and running at the Chrysler Proving Grounds at Chelsea. Having achieved that, then the prints and materials were sent over to Creative Industries where the street commercial Plymouths were built. Just prior to that, the model designation was changed from Belvedere to Road Runner SuperBird!
Despite the high profile of the SuperBird, winning in any NASCAR race was never a sure thing. The Petty organization built two SuperBird cars for the '70 season. As well, they also had two Road Runners for short tracks. Pete Hamilton, a new comer, was hired to run the #40 Petty SuperBird. He acquainted himself well. At the Daytona 500, Richard's #43 expired on the 7th lap. Pete Hamilton went on to win the race. A nice high profile victory for the new SuperBird.
The real feather in coming back to Plymouth was that Petty Enterprises was now the single source for any and all Chrysler racing in any organization anywhere in the world. They had it all, and when they didn't have it, they would build it, either for themselves or for any Chrysler racing organization or team. It truly was the prize that Richard coveted more than the SuperBird itself. It was a good thing.
Richard crashes; serious changes at NASCAR
At Darlington Race track for the Rebel 400, Richard Petty was nearly killed in his most devastating racing accident. Struggling to adjust his Road Runner, (not the SuperBird) he came off the 4th turn onto the front straight. Losing control, he slammed head on into the infield concrete wall. The wall actually broke at the point of impact. Resulting forces spun the Plymouth slightly sideways, and tossed it into a series of left front to right rear barrel rolls. You could see Richard inside being tossed around like a rag doll in a dryer. The car came to rest on its roof with a limp Richard Petty hanging 3/4 of the way out the driver's window. Fortunately, he was not severely injured. He did lose his ability to drive in the next 6 races. That put the Championship out of his reach for 1970. This incident was what made NASCAR mandate window netting for future races. Driving a Dodge Daytona, Bobby Isaac won the 1970 Grand National Championship.
Something very big also happened in the 1970 season. Looking at the loss of advertising in broadcast mediums, tobacco companies went looking for a means to let people know about their product. R. J. Reynolds was already involved in NASCAR through their sponsorship of Junior Johnson's car. Someone came up with the idea for Winston sponsorship for all of NASCAR. R. J. Reynolds credits Junior Johnson for the idea. He felt that it would take the pressure off NASCAR with a guarantee of prize money and promotions. Junior approached Bill France who was immediately interested. Getting the Winston people to a meeting with Bill France was easily done. The rest, is of course, history. The biggest changes coming for the 1971 season, which was the first of the Winston Cup Series, was that the prize money went way up.
Something else pretty big happened at the end of the 1970 season at Chrysler. For whatever reason they declared that they were cutting way back in their racing operations from the factory. They were willing to sponsor two cars. A Plymouth and a Dodge. Imagine the surprise that went through the Dodge teams when Chrysler declared that the Dodge was going to be built at Petty Enterprises and that Buddy Baker had already been selected to drive it. Bobby Isaac had just given Dodge a major Championship and they thanked him by dropping the whole racing program. Richard Petty was also surprised and disappointed because he intended to retain Pete Hamilton as his driver in 1971.
While he couldn't write the winged cars out of competition, Bill France could mangle the rules to fit his desires. He was never comfortable with the specialty cars that had been built by Ford and Chrysler. So, for the 1971 season, any of those cars, which included the Ford Talladega, the Mercury Cyclone, the Dodge Daytona, and the Plymouth Superbird were limited to a 5 litre engine. That translated to 305 cubic inches. The specialty vehicles disappeared overnight, almost. But that is another story.
Faced with having to meet his sponsor's wishes, Richard Petty dug in and moved on after the factory announcement. The building of the two body styles was not all that difficult. The 1971 intermediate cars from Chrysler had been redesigned into the "fuselage" style. The Plymouth and Dodge Charger shared a lot of underbody components. The new Plymouth Road Runner was a great body style for racing. It was smooth and stable. Buddy Baker was put into a team Dodge Charger. Although, Richard remarked that he thought maybe the Charger was a bit cleaner. It didn't seem to show during the season.
With the 1971 Road Runner, Richard Petty scored 21 wins in 47 starts. He also recorded an astounding 26 top five finishes! The great 1971 season started with Richard's win of the 1971 Daytona 500. That was made sweeter because Buddy Baker’s Charger was right behind him in second place. From there on it was nearly a repeat of the 1967 season, with total domination by the Petty Blue Road Runner. There were, however, some striking differences. In 1967, Richard took home $130,000. In the 21 wins for 1971, thanks to the Winston sponsorship, he was paid a handsome $309,000. It made Richard Petty the first NASCAR driver to earn over a million dollars in his career.
For the season, Winston only sponsored tracks where races were over 250 miles. This was the original Winston Cup Series. 1972 would see even bigger changes to that schedule. For his 1971 Grand National Championship efforts, Richard Petty earned an additional $40,000 from Winston. He remarked that he had never smoked cigarettes, but if he did, he would have been smoking Winston.
NASCAR had been making some big waves in high places. The President of the United States, Richard Nixon, in a first such invitation of it's kind, had many members of NASCAR to the White House! Richard Petty got to show his winning Plymouth to Richard Nixon. Notice had also been given from General Motors. Having lost Dodge sponsorship, Junior Johnson was looking for a place to go. He ended up at Chevrolet. While they didn't admit that they were no longer observing the AMA ban, they also did have some very racy equipment in the Monte Carlo. As well, American Motors Corporation, the number 4 American Auto producer, entered NASCAR with a competitive Matador.
At the last race of the season, a surprise visitor appeared in the Petty Pits. He was very well known in all areas of motor sports because he sponsored some high profile racers. He shook Richard's hand and congratulated him warmly. Then he left with no further conversation. Andy Granatelli was President of the famous Studebaker Technical Products. He was a motor sports magnate in his own right. His sponsorships meant a good supply of money along with security.
Chrysler sent its regards by notification that it would no longer be sponsoring any factory race teams. Thanks a lot. For the second season, a race team gave Chrysler a major championship, and the corporation rewarded them by dropping them. Of course, that also meant that the parts distributorship was also gone from Level Cross. A real double whammy.
This was the acid test of the Petty Enterprises Organization. Would they be able to support themselves and continue with development with the unbridled support of the factory along with access to the money the factory spent? Some tentative agreements had been signed with large corporations by some teams to sponsor the cars in turn for advertising the products. In 1970, Richard had signed soft drink maker 7 Up for a few races. In 1971 he made a deal for a few races with "Pepsi-Cola." He well recognized that most major racing teams would need to secure some sort of sponsorship if they were to continue to be leaders in the racing circuit. Development costs money. The Petty organization continued to produce two cars. Buddy Baker had been retained to drive the Dodge Charger for 1972.
During the "off" season, Andy Granatelli telephoned Richard Petty at Level Cross. Mincing no words, he wanted to know if Richard could come to the STP headquarters in Chicago to discuss sponsorship for the Petty cars. Acting cool, Richard said he would work it into his schedule before the first race of the 1972 season. He took along Maurice and Dale Inman when he did go to see Granatelli. Negotiations went quickly. Everything seemed set to make it a big go, when a large sticking point came up.
Andy Granatelli wanted the cars painted with his trademark Fluorescent Red. Richard Petty said he would not drive anything that was not painted Petty Blue. Negotiations continued long into the night with neither man ready to give an inch. Finally, it got so late that Maurice and Dale had to leave to fly to California to make the first race. Richard stayed behind and continued with Granatelli in their tug of war. When it was apparent that Richard had to go to be able to make the race, Granatelli offered a stunning compromise. He suggested that the cars be painted with both colors! Just that quickly was born the most recognizable race car paint scheme in the entire world. After that a handshake agreement was reached with the paperwork to follow later.
Richard arrived at Riverside race track to find STP Vice-President Ralph Salvino standing by with huge red oval STP stickers for the rear fenders of the Petty 1972 Road Runner. With huge grins everyone pitched in to get the big ovals on the rear fenders. It was an achievement that sent shock waves up and down pit road.
1972 marked the beginning of the Winston Cup Series sponsorship for all the races. Over the off season, Winston and Bill France worked up an entirely different set of circumstances. First, the point system for the Grand National was replaced with the Winston Series. All races were scored in 6 different categories. As well, dirt track races were eliminated as well as paved track events of less than 100 miles. In the end, the 1972 schedule was for 31 events. NASCAR sought to ensure quality, not quantity as in the past.
1972 was also a year for other first events. Bill France stepped aside and gave the reins of NASCAR to his oldest son, Bill France Jr. Their attitudes and looks made them more appear to be brothers rather than father and son. It also marked the end of the Petty built Plymouths. Richard Petty never really indicated why he switched to the Dodge Charger in mid-season. But, he did. He debuted the new STP Dodge on May 7, 1972 at Talladega. He came in fifth behind team mate Buddy Baker who was in third. All Richard said about the switch was that he thought maybe the Charger was a bit cleaner. Andy Granatelli disavowed all knowledge concerning the changing of cars. He said he didn't really care, as long as Richard Petty was driving it, he would sponsor it.
Richard alternated between the Road Runner and the Charger for the rest of the 1972 season. The final run for the Plymouth was at Dover in September 1972. At the end, Richard Petty won the first Winston Cup Series Championship. His fourth NASCAR Championship. A good effort for his sponsor, STP.
With that, there is no more to say about the Plymouth racing efforts. There were no more at the NASCAR Winston Cup level. Plymouth is now gone. Arguments continue as to the wisdom of cutting off the once most popular Chrysler Corporation brand. All I know is that had there not been a Plymouth car, there would not have been a modern day Chrysler. An ignominious end to a great car. It deserved better.
James Hannaford noted that while Petty ran the 1972 Charger, all eight of his victories during the 1972 season came using the Road Runner. Curtis responded:
I tried to avoid figuring what might have been in Richard's thoughts, since he didn't share them with anyone that was in a position to report them. I am sure someone might know, but, to avoid controversy (impossible) I didn't go into the racing results since the switch to the Charger was settled by contract as being permanent. That according to Petty Enterprises. The Plymouth era was officially over.
The racing results are well documented with the Road Runner clearly a winner in its last gasp, but 1972 was a HUGE change for NASCAR and the Pettys. R.J. Reynolds was in its first full year of sponsorship, cutting the schedule to 31 races. The new point system was in effect. Anything less than 100 mile (dirt) and 125 (paved) races are gone. It was also the first year for Petty being sponsored by STP. (STP had previously sponsored FRED LORENZEN, trying to make a comeback of sorts, in 1971, driving a RAY NICHELS prepared PLYMOUTH ROAD RUNNER!)
As well, in 1971, Chrysler announced a huge cutback in racing operations along with funding. Only two cars were going to receive money. One Plymouth and One Dodge. The operation of both of them would be through a single source, that being Petty Enterprises in Level Cross. That effectively cut NICHELS and OWENS out of the entire picture. It was a good thing for Richard that STP came along, since at the end of his fourth winning season in 1972, Chrysler followed Ford and announced it was no longer in racing. Ford previously had announced at the end of 1971, it was leaving NASCAR completely with no operations at all. General Motors, which had never made any sort of attempt at being in NASCAR since 1957, suddenly found Junior Johnson, free from Fords. Suspiciously, a very hot Chevrolet Monte Carlo began showing up at NASCAR races.
Perhaps the 1969 encounter with the Plymouth people may have soured Richard on where the division was headed. Or it may have been influenced by Andy Granatelli of STP. My thoughts were that it was more important to try to avoid speculation of what made Petty switch, since no one has those thoughts except the Pettys, and concentrate on the fact that he did make the switch and didn't look back on what might have been. Instead, turning his Chargers into racing winners from the switch in 1972, through a rule change that allowed it to run through 1977!
Most racers agree that the Charger was cleaner aero wise since the rear had a spoiler of sorts built in, with the roof line seeming to cut the air better, aiding in cornering at racing speeds. Richard seemed to express as much in that regard. By then, 1972, the cars were far from stock. The Charger body probably lent itself to better hidden tricks, such as a cleaner roof area smoothing into the air dam truck, than the Road Runner. In any event, Richard won his fourth NASCAR championship using both cars, even in the face of winning his third Championship in 1971 with rebodied Road Runner.
NASCAR at Allpar
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. "
The semi-stock car years
1990 and beyond