Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A little story about Petty racing, and how Plymouth lost, and regained him

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.
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.

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. (Dodge did restyle and made the 1969 Charger 500 extra aerodynamic with a fastback rear window, and pushed forward grille)
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. (more later on the special Torino Talledega and Mercury Cyclone Spoiler). 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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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. for lots of terrific Nascar pics and decals to buy