TALLADEGA, Ala., (April 18, 2001) - The Dodge return to Talladega Superspeedway this week is sure to trigger flashbacks to 1969 and the early 1970s when a Dodge unlike any before it arrived on the scene to turn heads, win races and produce...
TALLADEGA, Ala., (April 18, 2001) - The Dodge return to Talladega Superspeedway this week is sure to trigger flashbacks to 1969 and the early 1970s when a Dodge unlike any before it arrived on the scene to turn heads, win races and produce headaches among competitors and sanctioning officials.
The car was the Dodge Charger Daytona, which made its debut at Talladega during the second week of September 1969. The Dodge Daytona was perhaps the ultimate weapon in an escalating war between two major auto manufacturers - Ford and Dodge. The pair had battled each other for years, along with several other manufacturers and brands, but neither was able to hold onto an advantage for long.
Early in 1969, Ford claimed bragging rights by winning the Daytona 500 with the newest weapon in its arsenal, the Ford Torino Talladega. Dodge was determined to raise the bar again and win the inaugural race that bore the Ford model's name, the Talladega 500.
A Dodge Charger Daytona did win the race, of course, but the twists and turns of events leading up to that victory would put most movie scripts to shame. The real-life events make up one of the most interesting chapters in the history of stock car racing.
In a nutshell, Alabama International Motor Speedway was built to rival Daytona as a showplace for stock car racing. The late Bill France, owner of the track and NASCAR's top official, had high hopes for the track's success, but before it even opened, controversy swirled about the track's surface and its impact on drivers and tires. Only the month before, the Grand National drivers had formed an association to represent their interests with a unified voice. The inaugural event at Talladega turned into a showdown between the drivers and France. After a number of angry confrontations between the two sides, the show went on with a number of replacement drivers and cars.
Concerned that teams and drivers wouldn't perform well with unfamiliar Dodge Chargers quickly converted to wing cars, Dodge engineers brought along their own test car. It had been entered as a Ray Nichels Engineering car and assigned number 88.
The engineering test car was held back at first, but when the other wing cars didn't run as fast as hoped for during practice, the engineering car was sent out to run a couple of laps so it would be eligible to qualify. Larry Rathgeb, head of development for the Charger Daytona, relayed strict instructions from Chrysler racing program manager Ronnie Householder not to exceed 185 miles per hour. Rathgeb suspected the instructions would be ignored when driver Charlie Glotzbach replied, "Sure, Larry."
Glotzbach took three practice laps in the Dodge Charger Daytona. The first was a warm-up, the second was fast and the third was clocked at 199.987 mph.
"The whole place came apart," recalls Rathgeb. "It was unbelievable." They parked the car and covered it up, and Rathgeb received a severe a tongue-lashing from Householder.
Still focused on the goal of winning at Talladega, Rathgeb went to work on their next objective - winning the pole. Again, Rathgeb was concerned that the other teams were not running fast enough to do the job. After calling his engineering boss for support and getting the help of Glotzbach, who was driving another Nichels Engineering car at the time, the No. 88 Dodge Charger Daytona was sent out to qualify with Glotzbach at the wheel. He did the job with a run clocked at 199.466 mph.
Before the race started, the controversy between France and the now-defunct driver association came to a head and about 30 Grand National teams elected to skip the race. Glotzbach left with the drivers but the Nichels team, perhaps feeling obligated to run because they were building all the Chrysler cars for all of the teams at the time, stayed and kept their No. 99 car in the field with substitute driver Richard Brickhouse.
To have enough cars to make a race, France allowed entries from the Grand Touring division, which included compact sedans like Camaros and Mustangs. Rathgeb and others were heartbroken that the debut race for the Grand National car they worked so hard to develop had very little real competition.
Brickhouse didn't have any practice in the Dodge Charger Daytona so he paced himself and used the early laps of the race to learn about the car. He found that running high in the banking produced less tire wear, so he spent most of the race planted high in the 33 degree banking. Brickhouse and the No. 99 Dodge Charger Daytona won the Talladega 500 by seven seconds over Jim Vandiver in Ray Fox's Dodge Charger 500. Brickhouse won with an average speed of 153.778 mph, although he ran laps as high as 197 mph.
Brickhouse started 9th in the 36-car field, which included 23 Grand Touring cars. The race was his 26th Grand National start and his first win in the series. Dodge swept the first four places in the race, followed by a Plymouth. Dodge had achieved its goal, but the excitement was dampened by the lack of real competition. That problem was fixed many times over in future races as the Dodge Charger Daytona and its sister car, the Plymouth Superbird, won 14 races on tracks of a mile or more, against the best drivers and the best cars from the other factories.
During the 1970 season, the wing cars placed in the top-five finishing positions 61 times on tracks of a mile or more in length, compared to 38 top-five finishes for Ford and Mercury. The Dodge Charger Daytona was also the first car to officially break the 200 mph barrier on a closed course, a record set by Buddy Baker at Talladega on March 24, 1970.
The wing car triumphs continued until the end of the 1970 season, when NASCAR declared that all the "special" cars, including the Dodge Charger 500, the Dodge Charger Daytona, the Ford Torino Talladega and its corporate cousin, the Mercury Cyclone Spoiler, must use wedge engines with no more than 305 cubic inches of displacement. There was one attempt to continue racing a wing car with the smaller engine but it failed and the aero war was effectively ended.
The concept of the Daytona was actually introduced to the racing world months before the car made its debut at Talladega. The program for the Motor State 500 at Michigan International Speedway in June 1969, for example, included a report on the successor to the Charger 500. The text said the emphasis was on the aerodynamic aspects of the body design.
"The rear window is flush, rather than the 'tunnel' window used on the other Charger models," said the report. "The front fenders and hood are longer and dip lower in front. The front air intake is lower. Reinforced-plastic parts are used on the front-end extension and hood parts. The concealed headlights are the pop-up or 'frog's eye' design. The hood features a fresh air intake, in the form similar to the NACA inlets employed on aircraft, and hood and fender cooling vents.
"There is an airfoil-spoiler of fin and wing design to provide greater aerodynamic stability," continued the report. "Description and illustration of the car have been submitted to NASCAR in keeping with established procedures."
Dodge and Plymouth made enough of the cars to qualify for stock car competition. While only 500 production cars were required to meet the rules for the 1969-model Dodge Daytona, NASCAR changed the rules to require a percent of total car production for the following year when the Plymouth Superbird was introduced. Dealers found the tricked-up cars were popular and sold all that were produced. Most are now prized possessions of car collectors and automotive enthusiasts.
Two of the wing cars can be found today near the superspeedway in Talladega. The International Motorsports Hall of Fame has a clone of the No. 88 engineering car, and also the actual No. 71 K&K Insurance Dodge Charger Daytona driven by Bobby Isaac. The actual No. 88 Dodge Charger Daytona engineering car was recently found in bad shape and is in the process of being restored by a new owner.
What did NASCAR think of the cars? Dick Maxwell, head of the motorsports program at Chrysler for many years, recalls a reaction he noticed during meeting in the 1980s with Bill France, Jr. "I mentioned the wing cars and he visibly flinched," says Maxwell. "I knew from his reaction that the wing cars were a painful experience for the France family. Somebody finally went too far."
While the Dodge Charger Daytona and Plymouth Superbird had relatively short lives as production vehicles, the rapid development of the two cars led to the birth of a concept that lives on today. The concept, now known as the platform approach, assembled a small team with people borrowed from whatever disciplines were needed.
"The development of the Dodge Charger Daytona was the speediest development project Chrysler had ever done," says aerodynamicist Gary Romberg. "The second fastest was the Plymouth Superbird." Romberg says the project was also an early example of parallel development and a new 'can-do' culture. "We were on the phone at the wind tunnel talking with people who were testing at the track," says Romberg. Before the Daytona project, sequential development was the standard of the day, with one step in the development process leading to the next. The Dodge Charger Daytona development team was forced to break out of that mold because there wasn't enough time for business as usual.
"We built a new culture," continues Romberg. "We had the attitude, 'We're going to do this, no matter what.' It was not part of the mainstream. It was outside the system and it worked well. Chrysler had never worked like that before. It was at the leading edge for management technology. We showed the company we could do that."
The platform concept is standard today for every Dodge car and truck the company builds. The concept helps the company improve the quality of new vehicles while reducing the time and cost of development.
This week in Dodge history:
* 4/19/53 - Lee Petty's Red Ram Dodge survived rough track conditions to win a 100-mile event at Atlantic Rural Fairgrounds in Richmond, Va. The race was also notable for a boycott as Tim and Fonty Flock refused to compete. During qualifications, which Buck Baker won at 48.465 mph, the track surface was choppy. The Flock Brothers opted to wait, hoping conditions would improve, but officials closed qualifications before the two could get on the track. When they were instructed to start from the rear of the 27-car field, the Flocks loaded up their cars and refused to compete.
* 4/12/64 - David Pearson drove his Cotton Owens Dodge past Richard Petty in the 53rd lap and went on to win the Joe Weatherly Memorial 150 at Orange Speedway in Hillsboro, N.C. It was Pearson's third win of the season and his sixth Grand National career win.
* 4/11/66 - David Pearson drove his Cotton Owens Dodge to victory in a 50-mile event on the quarter-mile track at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C. It was Pearson's fourth win in a row, tying him with the late Billy Wade for the most consecutive Grand National wins. Pearson also set a 50-mile Grand National record with his average speed of 51.341 mph.
* 4/18/68 - Bobby Isaac ended a 50-month winless streak and took the championship points lead with a 100-mile win at Columbia Speedway in South Carolina. Isaac pushed his K&K Insurance Dodge around Richard Petty in the 15th lap and led the rest of the way. Charlie Glotzbach, James Hylton and Buddy Baker followed in their Dodges, and Petty was fifth in his Plymouth.
* 4/20/69 - Bobby Allison posted his second win of the season in the Gwyn Staley Memorial at North Wilkesboro Speedway in North Carolina. Allison was driving a Mario Rossi-prepared Dodge. Bobby Isaac started on the pole and led twice for 123 laps before ignition troubles sidelined his Dodge.
* 4/21/74 - Richard Petty installed a 340-cubic-inch engine in his Petty Enterprises Dodge and won the Gwyn Staley Memorial at North Wilkesboro Speedway in North Carolina. Six weeks earlier, NASCAR announced new rules that gave smaller engines an advantage. The rules eliminated the controversial carburetor restrictor plates and required instead a smaller carburetor for engines with piston displacement of more than 366 c.i. When the rules were announced, Petty said it would take six months to get a small Dodge engine ready to race on the Winston Cup Grand National Tour, but after winning the race he credited engine-building brother Maurice for getting one ready sooner.