NASCAR IN THE 60'S
“It is mandatory that a street version engine be produced by the manufacturer as a regular production option for installation and sale to the public in a regular product offering, and that 500 of the type car and engine must be available to the public before it will be eligible for competition.”
Daytona 500, 1963—Ford Motor Company unleashed the 427 High Riser on the sport of Nascar. At over 550 horsepower, High-Riser-powered Ford and Mercury teams dominate the 426 Wedge-equipped Chryslers, sweeping the Daytona 500 1-5. Richard Petty finished 6th place, the best finish of any Chrysler in the field. Ford and Mercury High Riser engines would continue their dominance of the sport for the entire 1963 season, winning 24 of 55 races. The 426 Wedge simply could not run with the superior horsepower of the Ford 427 High Riser.
One year later, February 23, 1964, at the following Daytona 500, the 426 HEMI—named for it’s hemispherical combustion chamber cylinder head design—would deliver Chrysler from the dog days of 1963. Things would be very different at Daytona in 1964.. Richard Petty and Paul Goldsmith took first and second in the pole position, driving 426 HEMI Plymouth Belvederes. At over 600 horsepower, Petty and Goldsmith’s HEMI-equipped Plymouths turned in lap speeds in excess of 174 miles an hour, putting shame to the Ford 427 High Riser’s mere 154 miles an hour pole winner at Daytona the previous year.
Richard Petty won the 1964 Daytona 500 by 1 lap and :09 seconds ahead of the second place car. It would be the first of seven career victories for the The King at Daytona, kicking off a season of HEMI dominance that resulted in Chrysler teams winning 26 of 62 races in 1964. Lee Petty, Richard’s father and crew chief, winner of the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959, was also in the pits that day witnessing his son’s runaway victory. 426 HEMI-powered cars swept Daytona, finishing 1,2,3,5. Ford had been completely humiliated in the exact fashion that Chrysler had been the previous year—the horsepower war had begun. And with the war, followed the casualties.
With these early 4000 pound cars now regularly reaching speeds in excess of 170 miles an hour, the old single-chamber tire design had long since become a deadly hazard for the drivers of Nascar. The single chamber tire would deflate almost instantly in a blowout, resulting in total lack of control of the car. The first of these tragic tire failures of 1964 occurred with Joe Weatherly—driver of a 427 High Riser-powered Mercury—on January 19, 1964, at Riverside Speedway, he blew a right front tire at 160 miles an hour, sending him into the wall, killing him on impact.
Tragedy struck again in the spring on May 24, 1964, at the World 600, with the death of Nascar pioneer and hero Glenn “Fireball” Roberts. Fireball had swerved to avoid an accident center-track, spinning his 427 Galaxy into the wall, rolling over violently and finally landing on the roof, pinning Roberts inside as the car was engulfed in flames. Fireball Roberts was pulled from the wreckage, but died in the weeks following the accident due to complications from pneumonia and blood poisoning, 80% of his body had been burned.
Tragically, the bloodshed in American motor racing would continue in 1964. A few days later, at the 48th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 30th, the race had to be completely stopped for the first time in its history, when two drivers were killed in a seven-car accident. On the second lap of the race, Dave MacDonald lost control coming out of turn 4, slamming into the wall, igniting the car it into flames. As it slid down the slope of the track, it contacted five more cars, and was broadsided by Eddie Sachs. After contacting Sachs, a second explosion of fuel occurred, trapping both drivers inside their burning cars. Eddie Sachs died at the track, while Dave MacDonald died hours later of smoke inhibition after being pulled from the wreckage.
The final death of 1964 was the man who finished second to Richard Petty at the Daytona 500 that very same year, fan-favorite Jimmy Pardue. On September 22, 1964, Pardue had been running a routine tire test at Charlotte Motor Speedway, when he blew a tire, losing control of his 426 HEMI Plymouth Belvedere and striking the wall. He died later the same day at the hospital.
Almost immediately following the disappointment at the 1964 Daytona 500, Ford began lobbying Nascar to approve their latest engine, the 427 SOHC. At over 600 horsepower, the 427 “Cammer” was Ford’s answer to the HEMI. The 427 SOHC was a conversion of the High Riser engine to a single overhead cam design. Featuring separate cams for both cylinder banks, a seven-foot-long timing chain, and cross-bolted main caps; the design of the 427 Cammer took Ford only 90 days to complete. Despite lobbying the head of Nascar at the time, “Big” Bill France SR., the 427 Cammer remained excluded from completion for the entire 1964 season, much to the delight of Chrysler.
Due to a combination of Nascar’s poor safety standards in 1964: single chamber tire design, poor crash-worthiness of bladder-less fuel tanks, and unregulated horsepower of specialty engines—on October 19, 1964, Bill France SR. and Nascar banned the 427 High Riser, the 427 Cammer (despite never having raced), and the 426 HEMI. France initiated the ban on the grounds that these “special race engines” were not available for purchase by the general public, and therefore ineligible for competition under the rules of Nascar.
The ban of the 426 HEMI did not sit well with the Chrysler drivers. Many of Nascar’s best Chrysler teams—including the camp of Richard Petty—had elected to sit the ’65 season out in protest, taking their driving talents elsewhere.
Richard Petty knew the 426 HEMI was an incredible engine—capable not only on the circle track—on the drag strip as well. In late October 1964, following the engine ban, he turned to the engineers at Petty Enterprises to see what they could come up with. Their answer, was the insanity to drop a supercharged 426 HEMI and 727 Torqueflite transmission into a 2700lb A-body ’64 Plymouth Barracuda. That November, 1964, Petty hit the exhibition drag racing circuit.
“I got a ton of publicity because nobody had ever gone from stock cars to drag racing,” Petty wrote in his autobiography. “It didn’t take long to get the hang of it.”
Painted the same “Petty Blue” as his 1964 Daytona 500 winning Plymouth Belvedere, the ’65 HEMI-Cuda sported the defiant name “Outlawed,” painted on both front doors in reference to the ’64 Nascar engine ban of the 426 HEMI.
February 14, 1965—Ford and Mercury sweep the Daytona 500. The entire top ten finishers were Ford/Mercury 427’s, featuring Ford’s newly approved 427 Medium Riser, in compliance with the October engine ban. The race was won by Fred Lorenzen after being stopped early due to rain.
Later that month, on February 28, 1965, Petty was racing the ’65 HEMI-Cuda at Southeastern Dragway in Dallas, Georgia. He had been making progress in NHRA B/Altered, but had yet to have a top three finish. As he took the track that day to warm up his tires, nothing could’ve prepared him for the events that would unfold that tragic afternoon.
Arnie Beswick began his association with Pontiac in 1958. The Morrison, Illinois, farmer and Korean War Veteran—aptly nicknamed “Arnie the Farmer”—was lined up in the lane opposite Richard Petty that winter afternoon. Arnie was driving the “Mystery Tornado,” a white/red 1964 supercharged 421 Super Duty Pontiac GTO; Petty in the “Outlawed” supercharged HEMI-Cuda. Both drivers had taken their positions, and were getting ready to race. Almost immediately after the two cars launched from the starting line, Petty suffered a massive mechanical failure with the steering on the HEMI-Cuda.
“I blasted off the line and something broke in the left front as I shifted from first to second gear. I didn’t have any control over the steering, and the brakes didn’t work either,” Petty wrote.
Petty’s Plymouth bucked and slammed wildly into the guard wall separating the crowd from the race cars. One of the wheels of Petty’s car—sheered off during the impact of the accident—went flying over the high fencing into the crowd, striking several spectators, injuring 5, and killing a 8-year-old boy that had been attending the race with his father.
“Nothing in my whole life has ever gotten to me like that. I couldn’t stand to think about it. I tried drag racing again, but my heart wasn’t in it. I kept thinking about the boy, so I quit,” Richard Petty said following the accident.
Bristol International Dragway opened in the summer of 1965. Located in Bristol, Tennessee, in the heart of the Appalachians, and nicknamed “Thunder Valley,” because of its location between two mountains and the thunderous acoustics of the cars as they raced down the valley. The Spring Nationals would be the first NHRA sanctioned race to be held at the new facility that June, and track investors were wondering anxiously if Richard Petty had any interest whatsoever in retuning to drag racing..
June 3-7, 1965—the inaugural NHRA Spring Nationals were held at Bristol International Dragway. In attendance that historic day, was Richard Petty. Petty Enterprises had built another supercharged 426 HEMI-Cuda, this time renaming the car “43jr,” and sticking with the same Petty Blue paint-job. Richard Petty had the best race of his short drag racing career that day. It would be his first and only win on the NHRA circuit, winning the B/Altered class at the opening Spring Nationals at Thunder Valley, 1965. The B/Altered class remains significant to this day due to the fact that it eventually became the A/FX class, which essentially became funny car racing. This factory experimental class of drag racing was just getting started in 1965, largely thanks to the engines banned by Bill France SR. having nowhere else to compete.
THE 426 HEMI RETURNS
The first factory available 426 HEMI cars hit the market for the 1966 model year. The Dodge Coronet, Dodge Satellite, Dodge Charger, and Plymouth Belvedere, were all available with the 426 HEMI engine. This increase in homologous production satisfied Nascar and Bill France, and this new street version HEMI would be allowed back into Nascar competition for the 1966 season. The return of the venerable engine marked the return of the Chrysler teams that boycotted the ’65 season in protest of the engine ban, including Richard Petty and a brand-new 1966 426 HEMI Plymouth Belvedere.
February 27, 1966—Paul Goldsmith and Richard Petty—both driving 426 HEMI-equipped Plymouths—capture first and second pole positions in a repeat of the 1964 Daytona 500, when the HEMI first swept the field. Richard Petty would go on to win the race, with HEMI engines taking third and fifth places, respectively. Despite letting the 426 HEMI back into competition for the 1966 season, the 427 SOHC remained ineligible for 1966, largely due to the lack of factory production available 427 SOHC cars. The HEMI was back; the 427 Cammer was still banned. Some Ford factory teams elected to protest the ’66 season, just as the Chrysler drivers had done in ‘65. They didn’t stick with the boycott though, and at the behest of Ford’s insistence that the boycott was hurting sales, returned to Nascar at the end of the 1966 season.
Richard Petty would win the Daytona 500 seven times in his career. The 426 HEMI engine, continues to be used as a platform for many teams in NHRA drag racing to this day. The robust design and timeless durability still make it ideal for drag racing applications; many of which make upwards of 1000 horsepower.
The banning of the 426 HEMI engine and subsequent boycott of the Chrysler drivers represents a completely different era of Nascar than we see today. This story of Richard Petty and 426 HEMI represents the dawning of the death of the “stock car.” When the sport became ruled by money and the teams that had top dollar to spend, started dominating. Gone were the days of little private owner garages building their own entries for speedway races capable of running with the likes of a Richard Petty and a HEMI engine.
New for 1966 was the mandated use of the Goodyear Lifeguard tire, designed with a secondary inner chamber to prevent the car from losing control in the event of a blowout. Also in ’66, Firestone developed the “Racesafe” puncture resistant “fuel cell,” and it became standard equipment on all cars. The fuel cell contained a crash-resistant bladder within the gas tank to keep fuel from spilling out and causing a fire.
These safety innovations led to a fatality-free season for Nascar in 1966. Bill France SR. had achieved justification of his actions as judge, jury, and executioner, in the engine bans of October 1965. The 426 HEMI would go on into the storied history of Nascar and the NHRA, amassing multiple championships in both sports, respectively. Richard Petty would go on to win the Daytona 500 seven more times in his illustrious career, going on to become arguable the greatest Nascar driver of all time.