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When the Aero Battles Took NASCAR by Storm

If Richard Petty was the personality who brought the world of stock-car racing to the rest of the nation in the 1960s and Chrysler’s winged warriors—the Dodge Daytona and Plymouth Superbird—were the cars that recast NASCAR as a high-tech series at the peak of Detroit’s horsepower wars, then the Motor Trend 500 in January of 1970 surely represents an historical zenith in motorsports.

Setting the Stage

Ironically, the door for big manufacturer involvement in sculpting the look of NASCAR occurred in 1966 when Dodge cooked up the beautiful Dodge Charger. Despite the Charger’s stylists not being particularly concerned with aerodynamics, it did well on track, much to the consternation of Ford. When coupled with the Hemi—now available to the public, per NASCAR’s requirement—Dodge took the swoopy Charger shape to 18 victories that year. Even though Ford would dominate the manufacturers championship for seven years straight, Ford wasn’t taking things lightly.

To remedy the situation, Ford fired off the first salvo in the stock-car-racing aero wars, with new sheetmetal in 1968. The Ford Torino and Mercury Cyclone were more slippery than Chrysler’s new 1968 B-bodies, so much so that many Dodge teams opted to stay with their older Chargers; the 1968 Dodge Charger might have looked the part of a jet-aged superstar, but it would take the introduction—and relative failure—of the 1969 Dodge Charger 500 to bring matters to a boil.

The Aero Battle Begins

While the 1968 Fords on the NASCAR circuit had bodywork of mass-market production cars, the Charger 500 was a limited-production car designed to satisfy a production homologation requirement. The year 1969 would be vastly different, however, as both Ford and Dodge entered new territory with special low-production aero variants in the form of the Ford Torino Talladega, Mercury Cyclone Spoiler, and Dodge Charger 500. NASCAR wasn’t happy but let things play out for the time being.

The Dodge Charger 500

Sam Posey at Riverside with a Cotton Owens-prepped 1969 Dodge Charger 500.

From a practical standpoint, there was nothing terribly wrong with the styling of the 1968 Dodge Charger, except that on superspeedways like Daytona and Darlington, the drag from its recessed grille and the aerodynamic lift at the rear of the vehicle from its sexy tunnel-back C-pillar made it massively unstable at higher speeds. The fix was simple—or so the engineers thought: add a flush front grille and a flush back glass that filled the dead area in the C-pillar’s tunnel. With high hopes, Dodge drivers brought the Charger 500 to Daytona in 1969 but came in second to Ford.

Dodge Daytona to the Rescue

After the Charger 500’s heartbreaking loss to Ford at the 1969 Daytona 500, Chrysler decided to fast-track development on what would become the 1969 Dodge Daytona. Working with aerodynamicists rather than designers—much to the chagrin of Chrysler’s styling department—Dodge got busy at Lockheed’s wind tunnel and the Chelsea proving ground. By the time of Talladega Speedway’s inaugural race in September, the winged Daytona was a reality.

Finally, a Plymouth

Dan Gurney working through Riverside’s Turn 6 with a Petty-built Superbird.

Plymouth, without a winged car of its own, would finally have its own at the first race of 1970, the Motor Trend 500 at Riverside International Raceway in California. Working with the same aero engineers who created the Daytona for Dodge, Chrysler took advantage of the huge reams of test data from the Daytona program, with the bright spot being that it took far less time to bring a car to fruition. Furthermore, refinements took place making the car faster and more stable.

The Back Story…

A.J. Foyt at the 1965 Motor Trend 500.

If you were a spectator at the Motor Trend 500 on January 18, 1970, you were in for a treat. For the first time ever, Dodge Daytonas, Ford Torino Talladegas, Plymouth Superbirds, and Mercury Cyclone Spoilers faced off in NASCAR competition. The track at Riverside International Raceway, which had been modified in 1969 with a kink to slow speeds and lengthen the braking zone entering Turn 9, was the harshest track on the circuit. It also had a fantastically long downhill straightaway where cars would easily hit 170 mph—perfect for testing the high-speed mettle of the winged warriors.

Turn the clock back to 1965. Ford driver A.J. Foyt was in a pitched battle with eventual race winner Dan Gurney when he experienced a horrific crash in Turn 9. Foyt was pronounced dead at the scene by the track’s doctor. Nevertheless, fellow Ford driver Parnelli Jones approached the scene and discovered Foyt was indeed alive, arguably saving Foyt’s life. It may seem barbaric today, but it was sometimes the contemporary practice to allow a race to continue if a crash occurred in a relatively inaccessible area. When crashes were bad, like Foyt’s, drivers were sometimes left to fend for themselves.

The Winged Warriors

Fast-forward to 1970, and eight winged Mopars lined up on Riverside’s starting grid. The Superbirds of Dan Gurney (in the pole position), Richard Petty, and Roger McClusky lined up with the Dodge Daytonas of Bobby Allison, Bobby Isaac, James Hylton, Dave Marcis, and Ray Elder to battle with the aero-enhanced FoMoCo products driven by David Pearson, A.J. Foyt, LeeRoy Yarbrough, and Donnie Allison. (It should be noted that GM was out of racing at the time, leaving the few Chevy, Pontiac, Buick, and Oldsmobile privateers—when they raced—to go it alone.)

A.J. Foyt Wins—In a Ford

After proving competitive in the first half of the race, the Superbird of Roger McClusky relinquished the lead to LeeRoy Yarbrough in a Ford. From lap 98 to the race’s end (193 laps total), Ford products would lead. A.J. Foyt in a Jack Bowsher Ford Torino would eventually win the race, a storybook ending for a driver who was left for dead at the same venue just four years earlier. Dodge would go on to win the manufacturer’s championship in 1970, with Plymouth following that up in 1971, albeit without the benefit of the Superbird’s aero advantage.

Photos Courtesy of MotorTrend Archives and Getty Images


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