#11 - The Great Spoiler Debate of 1981
(Editor’s Note) In 1997 - 1998, Matt McLaughlin penned a special Anthology of historical pieces in honor of the 50th Anniversary of NASCAR entitled "50 Years of NASCAR Racing." Matt has entrusted the entire collection, minus one or two that were misfiled back then and cannot be salvaged, to my tender, loving care.
As NASCAR turns 70, the Anthology itself will celebrate a 20th anniversary through 2018, and will run again here on Race Fans Forever. As before, there is no record of which pieces came first, so it will appear in the sequence presented earlier. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two.
As always, many thanks to Matt, and God bless you my friend. ~PattyKay
Earlier this year it seemed almost weekly that NASCAR was changing the rules regarding rear spoiler height to benefit one make or another. The resultant whining and moaning by various drivers and crew chiefs was an irritation to the fans, even the ones who agreed with what was being said. But the spoiler rules changes this year are nothing compared to what took place in 1981, and that year one team was blatantly discriminated against. About that there can be no argument.
A little background is in order. The Winston Cup regulars had been running "used cars" for years, body styles no longer in production. The most successful teams were using the 1977 Monte Carlo on the smaller tracks and an Oldsmobile Cutlass on the larger tracks. NASCAR announced in late 1979 that beginning with the 81 season, teams would have to run current model "downsized" cars with a maximum wheelbase of 110 inches. There were 11 approved body styles to choose from. A majority of the teams placed their bets on the Buick Regal.
Early testing did not go well. The cars were fast but were extremely tricky handling and exhibited a frightening tendency to get airborne. Bobby Allison tested an Olds Cutlass for two days at Daytona and muttered they had only been able to get the car from "horrible to bad." Darrell Waltrip was even less diplomatic, and in a comment that must have endeared him to the GM brass said, "Detroit is going broke building these little critters and I don't put much faith in them." Richard Childress had built a Pontiac Grand Prix to compete in and due to business commitments of his own, he hired Greg Sacks to shake it down. The car got sideways, flipped violently and severely injured Sacks. Most teams were running as many tests as they could at Daytona, trying to get the "little" cars figured out, but notably absent were Bobby Allison and Harry Ranier who were shaking down a new car at Talladega.
The reason for their secrecy became obvious at the outset of Speedweeks. Ranier and Allison had prepared a new car after the disastrous test of the Olds Cutlass. They had selected a Pontiac Le Mans, which was more of a two door sedan than a coupe. While the nose wasn't as aerodynamic, the sloped rear window helped put more air on the spoiler and made the car stable at speed. Right off the truck, the Le Mans was clearly the class of the field. Only Darrell Waltrip, in the first year of his new contract with the legendary Junior Johnson, could even come close to Allison's speed. The rest of the pack was out to lunch. And besides being slower in the 125 qualifying races the "Little Critters" showed they were downright spooky to run in traffic at speed. John Anderson spun in the first qualifier and lifted off the ground like a hydrofoil. A tick later his Olds lifted its nose, flipped onto its roof and began barrel rolling. Not long afterwards, Connie Saylor in another Olds lost control and took off with the car pointed straight up and down. The landing wasn't pretty. On the Friday between the qualifiers and the 500, NASCAR hastily announced they were changing the rules so that the cars could run with 276 square inches of rear spoiler, rather than the old 250, in an attempt to cut out the airborne acrobatics.
The other teams were complaining loudly that Allison and that Le Mans were too fast. NASCAR's Bill Gazaway pointed out they had all had the same list of cars to choose from and Ranier and Allison had just flat outsmarted them. But when other teams started announcing they were going to switch to the Le Mans, Gazaway cautioned them not to do anything hasty, saying NASCAR wanted a variety of cars on the track, not just those Pontiacs. And Bobby Allison probably felt a chill down his spine.
Allison and his Le Mans ran strong at the Daytona 500, but Richard Petty and his crew outfoxed him with a gas and go on the last pit stop to win the race in a Buick. Allison finished second. Later that week, NASCAR announced another rules change concerning spoiler heights. The Ford products would be allowed to run a 3 1/8 inch rear deck spoiler. Every GM body style save one got a 3 ½ inch spoiler. The one exception was the Le Mans, which only Bobby Allison was driving. That car got a 1 ½ inch spoiler. Naturally Allison and Ranier were outraged. They had invested a lot of time and money to develop that car, and at the stroke of a pen it may as well have been banned. NASCAR responded they could, at their discretion, change rules from time to time in order to promote parity among the various brands. I think they still use that same press release to this day.
Ranier and Allison brought the Pontiac to Atlanta but didn't attempt to qualify and announced to the press they were considering a boycott. NASCAR finally gave in a little and allowed Allison to run a 2 ½ inch spoiler. The Le Mans was still hopelessly off the pace, two miles per hour plus off the pole qualifying speed. After that race, NASCAR again relented a bit and decided the Le Mans could run a three inch spoiler on medium tracks, but not the Superspeedways. It still wasn't enough to make the previously dominant car competitive, but NASCAR was keenly aware letting Bobby and his team have what they needed would make one team happy and thirty some odd more miserable.
Finally, when the tour reached Talladega that May, Allison and Ranier threw in the towel and debuted a Buick Regal, which is what most of the competitive teams were running. In their first outing with the Buick, Bobby won his first race of the year. Despite NASCAR's insistence they did not want a single brand to dominate, Buick won 8 of the first 9 events with the new rules in place and 22 of 31 races that year. In 1982, the Regals went 25 out of 30. No rules changes were ever implemented to slow down the Buicks, and it took the sleek new 83 Thunderbird, and the Monte Carlo SS to break Buick's stranglehold on Winston Cup racing.
AFTERMATH- Darrell Waltrip, driving Junior Johnson's Buick, went on to win that year's championship, the first of his career and his first of three with Junior Johnson. Bobby Allison finished second in the 1981 cup standings, by a mere 53 points. Had the rules not been tampered with, it seems very likely that he would have won his first championship that year. Buick's drivers finished one-two in the points in 81, 82, and 83. For those of you into fast street cars or street racing, it was that dominance in the Winston Cup ranks that led normally stodgy Buick to release the mighty Regal Grand National Turbo, Darth Vader's hot rod.
*Matt can no longer field comments or email at Race Fans Forever. If you have comments or questions, please leave them below and I’ll do my best to supply answers. ~PattyKay Lilley, Senior Editor.