#14 - 1965 ~ Chrysler Plays Hardball
(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
Ask any fan of NASCAR racing today and they will tell you the constant whining by both Ford and General Motors teams looking for breaks for their make of car is one of the most annoying parts of our sport. But the phenomenon is hardly new to stock car racing and in 1965 Chrysler chose to play hardball.
The 1964 season was a great one in many respects for NASCAR. Though laughable by today's standards, attendance at races was way up. (Close to 70,000 fans attended the Daytona 500, and 26,500 packed Bristol.) The sanctioning body had crowned a popular champion in 1964, Richard Petty, son of legend Lee Petty. But there was a dark side to the sport as well that year. Three drivers were killed during 1964, including 1963 champion Joe Weatherly, fan favorite Fireball Roberts and Jimmy Pardue. It was widely acknowledged that the cars were so powerful that they were outrunning the tire technology and brakes of the day. With Chrysler and Ford seeking race wins in a bitter rivalry, both manufacturers were resorting to extreme measures. Ford was acid dipping the bodies of their race cars to make them lighter so ballast could be added in more favorable places aboard the car. Unfortunately, during a hard wreck, and they were frequent in those days, the bodies crumpled like tin foil. The war was escalating. Ford was ready to introduce their awesome 427 SOHC engine and Chrysler was rumored to have built 12 DOHC 426 Hemis. While neither of those potent mills were available in street cars, the horsepower they would unleash on the track would only drive speeds further upwards and increase danger. It was time for NASCAR to step to the plate to restore a little sanity and to put the "stock" back in stock cars.
The new rules for the 1965 season were introduced October 19th, 1964. Among them was a ban on the Chrysler Hemi and the high riser Ford 427, and the requirement that full size cars rather than intermediates be run on all superspeedways. NASCAR officials also hoped banning the exotic engines would lure General Motors back into the fold with their newly designed big block "rat" engine. The conventional 427 Ford engine was a far more potent power plant than Chrysler's 426 Wedge. Predictably, Ford applauded the rules changes. Chrysler gave them a thumbs down in no uncertain terms. On October 29th Chrysler released a statement that due to the rules changes they would be boycotting NASCAR stock car racing. Imagine if Chevrolet were to announce in 1998 no Chevy team would run on the Winston Cup circuit. There would be no Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, or Terry Labonte entries. The effect was about the same in 1965 with the Chrysler boycott sidelining Richard Petty, David Pearson, Buck Baker and LeeRoy Yarbrough, legends one and all.
Complicating matters further, there was a rival stock car racing league in those days run by USAC in the Midwest. (USAC ran the Indy car series prior to the CART rift and took care of scoring for the IRL up until the debacle in Texas earlier this year.) USAC officials quickly announced that the Hemis were welcome at their tracks in 1965. Chrysler announced they would field teams on the USAC circuit, while Ford announced they would only run in NASCAR events. There was a possibility that season USAC could have become the preeminent stock car body sanctioning body and NASCAR would wither away and die. In fact that might very well have happened except the sport's biggest name, Richard Petty, said he would not race in USAC because he didn't like to travel all that much and he felt like a "fish out of water" when he left the south. Instead, Petty turned to drag racing a Hemi-powered Barracuda that went by the name "Outlawed."
Meanwhile, on the NASCAR front, Bill France called Chrysler's bluff and said he would not change the rules. He even made a somewhat snide statement to the effect that if Chrysler cars weren't fast enough to run with the big dogs they were welcome to stay home. France was counting on independent drivers to still campaign Dodges and Plymouths and he was betting the bank that GM would get re-involved with racing. Towards that end, former Chrysler stalwart Buck Baker announced he was sticking with NASCAR and running an Oldsmobile powered by the 425 engine. Let the record show that the Oldsmobile 425 made a far better boat anchor than a racing engine.
Besides being the president of NASCAR, Bill France was also a race promoter and when he saw how bad ticket sales to the Daytona 500 were, he extended a first olive branch to the Chrysler camp. He said if Chrysler would install Hemi engines in their full sized cars (the Dodge Polara and Plymouth Fury), and make a reasonable amount of the cars available to the public at a decent price they could run in NASCAR events. Chrysler snubbed the offer, claiming the Hemi engine wouldn't fit in their full size cars. (In retrospect that seems a bit of a bizarre statement in that the engine compartment of a 65 Plymouth Fury is larger than the bedroom in my apartment).
NASCAR and the track promoters that ran its sanctioned races had a disaster on their hands. Attendance was way down at most events. The Fords were running roughshod over what little competition they faced. Buck Baker quickly abandoned his Oldsmobiles, stating those dogs just wouldn't hunt. It quickly became evident NASCAR was in serious trouble.
But if the gate receipts at the tracks were a disaster, Richard Petty faced an out and out tragedy. While competing in a match race at Southeastern Dragway in Georgia, his Cuda lost a wheel, hit an embankment and went into the packed crowd. The loose wheel struck and killed an eight year old boy. Seven other people were rushed to the hospital with serious injuries.
NASCAR continued to hope and pray GM would get back into racing running Chevrolets. GM continued to insist they were not going to become involved in any sort of racing. At NASCAR's urging, a few privateers including Buck Baker and Ray Fox started preparing Chevy Impala fastbacks sponsored not by Chevrolet but by Chevrolet dealers. The sanctioning body and the car owners began trying to generate a little interest by bad mouthing the Fords and claiming the new Chevys would dominate. NASCAR needed to do something. The president of the Atlanta Speedway was already dropping hints that he might run USAC races rather than NASCAR races the next year. Such an incursion onto his Southeastern turf was unthinkable to Bill France, and if it worked out he knew other track owners would follow.
The Baker car and another Chevy driven by ex-Chrysler shoe Jim Paschal debuted at the spring race in Darlington. Far from dominating, both cars were quickly shown to be outclassed by the fleet factory Fords. At that day's race the biggest applause came for a driver who wasn't even racing that day, Richard Petty, who had shown up to watch the race. When he saw the empty grandstands and heard the fans cheering him, Petty expressed hope NASCAR would soon come to its senses and re-allow the Hemis to race.
The Ray Fox Chevy that everyone thought was going to be the one to turn the tide finally arrived in time for the World 600 at Charlotte. Slated to drive it was the popular and successful LeeRoy Yarbrough, another Chrysler defector. (For trivia buffs the car wore the number "3", a number that has become synonymous with Chevrolet thanks to some guy named Dale). Unfortunately the car failed tech inspection and was not allowed to qualify. In an unprecedented move, Rich Howard, Charlotte's owner and Bill France sat down and decided that the Ray Fox entry would be allowed to race though it had not qualified. Yarbrough thrilled the crowd charging from 44th up into the top ten before his engine exploded. Fox admitted there was no way he could get those Chevys on even footing with the factory Fords. Thus Bill France's hopes of getting by without Chrysler were dashed.
A few days later France sat down with the powers that be at USAC to try to iron out the rules differences, in a move many saw as humiliating for Big Bill. It did however, allow him to quietly announce that the Hemi powered midsized cars could compete, albeit only on short tracks. He stuck to his guns requiring full size bodies at the superspeedways. Though Chrysler claimed the Hemi wouldn't fit the big car, Buck Baker managed to stuff a Hemi in a Fury just fine and entered the car at the Firecracker 400 with his son Buddy at the wheel. Not only was the car competitive, Buddy Baker finished second that day. That an independent "hot rodder" could do what the factory said was impossible was the first egg on Chrysler's face during that messy ordeal. Still the factory Chryslers did not run on the big tracks, but only at the short tracks where the mid-size bodies were legal. Richard Petty promptly won four of those events. The promoters of the upcoming superspeedway races were still up in arms and sat down with France to discuss how they could sell some tickets to their events. The idea, some say ultimatum, they had was to allow Curtis Turner, banned for life in 1961 for trying to unionize the drivers, to compete. While the fans loved Turner, France, not a man to let go of a grudge easily, despised him. It is a measure of how desperate things had become that France agreed to reinstate Turner.
Unfortunately Turner had a reputation as a hell raiser and Ford wasn't so quick to welcome him back with a factory ride. Ironically enough, Turner's first race in NASCAR after the ban was lifted was in a Plymouth prepared by Petty Enterprises. After two races in the Plymouth, Turner was finally given a chance to drive factory Fords, with no little pressure on Ford to do so from Bill France himself. He drove for Junior Johnson at the next two races, before being handed a Wood Brothers Ford for the inaugural race at Rockingham. At that event Curtis Turner made good his comeback, winning the race.
No doubt France, the promoters and the fans were glad to see the disastrous 1965 season come to a close. Ford (or their sister cars, Mercurys) won 48 out of 55 events. Ned Jarrett won the championship by out-dueling the other Ford factory drivers. It was hoped that things would return to normal for the 1966 season, but already dark clouds were forming on the horizon.
AFTERMATH: Two innovations developed and refined during 1965 would have long lasting effects on the safety of stock car racing. Goodyear developed the "Inner-liner" tire still in use today to give a driver who suffered a flat a chance to control his car. Firestone perfected the fuel safety cell and starting in 1966 all teams were required to run them, which went a long way towards eliminating tragic fires like the one that claimed Fireball Roberts. But in 1966 the other shoe dropped and Ford decided the rules favored the Chryslers and launched a boycott of their own. More on that in a later column.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: In preparing these articles I rely on a lot of sources, including my three decades of newspaper clippings I've accumulated. By far the best and most authoritative source I have at my disposal is Greg Fielden's outstanding multi-volume set, "Forty Years of Stock Car Racing" and the series' companion book. "Forty Years Plus Four." Persons wishing to have a detailed history reference source, including an account of every race ever run in NASCAR's top ranks should strongly consider buying these books. If you wish to purchase them and cannot find a source (most of the larger mail order automotive book firms carry them) contact me directly and I'll give you a couple possible sources.
*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.