#16 - Ford Strikes Out - The 1966 Boycott
(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
With NASCAR still reeling from the devastating effects of the 1965 Chrysler boycott, the last thing the beleaguered sanctioning body needed was another year of racing with many of the big name drivers on the sideline. But when NASCAR decided Ford's answer to the Hemi, the infamous Cammer 427, wasn't a production engine and disallowed it, for the second time in two years, one of the major players in the sport took their ball and went home.
The 1965 Chrysler boycott had led to dismal ticket sales at most races and the race promoters suffered a financial blood bath. Bill France Senior quietly found a way to back down and save as much face as possible, allowing the Hemi engines to run, though requiring they be installed in the full size cars, not the intermediate sized models on superspeedways. Ford had enjoyed a banner year in 1965, their factory cars running roughshod over what little competition they faced, and had no intention of letting the Hemi challenge go unanswered.
Racing politics in those days normally had a company's representatives approach NASCAR well in advance to discuss new engines before trying to enter those power-plants in Grand National races. Ironically, Bill France was holding a photo op at a Chrysler plant, having his picture taken beside an assembly line stocked with production street Hemis to prove it really was a stock power-plant, when a Ford spokesperson announced that the factory teams would be utilizing the 427 SOHC engines on the big tracks in 1966.
Rather than take on the challenge by himself, France tried to put up a united front, approaching officials of the USAC stock car sanctioning body to support his decision to ban the SOHC. In doing so he would make it impossible for Ford to do as Chrysler had done and take their cars to the rival sanctioning body's circuit. NASCAR and USAC issued a joint statement saying that as the 427 SOHC engine was not a readily available production engine it would not be legal to race. Ford was faced with the prospect of either backing down or not racing in the high profile stock car leagues at all. Recall, racing still helped sell a lot of cars in those days. Ford's response, which made sense to a point, was that the racing program would build up public demand for the engine and the cars would be produced at that time. NASCAR wasn't buying it.
Ford fired the next volley, issuing a statement with the opening of the 1966 season imminent and their plans thwarted, there was no way they could have cars ready to compete in time, and would sit out the Riverside opener and the Daytona 500 at Big Bill's track. At which point no doubt, Bill probably reached for the Maalox and began banging his head against the desk muttering, "Not again." A hasty meeting was set up with Ford and officials from NASCAR and USAC. On Christmas day a joint press release was issued stating Ford was going to remain active in stock car racing and would indeed have cars at Riverside and Daytona. NASCAR gave Ford assurances once their Cammer powered Galaxies were rolling off the assembly line, the engine would be allowed in racing. And there was peace on earth and good will to men. Very temporarily.
Dan Gurney won at Riverside in a Ford, but then, he was perhaps the greatest road racer of the era and he probably could have won in a VW too. Things didn't go well at Daytona for Ford. Mopars swept both qualifying races and Richard Petty flat out dominated the Daytona 500 in his Plymouth. Things were not as lopsided as feared. In fact, Ford entries placed second and fourth. Still, Ford was fuming. They quickly shoehorned a couple detuned 427 SOHC engines into street cars, defanging them with milder cams and carbs to keep the potent mill docile enough to survive a trip to the grocery store and announced it was a production engine. One story I have often heard involves Ford presenting pictures of 427 SOHC powered cars sitting on the lots of 10 different dealerships. It was actually the same car, repainted 10 times to make it look like there were more than one, and then quickly sold to a drag racer to keep some dealership warranty department from going bankrupt trying to keep the thing running.
France found himself backed into a corner. It was obvious Ford would launch a boycott if he vetoed their running a "production" engine, and equally likely Chrysler would launch another boycott if he did. Rather than risk it, he punted, and put the question to the FIA, the International sanctioning body of auto racing. In an attempt to find a compromise, the FIA decided that the 427 SOHC engine would be allowed to race but it would carry a weight handicap that amounted to about 425 pounds, to keep competition equal. In a sop to Ford, the same decision allowed the conventionally cammed 427 engine that had been the workhorse of Ford's racing fleet to run a second four barrel carb to help it run more competitively with the Hemis on the big tracks. Ford was not appeased. With the tire problems already so severe, owing to the awesome speeds, the weight penalty would have made a bad situation worse. They fired a warning shot in response. There were to be three short track races in the following five days. Ford announced they would not enter their factory cars at those events. The decision seems rather curious, because at the short tracks, where torque and not horsepower was required, those teams would have run their old reliable conventional 427 engines anyway. On April 15th, while the series regulars were gathering at North Wilkesboro, Ford pulled their teams and officially announced they were boycotting NASCAR events. Not only would the Ford team cars not run, but Ford warned their drivers that their lucrative factory contracts would be terminated immediately if they attempted to run their own cars as independents, or drove another make of car. Those affected included defending Grand National Champion Ned Jarrett, fan favorite Fred Lorenzen, the recently reinstated Curtis Turner, the newly formed team of Bobby Isaac driving for the recently retired Junior Johnson and hard charger Cale Yarborough. The drivers accepted their fate with resignation, though Ned Jarrett did go on record as saying, "We can't keep treating the spectators the way we have the past couple of seasons."
Bill France made mistakes, but one reason he was able to be so successful in his life and times was he learned from the mistakes he made. During the Chrysler boycott, France had had his hand forced, out of fear that the track owners and promoters would defect to USAC and that rival sanctioning body would gain a foothold in France's Southeastern turf, and pre-empt NASCAR as the premiere stock car sanctioning body. Faced with a similar crisis, France called a meeting of all the track owners the next day to discuss what was happening and possible solutions. During that meeting, the track owners decided to put up a solid front with France against Ford, hoping to end once and for all the financial blackmail the auto companies were threatening them with. Clay Earles, founder of Martinsville, sighed and said, "We might as well plow up our race tracks and plant them with vegetable crops if we can't get some assurance the top drivers will compete in Grand National events." NASCAR and the promoters launched a PR campaign to convince the fans that Ford was the bad guy in the confrontation and turn public opinion against them... which of course, didn't help Ford sell many cars.
The success of some independent drivers who kept campaigning their Fords, particularly Tom Pistone, was another public relations disaster for Ford. While hopelessly outclassed on the big tracks, on the short tracks that still made up a bulk of the season at that point, Pistone was running well in a two year old Ford with the conventional engine. At Martinsville, Pistone roared from 20th to fifth in the first ten laps, and was clearly the class of the field. He led for a long period but finally succumbed to engine failure. Of course, people were wondering if a perpetually broke independent could build a competitive car, why couldn't Ford and all their vast resources, build them as well? Pistone in fact, tried to buy one of those 427 SOHC engines and run it with the weight handicap, but despite the fact the engine had been listed as a production piece for five months, he was unable to locate one.
The death knell for Ford's boycott came when their name drivers began defecting, choosing to end their factory support and go back to racing. Curtis Turner was first to announce he was returning to the tracks, citing his age, and the fact he didn't have that much time left in his career. He made a deal with Smokey Yunick to drive a Chevrolet for the legendary mechanic, starting in late April. With Turner back on the track, Marvin Panch announced he was leaving Ford as well and driving a team car for Petty Engineering. He won the World 600 that year in the Petty Plymouth, with relief help from the King himself. Days later, Ned Jarrett announced he too would resume driving, in an independent Ford owned by Henley Gray. Once again Jarrett cited his concern for the fans, saying it wasn't fair that for a second year in the row they didn't have the opportunity to watch the Grand National Champion defend his title. The operation never gelled and Ned Jarrett won no races that year after returning to the track. That, and the ugly political side of racing, probably played a part in his decision to retire at the end of 1966.
Fred Lorenzen was the last of the notable hold outs, but France could see the tide was going against Ford and made a few concessions to get Fred back on the track, and in a Ford. The car prepared for Lorenzen by Junior Johnson for the August 7th race at Atlanta, was the infamous Yellow Banana, about the most blatantly illegal car ever to race in a Grand National race, which is saying something. The car was lowered, the roof was chopped and the rear deck area was bent up into a crude rear spoiler. It looked about as much like a production Ford Galaxie as my Granny looks like Heather Locklear, and yet it sailed through NASCAR tech inspection without a problem, to the anguished howls of other drivers and car owners. Similarly, the almost as illegal and infamous 7/8th scale Chevelle Smokey Yunick prepared for Curtis Turner without so much as a glance at the rules book, breezed right on through as well. France had decided to force Ford's hand. Their name drivers were back. There were Fords back on the track. The boycott was a dismal failure and Ford looked petty for continuing to hold out. (And I don't mean Richard.)
The Yellow Banana caused its fair share of headaches. Other track promoters said flat out, that little space ship wasn't going to run on their tracks no matter how much NASCAR wanted Fords out there. They feared Chrysler's response and an end to stock car racing as it had been all those years... cars that at least resembled what the race fans had parked in their driveways... one of the appeals of the sport. France told everyone to calm down. He admitted the rules had been "bent" at Atlanta and said that Junior had been instructed to retire the Yellow Banana. France's ploy had worked, and at the next race in Columbia South Carolina, with minimal comment by the company, the factory Fords returned to the track. The boycott was over; Bill France regained the prestige he had lost by buckling to Chrysler's boycott the previous year, and put the auto manufacturers on noticed, while it was their ball, and they could take it home if they chose, NASCAR owned the playing field.
AFTERMATH- Despite their supposedly uncompetitive cars, Ford won 6 of the 12 races on the schedule after returning, to Dodge's 5, with Bobby Allison sneaking in one win in an independent Chevy. On the superspeedways, where Ford had claimed the real disadvantage lay, Fords won at Rockingham and Darlington, while LeeRoy Yarbrough won Charlotte in a Dodge. At the beginning of the 1967 season Chrysler once again threatened a boycott, citing new cylinder heads and an intake manifold the Fords were allowed to run. Chrysler's drivers put their foot down and said with or without factory support they would keep racing and would not participate in the boycott. Chrysler wisely backed down. As it turned out, Richard Petty went on to win 27 victories that season in his "un-competitive" Plymouth.
*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.