#42 - Big Blocks, Bickering, and Bill
(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
“Hell is paved with good intentions, not bad ones. All men mean well.” ~ St. Bernard of Clairvaux
They only exist in museums now, the dinosaurs of our era, but once they roamed the earth proud and free, roaring with the lust of the hunt, and striking terror in the hearts of the competition. The big block exotic engines, the Chrysler 426 Hemi and the Boss 429 were built by the factories with one purpose in mind, racing; cost be damned. And while the small block engines of today produce just as much horsepower, they can never hope to match the deafening bass war cry of those big cubic inch weapons.
Using small blocks in NASCAR's top division was not unheard of. In the early days, drivers like Lee Petty even ran 6 cylinder Plymouths because the light weight of that car made it more drivable over the heavily rutted dirt tracks of the era than the overweight V8 powered behemoths. In 1966, Bobby Allison won his first race, and he would go on to win other short track events as well, running a 327 cubic inch Chevy small block in a Chevelle, taking advantage of a NASCAR rule that gave him a 930 pound weight break for running the small engine. (In those days NASCAR Grand National cars were required to weigh 9.36 pounds per cubic inch of engine displacement.) While the light weight and high revving small blocks could have an advantage on the short tracks, on the superspeedways, the old adage "there is no substitute for cubic inches" rang true. Pushing a production body based stock car through the air at close to 200 miles per hour is a messy business, aerodynamically speaking, and the big horsepower big blocks were the ticket. Thus Chrysler introduced the 426 Hemi in 1964, and Ford introduced a Hemi engine of their own, the Boss 429 in 1969. For those of you technically inclined "hemi" is short for "hemispherical" and the combustion chamber of the cylinder heads was shaped like half a softball, allowing the spark plugs to be centrally located for best flame propagation and the intake and exhaust valves to be placed such that there could be long duration and high lift to promote better cylinder filling and scavenging without mechanical interference. For those of you less mechanically inclined a properly tuned Hemi could take you from "Zero to Street Hero" in a single tire incinerating one-two flat shift. For the mechanically naïve the Hemis made cars go real fast.
As far as street cars, even at the height of the muscle car wars of the late 60's and early 70's the Hemi engines were a relative rarity because they were frightfully expensive, hard to come by, required near constant maintenance and exhibited bad manners when pressed into routine service as a daily driver. Other than racers, the only folks who really bought the cars were the same sort who rush out these days and by a 333 MHZ Pentium II processor the day it's released at top dollar because they have to have the biggest, fastest and the best. Driving a Hemi as a regular street car was like using a cruise missile in place of a fly swatter. If an owner didn't keep his Hemi properly tuned, setting the valves almost weekly, a good running 440 wedge or 428 Cobra Jet wedge engine could clean his clock. (Wedge engines of certain displacements were also considered big blocks, but their cylinder head combustion chambers had an uneven "wedge" shape and spark plugs that were offset. To really confuse matters, Ford had four basic big block engine families, the Boss 429 hemi head engine, the FE series 428 and 390s, the Lima engine 429 and 460, and the 427s which had been their staple in NASCAR racing since the early 60's into the 70's though they went out of production in 1967). As noted above the 426 Hemi and Boss 429 were designed specifically for racing and the only reason street legal versions were offered was to satisfy NASCAR and NHRA requirements for a stock counterpart.
NASCAR's first attempts to ban the exotic engines didn't go well. The 426 Hemi was banned and Chrysler boycotted the series in 1965. The 427 SOHC engine was banned and Ford sat out much of 1966. After that, rather than ban an engine design, NASCAR worked towards its oft dreaded goal of "parity" by trying to introduce restrictions to keep the playing field level.
The first serious attempt at parity came in August of 1970, with an eye towards the 1971 season, in reaction to the new economic realities for race teams in light of the pull out by the automobile manufacturers whose money had been the mother's milk of the factory teams all those years. Suddenly weaned of that cash, the exotic engines and parts that had once been provided free were suddenly hideously expensive, and since they were being phased out of production, hard to come by as well. It was NASCAR's intention to try to make the more production based Ford 427 and 426 (little brother of the 440) wedge Chrysler engine more competitive as a cost savings measure. Toward that end, NASCAR reintroduced restrictor plates with 1 ¼" openings for Hemis, 1 ½" openings for Ford wedge engines and 1 5/8" openings for the Chrysler Wedge. Ford teams did seem to have an advantage in that even while the Boss 429 was their chief superspeedway engine, the torquier 427 was often used on short and dirt tracks. The plan was intended to help the smaller teams and independents but it backfired. Those teams had their "hand me down" Hemis from the factory teams and had developed them over all those seasons. They were less able to undertake an engine development program to get the wedge engines running competitively, especially on the big tracks. The well-funded teams (and there were damn few of them in those days) could afford to buy all new engines and pay the engine shop employees to develop them, at a time when a lot of race teams had the same guys working in the pits on Sundays building their engines on weeknights after getting off their day jobs. The Wood Brothers were the first team to make the switch, putting 427 Ford engines in their cars and immediately they went on a tear, causing all the other drivers and teams to whine incessantly about how the new rules favored that engine. Bill France was unmoved and was quoted as saying, "The restrictor plate rules have made for better racing at reduced lesser costs for most drivers. The wedge engines cost half of what the Hemis do. Therefore we see no need for a change at this time." Slowly, the better funded Plymouth and Dodge teams began the costly conversion from the tried and true Hemi to the unproven Chrysler wedge. At the Firecracker 400, wedge engine Mopars finished in the top four positions and the Ford teams started crying "Foul." The Wood Brothers even quit racing over what they saw was blatant favoritism to the Mopar Wedge. That September NASCAR announced new rules that eliminated the restrictor plates, but the new rule had the same effect, limiting the size of the carburetor venturi to a maximum opening diameter which varied according to engine. Also that fall, a new joker was added to the pack when Richard Howard and Junior Johnson conspired to bring Chevrolets back into racing. Bill France had been trying lure Chevy back into the fold for years to increase fan interest and gave the big block Chevrolet 427 a generous carb venturi dimension to ensure the car would run strong.
There was some indication of things to come at the Daytona 500 of 1973. While Richard Petty won in a big block Mopar, second place went to Bobby Isaac aboard a Bud Moore Ford carrying a small block 351 Cleveland engine, taking advantage of NASCAR weight breaks. That same 351 Cleveland is the spiritual forefather of today's Ford NASCAR engine.
In 1973, Chevys were back in force and the Chevrolet forces, led by Junior Johnson were complaining that their 427 engine could not compete against the still dominant hemi headed engines. Junior huffed that he had started racing again because NASCAR had said they were going to phase out those Boss 429 and 426 Hemi engines and yet they were still out there winning week after week, particularly on the big tracks. NASCAR responded by changing the rules yet again, eliminating the carb venturi restrictions and reintroducing the spacer plates, with openings of different sizes for different engines, and a distinct advantage given to the Chevys. The Ford and Mopar teams reacted with outrage. Norm Krauskopf and Harry Hyde, owner and crew chief of the K and K Insurance Dodge Hemis driven by Buddy Baker were particularly incensed and threatened to quit racing. Hyde made a comment the new rules were like making Wilt Chamberlin play on his knees. Substitute "Michael Jordan" for the basketball star of that era, Wilt Chamberlin, and Hyde's comment sounds a whole lot like Ray Evernham during 1997. Fine wine takes years to age, and "fine whining" has also developed over many years.
NASCAR had been hinting they planned to do something radical to promote the small block engines after the end of the 1973 season, looking towards 1974. Some plans were made, but then the energy crises and its possible disastrous effect on the future of auto racing came along, with the Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur war, the subsequent formation of OPEC, and that cartel's orchestrated energy crisis to punish those nations that had sided with Israel in the war, including the United States. That same gas shortage, by and large rang the death knell for production big block muscle cars, the sales of which were already staggering from a one-two assault by insurance company rates for youthful drivers of fast cars, and increased government interference in the auto emission regulations. While there were no substantial rules changes at the beginning of the 1974 season, they were not long in coming. Even before the Daytona 500, NASCAR announced what was to be the new rule that season to give small block engines a break. The restrictor plates were trashed once again. Instead, the big block engines would be required to run a smaller CFM carburetor to restrict their ability to breathe. (Imagine a marathon runner forced to compete breathing through a straw.) Bill France Jr.'s reasoning at least made sense, if his timing did not. As he put it, the factories were no longer producing big block powered muscle cars (with few notable exceptions like the Vette and Trans Am) and NASCAR was, after all, a stock car based series. (Would that he would reread that statement today) Once again, the Wood Brothers were the first of the big teams to see the writing on the wall, and they quickly developed a small block engine program that allowed their driver, David Pearson, to run strong. Meanwhile the other competitors by and large resisted the change, kicking and screaming. They had their points as well. With the season underway, they had little time to develop a new engine program, as they had to be ready to race weekend after weekend and didn't have the luxury the off season would have given them to develop the small blocks. They wanted the change delayed until 1975. The situation was particularly bad for the smaller teams and independents that didn't have the manpower to have a race crew and a shop crew. Another basic truism of engine building is that in order to achieve the same horsepower numbers out of a small cubic inch engine, that engine needs to run at higher RPM's. An engine that is turning high revs tends to suffer more mechanical failures. The downsized blocks would not accommodate the bigger beefier parts like the big blocks, which had been developed and debugged over the course of a decade to the point they would run reliably. There were a record number of engine failures in 1974 as the teams tried to get the "baby" engines sorted out. As the smaller engines began dominating races, NASCAR took another look at the situation, and realized it was the same big dollar teams winning all the races. Thus they reversed course a little and allowed a bigger carburetor on the big block engines to help the smaller teams stay competitive. That wound up forcing the teams that had already made the switch to develop another big block test engine to see if it was going to be the better choice. When Richard Petty made the switch to the little engines and ran strong, the handwriting was on the wall, but even the King was complaining that the cost of all that development was straining his budget, especially in light of the frequent untimely rules changes, despite the bushels of money STP gave him. Imagine how the smaller teams were faring. Petty, like many of the big teams, had the luxury of taking the more reliable big blocks to the big tracks, and the little engines to the short tracks, while a more reliable small block was developed. The smaller teams did not.
In order to see what needed to be done to level the playing field, NASCAR had a test at Talladega and Atlanta to compare the K and K big block Dodge to the Junior Johnson small block Chevy. Again, that same method has been employed more than once lately. Based on their data, NASCAR changed the rules once again, allowing a bigger carb on the big blocks at the big tracks. Big news and big bills resulted of course. To further complicate matters, they threw in another rule... that the small blocks would be allowed a maximum of 358 (today's standard) rather than 366 cubic inches of displacement. Another basic truism of engine building, borrowed from an old carpenter's saw, is that it's easier to take away too little and take away more, than to take away too much and put it back. While increasing the displacement of an engine 8 cubic inches is child's play, (if that particular child has a boring bar or even a double thick head gasket) taking a 366 cubic inch engine and shrinking it down to 358 cubic inches calls for custom connecting rods or pistons, or sleeving the block. Sleeving the block is not acceptable in a performance application, so most of the engine blocks had to be scrapped and new engines built... which takes a couple cubic feet of money. And just when that uproar died down and the teams were beginning to come up with small blocks that didn't go off like hand grenades mid-event, yet another rule change was instituted. The rule was directed at the Ford 351 engine and limited the modifications that could be made to the cylinder head as far as porting. The rule was instituted despite the fact only one Ford powered team, David Pearson in the Wood Brothers' Mercury, had visited victory lane all season. The Wood Brothers, if you'll recall, were the first team to roll up their sleeves and develop the new small blocks after the first rules changed, while all the other teams were still whining. I suppose NASCAR decided since they hadn't had anything to whine about, the Woods would have to have their opportunity too.
AFTERMATH: The Wood Brothers managed to build strong engines even with the cylinder head restrictions and were the only Ford powered team to win all season. They continued to be a dominant factor during the 70's. Late that year, NASCAR announced a new rule banning any engine over 358 cubic inches for the 1975 season. Of course, having made that rule, they promptly backed down at the request of some of the smaller teams and allowed big blocks with the smaller restrictor plates. The big block cars were never competitive again, and thus faded out of existence before the end of 1975. Newer fans may be surprised to learn NASCAR's attempts at parity and the resultant whining are not a new phenomenon bought on by spoiler rules changes. In fact I think it is "P.A.R.I.T.Y", not "parity", NASCAR is after sometimes. "P.A.R.I.T.Y" stands for "Piss-off All Racers, Inducing Tiresome Yelling."
*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.