Down memory lane
Return of Chrysler lets many take a look back
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- In 1970, Richard Petty was king, race cars had wings and Buddy Baker broke a speed barrier that helped change stock car racing forever.
All these feats, and so many other memories, came courtesy of Chrysler, the carmaker that returns to NASCAR this season after 16 years on the sidelines. Ten Dodge Intrepids, including one owned by Petty, are entered in Sunday's Daytona 500.
"It's kind of like a romance for me to see them back," Baker said. "It's sort of like my history."
Chrysler had several brands running in NASCAR races as early as 1949. A year later, Dodge made its debut at Canfield Motor Speedway in Ohio.
But Chrysler really took off in the mid-1960s when it designed the 426 Hemi race engine, a powerful machine that helped Petty lap the field -- a thought almost unheard of these days -- in Dodge's sister car, a Plymouth, at the Daytona 500 in 1964.
"Dodge played a huge role in my racing career, and that's why Petty Enterprises is going back," Petty said.
He was in the middle of a firestorm in 1968, all centered around the "wing car," a spaceship-looking contraption that still stands as one of the funkiest cars to ever circle a NASCAR track.
Knowing NASCAR was about to open Talladega Superspeedway as a sister track to the speedy Daytona International Speedway, Chrysler mechanics began working on ways to improve aerodynamics on the fast tracks.
The result was the new Dodge Daytona, with a severely tapered nose and a big, rear-end spoiler that looked like a coat rack glued onto the trunk.
It was a peculiar look, and created a scene nothing like what race fans see on today's tracks, where all the cars look the same and nobody really bothers calling them "stock cars" anymore.
"Back then, a Dodge was a Dodge, a Chevy was a Chevy, and it was very distinctive," said Dave Marcis, who drove Dodges in the 1970s.
The Dodge went fast, but when Petty learned the Chrysler people weren't planning on fitting his Plymouth with the same equipment, he took his act "across the street" and drove for Ford in 1969.
"I knew there was no way I could compete against Ford and the new Dodge in my Plymouth," he said.
A year later, Chrysler made amends, Petty came back and won 18 races in the Plymouth Superbird, which looked exactly like the Dodge Daytona.
"They were fun to drive," Marcis said. "They had a lot of horsepower, a great aerodynamic package, tons of downforce. They were good cars."
So good that Baker cracked the 200-mph barrier in a Dodge Daytona on March 24, 1970, at Talladega.
That was the most jarring evidence of how fast these cars could go, and it began a series of steps to slow speeds that are in place today.
Midway through the 1970 season, NASCAR introduced restrictor plates to limit speeds at the fastest tracks. Nearly two decades later, restrictor plates became part of NASCAR's everyday lexicon after Bobby Allison's car went hurtling into a retaining fence at Talladega.
At end of 1970, NASCAR President Bill France took another step by outlawing the wings because the tires couldn't handle the fast speeds.
After that, NASCAR decided to limit the size of the engines for "special cars," and with that decision Chrysler severely scaled down its NASCAR operation.
Petty survived. After switching from a Plymouth to a Dodge in 1972, he won 66 more races with Chrysler on his way to a NASCAR-record 200.
In 1979, he traded in his Dodge for General Motors cars, and Chryslers became almost invisible on the circuit, disappearing completely after Phil Good finished 30th at Pocono on June 9, 1985.
In the next 15 years, Chrysler concentrated its efforts in drag racing and sports-car racing. Many people think the impetus to return to NASCAR came when the company was bought by the makers of Mercedes, forming DaimlerChrysler.
DaimlerChrysler announced the return of Dodge in 1999, and set a 500-day timeline to have the new Dodge running at the Daytona 500.
Bill Elliott and Stacy Compton took everyone by surprise by leading the Dodges to the two front positions for Sunday's race.
And suddenly, nostalgia has been overrun by a cold dose of reality, Dodge style.
"It's good to see them back," said Marcis, who drives a Chevrolet. "But now I've got to figure a way to outrun them."