Of the hundreds of stock-car races held in the U.S. each year, none commands more respect from the public than the fast, demanding Daytona 500-miler. The vast Daytona International Speedway is the site of the year's first high-speed, closed-circuit race and two of the Big Three car manufacturers ( General Motors pretends not to care about racing, but does) spend huge sums getting ready to compete there. How they make out at Daytona, they realize, can affect their showroom traffic for months to come. Says one Michigan automan: "Whatever happens in Daytona is the talk of all Detroit 20 minutes later."
At 20 minutes past 4:15 o'clock last Sunday, then, all Detroit was talking about one of the biggest industry upsets in years. Chrysler Corporation's Plymouths, long considered the patsies of long-distance stock-car racing (although they have done well on short tracks), had suddenly demolished the supremacy of the Ford Motor Company. Plymouths had finished 1, 2, 3 in the three-and-a-quarter-hour race, with the nearest Ford in fourth place, the nearest Mercury in sixth. And in winning, curly-haired, 26-year-old Richard Petty had rather awesomely lapped the field. Despite 20 minutes of slow travel under caution lights flashed on for three accidents, Petty averaged 154.334 mph to better Fireball Roberts' 500 record by almost two miles per hour.
Chrysler's little scheme to dominate stock-car racing began almost three years ago when the 1964 Plymouth-Dodge body (except for superficial styling differences, the same body is used for both cars) first went on the drafting table. But the most important part of the plan was put into action 18 months ago when Chrysler dusted off and redesigned an engine type it had abandoned in the late 1950s.
Where most modern engines in American-made cars have wedge-shaped combustion chambers over each cylinder, Chrysler's reborn racing engine had domed heads the shape of inverted cereal bowls. The snap, crackle and pop such a design gives to an engine is formidable, and when that engine was placed into the new streamlined Plymouth-Dodge body, a smile spread over the face of Ronnie Householder. Ronnie's title is staff engineer in charge of special events, which means he is in charge of racing at Chrysler, another way of saying in charge of attempting to defeat Ford.
"We have nothing to do with the body design," said Householder, "but I cannot deny that we are rather pleased at how well our separate efforts have complemented one another." Householder claimed the new engine developed only about 400 horsepower, but few at Daytona accepted that. "We're 400 ourselves," said a Ford man, "and they've got us by 100 horsepower if they've got us by 10."
Whatever its true potential, the secret of Chrysler's new engine was so well kept that company publicity men did not even know about it until three days before the cars were delivered to Daytona. It was there, of course, that Ford first saw them. Ford had won the first three positions at the Riverside ( Calif.) 500 in January against other 1964 Plymouths and Dodges and had no reason to worry about Daytona. "When they saw what we'd brought along this time," said a Chrysler Corporation vice-president, understating the case, "I think they felt a certain dismay."
Ford's dismay deepened as Plymouths turned on the speed. In practice one Plymouth went up to 175.370 mph, another made the two-and-a-half-mile circuit of the track at 174.910. The best efforts by the company-sponsored Fords and Mercurys (which, like Plymouth and Dodge, use the same basic engine and body) were all under 170. Probably the most infuriating thing that happened before Sunday's race came on Friday: in a 100-mile qualifying race, Richard Petty finished third in his Plymouth even though he was out of gas in the last two miles of the final lap. He was just beaten by a Dodge and a Plymouth which passed him inches in front of the finish line. Ford was a late fourth.
Adding to Ford's frustrations was the fact that, because of some aerodynamic ingredient in the Plymouth's and Dodge's body shapes, they could not be effectively slipstreamed—or drafted, as they say in Daytona. Slipstreaming—tailgating the car ahead as closely as a driver's nerves permit—enables the trailing car to match the leading car's speed at substantially lower engine revolutions. This means that a less powerful car can often keep up with its betters, and that an equal car can travel at an engine-nursing pace.
Furthermore, a move by Ford to throw a really hot overhead camshaft engine into later races seemed blocked when Bill France, president of both the Daytona Speedway and NASCAR, the stock-car sanctioning body, said such an engine would not be allowed to race on NASCAR tracks. Jacque Passino, Householder's counterpart at Ford Division, growled, "We'll see about that," and said the overhead camshaft engine would indeed appear.
Since it was just about too late for anything else, the Ford men indulged in some high-octane griping. John Holman, who heads up the Ford stock-car racing effort, went immediately to the local Plymouth dealer and demanded delivery of four of the new engines. Stock-car racing rules, as established by NASCAR, require all equipment to be generally available to the public, and Holman was sure the new Chrysler engine was not. But it was. The dealer sold him one. Someone else close to the Ford team then wondered aloud if the low profile of the Plymouths and Dodges was within allowable limits. That too checked out. (Charges, countercharges and professional intolerance are as much a part of stock-car racing as gasoline and checkered flags. The situation was so competitive, indeed, that even in their hours of glory, the Dodge and Plymouth people did not speak to one another beyond the bare necessities of civility.)