Daytona Beach, Fla., has been one of the world’s great centers of speed for more than a century. Long before the Daytona International Speedway opened in 1959, racers from around the planet would come to the hard-packed sands of Daytona Beach to find out how fast their machinery could go. NASCAR is, however, the reason Daytona looms so large today in automotive culture. Drivers like Junior Johnson, Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Jeff Gordon and, of course, Dale Earnhardt earned their status as all-time greats along the 2.5-miles of Daytona’s tri-oval. But they didn’t do it alone: they drove great machines too. Great distinct machines, not the virtually identical “Car of Tomorrow” clones that will make field for this Sunday’s 51st running of the Daytona 500. Here’s a look back at ten of the greatest stock cars ever to have cast their shadow across that storied pavement.
- 1969 DODGE CHARGER DAYTONA AND 1970 PLYMOUTH SUPERBIRD
Chrysler’s glorious winged cars only raced competitively for about a season and a half in NASCAR. But their radical appearance, instant on-track success, and sheer audacity produced an indelible and enduring image.
The problem Dodge and Plymouth faced during the 1969 NASCAR season was that the bodywork of their current production cars was obstinately the opposite of aerodynamic. They all had blunt front grilles and some had deeply tunneled rear windows that broke up the air as it tumbled off the roof. In fact, aerodynamically speaking, the worst of all the cars, Mopar was building at the time was the Dodge Charger–the very car whose sales would most likely benefit from some NASCAR success.
Dodge first tried to clean up the Charger by creating the Charger 500. It was a subtly smoothed version of the same car but with a flat nose and a rear moved flush with the roofline. But the Charger 500 was only a half step forward and not particularly successful. So midway through ’69, Dodge took the Charger 500, added a long, sharklike nose and planted a 23-in.-high wing on its tail. The result was the Charger Daytona, a car that cut through the air with stunning ease and remained stable even at 200 mph. In fact, during testing at Talladega on March 24, 1970, Buddy Baker became the first driver to turn a lap at more than 200 mph in the 426 Hemi-powered No. 88 Daytona.
The Charger Daytona won its first race (the inaugural Talladega 500 in 1969) and was the primary ride for Bobby Isaac during his successful run for the 1970 Championship. Building on that success, in 1970 Chrysler applied the Daytona formula to the Plymouth Road Runner to create the 1970 Superbird. And the Superbird won its first race too–the 1970 Daytona 500 with Pete Hamilton driving the No. 40 Petty Enterprises car.
However, as thrilling as the Charger Daytona and Superbird were on the racetrack, they were mere specks on the sales charts–homologation specials few people wanted to live with every day. So NASCAR effectively outlawed the winged wonders going into the 1971 season by restricting their engine size and increased homologation requirements so that no manufacturer would ever be so daring again.
- 1969 FORD TORINO TALLADEGA AND MERCURY CYCLONE SPOILER II
When Richard Petty looked at what Plymouth (his long-time benefactor) was offering as race fodder for 1969, and then looked over at the long-nose Ford Torino Talladega, King Richard opted put blue paint and the number 43 on a Ford for the year.
With NASCAR running at Talladega Superspeedway for the first time in 1969, Ford realized aerodynamics would be more than ever. So they lengthened the Torino fastback’s nose, planted a flush grille in it, and installed the flatter rear bumper under the grille. They called it, appropriately, Talladega. And in order to keep Mercury in the game they applied the same treatment to the Cyclone fastback to create the Cyclone Spoiler II.
While the slippery pair were built in minuscule numbers to homologate them for racing, they all had the 428 Cobra Jet engine–an engine Ford never intended for racing. Instead, Ford built a limited number of Boss 429 Mustangs to homologate that open port engine for NASCAR competition. Go figure.
With a clever tire strategy, the great LeeRoy Yarbrough won the 1969 Daytona 500 in a Torino Talladega prepared by Junior Johnson. David Pearson meanwhile would take 11 wins and the 1969 season championship driving Holman-Moody Talladegas. Richard Petty won another 10 races in Fords and finished second in the championship.
The Torino Talladegas and Cyclone Spoiler IIs are the cars that made the Dodge Charger Daytona and Plymouth Superbird necessary.
- 1975 TO 1976 CHEVROLET LAGUNA TYPE-S3
By the mid-Seventies the Detroit manufacturers had cooled in their enthusiasm for NASCAR–the country seemed to be more concerned with fuel economy than high performance. But then, when no one was looking, Chevrolet introduced the Laguna Type-S3 version of its midsize Chevelle and began dominating the premier series.
The Type-S3 was introduced midway through the 1975 model year and distinguished by its sloping shovelnose. The shape was magic for team owner Junior Johnson and driver Cale Yarborough. Together they won nine races during the 1976 season and took the championship. Then they started 1977 by taking the Daytona 500 and going on to win eight more times. Throw in six wins for Darrell Waltrip in his similar DiGard Chevrolets and NASCAR felt something had to be done.
So for the 1978 season the S3 was strangled out of competition with restrictive engine regulations. And NASCAR allowed the Chevrolet small-block V8 to be used under any GM body shell–Buick, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Pontiac or even (theoretically) Cadillac. And that was that for the S3.