THE WORKS Plymouths, represented by Petty Engineering and its drivers, the veteran Richard Petty himself and comparative rookie, Pete Hamilton, made an impressive return to NASCAR’s superspeedways when Hamilton upset all the odds and scored a stunning upset victory over David Pearson’s Ford in NASCAR’s most prestigious event, the Daytona 500 on February 22nd. It was a tremendous finish as Hamilton stole the lead from Pearson with just eight laps to go and then stayed oft three fierce assaults by the veteran NASCAR Champion and held on to win the $200,000 race by three car lengths. It was Hamilton’s first start in a works Plymouth and it produced his first ever victory in Grand National racing (he was Grand National Rookie of the Year in 1968 but decided he needed more experience and spent a successful 1969 season racing the smaller pony cars in NASCAR’s Grand Touring division). The lead changed hands 23 times among so cars during the 200-lap, 500-mile race, and Hamilton himself was in front only three times for a total of 13 laps – including the final eight. Pearson’s Ford was the only car on the same lap as Hamilton at the finish and Chrysler products filled the next four places, Bobby Allison and Charlie Glotzbach in Dodge Daytonas completing 199 laps and Bobby Isaac in a Daytona and Richard Brickhouse in a Plymouth SuperBird completing 198.
This result reflects fairly accurately the fortunes of Ford and Chrysler during qualifying And the race. After winning all but two of the major superspeedway races last year, Ford, as mentioned in this column two months ago, decided to stick with their 1969 cars for this season because they had proved to be far more aerodynamic than the 1970 models. Dodge, too, saw no reason to change its Daytona Charger, but Plymouth, which dropped out of Grand National racing last year during Petty’s brief defection to Ford, spent the time developing its own version of the Daytona Charger called the SuperBird. Although the two cars are very similar, both having sharp, wedge-shaped extensions on the nose and car-wide wings mounted 2 ft. above the boot on vertical stabilisers, they are not identical. On the SuperBird, for example, the area of the vertical stabilisers has been increased approximately over those on the Daytona. This has moved the aerodynamic centre of pressure back much closer to the car’s centre of gravity and thus greatly increased its directional stability. (Many people, including several motoring sport journalists, have questioned the effectiveness of the nose extension, the under-nose spoiler and the rear wing on cars of this size and weight (3,900 lb.). While it is true they are not much use at normal road speeds,Plymouth has the facts and figures to prove that at the speeds generated at Daytona – as high as 210 m.p.h. down the back straight – the combined effect of these devices reduces the aerodynamic lift on the SuperBird by as much as 1,000 lb.)
While Plymouth had the latest car, however, Ford had a definite edge in the horsepower department since its 7-litre semi-hemi engine is only a year old, while Chrysler’s legendary hemi-head engine is getting long in the tooth after five years. The difference was apparent in qualifying when Cale Yarborough, who had made a remarkable recovery from a serious shoulder injury received only two months earlier in the final race of the 1969 season, put his Mercury on the pole with a record average speed of 194.015 m.p.h. around the 2:5-mile tri-oval (breaking his own record of 190,720 set last July). Buddy Baker, whose Daytona Charger was second fastest qualifier, also broke Yarborough’s old record but at 192.624 m.p.h. he was almost 1.5 m.p.h. slower.
Yarborough continued to demonstrate his advantage when the race began as he quickly and easily built up a commanding lead. After being in front for 25 of the first 31 laps, however, his engine suddenly expired in a big way and this signalled a rash of Ford trouble. Within the next 100 miles the Fords of Donnie Allison and USAC driver A. J. Foyt were both out with blown engines, and Lee Roy Yarbrough’s Ford was seriously delayed by ignition trouble. This left Pearson as the only major Ford driver still in contention, but the experienced NASCAR Champion was apparently all Ford needed. After a tremendous climb from 31st starting position (he experienced trouble during qualifying), Pearson took the lead for the first time on lap 68, one-third of the way into the race. And although the lead changed hands nine times over the next 120 laps (300 miles) as first Isaac, then Glotzbach, Hamilton and Allison challenged Pearson, the Ford driver was clearly and confidently in command.
His undoing came just 15 laps from the finish when, with a lead of 3.3 sec. over Hamilton, the yellow caution light appeared as the engine in another car expired and dumped oil all over the track. As the field bunched up behind the pace car both Pearson and Hamilton decided to take advantage of the slow caution laps to get their fuel topped-up and new right-side tyres as insurance (NASCAR runs all races anticlockwise). They dived into the pits together but Hamilton’s stop was quicker (about 22 sec. for two tyres and 22 US gallons of fuel), and as they roared out of the-pits Hamilton was sitting on Pearson’s bumper. The next time around there was consternation among the Plymouth supporters as Hamilton drove into the pits again. But it was all part of the clever strategy of Richard Petty (he had retired after only seven laps with a blown engine), who ordered the second stop to give Hamilton new left-side tyres as well. (The field takes well over 60 sec. to lap Daytona when running under a yellow light behind the pace car, so the drivers can make a quick pit stop and return to the track without being lapped. The rules do not permit passing under the Yellow but drivers may regain positions held when the yellow appeared.)
Flying out of the pits after his second stop. Hamilton was soon on Pearson’s tail again and the stage was set for a fascinating struggle – the veteran Pearson haying the faster car but new tyres only on the right, the less experienced Hamilton having the slightly slower car but with new tyres all round. On the 192nd lap the lights flashed green again and the battle was on. The tyres made the difference. Clinging to Pearson’s exhaust down the back stretch, Hamilton drove inside the Ford going into the banking and for two-thirds of a lap the two cars thundered around the track side by side until the SuperBird just edged ahead. Three times in the next eight laps Pearson struck back at Hamilton but on his last attempt, with the two cars again side by side on the banking, it was the veteran who bobbled as the Ford’s tail began sliding up the bank. It slid for perhaps two or three feet and Pearson caught it instantly, but in that brief fraction of a second the Plymouth shot ahead. There wasn’t time for another attack and the crowd of over 100,000 gave Hamilton a standing ovation as his Plymouth SuperBird won the 12th annual Daytona 500 by three car lengths from Pearson’s Ford.
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Ford’s-defeat by Chrysler in the Daytona 500 only reinforced Ford’s earlier decision (mentioned in this column two months ago) sharply to cut back all its stock-car racing activities. Although Ford refuses to reveal the extent of the cutback, it is believed to amount to an almost complete withdrawal of works cars. Unconfirmed reports say Ford will give partial support to the cars driven by Yarborough, Pearson and Yarbrough, but it will not be sufficient to keep them going for a full season. “Racing” engines and parts will still be available to these drivers and-all other Ford competitors but they will have to be paid for.
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The SCCA’s Continental Championship for Formula A and B cars has been expanded by two races to a total of 14 and the Liggett & Myers tobacco company, one of the largest in America, has agreed to sponsor the series. This sponsorship will add $100,000 to the $300,000 put up by the race promoters, bringing the minimum guaranteed prize money for the series to over $400,000. This does not include over $100,000 in contingency awards put up by manufacturers.
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The United States Auto Club has announced a 23-race Championship Trail schedule that began in Phoenix, Ariz., on March 28th and will end at Riverside, Calif., On December 6th, The schedule includes five dirt-track races (the plan to chop them haying been defeated), five road circuit events and, for the first time, two 500-mile races – Indianapolis, of Course, now in its 54th year, and the inaugural race at the new Ontario Motor Speedway near Los Angeles, whose 2.5-mile track is based on that at Indianapolis.-D.G.