"Terrifying." That's is a term that comes to mind as Speed Weeks gets underway at the Daytona International Speedway. Might sound a little weak, but when you consider the speeds on the backstretch as you dice around in traffic, the sight lines through the tri-oval, the push- tight issues on the banking, let be honest - this is a big, scary, hairy deal. I can imagine hanging on to the steering wheel and mashing that gas pedal while 500 miles in traffic goes by, the tension has to be pretty incredible, even in this modern age of HANS devises, cool suits, and cages that stay in one piece.
Nervous? Then think back to 1964, the year the Hemi showed up on those fabled banks. Thanks to a desire for change on the part of new president Lynn Townsend, engine code A864 had become a reality in less than two years. This was the valiant effort headed up by Tom Hoover and Willem Weertman and the mad scientists at Chrysler Engineering to create a race-oriented hemispherical cylinder head for the existent RB wedge engine. In the ensuing months, GM would officially drop out of racing (thanks in some part to ambitious designs being sounded out by Camelot's Attorney General Bobby Kennedy), leaving a very good reason to truly push for dominance on the growing sport of stock car competition. Ground zero for this new 7-liter engine effort would be the start of the '64 season at the Daytona track, which had opened with much acclaim in 1959.
Already, this place had become legend; it seems there was drama every year. Heck, it took a couple of days to decide who even won the first event (Lee Petty or John Beauchamp). Next, Ray Fox and Junior Johnson had won in 1960, in a car they had agreed to build just seven days earlier. In 1961, Pontiac made the headlines - Marvin Panch had won with a year-old car, and Lee Petty had driven his last event when he and Johnny Beauchamp had tangled again, this time on the track, during a 100-mile qualifier. That Plymouth being batted out of the stadium's guardrails had put Petty in the hospital for a long time, making his young son Richard the family bread winner behind the wheel.
In 1962, the Petty crew accepted a deal to drive for Plymouth. Fireball Roberts won in his Pontiac that year, and the following year was almost like a made-for-TV drama (and the first year the race was televised). A young 6-foot Iowa transplant with some racing background named DeWayne 'Tiny' Lund helped pull '61 winner Marvin Panch from a burning Maserati during a test for the sportscar race. The Wood Brothers gave Lund the injured Panch's new '63 Ford to drive, and he went on to win the race 10 days later, giving Dearborn its first big taste of 'win on Sunday, sell on Monday' victory. Lund and his co-volunteer 'fire divers' also got the Carnegie Medal for Heroism for saving Panch's life.
So, now in its fifth running, Daytona was a big deal, and Richard Petty had been assigned the task, with several others, of bringing home the bacon for Plymouth. Going into February, there had been problems with the block castings, which were under going rigorous testing in the dyno cells in Highland Park. With support from executive Bob Rodgers, the funds were there and a set of fresh stress-relieved castings were rushed from the indianpolis foundry to be built in Detroit and then shipped via truck to qualifiers already at Daytona (due to the rare nature of the engines, the company did not want to risk flying them!). Nonetheless, using the early hardware, Paul Goldsmith of the Nichols Engineering team and Richard Petty parlayed some easy equipment use into record 174 mph two-lap averages and the front row for Plymouth; Junior Johnson and Bobby Isaac each won a 100-lap qualifier and were right behind them in Dodges. Also in the top ten for Mopar were Buck Baker (fifth), Jim Pardue (sixth), David Pearson (seventh) and Jim Paschal in tenth. Things were looking good.
Sure you can qualify, but can you go 500 miles at speed, especially considering variances of max RPM and high banking, with an engine that has been rushed through to fruition? The world was about to find out what Chrysler engineering had achieved. Petty would drive that suddenly-famous #43 blue Plymouth into the history books forever three hours and fifteen minutes after the green flag; the Plymouths of Paschal and Goldsmith were right behind. Ronney Householder and the other factory guys smiled like Cheshire cats and relished the moment, and Henry Ford II and his crew stomped their feet, chomped on cigars, and were disgusted. Their motto at the time was 'Total Performance;' soon after, Chrysler made up some buttons using the same typeface that stated, 'Total What?'
Now the telegrams would really fly, now millions would be spent as the two battled each other for that precious trophy that said 'you'd better believe I'm the best, boy; I won Daytona!' as a manufacturer. Bill France's understandable need to let guys like Smokey Yunick push the envelope so there would still be Chevrolets visible stirred the pot a little harder, but until the automotive moralists in Washington finally put enough fear and legislation into practice to basically choke it financially...
It Was War.
Today, spit and polish dominate, but we always wait eagerly for that statement, 'gentlemen, start your engines!' in late February. If you have never stood in the turns 3-4 corner of the infield to witness that wall of sound in motion, your bucket list may be too short. Thursday will be the running of the Gatorade Duals at Daytona, a qualifying event that can have all the thrills of Sunday's big race. Race season is underway, and we're rooting for Chrysler to make history again...
Special thanks to Anthony Young's extensive research and interviews from his book HEMI for data on the 1964 important year.