The year was 1971. As Three Dog Night's "Joy To The World" came over AM airwaves, the Vietnam War and its protesting counterpart were at the center of the news. The publication of the infamous Pentagon Papers documenting the length and depth of our involvement in Southeast Asia became an ignition point for the Nixon administration's difficulties, and thousands of anti-war demonstrators were arrested in Washington during a May rally. What's more, the postwar economy was cooling down, and the financial problems that would manifest themselves later in the decade were just beginning to show.
However, glimmers of hope remained in the world of automobiles. While GM had already reduced compression ratios considerably and Ford was withdrawing from motorsports, it was still possible to go down to your local Chrysler/Plymouth or Dodge dealer to order a new 426 Hemi or 440-powered machine complete with real compression, multiple carburetion, and the widest (and wildest) variety of paint and trim options to ever come from Detroit. Of course, you still had to insure them, but that was a whole different story. If you liked your Mopars with big graphics, wings, scoops, and hot paint, things were never better than 1971.
Meanwhile, on the racetracks of America, Mopar entries continued to make themselves and their drivers known as the best on the planet. Take drag racing, for instance. If you ran a dragster on nitromethane, the choice for success was basically limited to either the 392 or 426 Hemi models for power. The big news for the railbirds was Don Garlits, who returned from his horrific accident at Lions Drag Strip in June of 1970 at the helm of a rear-engined entry, the first big-name racer to succeed with such a design. Backed by Dodge and Wynns, "Big Daddy" won both the NHRA and IHRA Winternationals, the March Meet at Bakersfield, and numerous other events that year, leading him to be named Car Craft magazine's Man of the Year, Top Fuel Driver of the Year, and Chassis Builder of the Year. He was also the AHRA World Champion and AHRA Man of the Year as well, and set a record low elasped time of 6.21 at Indy. It was a revolutionary innovation with huge results, not to mention the drivers' lives that were saved by moving the "bomb" to the back.
Chrysler rocked at Indy in 1971, though Garlits would post runner-up honors to Steve Carbone's Hemi digger in the Top Fuel final after the longest starting line "burn down" in drag racing history (over two minutes). Funny Car action found Ed "The Ace" McColluch and his Barracuda taking out an on-fire Dale Pulde for the money, while Ronnie Sox won a close one, 9.586 to 9.588, over Stuart McDade in Billy Stepp's Challenger.
In Sportsman action, Ray Motes' twin-Chrysler rail won the last-ever Indy Top Gas crown (the class was discontinued in 1972). Winners also included Tom Trisch's blown Hemi altered in Competition Eliminator, Bob Riffle's B/MP Rod Shop Demon in Modified, Greg Charney's A990 Dodge Hemi in Super Stock and Al Corda's F/SA '64 Plymouth wagon in Stock. In other words, Chrysler won every single eliminator except Top Bike. Incidentally, Ted Flack's J/SA Barracuda was in that final against Corda. Flack is currently DaimlerChrysler's Engine Program Manager on Dodge Motorsports' NASCAR program.
Of course, drag racing was a lot more than just Indy. Gene Snow joined Garlits as season-long World Champions in AHRA competition, based on a cumulative-points system. The NHRA World Finals in Amarillo, Texas, still determined the World Champion in the days before that sanction had season-long points, and Chryslers were again on top. In Top Fuel, Gerry Glenn beat Garlits in a 392-inch front-engined car tuned by Bill Schultz, while Phil Castronovo took his Custom Body Dodge Charger to the Funny Car title over Jake Johnston in a Gene Snow Charger. In Pro Stock, Mike Fons in the Rod Shop Challenger beat Herb McCandless in the No. 2 Sox & Martin 'Cuda. Indy winners Trisch and Riffle took home Championships in Competition and Modified, while Dave Boertman took the Rod Shop's J/SA Charger to the Stock crown, giving
Jim Thompson's Ohio-based Rod Shop team three NHRA crowns. Since a Mustang won Super Stock, the Chevys never had it so bad (and, thanks to factoring by NHRA, Mopars never again had it so good).
Moving over to circle track racing for 1971, King Richard Petty and his redesigned 1971 Plymouth came on strong. Although still legal, the Superbird was parked because of its large size and difficulty to drive due to the nose clearance. For Petty, the Daytona 500 fell first, then the King and his nearest rival, Bobby Allison, battled it out. Both drivers won strings of five races in a row that year, but Petty was eminently more consistent, finishing with 21 race victories and a points lead of nearly 400 (4435 to Allison's 4071, who won ten events).
The wing car era came to an end at Daytona as well. Dick Brooks, in Mario Rossi's Dodge Daytona, qualified third using a 305-cid mill with no restrictor plate (Chryslers and Fords using the 426 or 429 engines, respectively, had been the first to get such devices in late 1970). The No. 22 car lost two laps when Brooks and Petty Enterprises driver Pete Hamilton collided during the event, but the wing car still finished seventh. Nonetheless, that would be the last time one actually cruised NASCAR's high banks in competition.
However, people in the Midwest who came out to see ARCA competition still got an eyeful of the super speedway machines on that circuit. Ramo Stott, from the racing town of Keokuk, Iowa, backed up his 1970 ARCA crown with another championship in 1971, both won behind the wheel of his No. 7 Superbird.
Meanwhile, Bobby Issac (who was the NASCAR Grand National Champion in 1970 and won four races in 1971 to finish third overall) went out to the expansive salt flats near Bonneville, Utah, in the K&K Insurance Daytona, where he proceeded to set no less than 28 new land-speed records.
Dodge and Plymouth had both gone into Trans Am competition in 1970, but a lack of success against the well-evolved competition and changing budget needs ended that program after just one season. However, Dodge did get some acclaim at the Indianapolis 500, even if there were no Chryslers competing under the tutelage of Andretti and Unser; a 383 Challenger convertible was the Official Pace Car for 1971.
The season remains perhaps the most prolific in Chrysler's racing heritage. Regardless of what one's personal feelings about Richard M. Nixon were, he invited the biggest and best names in motorsports to the White House in September, including Petty, Garlits, and Sox. He remains the only president to ever honor racing in that manner. 1971 was indeed quite a year.