The 1965 Season, Part 1
Chrysler Cuts Out, Curtis Comes Home
By Greg Fielden
|Junior Johnson, considered the bravest of the Stock Car racers, voiced his concern over speeds in 1965.|
The 1964 NASCAR Grand National season had produced electrifying high speeds, record attendance figures, the emergence of a popular champion and widespread media exposure. But problems persisted. The element of danger cut deeply into the vein of the sport. Three leading drivers--Joe Weatherly, Fireball Roberts and Jimmy Pardue had paid the ultimate price for the sport they loved.
Halfway through the 1964 season, outcries could be heard from drivers. "It's reached the point at the superspeedways where it's a big relief when a race ends and you're okay, no matter where you finished," said Buck Baker. "It's become a pretty jumpy game." Junior Johnson, regarded as the bravest of the brave, remarked, "We haven't learned enough to keep the cars handling safely at the speeds we now travel. And the tire companies are having trouble developing compounds that will give adequate wear."
Fred Lorenzen, Ford's majestic prince, went one step further. "The speeds are just too fast," he said. "I'll never run another race unless they slow the speeds down." By the summer of 1964, sanctioning NASCAR knew they had to address the issue. Executive manager Pat Purcell said, "I don't know what the answer will be. But in my opinion, we have simply got to find something to do."
For over two months, NASCAR President Bill France and his aides worked to find a solution which would keep drivers, owners and the factory sponsors happy--and to cut speeds. On Monday, October 19, 1964, NASCAR announced a new set of rules for the 1965 season. New specifications, designed to slow the big Grand National cars and provide extra safety measures, took aim on the very expensive "limited production" engines.
The general rules for the 1965 NASCAR Grand National season:
1. Engine size: 428 cubic inches of production design.
2. Elimination of hemispherical combustion chamber and hi-rise cylinder heads, roller cams and roller tappets.
3. Wheelbase: 119 inches on super-speedways and 116 inches on short tracks and road courses.
4. One 4-barrel carburetor; 1-11/16 inch opening.
5. Rubber lined gas tanks (fuel cell), now under scrutiny by NASCAR, may be made mandatory if they pass the safety test.
The rules, effective January 1, 1965, excluded Chrysler's hemi-head and the Ford's hi-riser engines, and called for a longer wheelbase car on superspeedways. Bill France said the rules were formulated ".... after a tremendous amount of research and consideration touching all phases of stock car racing. We believe that in finalizing these specifications for 1965, we have taken steps that will provide independents enough latitude so they can compete against the factory drivers.
"Those who prefer to use General Motors equipment will not be handicapped," France added. Immediately, Ford Motor Co. approved the rule changes. "NASCAR is to be congratulated for its effort to speed progress in development of improved stock components," said Leo C. Beebe, Ford Division Special Vehicles Manager. "We believe the automobiles in stock car events should be as representative as possible of regular production models. By eliminating special high performance engines, NASCAR has provided manufacturers with greater opportunities to apply lessons learned on the tracks to improve passenger cars."
|Fred Lorenzen shook up the ranks when he said he wouldn't race as long as speeds continued to increase.|
NASCAR's announcement, somewhat predictably, sent rumblings through the Chrysler front offices. "Racing has always prided itself of being progressive," said Bob Anderson of Chrysler. "Here we are backing up. Any engine takes a couple of years of experimentation to develop its full potential. I cannot speak for the corporation, but we will certainly go over the rules closely in Detroit. It could mean we won't be at Daytona."
The United States Auto Club, a rival of NASCAR in late model stock car racing, balked at Bill France's announcement. "We will operate under the same rules in 1965 as we did in 1964," said Henry Banks, USAC Competition Director. "It has always been our policy to give at least a one year notice and in many instances two years before making major changes in engine specifications. We feel that changing specifications without adequate notice works a hardship on our personnel and on the manufacturers."
Essentially, USAC said that the Plymouth and Dodge automobiles with the powerful HEMI engines would be welcome on all tracks. Under NASCAR rules, the Chrysler teams would have to run the Plymouth Fury and the Dodge Polara without the HEMI engine on superspeedway tracks. "The Fury and Polara were designed as strictly luxury autos," said Ronney Householder, Director of Competitive Products for Chrysler. "They're big with a lot of gadgets and fancy stuff. Weight distribution on these cars was meant for highway comfort, not racing. Aerodynamically, we would be dead. The new rules NASCAR announced has put us out of business down South."
Smokey Yunick, the maestro of the mechanical world, analyzed the rules and offered his opinion. "The way I interpret it, the 1965 rules will not handicap the Ford as much as it will its competition," said Yunick, who did not field a car in 1964. "I don't look for the Fords to slow down much. The Chrysler people should be hurt, in the beginning at least. They have to go with a bigger car with less horsepower. Ford should have the upper hand. The new rules won't help the independents. The factory money is just too much."
Ten days later, on October 29, 1964, Householder issued a prepared statement: "The 1964 stock car season attracted the largest crowds and paid the biggest purses in history. The season has been a credit to all who participated. Plymouth and Dodge cars with the 426 c.i. HEMI engines and their drivers, gave a good account of themselves in all sanctioned competitive events and contributed greatly to the season's success.
"The standard practice of all competitive sanctioning bodies is to make major rule changes after thorough discussion with owners, drivers, track owners and equipment manufacturers; and to provide a minimum of one full year's notice prior to adoption. The new NASCAR rules for the 1965 season as announced on October 19, 1964, do not permit an orderly development and testing program for replacement of equipment already programmed. The new rules interrupt the continuity of engineering cars for safety and performance and they are not consistent with racing's tradition of bringing the best and newest engineering equipment to the race track. We also believe the rules will work to the disadvantage of many car owners, some drivers, crews and track owners.
"The effect of the new NASCAR rules will be to arbitrarily eliminate from NASCAR competition the finest performance cars on the 1964 circuit, including the car of the Grand National champion. Under these new rules, the equipment running on NASCAR tracks in 1965 will be inferior to the best the automotive industry can produce for this purpose.
"Accordingly, unless NASCAR rules for 1965 are modified or suspended for a minimum of 12 months to permit an orderly transition to new equipment, we have no alternative but to withdraw from NASCAR sanctioned events and concentrate our efforts in USAC, IMCA, NHRA, SCCA and other sanctioning bodies in 1965. In any case, the outstanding Dodge and Plymouth hemi-head cars will be racing wherever track owners want the public to see championship performances by stock car equipment."
Following Householder's statement and Chrysler's effective withdrawal, Bill France went on the offensive and explained the reasons for making abrupt changes in the rules. "We are at a crossroads," France said. "The HEMI and hi-riser engines do not resemble the volume production engines one associates with 'stock'. Ford now has a single overhead cam engine (SOHC) they hoped to use as a racing engine. Chrysler is prepared to build 12 double overhead cam engines (DOHC) for racing purposes. We could not allow this to happen.
"We have been criticized for not announcing the rules one year in advance," he continued. "Try to find out from the auto makers a year in advance what they intend to build and you have an idea what we are up against. The 1965 NASCAR specifications were designed to provide fair competition among all 1965 American standard size production automobiles. If the Chrysler Corporation feels that its standard 426 c.i. wedge engines are not competitive with other comparable size cars of other American car makers, then I would be the last to criticize Chrysler on its withdrawl from NASCAR racing," continued France.
"NASCAR racing is first of all competitive. NASCAR's major aims through the years has been to match American automobiles of like performance capabilities in races of speed and endurance. The 1965 NASCAR specifications were drawn but for one purpose: to bring together cars with similar engine size, length, width and weight. No manufacturer is favored; none penalized," said France. This statement seemed to be inviting Chrysler to boycott the 1965 season. However, the NASCAR President felt he had an ace up his sleeve. He was banking on General Motors coming back into the sport actively, and that would stave off any harm done by a Chrysler boycott.
"By the time the boys get around to you," France told a group of concerned promoters prior to a 150-miler at Augusta, GA on November 1, 1964, "everything will be worked out okay. I'm the one who is liable to take a beating at the Daytona 500 in February. Everything will be peachy-creamy." France left the meeting confident that General Motors would be back in force, which would smooth over any frayed edges the Chrysler boycott might create.
|I have to go where I can make a living. That means I go where I get factory support.--Cotton Owens|
During November and December, the war of wills continued. Neither Chrysler nor Bill France wanted the boycott to continue; however neither party was willing to back down. Rumors to the effect that General Motors would return to racing seemed unfounded. It was known that many in GM would have liked to go racing, but the "no racing" policy prevailed. And at that time, coming out of a brutal strike, the policy makers at GM were certainly concerned with more important business than stock car racing.
General Motors Vice President Lewis C. Goad made a public statement in December. "Racing may be dramatic and it may be exciting, but it does not add anything to the kind of proving ground testing that GM describes as all around the clock, all around the calendar, all around the country and all around the car," he said. "Racing tests the qualities of the car and driver, but it does not test the performance of passenger cars in normal use on streets and highways."
Chrysler said it would send factory backed drivers and teams to the USAC circuit. At the same time, Ford announced it would field industry supported cars in NASCAR races only. What that meant was that NASCAR would be all Ford, and USAC all Chrysler. With both sides apparently unwilling to compromise, the NASCAR drivers who had deals with Chrysler, began squirming. None of them really wanted to run USAC.
Cotton Owens: "I have to go where I can make a living. That means I go where I get factory support."
Richard Petty: "I definitely won't switch to USAC. I couldn't make a living running stocks in that group because they don't run for enough money. Basically, it amounts to us going back to 1963, running against 1965 equipment."
Ray Fox: "I'm sitting tight and just trying to keep my people together. We keep hoping Bill will make some changes in his plans. One thing I know, I won't race at all--not without backing."
Buck Baker: "I'm still going to race in NASCAR. I've been doing it for 18 years and I've never gone hungry. Racing is my business and I don't know anywhere I could race and make more money than I've made in NASCAR."
Bud Moore: "I have several irons in the fire, but none are getting hot."
Bill France: "People have always run Dodges and Plymouths in our races and they still will." But, by the time January rolled around, no one had backed down. The cold war was still going on and very little movement came from the General Motors camp.
Right after the new year, Billy Wade and Richard Petty were conducting tire tests at Daytona International Speedway for Goodyear. In spite of the prospect of some drivers being on the sidelines, many of them were going through routines and conducting business as usual -- in case a compromise would be reached. Wade, 1963 Grand National Rookie of the Year and winner of four straight races in 1964, was on a 10 lap test session on January 5. As Wade's Bud Moore Mercury headed into the first turn, a tire blew out. Wade hit the concrete wall, nose-dived onto the apron, then slid back up the banking and struck the wall again. When attendants reached the 34 year-old Houston native, he was dead.
Less than three weeks later, Larry Thomas of Trinity, NC, a promising driver who had taken over the Burton-Robinson factory Plymouth when Jimmy Pardue was killed in tire tests in September of 1964, died in a highway accident. He was traveling along I-75 when his car struck the rear of another vehicle. Thomas' Plymouth jumped the guard rail and tumbled down an embankment. It was presumed that Thomas fell asleep at the wheel.The Burton-Robinson team folded its operation after losing two of their drivers in tragic accidents four months apart.
In Part 2 of The 1965 Season, Curtis Turner comes home.
Photo credits from top: CMS, NCMS, NCMS