The 1966 Season
Balks, Boycotts and the Yellow Banana
by Greg Fielden
|Bobby Isaac joined the Ford Boycott in 1966, saying "I'm just like a faucet. They turn me on, I go racing. They turn me off, I stop."|
On Monday, December 13, 1965 Bill France was at a Chrysler manufacturing plant to check on volume production. "I saw more HEMI engines made today than Ferrari makes cars in a year," he remarked. Chrysler was back in the fold. NASCAR approved the powerful Chrysler HEMI engine since it had become a production item.
Under the 1966 rules the 426 c.i. HEMI would be allowed in intermediate and full size cars on short tracks and road courses. It would, however, be allowed on superspeedways only if they were bolted into a big Plymouth Fury or Dodge Polara. If the Chrysler teams wanted to run the smaller Belvedere, Coronet or Charger on the super tracks, they would have to use a 405 c.i HEMI . These rules were actually the result of a recommendation by the Automobile Competition Committee of the United States (ACCUS), the American arm of the International Automobile Federation (FIA).
France felt these specifications, approved by both NASCAR and USAC, would be met with approval of both Chrysler and Ford--and he kept hoping General Motors would slide back in. But the problem was not solved. At the moment France stood at the Chrysler production line on December 13th, Ford Motor Co. made an announcement of its own. NASCAR Ford teams would utilize a new single OverHead Cam (OHC) engine and would be out in force to defend their impressive laurels of 1965.
All of France's efforts to achieve a balance between Ford and Chrysler as to the speed capabilities of each was crumbling. The Ford announcement was made without previous notification to the sanctioning bodies. It was common practice for a manufacturer to obtain approval of new equipment before announcing intent to use it. On Friday, December 17, 1965, NASCAR and USAC jointly said they would not permit the use of the OHC, citing lack of production. "I asked Ford officials if someone could order 50 OHC engines," said France. "The man told me they weren't available. If Ford is sincere about the OHC becoming a production engine, they will still make it available to the public without being able to use it in racing."
Henry Banks, Competition Director of USAC, said "Ford put the cart ahead of the horse. They should have gotten it approved before they announced they were going to use it." Things got sticky just before the holidays. Ford's Leo C. Beebe said that they would not be able to field factory backed cars for Riverside or Daytona. Beebe added that Ford's plans had been based on the use of the OHC engine and since it was denied, "it will be impossible for us to prepare factory sponsored vehicles for the early Stock car races at Riverside and Daytona."
Fearing another long term walkout, France discussed the situation with Ford officials. In a joint announcement on Christmas day, NASCAR and USAC said that Ford had agreed to continue its support of Stock car racing without interruption. France said the OHC "will be looked upon as an experimental engine in 1966 and it will be reviewed for eligibility in 1967." France left the door open for Ford if they mass-produced the OHC.
Recently retired Junior Johnson, who had signed Bobby Isaac to drive his Ford in the 1966 Grand National season, said NASCAR was splitting hairs with regard to the rules. "There isn't anything production about a Stock car," he growled. "A production car wouldn't last three laps at Daytona and there's never been a production engine raced in NASCAR with any success. Who does France think he's kidding?"
In late December, Ford took Fred Lorenzen to Daytona for a private testing session. The OHC engine was strapped into a big Ford Galaxie and Lorenzen turned some laps in the 178 mph range. "We had no problems," said Lorenzen. "It was really moving." Ford's Dan Gurney racked up his fourth straight Motor Trend 500 victory at Riverside in January--keeping Ford's unblemished record intact. But the factory Fords had difficulty keeping up with the heavy-hitting Chryslers on the big banks of Daytona. They were beaten badly in both 100-mile qualifiers and the Daytona 500. In 280 laps of racing at Daytona, Ford automobiles led only 67 laps. Ford Motor Co. executives were faced with the harsh reality that they would be in for a long year if their OHC engine were not approved.
Five days after Speedweeks ended, Ford said that a street version of its 427 c.i. OHC was now available as a production item. Donald N. Frey, Ford Division General Manager, said, "They (NASCAR) said they would reconsider the OverHead Cam when it went into production. In making the engine available to the public, we hope to qualify it for the Stock car circuit." Frey said the basic configuration of the OHC 'street' was the same as the racing version, except carburetion. Some other components had been altered "to provide smoother, safer operation on public roads," he added.
Rather then being dragged into another no-win situation, France said he would leave the final decision to ACCUS, the United States arm of the International Automobile Federation, the world governing body of auto racing. On April 6, ACCUS announced approval of Ford's OHC engine--with a handicap. In the past, NASCAR had handicapped certain engines--but it had been governed by displacement. In 1966, it would be in weight as well as displacement.
The displacement [limit] in 1966 was 427 cubic inches. And there was a general 4,000 minimum weight limit on NASCAR Grand National cars. That computed to about 9.36 pounds per cubic inch. If Ford wanted to use the OHC engine, the car would have to weigh 4,423.7 pounds or 10.36 pounds per c.i. The rule for the other engines with 427 cubic inch displacement would remain at 9.36 pounds per c.i. or a minimum weight of 3,996.72 pounds.
Problem solved? No. Ford officials contended the weight handicap was unfair--and it would place undue loads on the tires. NASCAR's France said the new ruling would be subject to adjustments if tests showed it to be unfair, "but no adjustments will be made until it has been tested," said France. The three main provisions of the new rules were:
Ford's new OHC engine, previously not permitted, is allowed in competition with a weight handicap. The new engine is permitted in cars with 119 inch wheelbase (Galaxie).
Ford's Wedge engine is permitted with two four-barrel carburetors instead of one in all cars (116-119 inch wheelbase).
Chrysler's HEMI remains with one four barrel carburetor, and is allowed in all cars (116" - 119") on all tracks.
Ford immediately announced that it was pulling out of three short track races at Columbia, SC, Greenville, SC and Winston-Salem, NC. Their principle drivers Ned Jarrett, Bobby Isaac and Curtis Turner would be instructed not to compete in the three races held over a five day period.
"Ford hadn't planned on running the OHC in any of the three places," countered France. "The weight rule has absolutely nothing to do with these races. Ford is acting like children. I don't understand it." On Friday April 15, as teams were checking into North Wilkesboro Speedway for the Gwyn Staley Memorial, Ford announced that it was beginning a boycott of NASCAR Stock car racing. Attempts for an eleventh hour compromise by NASCAR fell through.
"We can't be competitive under these new rules," announced Ford President Henry Ford II. "We are giving away too much to the Chryslers. And besides that, the safety factor in this is quite important. We couldn't keep wheels on the car at this weight." The next day, France met in Charlotte with 20 Grand National promoters. "The meeting was very cordial," said France. "Most of the time we discussed the 1967 rules, trying to set up regulations that would satisfy everyone including the independents. On the OHC, we have to make a test of it to see if our restrictions are correct. Until then, we can't do anything. We survived the 1957 AMA resolution and we can survive this." Ford's announcement brought varied responses from the auto racing gallery.
Fred Lorenzen, Ford driver: "Ford has backed me from the start. I can't and won't switch now."
Cale Yarborough, Ford driver: "Ford helped me when I needed them. I'm going to stick with them."
Ned Jarrett, Ford driver and defending Grand National champion: "We just can't keep treating the spectators the way we have the past couple of seasons."
Bob Colvin, President of Darlington Raceway: "Ford's squawking might just be laying the groundwork for an 'I told you so' attitude later in case the OHC doesn't work out. I don't think Ford can afford to pull out for good."
Carl Moore, President Bristol International Speedway: "Ford has spent millions in this 'Total Performance' ad campaign. I don't think they will allow that to go down the drain."
Bobby Isaac, Ford driver: "I'm just like a faucet. They turn me on, I go racing. They turn me off, I stop."
Richard Petty, Plymouth driver: "The car companies to me are like Russia, Red China and the United States sitting down at a big table and saying 'let's stop playing war'. An agreement is almost impossible."
Thomas Binford, USAC President: "The action by Ford certainly is not with the 'Total Performance' image they have advocated and advertised. The ACCUS members have tried to buy OHC engines to conduct a thorough and unbiased test with regard to the new regulations. But the search has proved futile. There seems to be no OHC engines available to purchase. Ford Motor Co. has presented no new evidence regarding the capabilities of the OHC, nor have they permitted access to the engine for testing. There is no justification for altering the rule. It will stand as announced. The decision to increase the weight to one pound per c.i. over the present 9.36 was not arrived at overnight. A good many formulas were discussed. It has always been our feeling that power-to-weight is an important factor of competition, and we arrived at our decision in an effort to keep the competition fair."
Ford Motor Co. ordered all of its factory equipment be shipped to the Holman-Moody shops in Charlotte. Ford refused to allow their contracted teams to operate as independents. Hank Schoolfield, editor and publisher of Southern MotoRacing, editorialized in his column: "The sport has become large, but it is not grown up. It will not grow up, nor will it escape from such problems as the present one as long as it can be controlled by car makers. It will be controlled by car makers as long as its rules are such that winning can be accomplished only with special, high-performance equipment that is controlled by car makers.
"Such control has been exercised for several years, with the sport's welfare tottering on the ability of its organizers to tightrope along a very thin thread of appeasements and adjustments to keep the car makers happy. "For the sport to regain control of itself, it must eliminate the car maker's control by making rules that will permit only the equipment that is equally available to all contestants."
|Despite his shoestring racing budget, Tom Pistone found a way to be competitive with the factory teams.|
"Ford should feel ashamed if they can't build a car better than Tom Pistone," said Plymouth's Paul Goldsmith. "Tom had the fastest car at Martinsville." While his Ford was competitive on the short tracks, Pistone felt he needed more horses to run up front on the superspeedways. "I wanted to run an OHC at Darlington in the Rebel 400," said Pistone. "Even with the extra weight, I wanted to give it a go. I tried to buy one from Holman-Moody, but they wouldn't sell me one. I'm not sure if they wouldn't or couldn't sell me one."
J. Elsie Webb, President of North Carolina Motor Speedway at Rockingham, announced on May 11 that the promoters were backing France in this latest dispute. "We have now left it up to Ford," said Webb. "We stand completely behind Mr. France. We want Mr. Ford to know the number of people he is hurting by his decision to stay out of racing. The little man, the average stockholder at each of the speedways, the Ford dealers, the racing fan and of course the sport itself."
Clay Earles, President of Martinsville Speedway, was ruffled by the prospect of another long term struggle, and a starting field devoid of the super stars. "We might as well plow up our race tracks and plant them with vegetable crops if we can't get some assurance that the top drivers will compete in Grand National events," he said. "No amount of promotion is going to help you if you haven't got the top men in the sport in your race."
On the other hand, Alvin Hawkins, promoter at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, said the level of competition is better on the short tracks when the factory teams are not present. "Personally," said Hawkins, "I don't care if they never get things settled. When their business is bad, our business is good."
Reporter Joe Whitlock observed: "There have been a few unpredictable moments, a few unsuccessful races, a handful of disappointing conferences and more than enough unanswered questions. The muddled situation created by Ford's April withdrawl could have produced chaos. But promoters went to work promoting, and the fans, once convinced Ford was the villain, responded."
It was only a matter of time before the Ford drivers began a mutiny. Curtis Turner was the first--making an announcement that he would leave Ford and drive for Smokey Yunick in the Rebel 400. "I've only got a few years left to drive," said Turner. "Others may be able to sit around, but I've got to make the most of what time I have left. I need to be racin'." Turner started eighth in the Yunick Chevrolet at Darlington, but went out with broken wheel bolts on lap 150.
Marvin Panch and Ned Jarrett followed shortly after Darlington. "Racing is my business," said Panch. "I am not under contract to Ford Motor Co. and I have a family to feed." Lee Petty, patriarch of Petty Enterprises, said a Plymouth would be readied for Panch to drive in the World 600 at Charlotte. Ned Jarrett quit Ford also. "I will have to sever my relationship with Ford," said Jarrett. "I really hate to. But I just feel I should be out there running. I'm missing too much money by not racing. Besides, the fans should not be deprived to seeing the defending Grand National champion another year."
Jarrett worked out a deal with Henley Gray to drive in the 600. Panch won the World 600 in Cinderella fashion. By the second week in July, Ford was still on the sidelines--and Chrysler was doing most of the winning. There was word that Ford was contemplating making a return. Their boycott was not having the same effects on racing that Chrysler's withdrawl did a year earlier.
Ford and the tire companies went to Daytona to test the OHC and the rubber compounds. "What works on a Chrysler doesn't necessarily work on a Ford," said H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, Southeastern Manager of Firestone's racing division. "The trees are shaking and there is a possibility Ford might be back before the year is out. We want to be prepared. We all have to get to work or we'll get behind the 8-ball. It's going to be a heck of a challenge to keep something on the car."
On July 13, Junior Johnson and Bobby Isaac both tested Johnson's Ford at Daytona. LeeRoy Yarbrough tested a Dodge Charger. On July 18, Dick Hutcherson tested the Holman-Moody Ford for Goodyear tires. NASCAR arranged a private meeting with Ford officials. Fred Langley, General Manager of East Tennessee Motor Co in Knoxville, acted as mediator. "Ford's OHC engine should never have been approved for racing," said Langley, whose company had been involved in racing for several years. "Ford should have stayed in Stock car racing this year with the Wedge engine. The company should have kept the OHC out until it was sold as a regular production line item and met NASCAR specifications. As soon as it was available to the public, then NASCAR could have no other action than approve it for use without the weight handicap."
Following Langley's surprising slap at the parent company, he made another announcement. "We at East Tennessee Motor Co. will sponsor Dick Hutcherson for the rest of 1966," added Langley. "I see no reason why Dick will not be competitive with any other car on the track." Although Hutcherson's mount could not be readied by the August 7 Dixie 500, there was another Ford at Atlanta International Raceway. It was Junior Johnson's 1966 Ford Galaxie. Fred Lorenzen was listed as driver, replacing Isaac. It was causing quite a stir. One wag quipped, "There's something over there in the garage area. I'm not sure what it is. It's some kind of yellow creation from the Wilkes County Chicken Coop."
The car was a yellow Ford entered by Junior Johnson Racing. It was supposed to carry some resemblance bestowed by the original car maker--Ford Motor Co. But somewhere along the line, it missed the boat. Bob Hoffman, Editor of Southern MotorSports Journal, said, "The car's roof line had been lowered so much that (driver) Freddy Lorenzen was forced to lower his seat in order to see out the windshield."
Hank Schoolfield remarked, "It looked weird enough to be put together by a committee." The Johnson Ford was a unique specimen of an "American family sedan". The roof had been chopped and lowered. The front windshield was sloped back. The front fenders hovered over the front tires. The rear deck lid rose up in the air, and the car looked like a four-wheel vacuum cleaner.
The car became known as the "Yellow Banana". And it passed NASCAR inspection. So did Smokey Yunick's Chevrolet. Standing beside the black and gold Chevelle, it almost seemed that it was a miniature of sorts--smaller than the production line model. A cluster of innovative technology was tucked neatly under the sheet metal. Wheels were off-centered and the roof line had been blessed with a handcrafted 'spoiler'.
While Johnson's Ford and Yunick's Chevrolet didn't run into any obstacles at the inspection station, three other cars did. A Ford owned by Bernard Alvarez and scheduled to be driven by Ned Jarrett, was turned away. There was not the time nor the manpower to correct every item needed to get clearance from Norris Friel, NASCAR's chief Technical Director. LeeRoy Yarbrough and car owner Jon Thorne were sent packing when NASCAR found blocks of wood in the springs. The wood could fall out during the race, thus lowering the front of the car and creating an aerodynamic gem.
Cotton Owens, owner of the Dodge David Pearson had put into the Grand National point lead, watched all of this curiously. He went back to his garage stall and began to do a little creating himself. He rigged a device where Pearson could pull a cable and lower the front of the car during the race. Friel blew the whistle on Owens. He told the blond-thatched Owens to get it within the boundaries of the rule book or hit the highway.
Owens withdrew his car in protest and put the season championship in jeopardy. "It's a pretty bitter pill to swallow," said Owens. "The device lowered the car about a half-inch. This was the only way we could be competitive with these other two funny cars. You have to fight fire with fire. On top of it all, NASCAR lets those other two cars race. "This may cause me and David to lose the championship," he added. "But somebody has got to stand up for what is right."
Pearson publicly backed Owens. "Instead of lowering the body like the others did," said Pearson, "we should have lowered the whole car. We were a quarter-inch too low. Big deal. If they're going to cheat, we can too. If they go legal, so will we. If that Ford is legal, then it looks like we'll have to fix our Dodge just like it." Bobby Johns, who had been released from Holman-Moody's factory Ford team, had entered a family operated Chevrolet in the Dixie 500. He was holding court with a gang of newsmen. "If Freddy and that Ford win this race," said an angered Johns, "then it will be the biggest injustice in the history of NASCAR. It's the truth. Somebody should have said it before now. That Ford is strictly illegal and everybody knows it. I don't think the fans will appreciate that race car because it doesn't look like one.
"Everybody knows I have no love for Holman-Moody," Johns continued. "It's a fact that Lorenzen was running a 27-gallon gas tank in the 1965 Daytona 500. I was legal on the same team. I should have won the race. I think we should all race on the same basis. If you're in a fight and your opponent has a glove filled with lead, who's going to win? It's very obvious to the eye what a laugh that car is."
Johnson and Lorenzen didn't acknowledge that anything was different with their car. "It's a Ford Galaxie," said Johnson. "All I can say is that Johns has an awfully big mouth." Lorenzen, a one-time warrior with Johnson on the tracks, said, "This car looks the same as all of Junior's car have looked for the past five years. The car hasn't been around for awhile and everyone's forgotten what it looks like." Turner won the pole in Yunick's Chevy at a record 148.331 mph; Lorenzen qualified third. In the race, they both fell out within nine laps of each other. Turner was victim to a faulty distributor on lap 130, and Lorenzen slugged the retaining wall on lap 139. Turner had led for 60 laps before his departure. Lorenzen had led for 24 laps.
The Atlanta fiasco caused concern among some other promoters. "If those cars don't look right when they come to Darlington for the Southern 500," said Raceway President Bob Colvin, "they're going back home. We won't even let 'em in the track to change the looks of it. It might help our race to let some of these guys in--especially if it's a big name driver. But I'm looking at it from the view point of what's good for racing."
Bill France admitted the cars in question did not conform entirely to the rule book. However, he was not going to shut the door on some much-needed contestants due to what he called "gray areas".
"I admit the rules were bent at Atlanta," explained France. "After Fred Lorenzen drove Johnson's car in Atlanta, it sort of opened the door for any of the other Ford drivers to return to racing if they wanted to. The entire deal happened at the last minute and there was not time to prepare another body for the car. We are going to make every effort to stick to the rule book and everybody knows it. Junior knows it. He is rebuilding the Ford and putting a new body on it."
Ford came back in force a few days after the Dixie 500. Curtis Turner had been hired to drive the Junior Johnson Ford. Word came from sponsor Holly Farms that the swashbuckling Turner would have to exert a better image for the sponsor--and that included wearing a driver's suit. So, on August 18, 1966, Turner showed up to drive the Johnson Ford wearing a three-piece suit. Neatly dressed in pressed trousers, tie and sport jacket, Turner drove to a third place finish in the 100-miler on the half-mile dirt track. He led the first 134 laps, and the crowd of 8,954 cheered the ol' master. "Holly Farms told me that I was gonna have to wear a suit," said Turner. "They didn't specify what kind of suit, so I wore my best. You've gotta look good, you know."
Turner was later released from his assignment with Johnson when he got into a bumping match with Bobby Allison at Winston-Salem on August 27. In 1965, Chrysler boycotted the NASCAR Grand National circuit--and it produced a wide range of despair among the track owners, promoters and sanctioning NASCAR. In 1966, Ford tried the same tactic, but they were unable to secure the sympathies of the spectators. By late 1966, Ford and Chrysler were battling before large gatherings of racing fans.
Things were - generally - back to normal.
Photo credits from top: All CMS