It all started with races on the famed Daytona beach/road course in the late 1940's. Throughout the history of NASCAR, its race cars have been transformed from road-going, lumbering true "stock" cars into the sleek, technologically advanced machines that we see today on ultra-modern speedways. In tracing the evolution of the cars that we know today as the Winston Cup Series, it's necessary to go back to the beginnings of NASCAR and its "Strictly Stock Division."
When NASCAR was formed in 1948, there was a definite shortage of new cars in the post-war era. The feeling was that race fans wouldn't stand for new cars being beat up on a race track while they were driving a rattletrap pre-war automobile, so "Modified" cars were the early staple of NASCAR racing.
However, in 1949, NASCAR president Bill France Sr. re-visited the idea of racing the cars that people actually drove on the street -- late model family sedans. Since no other racing organization had seized the idea, France figured it might take root and create added interest. The success of the modern Winston Cup Series proves he was correct. From the racers' perspective, putting a race car together was not a high-dollar deal. If a brand-new Buick sold for about $4,000, due to the lack of modification that could be done to it, the car could be raced for very little more of an investment.
In some instances, rental cars were actually used as race cars by point-chasing drivers who had no locked-in "ride" for an event. Cars were typically either driven to the track or "flat-towed" behind pick-ups and family sedans. Other than tweaking and tuning of the engine, nothing could be done to these early Strictly Stock cars. The window glass front, back and sides was intact. Ropes and aircraft harnesses were used as seat belts. Roll bars -- which were mandated in 1952 -- were neither required nor often installed. One thing the strictly stock designation encouraged was a great diversity of manufacturers on the track. The first official Strictly Stock Division race had nine makes come to the line, including Buick, Cadillac, Chrysler, Ford, Hudson, Kaiser, Lincoln, Mercury and Oldsmobile.
Some of the biggest problems were tire; wheel and suspension failures brought on by stresses that were atypical of normal road use. These concerns brought about novel solutions such as one detailed by two-time Grand National (forerunner of Winston Cup) champion Tim Flock, who described a trap door in the floorboard of his race car that he could open with a chain to check right front tire wear. "When the white cord was showing, we had about one or two laps left before the tire would blow," said Flock of the 'early-warning system.'
Due to the rough-surfaced dirt tracks that were predominant in the early days of the sport, the only modification that was allowed was a reinforcing steel plate on the right front wheel to prevent lug nuts from pulling through the rims on conventional wheels. Otherwise, racing stock cars in the early days of the sport was very much a seat of the pants endeavor. But it was one that spawned innumerable legends of drivers who created them, literally, with their own hands, feet and indomitable wills and courage.
For a certain number of years, that concept certainly worked and, through the support of fans, competitors and manufacturers, it continued to thrive. But the variety of race tracks in use and the intensity of the competition level necessitated various modifications. While many of these were instituted "in the interest of safety," manufacturers found that there were ways to integrate "high performance" parts and pieces into their mainstream production line, thereby making these "hot" parts eligible for use in Grand National racing, the forerunner of the Winston Cup Series. One of the first items produced specifically for stock car racing was a racing tire manufactured and distributed by the Pure Oil Company in 1952. Prior to that time, street tires were all that were available for racing applications.
Not everything that was developed through this period was an integral part of the cars themselves. Two-way radios were first used in a NASCAR race at the 1952 Modified-Sportsman race on the beach/road course at Daytona Beach, Fla. Their use developed until they became an indispensable piece of equipment on a Grand National race car.
In the early 1950s roll cages also made more of a widespread appearance. Tim Flock won the 1952 Modified-Sportsman race in Daytona Beach, but was disqualified due to his roll cage being made of wood. Although some novel uses of bed frames and other iron devices were created for roll bars, their use stiffened race car chassis and improved cars' performance.
One of the first major changes in race car development came in 1953, when the Oldsmobile, Lincoln and Hudson car companies introduced "severe usage" kits, primarily composed of suspension parts, in response to an alarming spate of failures to spindles, hubs, axles and other suspension pieces. The manufacturers were also discovering that they could introduce high performance options in their street cars that would make them eligible for the race track. Hudson's "Twin H" carburetor setup was one such tweak that Hudson drivers used to win 22 of 37 races in 1953.
In 1955, Chevrolet and Ford, mirroring their intense spirit of competition that's displayed in 2001, also had factory-backed programs. But it was Chevrolet's introduction of the 355-cubic inch "small block" V8 engine that was one of the most significant developments in the history of stock car racing. That engine, with very minor changes, is still in use by General Motors race teams across the country in most racing series. Through this period, Marshall Teague of Daytona Beach, one of racing's true innovators who was largely credited with bringing the Hudson Motor Car Company and Pure Oil into racing, pioneered the use of Chevrolet truck spindles and suspension parts when he was competing in AAA stock car racing. The giveaway that a car was running the heavier axles and beefier suspension components was a six-lugged wheel, not the typical five-lugged version.
Buick unveiled a major coup in 1957 when it had finned aluminum brake drums on its Buick Roadmaster. The car, made famous by Fireball Roberts, used a braking system that dissipated heat more efficiently due to the use of aluminum and the finned design.
As the decade of the 1950s began to come to close and the superspeedway era was about to dawn; GM made a major change to the frame design of its cars in 1958. It debuted an "x-frame" design with a coil spring rear suspension, departing from the "box frame" with leaf spring rear suspension that was more popular and better understood by the racers. Consequently, very few 1958 Chevrolets were used; particularly early in the season, as the racers chose to go with what they were familiar with. However, innovative mechanic Henry "Smokey" Yunick had the system figured out and driver Paul Goldsmith won the final beach/road course race, using a 1958 Pontiac with the new design.
The newer setup would prove to be the "hot tip" on the big tracks that would begin to open with the advent of Daytona International Speedway in 1959. While a "superspeedway boom" occurred from 1959 to the early 1960s, with no less than four major speedways being built in Daytona Beach, Fla.; Hanford, Calif.; Concord, N.C.; and Hampton, Ga.; the automobile manufacturers -- who had signed an agreement that "got them out" of racing in 1957, gradually realized that to sell new cars, it certainly helped to win races.
Despite accruing the knowledge of what it took to win Grand National races, the period was interesting in that both engine and body configurations went through several "generations" and radical changes as race cars, by and large, matched what was pushed in the showrooms by the manufacturers.
One of the most interesting occurrences in 1959 came when the Ford Motor Company abandoned its "top of the line" Galaxy model to use its Thunderbird as the race car of choice. The Galaxy was a fairly bulky car that year, so Holman & Moody, Ford's acknowledged racing arm, built a "fleet" of T-Birds to compete in Grand National racing, the forerunner of the Winston Cup Series. The T-Bird was lower and sleeker than the Galaxy but it still fell within the dimensional parameters set in the NASCAR rules...even though the car had been created as a "sports car" that was designed to compete with Chevrolet's Corvette. Although the T-Bird continued to compete, Ford returned to its "premier" Galaxy Starliner model in 1960.
Conventional, full frame cars were still the norm as purpose-built tube frame race cars were still out on the Grand National horizon. Stories of race teams -- as Ray Fox's did in 1960 to win the Daytona 500 -- picking up cars from showrooms only days before races and converting them to race cars were commonplace.
In the General Motors' camp, teams had figured out the coil spring rear suspension setup that was introduced in 1958 and virtually everyone was running the 1959 Chevrolet on the big tracks, where it was particularly effective. This "light bulb" effect certainly led some to believe that the racers must have gotten some suspension geometry help from Detroit, but the manufacturers were still laying pretty low due to the Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA) agreement that had disassociated them from the sport. Through this period, of course, innovation often was the answer to necessity, and with many NASCAR races still conducted on dirt tracks and with pavement tracks sometimes coming apart, screens, grillwork and other protective devices were often de rigeur. The early days found race teams not necessarily locked-into a particular manufacturer's model or even make. They were able to do some amazing things with cars that looked particularly unwieldy to the naked eye: Witness the monstrous Oldsmobile with which Lee Petty won the inaugural Daytona 500, which was a somewhat tank-like ride. Petty jumped back and forth between Chrysler and Oldsmobile in that time, depending on which car was more suited to the task at hand.
As the "superspeedway boom" era continued, manufacturers began to pay more attention to aerodynamics. The 1963 Ford Fastback Galaxy was used in the manufacturer's literature and was advertised as a race car. The 1960-61 Starliner had what was actually an effectively aerodynamic roofline. In fact, with the 1962 car a pretty boxy proposition, Fred Lorenzen ran a 1962 Galaxy with a 1961 Ford roof in a one-shot deal for the Atlanta 500 -- and won the race in the car's only appearance.
General Motors had a grip on the Grand National championship in the early 1960s, with Rex White and Ned Jarrett winning titles in 1960-1961 in Chevrolets and Joe Weatherly copping the titles in 1962-1963 -- primarily in Pontiacs. In the 1961-1962 season Pontiac won more races than any manufacturer in the history of the Grand National Division in consecutive years: 52.
Mercury added a twist to the manufacturers' battle when it entered racing in a bigger way in 1963 with its Marauder model. Bill Stroppe, the West Coast's answer to Holman & Moody, handled the Mercury competition program with a similar assembly line approach. Unknown newcomer Billy Wade swept four straight races in 1964 driving a Mercury. Mercury prompted the switch of legendary NASCAR car owner Bud Moore to the Ford Motor Co. camp when Moore -- in the absence of significant support from General Motors -- switched from Pontiac to Mercury. Weatherly took the 1963 championship but had to pick-up rides for most of the year. Ford scored another coup when it grabbed Fireball Roberts, who won his first race for Ford in 1963 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. The swapping of personnel is one part of stock car evolution that has been around since the beginning.
Shock development, which today is acknowledged as critical to race car performance, also experienced more emphasis in the early 1960s. The popular "Air Lift" shocks were being phased out and Monroe and Gabriel became heavily involved in shock development for racing applications.
Tire development also continued. Firestone was the dominant tire company, but driversyear was involved to a limited degree. Increasing speeds made these developments important. The end of this period also brought an end to one unique item. Through the early 1960s, Lorenzen still used a trap door in the driver's compartment to check tire wear. By 1965, however, nobody used the device that was once a favorite of dirt track competitors.
Another significant advance during this period occurred as roll cage structures began to become a more integral part of the car and as such, were used to stiffen the chassis and improve a car's handling as well as serving as vital protection. A variety of triangulated bars, from front to back, across the mid-section of the car and also in the doors were as much to stiffen and strengthen the cars as they were to serve as protection. There was a tremendous amount of flex inherent in the "x-frame" cars used in the 1958-60 period. Smokey Yunick was one of the first car builders to use the roll cage as an integral part of the car's chassis.
Ford had unleashed the flow of relatively open factory support when it repudiated the AMA agreement in 1962. While General Motors remained mostly silent, within a few weeks Chrysler announced it would develop "high performance" parts for stock car racing.
Another big issue of this period was in the engine compartment. Noted mechanic Fox was the mastermind behind Chevrolet's so-called "mystery engine," a 427-cubic inch "high lift" high performance piece that would replace the 409-cubic inch engine that was often referred to as a "boat anchor" because of its weight. Yunick, the other half of the legendary mechanical pair that lived in Daytona Beach, was also involved in the development of that engine. While much of the mystique of this engine was as much hype as it was fact, at the time Ford claimed it spent $1 million chasing the development curve on Chevy's powerplant. Junior Johnson, driving Fox's 1963 Chevrolet, sat on a lot of front rows with the combination, but as had often been the case with other potent mixes, in most cases the car was either a top-5 finisher or it broke. Among the team's accomplishments in 1963 was sweeping the front row for the Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway, with Johnson and G.C. Spencer doing the honors.
The "engine wars" reached a peak when in 1964 Richard Petty brought a Plymouth hemispherical combustion chamber engine, or "hemi," and cleaned house at Daytona, including winning the first of seven Daytona 500s. The Plymouth and Dodge body styles had been streamlined somewhat first. The hemis: Plymouth's "Super-Commando" and Dodge's "Hemi-Charger" now had an appropriate platform in which to sit. The engine had first been produced in the early 1950s, but had been shelved with the AMA ban in 1956. Chrysler engineers also came up with a double rocker arm system used in conjunction with the hemi heads. This combination, which created a free-breathing combustion chamber, produced a drivers bit of top end horsepower, particularly on high-speed facilities.
Ford came back with its "tunnel port" 427-cubic inch engine. And Ford had a very well handling race car. Following the Daytona 500, the fourth point race of the season, Ford won 11 out of the next 15 races -- 13 of which were on short tracks. Plymouth and Dodge won two races apiece in that stretch.
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