PETTY’S SUPERBIRD SU­PER­CAR James Attwood

Motor Sport News - - Nascar Plymouth Superbird - Pho­tos: LAT

R

ichard Petty only drove the Ply­mouth Superbird for a sin­gle NAS­CAR Grand Na­tional sea­son. And while he won 18 races in 1970, he didn’t even win the cham­pi­onship.

And yet, the Superbird might just be the car The King is most associated with. How en­twined are the two? Well, the char­ac­ter Petty plays in the Dis­ney Pixar film Cars was mod­eled on the Superbird.

Why? Sim­ple. The dis­tinc­tive, dy­namic, be­winged Superbird was the ul­ti­mate ex­pres­sion ex­am­ple of the ‘Aero War­riors’ that dom­i­nated the sport in 1969 and ’70, be­fore be­ing banned by NAS­CAR. Con­sider them a Deep South equiv­a­lent to Group B rally cars. And the Superbird was es­sen­tially built purely for Petty.

The North Carolina ace had been a long-time Ply­mouth driver, hav­ing won Grand Na­tional races for the mar­que every year from 1960 on­wards. In 1967, he won 27 times in 48 starts to claim his sec­ond Grand Na­tional ti­tle. But grow­ing knowl­edge of aero­dy­nam­ics was chang­ing the shape of stock cars.

Tech­ni­cally, NAS­CAR was still a se­ries for stock cars, ma­chines you could ac­tu­ally buy in show­rooms across Amer­ica. But in a push to win, firms started de­sign­ing cars specif­i­cally for the race track. And with en­gine de­vel­op­ment be­gin­ning to stall, man­u­fac­tur­ers be­gan to ex­per­i­ment with aero­dy­namic de­sign, es­pe­cially with Day­tona In­ter­na­tional Speed­way in­spir­ing a growth in big­ger and faster ovals.

While the art of aero de­vel­op­ment was still fairly rudi­men­tary – wind tun­nels were only used spar­ingly at this point – Petty was con­cerned Ply­mouth was be­ing left be­hind in the aero race, not least by fel­low Chrysler mar­que Dodge.

In mid-1967, Petty was shown both the ’68 ver­sion of the Ply­mouth Road Run­ner and the Dodge Charger.

It was clear to Petty that the Charger had far more ad­vanced aero­dy­nam­ics, which he was keen to ex­ploit. So he asked Chrysler bosses about driv­ing a Dodge for the ’68 sea­son. They re­fused.

Thanks to the ge­nius of Petty’s car builder and brother Mau­rice, The King won 16 times in his Road Run­ner that year, while the Charger ini­tially strug­gled with sta­bil­ity on the high-speed tracks. But in June 1968 a re­vised Dodge, the Charger 500, was launched, solv­ing most of those sta­bil­ity is­sues. With no aero de­vel­op­ment forth­com­ing from Ply­mouth, Petty again asked to switch brands. Chrysler again said no.

Mean­while, ri­val firm Ford was pre­par­ing to take the stock aero wars to an­other level, with the first true Aero Mon­ster. With the 2.66-mile Tal­ladega Su­per­speed­way added to the cal­en­dar for the 1969 sea­son, Ford in­vested heav­ily in aero de­vel­op­ment. The firm took its ex­ist­ing Torino, length­en­ing the nose and fit­ting a flush grille. The re­sult­ing car was named the Ford Torino Tal­ladega (mean­while, sis­ter firm Mercury ap­plied sim­i­lar aero­dy­namic wiz­ardry to cre­ate the Cy­clone Spoiler II).

To en­sure the ma­chines still met the ‘stock’ part of the ‘stock car’ de­scrip­tion, NAS­CAR chiefs re­quired them to build 500 road-go­ing ex­am­ples, but that was a small price when com­pared to the ben­e­fits it of­fered on high-banked ovals.

The Torino Tal­ladega cer­tainly im­pressed Petty. When he saw what Ford was plan­ning for ’69 com­pared to what Ply­mouth was of­fer­ing, he signed a deal to stick his num­ber 43 and trade­mark blue paint on a car pow­ered by the Blue Oval.

The Torino Tal­ladega was a huge suc­cess: Leeroy Yar­brough won the 1969 Day­tona 500 driv­ing one, while David Pear­son claimed 11 wins and the cham­pi­onship. Petty won 10 races and took sec­ond in the points.

Hav­ing lost its star driver and the ini­tia­tive in terms of car de­vel­op­ment, Chrysler was de­ter­mined to re­spond. The firm fo­cused on aero de­vel­op­ment, and specif­i­cally re­duc­ing drag. Chrysler’s tech­ni­cal boffins took the Charger 500 and gave it a sleek long nose and a mas­sive spoiler.

The re­sult­ing Dodge Charger Day­tona won its first race at Tal­ladega in 1969 – and it also caught the eye of Petty. And, per­haps if he were al­lowed to drive one, Petty would be pre­pared to leave Ford and re­turn to Chrysler for 1970. Chrysler chiefs of­fered some­thing bet­ter: in­stead of giv­ing him a Charger, they’d build him a Ply­mouth ver­sion. Petty ac­cepted.

The de­vel­op­ment of the Superbird wasn’t a sim­ple task: ef­forts to sim­ply graft the slip­pery front end of the Charger onto a Ply­mouth Belvedere sim­ply didn’t work. Parts from else­where in the Ply­mouth range were used, re­sult­ing in the Superbird’s slightly higher pointy nose. The rear wing also used larger side sta­bilis­ers, re­sult­ing in the dis­tinc­tive, dra­matic rear wing (as a side ben­e­fit, they were also tall enough and wide enough to al­low the road­go­ing Superbird’s boot to open fully).

NAS­CAR bosses didn’t make life easy for Ply­mouth, ei­ther. In a (fu­tile) at­tempt to cut down on the ‘ho­molo­ga­tion’ spe­cials, NAS­CAR upped the pro­duc­tion car re­quire­ments from 500 to one for every two deal­er­ships a man­u­fac­turer had. That meant Ply­mouth had to build around 2000 street-le­gal Su­per­birds by Jan­uary 1, 1970.

That ef­fort and ex­pense was re­warded when Petty took to the track for that year’s Day­tona 500 in a Superbird, and although he struck prob­lems dur­ing the race, Pete Hamil­ton took vic­tory in a Petty-run Superbird.

The rest of the sea­son went bet­ter. Petty claimed 18 vic­to­ries dur­ing the year, although re­li­a­bil­ity and other is­sues blunted his cham­pi­onship chal­lenge. Bobby Isaac claimed the ti­tle, largely driv­ing a Dodge Charger Day­tona.

Given the rate of de­vel­op­ment, the Petty/superbird com­bi­na­tion would likely have been even more po­tent in 1971. In­stead, the Superbird was put into moth­balls.

NAS­CAR bosses were in­creas­ingly con­cerned with rapidly ris­ing speeds and how lit­tle ‘stock’ was ac­tu­ally found in the lat­est stock cars.

So the rules were re­vamped for the ’71 sea­son, ef­fec­tively forc­ing the be­winged aero war­riors to run big­ger en­gines – and then throt­tling those en­gines with re­stric­tors. It curbed speeds, but led to many man­u­fac­tur­ers, Ply­mouth in­cluded, cut­ting back their ef­forts.

It didn’t slow Petty though. He won the 1971 Day­tona 500 in his Ply­mouth Road Run­ner, and then won 21 of 46 races to saunter to his third of seven Grand Na­tional cham­pi­onships. ■

good to watch, but know­ing what the damp­ing is like on mod­ern cars they were quite ba­sic back then. It just shows things have moved on so much.”

Un­like ear­lier rac­ers with no tur­bos, the RS500 isn’t a par­tic­u­larly easy car to put into a clas­sic drift.

“You could hold it in a nice slide, but through Vil­lage and the Loop you’d get into a slide and then when you braked for the next one, it had a big old lurch,” reck­ons Jor­dan. “The steer­ing feels quite heavy, there’s no power steer­ing, and be­cause you’re hang­ing on to it it’s quite a phys­i­cal car to drive. You’re quite busy. With his­toric cars on his­toric tyres, when it slides it’s all pro­gres­sive. This has grip but then when the boost comes in it’ll sud­denly all come, so it’s not that easy to hold in a drift.

“It stops al­right and the gear­box feels nice, but the car is very soft. There’s a lot of roll in it so the change of di­rec­tion is pretty poor. You have to drive it in a straight line; get the wheel straight as soon as pos­si­ble and drive it off.”

What’s even more re­mark­able is that, en­tirely by ac­ci­dent, Jor­dan didn’t have the boost knob turned up to its max­i­mum dur­ing his run­ning. He could have had even more power on tap.

Har­vey, who was one of the quick­est BTCC RS500 driv­ers along with Rouse, Steve Soper and Gravett ( right), agrees that the two-litre en­gine dom­i­nated the na­ture of the car, par­tic­u­larly given its rel­a­tively nar­row rear tyres and high cen­tre of gravity.

“They de­vel­oped a lot, but it was all about power re­ally,” says Har­vey af­ter Jor­dan’s out­ing. “Head gas­ket tech­nol­ogy and fuel ad­di­tives be­came much bet­ter so you could get more power with­out them blow­ing up. I’d say they went from around 470bhp to 560bhp over the three years.

“The chas­sis was never per­fect. They got bet­ter, but you were look­ing for tyre man­age­ment rather than more pace.”

One of the keys to suc­cess in pe­riod was get­ting the rub­ber to last dur­ing a BTCC race. A tyre war be­tween Dun­lop,

Rear wing gave some sta­bil­ity at speed

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