1968 was a dark time for the Chrysler corporation. The B-Body cars were uncompetitive in the NASCAR Grand National series and one of Chrysler’s hottest drivers, Richard Petty, began looking at the Ford Torinos that were mopping the floor the wind-resistant Mopars week-in and week-out. Failure to communicate with Petty eventually drove him from his long-time team mates to join the Blue Oval group.
The loss of Petty gave Chrysler the wake-up call of a lifetime leading them to the eccentric design of the 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona. The car featured a 426ci HEMI engine packed into an aerodynamically improved version of the Charger. With a huge rear airfoil and a pointed nose, it comes as no surprise that they did so well aerodynamically yet so poorly on the car lots. In an effort to lure Petty back to Chrysler, the Plymouth Superbird was introduced in 1970 based upon the Road Runner, replacing the Charger-based Daytona. With the 3-foot tall wing hanging on the back of the “Winged Warriors,” the cars proved themselves dominant on the super speedways, breaking course speed records with ease. Yet, performed very poorly on the smaller circuits.
Buddy Baker was one of the first racers to introduce the Daytona and Superbird. The 1970 Southern 500 winner helped put the wheels in motion for the Winged Warriors revolution, being the one to drive the #88 Daytona to a course record of 200.4mph. “Of all the race cars I ever drove,” said Baker, “those two cars were the toughest cars I’ve ever driven. They were both handfuls. That big old rear wing on the back of those cars just put too much rear downforce on them and made them hard to handle [on the short courses].” The aerodynamics coupled with the high-revving HEMI shone on the long, high speed courses, but struggled against their best attributes on the shorter tracks.
Although the Chrysler cars were so hard to drive on smaller regional tracks, they still managed to take home 13 super speedway wins in a little over a year’s time between the Daytona and Superbird before their demise by NASACAR regulation in ’71. Due to the continuing controversy being faced, the Superbird disappeared from the NASCAR radar as quickly as it made its arrival. A rule put into effect for the 1971 season limited the ‘Bird to a 305ci engine, rendering the car useless to Grand National competitors.
It’s clear to see that as NASCAR continues to grow, the line between auto makers becomes more and more hazed. With the fan base following the behind the scenes driver drama more than the automaker war, NASCAR may never come full circle to become the basis for vehicle manufacturers’ experimental race programs which push the limits of physics, making Chrysler’s speedway Birds a cherished memory of what NASCAR was originally founded for, to push the limits of engineers, drivers, and physics.