Times were tough in 1968 for Chrysler’s NASCAR effort. Despite a stable of top-tier wheel men like Buddy Baker and Charlie Glotzbach driving for Dodge and “The King” Richard Petty for Plymouth, the Blue Oval boys were still bringing home the checkered flags. Redesigned exclusively for NASCAR service, the long, slippery ’68 Charger couldn’t chase down the Ford Torinos and Mercury Montegos. During the ’68 Daytona 500, Baker reported that the Charger behaved “a little funny” as he approached 100 miles an hour and became nearly unmanageable at 180mph. Baker explained that he could turn the steering wheel to no response; the big Charger would just keep “charging” right ahead. Finally letting off the throttle, Baker let it drift. Even unpowered, the Charger pulled and swerved, sending Baker in one instance up into the retaining wall, taking off the edge of the bumper.
Needless to say, the Charger was in need of a lot of work. Although stylish, the recessed grille acted as a giant air dam, causing the nose to lift, creating more than 1,250 pounds of lift! The recessed back window, too, was equally as dangerous. Air rushing over the roof was suddenly pulled downward causing nearly 800 pounds of lift on the rear. At speed, the ’68 Charger would lift itself enough to disengage front wheel traction and barely keep contact with the asphalt.
Dodge, desperate to save their Charger from utter humiliation, scrambled their resources together to create – within an impressive 100 days – the new Charger 500. Pirating the grille from a Dodge Coronet, setting it flush to the fender line, and inserting a fastback rear window plug, the recess rear vacuum was eliminated.
While the revised Charger 500s were significantly faster, reaching high 180 mph speeds, Cale Yarborough and newly defected and disgruntled Richard Petty staved off the pursuing Chargers, earning Ford yet another win. The suits at Dodge were livid. Hundreds of thousands of dollars had been spent to ensure wins for the Pentastar brands and so far, luck was running out. Frustrated, a mandate was issued that a new Charger was to be race ready by September 1969.
The task fell upon lead engineer Larry Rathgeb to design, test, and prove a 190-plus-mph Charger for first qualifying for the first Talladega race that September. Sketches of a winged Charger sporting a foot-and-a-half-long nose were sent to Bob McCurry, the Vice-President and General Manager of the Dodge Division. After stating that it was the ugliest car he had ever seen, he asked, “Can you build it quickly?”*followed by, “Will it win races?” Getting the answer he wanted, he said, “Go ahead an’ build it then,” McCurry replied. “If anyone gets in your way on this, just let me know. I will keep the way clear for you on this.” And with that, the Charger Daytona was cleared for takeoff.
What would become the first Dodge Charger Daytona started from the lowliest of circumstances. Months earlier, Chrysler had sent a ’69 HEMI Charger to California for media testing. Within weeks, it was stolen. Months later, the Los Angeles police found the stripped down body in Watts sitting on cement blocks. The police hauled it to the impound lot and notified Chrysler. Content to sit on it, Chrysler waited until a racer had taken a car out to the first NASCAR event of the season at Riverside to sell. With his trailer empty for the return trip, he was asked tow the Charger back to Michigan.
Rathgeb snatched up the bare Charger for trial fitting and modification. Working with Chrysler’s engineering department and the Ray Nichels racing team, the engineering mule was painted in a variant of Petty-blue and given the number 88. While not completely speed tested and cobbled together with unfinished parts, the #88 came together two days before the April 15 qualifying deadline, April 13th, at the newly-completed Talladega Raceway. With a fiberglass nose and winged spoiler, the Daytona was sight to behold.
By the middle of June 1969, the #88 was ready for testing. Because the previous nose and wing were experimental, the top speed testing had been kept minimal to avoid destroying the fragile fiberglass. Now, the mule with a steel nose and 23-inch-tall tail was ready to go. Three different groups came together to make it work. One was at the Chelsea proving grounds with NASCAR drivers Buddy Baker and Charlie Glotzbach. The second group was hard at work in the wind tunnel while the third group was engaged in setting up production with Creative Industries, which would be retrofitting Chargers into Daytonas for Dodge.
On the same day that Apolo 11 landed on the Moon, July 20, 1969, the Daytona mule took to the 6-lane wide, 5-mile long Chelsea Proving Grounds. The Daytona topped out at 194 miles an hour, only five mph over the Charger 500. Puzzled, Glotzbach and Baker raised questions. Without answering, the test manager pointed towards the sky at more than a dozen small airplanes flying around directly overhead. The manager stated simply, “Ford.” The mule’s slow speed was an intentional move by Chrysler’s engineers.
Within a couple of days, with no planes in sight and the engine manifold and carburetor changed to the racing spec set by NASCAR, Glotzbach had crept up to 204 miles an hour. As the September deadline grew closer, the testing speeds kept going up. Buddy Baker, though, barely survived the testing. Coming out of turn two, a large white-tailed buck deer walked into the middle of the back straight. Baker, with barely time to react, yanked the wheel and barely blew past the deer at 235 mph!
It was “Chargin’” Charlie Glotzbach who recorded the highest trap speed during those legendary days, reaching a staggering 243 miles an hour with a NASCAR-spec HEMI V8. The radical top speed was kept within the highest secrecy, no one outside the Chrysler Corporation engineering staff or upper management had any idea just how fast the #88 Daytona was, nearly 45-to-50mph faster than anything Ford had to offer. With the tests concluded, the team packed up and headed to the brand new 2.6 mile super speedway at Talladega.
Ready to present the newly minted Daytona on September 9th, 1969 before NASCAR president “Big” Bill France and the media. Rathgeb also had his boss, Ronnie Householder, head of all Chrysler Racing, who instructed Rathgeb, in no uncertain terms, that the car was not to go over 185mph in any qualification attempt. Fearing his career to be on the line, Rathgeb pleaded with Glotzbach to keep it under 185. Glotzbach agreed and then proceeded to open up the Daytona. After a warm up lap, he blew past the timing tower at 199 miles an hour followed by a high-banked pass at a 199.987mph. To the day, no stock car had come that close to 200mph.
As Glotzbach rolled back into the pits, Rathgeb silently covered up the car and feared the worst. Householder called screaming. In the face of losing his job, Larry Rathgeb knew they had just reinvented stock car racing, and nothing Householder could say would change that. The blue #88 Daytona went on to easily qualify with a first timed lap of 199mph followed by a 199.466, earning pole position. Meanwhile, Frank Wylie, the head of Dodge’s Public Relations Department knew that Rathgeb had discovered pure marketing gold.
Thinking the 199 mile an hour run a great public relations feat, Wylie tracked down Rathgeb, asking if the Daytona could break 200mph at Talladega. Without any hesitation, Rathgeb recommended Buddy Baker, who by this time had enjoyed a very successful season in his K&K Insurance #71 Daytona and a contracted Chrysler racer. A few calls were made and on March 24th of 1970, a small caravan arrived at the Talladega race track in Alabama the engineering mule, #88 in tow. “Big” Bill France was there, bringing the Chief Inspector who carefully examined #88. The timing equipment was mounted, checked, and tested.
On the fifth lap, Baker stood on it, bringing it up to 191.985mph. The eighth lap clocked in at 194.200. On the twelfth lap, Baker hit 197.839 mph. Nearing the goal, a speed of 198.050 miles an hour was reached. Coming in for adjustments, the crew went to work. At 3:30pm, Baker returned to the track. At 4:25pm, during lap 29, Baker reached 199.879 miles an hour, beating Glotzbach’s record at Talladega. Still in it, Baker’s 30th lap was his hottest yet, hitting 200.096mph. Amazingly, laps 33, 34, and 35, ran consecutively at 200 miles an hour. Lap 34 came in as his best, 200.448 miles per hour, creating not only a new track record but a world record in the process.