A Dozen Wild NASCAR Race Cars
by Tom Jensen February 02, 2024
From a Nash Ambassador and a Rambler Rebel to compact competitors and winged warriors, there have been plenty of bizarre race cars over the years.
Today, the model lineup in the NASCAR Cup Series is pretty straightforward, with just three cars approved for competition in the sanctioning body’s top series: the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, the Toyota Camry and the Ford Mustang Dark Horse.
But it wasn’t always that way. Originally known as the NASCAR Strictly Stock Division, the Cup Series began competing in 1949, and there have been myriad automobile makes and models that have raced everywhere from the old dirt bullrings of the Deep South to modern superspeedways.
And while most of the NASCAR race cars over the years were high-volume models, the automakers used racing as a way to sell cars—and there have been plenty of oddities.
Here are a dozen unique cars that have competed in NASCAR events or with NASCAR drivers:
1. 1950 Nash Ambassador
The La Carrera Panamericana was a nine-stage, six-day, 2,096-mile race organized by the Mexican government to celebrate the completion of the Mexican portion of the Pan-American Highway and to attract international business. The race was long and the course was dangerous. NASCAR founder William H.G. “Big Bill” France (Class of 2010) and star driver Curtis Turner (Class of 2016) teamed up in a Nash Ambassador for the race in May 1950. A crash took them out of competition. The race was won by Hershel McGriff (Class of 2023) and his race-winning Oldsmobile, trophy and other items from the race are on exhibit at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
2. 1951 Studebaker Commander
Atlanta native Frank Mundy went by the nickname “Rebel,” so it seems fitting that he delivered Studebaker’s first of only three Cup Series victories. At Columbia Speedway on June 16, 1951, Mundy lapped the field in Perry Smith’s Studebaker to win ahead of Bill Blair’s Plymouth and the Hudson Hornet of Marshall Teague. Interestingly, there were nine different brands of cars among the 34 competitors: Studebaker, Plymouth, Hudson, Ford, Oldsmobile, Mercury, Cadillac, Henry J and Buick.
3. 1954 Jaguar XK-120
In June, 1954, NASCAR staged its first road race, inviting foreign cars to compete in a 100-mile premier series race on a 2-mile road course at Linden (New Jersey) Airport. Keller was one of two cars to finish on the lead lap, the other being Joe Eubanks in a 1951 Hudson Hornet. Keller’s car was surreptitiously owned by race promoter Ed Otto, who told competitors that it was actually owned by bandleader Paul Whiteman. Otto did this to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
4. 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air
In 1956, NASCAR launched a Convertible Division that would run through the 1959 season. The first Daytona 500 in 1959 had one of its twin qualifying races reserved for convertibles only. In the inaugural Daytona race, 20 of the 59 cars that competed were convertibles, including the 1957 Oldsmobile that Richard Petty (Class of 2010) drove. Chevrolet convertibles, like the one Tom Pistone piloted in his victory at Chicago’s Soldier Field in 1956, were very popular with drivers.
5. 1961 Pontiac Tempest
Over the years, NASCAR experimented with a number of different racing classes. Seeking to capitalize on the emergence of compact cars as the 1960s began, NASCAR created the Cannonball Compact Car Division. On Feb. 9, 1961, NASCAR staged a compact-car race on the Daytona International Speedway road course. Ralph Earnhardt drove a four-door Pontiac Tempest in the event. Seventeen drivers competed, seven of whom went on to become inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, including race-winner Lee Petty (2011), Fireball Roberts (2014), Tim Flock (2014), Curtis Turner (2016), Joe Weatherly (2015), Ned Jarrett (2011) and Cotton Owens (2013). The short-lived division featured Chevrolet Corvairs, Plymouth Valiants and even a few foreign car models.
6. 1966 Ford Galaxie
The 1966 NASCAR season began with Ford Motor Co. boycotting the sanctioning body over engine regulations. The absence of the top Ford stars hurt attendance and over the summer, team owner Junior Johnson (Class of 2010) agreed to bring his Ford Galaxie to Atlanta International Raceway in early August. But this wasn’t just any Galaxie: The front fenders sloped downward, the roofline and windshield were lowered, the side windows were narrowed and the tail was raised up. Known by competitors as “The Yellow Banana,” the car was allowed to compete despite its readily visible alterations. Driver Fred Lorenzen (Class of 2015) crashed while leading on the 139th lap. The car never raced again.
7. 1966 Rambler Rebel
North Carolina native Larry Hess wasn’t exactly a household name in NASCAR, competing in just 27 races from 1965 to 1969. Hess’ best finish was seventh in the 1965 Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway, where he took the checkered flag nine laps behind winner A.J. Foyt in a Wood Brothers Racing Ford. Hess was one of a very few drivers who tried to compete in the NASCAR Cup Series with a Rambler, but he didn’t have much success. Five races produced an average finish of 26.8 for Hess’ Rambler, with a best finish of 17th in the Sandlapper 200 at Columbia Speedway in South Carolina.
8. 1967 Chevrolet Chevelle
In 1967, Chevrolet wasn’t involved in stock-car racing at all. So when NASCAR Curtis Turner (Class of 2016) won the pole for the Daytona 500 over the heavily favored Ford and Chrysler teams, it shocked the racing community, especially since his qualifying speed broke the 180 mph barrier at Daytona International Speedway for the first time. Turner’s Chevrolet Chevelle, which was owned and built by the legendary Smokey Yunick, may have had an aerodynamic edge on the competition: The Chevelle reportedly was only about seven-eighths the size of a production car, meaning it pushed much less air than a stock Chevelle would. Although he won the pole, Turner fell out of the Daytona 500 early with engine woes.
9. 1969 Ford Torino Talladega
The 1969 season marked the beginning of the aero wars in NASCAR, where Ford and Chrysler camps both built limited-edition models with significant aerodynamic advantages over the production cars they were based on. Ford’s contribution was the Torino Talladega, which received a considerably elongated snout for better aerodynamics than the regular Torino, which had a boxy nose. Ford named its aero car the Torino Talladega to curry favor with NASCAR founder and Hall of Famer William H.G. France (Class of 2010), who in 1969 opened the track now known as Talladega Superspeedway. Ford’s Mercury division had its own aero car, called the Cyclone Spoiler.
10. 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona
The battle for race-track superiority escalated sharply in the summer of 1969 when Chrysler unleashed the ultimate aero warrior, the Dodge Daytona. With its huge rear wing, dropped nose and special front-fender vents, the Daytona was purpose-built to win at NASCAR’s fastest tracks. In a bit of irony, a Ford Torino Talladega driven by LeeRoy Yarbrough won the 1969 Daytona 500, while later that season, Richard Brickhouse piloted a Dodge Daytona to victory in the first NASCAR premier series race at what is today Talladega Superspeedway. Just 503 production examples of the Dodge Daytona were built.
11. 1970 Plymouth Superbird
For 1970, Chrysler gave its Plymouth division its own winged warrior in the form of the Plymouth Superbird, a close relative of the Dodge Daytona. Like the Daytona, the Superbird carried a tall wing out back and pointy nose up front. The driver who enjoyed the most success with the Superbird in 1970 was New England native Pete Hamilton, who drove the No. 40 Petty Enterprises Plymouth to victories in the Daytona 500 and both races at Alabama International Motor Speedway (now Talladega Superspeedway). Hamilton’s crew chief and engine builder was Maurice Petty (Class of 2014).
12. 1974 AMC Matador
Team owner Roger Penske (Class of 2019) brought American Motors into NASCAR in 1972, first with Mark Donohue and later with Bobby Allison (Class of 2011). Donohue gave Penske his first NASCAR premier series victory in 1973, but Allison won four times in Penske Matadors, including a sweep at historic Darlington Raceway in 1975.