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Curator's Corner / Historic Moments

A Dozen Wild NASCAR Race Cars

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:

NASCAR Hall of Famers William H.G. France and Curtis Turner joined forces to compete in the treacherous La Carrera Panamericana road race in Mexico. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

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.

Frank “Rebel” Mundy (R) delivered Studebaker’s first NASCAR premier series race victory at Columbia, South Carolina, in a car owned by Perry Smith. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images.

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.

The one and only Jaguar to win a NASCAR premier series race was a 1954 XK-120 driven by Al Keller on a road course at Linden (New Jersey) Airport. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images.

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.

Caption: “Tiger” Tom Pistone won a NASCAR Convertible Division race at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1956. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images.

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.

Ralph Earnhardt drove this four-door Pontiac Tempest to a ninth-place finish in the 1961 Cannonball Compact Car Division race held at Daytona International Speedway. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

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.

In order to get Ford to end its racing boycott during the 1966 season, NASCAR allowed car owner Junior Johnson to compete at Atlanta International Raceway with a heavily modified Ford Galaxie driven by Fred Lorenzen. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

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.

Larry Hess of Salisbury, North Carolina, (L) attempted to race this 1966 Rambler Rebel in five NASCAR Cup races between 1966 and 1968. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images.

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.

Curtis Turner stunned the NASCAR world when he won the pole for the 1967 Daytona 500 in Smokey Yunick’s tricked-up Chevrolet Chevelle. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

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.

Donnie Allison (No. 27) and Richard Petty (2010) did battle in a pair of Ford Torino Talladega fastbacks during a 1969 NASCAR Cup Series race. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

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.

The Dodge Charger Daytona was a limited-production car built in order for it to be homologated for use in the NASCAR Cup Series. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

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.

New England racer Pete Hamilton visited Victory Lane after his win in the Alabama 500 at what is today Talladega Superspeedway. Hamilton also won the Talladega 500 later in the year. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

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).

Bobby Allison (2011) wheeled an AMC Matador owned by Roger Penske in the American 500 at Rockingham Speedway. Photo courtesy of John Lamm/The Enthusiast Network/Getty Images

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.

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Tom Jensen

Tom Jensen

Tom is the Curatorial Affairs Manager at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. For more than 25 years, he has been part of the NASCAR media industry.

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