Lapping the Field at Daytona
by Tom Jensen November 20, 2020
With Waddell Wilson horsepower under their hoods, Holman-Moody teammates Mario Andretti and Fred Lorenzen stomped the field in the 1967 Daytona 500.
In a sport filled with larger-than-life heroes, the soft-spoken Hall of Famer Waddell Wilson (2020) quietly delivered powerhouse engines that thundered loudly everywhere NASCAR raced.
And nowhere was that noise more joyous than at Daytona International Speedway, where Wilson built the engines in seven Daytona 500-winning cars between 1965 and 1984. One of the biggest shockers came in 1967, when a then-relatively unknown open-wheel driver named Mario Andretti was assigned to drive the No. 11 Holman-Moody Racing Ford, where he would be a teammate to 1965 Daytona 500 winner and Hall of Famer Fred Lorenzen (2015).
There wasn’t much doubt that Ford expected and wanted Lorenzen to win the 500 for a second time. After all, Lorenzen, nicknamed “The Golden Boy,” was the face of Ford’s NASCAR program, while Andretti was an interloper from the United States Auto Club (USAC) circuit and not a full-time stock-car racer.
Early on in practice, Andretti noticed something wasn’t right with his car. His Ford was noticeably slower than Lorenzen’s was. Understandably piqued, Andretti went to team co-owner John Holman and asked for a new powerplant, one capable of keeping pace with Lorenzen’s lightning-fast No. 28 Ford.
“His (Andretti’s) car wasn’t running that good, so he was complaining about his engine to Holman,” said Wilson. “So finally, I had to end up building the engines for Lorenzen and Mario. Drove the tractor-trailer down to Daytona that night, got everything loaded. We were going back and forth from Daytona to Holman-Moody’s shop during the week. Drove all night, got there the next morning, and I went to Lorenzen, told him his engine number and told Mario his engine number.”
In those days, Holman-Moody was the factory Ford team and each of their engines had an identifying number, so the team knew which car was running a given engine and who had built it. When Andretti went to get his Wilson-built 427-cubic-inch Ford engine, one of the Holman-Moody crewmen tried to steer him to another engine instead.
“When I told him (Andretti) his engine number, he went to get his engine and the guy who was giving them out said, ‘Naw, you don’t want that engine. Take this engine,’” Wilson said. “He said, “I want this engine. This is the engine that I’m supposed to get. This is the engine I’m going to get.’ And he got it, thank goodness. So anyway, he told me they put the engine in, he hit the race track and he said he knew he had ‘em covered then. That engine picked up 400 rpm. He said that was unbelievable.”
“Here’s the problem – I did not have a very good engine in practice and qualifying and I did not get the stuff until I started squeaking,” Andretti said in a 2015 interview with IndyCar.com. “Because of that I qualified with a really low rear spoiler and you had to race with what you qualified with. Because of that when it came to the race setup I didn’t have a lot of downforce.”
The small rear spoiler meant little downforce in back, which in turn made the back of the car want to step out towards the wall, a condition drivers refer to as “loose” or “oversteer.” In NASCAR, a loose race car is usually a fast race car, albeit one that can be very difficult to control. But Andretti’s phenomenal car control allowed him to lead 112 of 200 laps during the race. He might have led even more, except his car had a makeshift pit crew, while Lorenzen’s had the best and brightest Holman-Moody crewmembers servicing his car.
He had a top-notch pit crew. He’d beat us out of the pits bad and we’d run him back down and pass ‘em. Those two raced each other all day.
— Waddell Wilson
“During the race, he’d (Andretti) get behind because he didn’t have a pit crew like Lorenzen had,” said Wilson. He (Lorenzen) had a top-notch pit crew. He’d beat us out of the pits bad and we’d run him back down and pass ‘em. Those two raced each other all day.”
On the final pit stop, the Holman-Moody team actually held Andretti in the pits to let Lorenzen build a big lead. “Politically I could understand it because I was part time and Lorenzen was their boy,” Andretti told IndyCar.com. “If there was a choice between he or me winning it was better for them to have Lorenzen win and that ticked me off, actually. I came in in the lead and he was second and they let him out and held me back for nine seconds in the pits before they released me.”
Lorenzen took the lead on Lap 164, but it took Andretti just four laps to get back up front. Andretti passed Lorenzen on Lap 168 of the 200-lap race and held on from there, pacing the final 33 circuits in earning his biggest race victory of his career up until that point.
For Wilson, the finish was special because he built both the race-winning engine in Andretti’s car and the one in Lorenzen’s second-place car. Naturally, that was a big deal. But what was even more impressive is the fact that Andretti and Lorenzen lapped the entire field in their Fords, the only two cars to complete the 200-lap distance at Daytona International Speedway.
“The two of them lapped the field and ended up doing 200 laps while the rest of the field ran 199,” said Wilson. Actually only third-place finisher James Hylton completed 199 laps; the seventh-place finisher was five laps in arrears of Andretti and Lorenzen, while the 11th-place runner was 12 laps back, a testament to the speed of the Holman-Moody Fords.
The post-race reaction was joyous for Andretti, not so much for Lorenzen’s crew. “After the race Lorenzen’s boys said, ‘Well, you give him a better engine than you give us.’ It was always a no-win situation,” Wilson said with a soft chuckle. “That was the deal back then.”
Waddell Wilson’s legendary career is celebrated in the Hall of Honor in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, where his artifacts and one of his seven Daytona 500-winning cars are on display.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame is open Wednesday through Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. To purchase tickets, go to nascarhall.com/tickets.