NASCAR’s Age of Aero Wars
by Tom Jensen August 26, 2022
Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. engaged in an unprecedented battle of aerodynamics in 1969 and ’70.
With NASCAR headed back to Daytona International Speedway for the running of Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 premier series race, it’s the perfect time to look back on the infamous NASCAR aerodynamic wars of 1969-70.
The NASCAR aero wars can be summed up in just three words: “That escalated quickly.” And that’s exactly what happened. Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. spent millions of dollars each trying to outdo the other at NASCAR’s fastest tracks, most notably at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, the latter of which opened in the fall of 1969 as Alabama International Motor Speedway.
A brief timeline of the aerodynamics arms race:
In 1968, the Dodge division of Chrysler introduced its all-new second-generation Charger, a handsome and stylish two-door coupe. While the new car was a huge hit in the showrooms, it struggled at faster racetracks, where its recessed front grille and rear window created substantial aerodynamic problems.
In the fall of 1968, Dodge announced it would produce a new Charger model for the 1969 model year. Called the Charger 500, the updated model had a front grille that was flat and flush with the leading edges of the fenders, as well a re-countered rear window. Together, these modifications improved the aerodynamics of the Charger substantially.
Just days after Dodge announced Charger 500, Ford Motor Co. went to work on long-nose versions of its race cars, dubbing them the Ford Torino Talladega and Mercury Cyclone Spoiler. These new models, like the Charger 500, represented a clear improvement in aerodynamics, which translated to immediate performance. Fords started 1969 strong, winning five of the first six races in the new calendar year. Fords fared even better as the year went on, at one point winning 11 consecutive races from late June to mid-August.
The impressive aerodynamics of the Ford Torino Talladega lured NASCAR’s biggest star, Richard Petty, to drive for Ford in 1969. The news rocked the racing establishment and forced Chrysler to come up with an answer.
Although Wood Brothers Racing entered only 19 of 54 races in 1969, the team fared well with driver Cale Yarborough in the No. 21 Mercury Cyclone. Yarborough won at Atlanta and Michigan, two high-speed tracks, and posted seven top-five and eight top-10 finishes. He also won six poles on the season.
After spending the summer of 1969 being roundly and routinely trounced on the track by the Torino Talladegas of David Pearson, Richard Petty and LeeRoy Yarbrough, Dodge soon dropped the big one. Any pretense of “stock cars” went completely out the window with the introduction of the radical Charger Daytona. With its huge, 23-inch tall-rear airfoil and deeply slanted nose, it was obvious that the Charger Daytona existed only to win races at fast NASCAR tracks.
The competition debut for the Dodge Charger Daytona came at Alabama International Motor Speedway (now Talladega Superspeedway) on September 14, 1969. The inaugural Talladega 500 was boycotted by most of the top drivers over safety concerns. The first premier series race at the mammoth 2.66-mile Alabama track was won by Richard Brickhouse, who substituted for Charlie Glotzbach in the No. 99 Dodge owned by Indiana mechanical mastermind Ray Nichels. Dodges swept the top four spots in the race.
After the introduction of the Dodge Charger Daytona at Talladega in mid-September, Dodge drivers ended the 54-race 1969 premier series regular season by winning seven of the final 11 races, but it was too little too late. Fords won 26 races and the Manufacturers’ Championship. Ford Motor Co. division Mercury added four more victories. Dodge drivers won 22 races, while its fellow Chrysler Corp. brand Plymouth won only twice.
By the time the 1970 season rolled around, NASCAR’s aero wars escalated to unheard of levels. Emboldened by the results posted by Dodge Charger Daytona drivers in late 1969, Plymouth introduced its own winged warrior, the Plymouth Superbird. The introduction of the Superbird was enough to woo Petty Enterprises back to Plymouth after a year with Ford. Richard Petty ran the full 48-race premier series schedule, while New England racer Pete Hamilton ran 16 races in a second Petty Enterprises Plymouth.
Armed with a fleet of Dodge Charger Daytonas and Plymouth Superbirds, Chrysler Corp. fielded 23 of the 40 cars that competed in the 1970 Daytona 500, capturing six of the eight top finishers. Although lead Petty Enterprises driver Richard Petty retired early in the race with a rare engine failure, his teammate Pete Hamilton scored his first premier series victory, winning NASCAR’s biggest race.
The 1970 NASCAR premier series season proved to be a banner year for Chrysler Corp.’s Dodge and Plymouth divisions. Bobby Isaac, who drove a Dodge Charger Daytona on the higher speed NASCAR tracks, captured his only series championship. Plymouth’s superstar Richard Petty led all competitors with 18 race victories, while his teammate Peter Hamilton won the Daytona 500 and both Talladega races in his Superbird. From July 7 through October 4, 1970, Dodge and Plymouth drivers won a mind-boggling 19 consecutive races, with Dodge winning its first of only two Manufacturers’ Championships.
While the aero wars of 1969 and ’70 were entertaining, they didn’t represent the direction that NASCAR Chairman William H.G. France (2010) wanted the sport to go. So for 1971, NASCAR rewrote its rulebook, essentially legislating the Dodge Charger Daytona, Ford Torino Talladega, Mercury Cyclone Spoiler and Plymouth Superbird out of existence, or at least out of being competitive. After the rule changes, the wings and the slant noses were gone, and the race cars went back to looking more like what people drove on the street.
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