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NASCAR's Detroit Muscle


With NASCAR heading to its spiritual homeland just an hour outside of the Motor City, this weekend's race at Michigan International Speedway also coincides with the annual Woodward Dream Cruise. What better way to honor the iron that made the biggest impact on the sport than with this week’s nod to the race cars and their street counterparts which allowed them to be used in competition.

NASCAR's Detroit Muscle

With NASCAR heading to its spiritual homeland just an hour outside of the Motor City, this weekend's race at Michigan International Speedway also coincides with the annual Woodward Dream Cruise. What better way to honor the iron that made the biggest impact on the sport than with this week’s nod to the race cars and their street counterparts which allowed them to be used in competition.

1955 Chrysler 300

Although the “Muscle Car Era” is typically defined as 1962-72, many point to 1955 and the 300 horsepower Chrysler 300 as a highlight. Nothing cranked out that much power back then, which propelled it to victory in 26 of 45 NASCAR races. Tim Flock would emerge the series champion that year, winning 18 races — three times as many as Lee Petty. He bested Buck Baker by over 1,500 points in the NASCAR Grand National standings despite having started 39 races to Baker’s and Petty’s 42 starts.

1964 Plymouth Belvedere/Fury

With castings still warm after preseason testing revealed a weak spot in the cylinder walls, the maiden NASCAR voyage of the 426 Hemi saw it 10 mph faster than the next fastest engine in qualifying. Can you imagine the outrage today if the No. 48 car was 10 mph faster than another make in qualifying? Richard Petty led a 1-2-3 finish in Daytona for Hemi-powered Plymouths and Dodges — lapping the field in the process and up two and three laps, respectively, on the next non-Hemi cars. The hood read “405 horsepower,” which was accurate if you were measuring horsepower at 3,000 RPM. But the party would be over at season’s end as NASCAR mandated that, to be used in competition, 500 examples must be made available to the public as a regular production option.

1985 Ford Thunderbird

One of racing’s most iconic images of the “Member’s Only Era” is the No. 9 Coors Thunderbird of Bill Elliott and Melling Racing. How badass was it? It won the Daytona 500, made up two laps under green to win at Talladega (thereby passing the field three times) and won the Winston Million for taking three of the four “Crown jewel” events. Elliott won 11 of 28 races in ’85 — all coming on superspeedways. The only downfall for Awesome Bill were the short tracks — in an era when there were substantially more of them — allowing Darrell Waltrip’s Chevy to win the championship. The T-bird street version could be had with a 5.0L V8 or a 2.3L Turbo, which was easy to make go fast with the boost bumped up.

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1990 Chevrolet Lumina

The Light? Aluminum? What the hell does “Lumina” even mean? How far ahead of its time was the Chevrolet Lumina? It was racing a year before you could even buy one! Much like with the current Chevrolet SS, the race car was on the track before the public could wheel one in the city. Dale Earnhardt narrowly missed out on winning the 1989 Cup championship by 12 points (three positions), but went on to win titles in 1990, ‘91, ‘93 and ‘94 with the Lumina. The model also won four Daytona 500’s from 1990-94. Whatever the heck Lumina means, it spelled R-O-L-A-I-D-S for the Ford camp.

1967 Plymouth Belvedere GTX

With NASCAR’s homologation rules firmly in place, Chrysler was pumping out 426 Hemis just about as fast as Richard Petty was reeling off wins. How dominant was Petty in 1967? In the season that would earn him the nickname “King Richard,” he won 27 races — 10 consecutive — cruising to his second of seven championships. The car was prominently featured in Plymouth ads showing it being towed behind the team’s transport truck (not an enclosed trailer, as today) with the tagline “The only chance you’ll get to pass Petty’s Plymouth!” Fun Fact: Plymouth actually hung the nickname “The Boss” on the GTX two years before Ford branded their Mustang with it.

1998 Ford Taurus

After fighting an uphill battle against the 1995 Monte Carlo, Ford was ready to blow some minds in ’98. With the T-Bird going the way of the Dodo, it was clear that downforce would be the name of the game this time around. Engineered from the get-go with aero in mind, the ovoid-shaped, power-dome hood, arched fenders and rear haunches, it was a terror on NASCAR’s intermediate tracks. After Dale Earnhardt won his long-awaited Daytona 500, the blue oval went on a tear, winning 15 of remaining 32 races with six different drivers. However, much to Ford’s chagrin (again), Jeff Gordon went on to win 13 races alone — and the series title — in a four-year-old designed Monte Carlo. That said, Gordon’s Chevrolet was the only one to win on an intermediate track in 1998 (a win by Mark Martin at Michigan interrupted what would have been a seven-race win streak by Gordon). The street model Taurus was a front-drive sedan with a Yamaha-built V8 in the SHO model, smacking in the face all that had been holy in NASCAR, paving the way for the four doors and foreign makes that would soon follow.

1969 Ford Torino Talladega

Well, if Dodge was going to call its car “Daytona,” then Ford was going to have to pick the next major track for its namesake. In 1969, the “Torino” won 25 races — 11 at tracks one-mile or larger. Ford welcomed Petty Enterprises back to the fray that year after Plymouth told Richard that he didn’t drive a Dodge, and Plymouth had nothing competitive. In response, Petty told Plymouth to pound sand and the Blue Oval dominated the summer of Woodstock. LeeRoy Yarbrough’s No. 98 Junior Johnson-prepared Torino made up 11 seconds in the final 10 laps in the Daytona 500, catching Charlie Glotzbach’s Dodge Charger for the win. The Torino had the big BOSS 429 between the frame rails, however the consumer could not buy a it with a BOSS ‘9; the only way to get one in 1969 and ’70 was in a BOSS 429 Mustang, which are now worth around half a million dollars.

1970 Plymouth Superbird

When was the last time a professional race-car driver was deemed so important to a company’s endeavors that it commissioned a car be built to get him back with the organization? Such was the move made by Plymouth with the 1970 Superbird — ostensibly a Road Runner with a nose and rear wing slapped on for good measure. A bit hastily constructed, all of the street models wore vinyl tops to help mask the surgery. While it was built to lure Richard Petty back into the fold, it won the Daytona 500 with another Petty Enterprises driver — Pete Hamilton — at the wheel.

1986 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS Aero Coupe

After Awesome Bill and his Ernie Elliott-powered Thunderbirds made a mockery of tracks a mile and larger a year earlier, the General dictated that the count of Monte Carlos would not suffer another ignominious defeat. As already stated, NASCAR rules mandated that 500 street copies had to be constructed with the fastback rear window and resulting mail-slot trunk opening. How successful were they? Instead of being pinned at the nose as they were the year before, the Aero Coupe SS won the Daytona 500 with Geoff Bodine, 18 of 29 races (including the final five) in an era where not only Fords, but Buicks, Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles were heavily competing for wins. The year was highlighted by Tim Richmond’s series-leading seven wins and capped off by Dale Earnhardt’s championship (he won the following season, in 1987, as well). The Monte Carlo SS Aero Coupe — and to a lesser extent its Pontiac Grand Prix 2+2 cousin — were the last effort of manufacturers to cobble together a street car so it could be used in competition.

1969 Dodge Charger Daytona

When recounting the greatest title runs in history it’s impossible, if not irresponsible, to recount the 1969 and 1970 seasons of Bobby Isaac and his winged-wonder K&K Insurance Daytona. The mercurial Dodge driver won 17 races in 1969 and 11 in 1970, but none on a track larger than a half-mile. The original winged warrior came out in mid-1969, after the flush-grilled Charger 500 was not enough to go toe-to-toe with the slippery Fords and Mercs. That car won in its first outing at the boycotted Talladega race. This was the era of emerging superspeedways which got all the press from the enthusiast car magazines and media of the day, and was the third salvo fired in the escalating war of not only horsepower, but downforce and drag. Buddy Baker would break the 200 mph barrier in March of 1970 with his Cotton Owens-prepared machine, while Isaac and Harry Hyde took their Chargers to the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1971, setting 28 speed records — some of which stand to this day.