NASCAR: The Evolution Of The Sport (1965-1969)

Bert WilberCorrespondent IJanuary 23, 2010

On Oct. 19, 1964, NASCAR issued new rules for the 1965 NASCAR Grand National campaign designed to curb speeds and increase the focus on safety.  The engine displacement remained unchanged, but special limited edition engines were banned, including the Chrysler Hemi.

Chrysler packed up and pulled out of NASCAR in protest. Richard Petty would not defend his championship, and top contenders David Pearson, Paul Goldsmith, Bobby Isaac, Jim Paschal, and LeeRoy Yarbrough were on the sidelines.  It was a season marked by protest and controversy. 

In February, Fred Lorenzen won a rain-shortened Daytona 500, finishing a lap ahead of runner-up Darel Dieringer. Fords and Mercurys took the top 13 positions as the factory Chrysler team continued its boycott.

Tragedy reared its ugly head toward the end of the month when Richard Petty lost control of his 1965 Plymouth Barracuda drag car at a dragstrip in Dallas, Ga. The car veered into a group of spectators, killing an eight-year-old boy.

Veteran Ned Jarrett prevailed in a season-long struggle with rookie driver Dick Hutcherson to capture his second NASCAR Grand National championship. Jarrett and Hutcherson traded the points lead five times ­during the season. Jarrett's quest for a second NASCAR title was in jeopardy when he injured his back in a race at Greenville, S.C., in June. With the aid of a back brace, Jarrett continued and managed to overtake Hutcherson in the 34th race of the season at Bristol. Jarrett won 13 races during the season, while Hutcherson set an all-time record for a freshman by winning nine events. Hutcherson led the standings after 13 races, another rookie record.

The 1966 NASCAR season was marked by the re-introduction of Chrysler's legendary Hemi engine and Ford's departure from the sport. With less competition and more power than ever, Chrysler was a frequent visitor to the winner's circle early in the season, though Ford's boycott took a big bite out of attendance. By the end of the season, Ford had realized that without NASCAR performances, sales were suffering, and so Ford returned to the speedways in force.

Fan attendance got to be such an issue that only 7,000 spectators showed up, plus 5,000 Boy Scouts, who were admitted free, to see Richard Petty dominate the Rebel 400 at Darlington, finishing three laps ahead of runner-up Paul Goldsmith.

April 1966, also saw a Junior Johnson-built No. 26 Ford, driven by Fred Lorenzen in Atlanta's Dixie 400, introduced as one of the most radical cars to ever compete in NASCAR Grand National competition. The front end of the car sloped downward, the roofline was lowered, the side windows were narrowed, the front windshield was sloped in an aerodynamic position, and the tail was kicked up. Several of rival drivers called the car "The Yellow Banana," "Junior's Joke," and "The Magnafluxed Monster."

Controversy brewed again in August when Richard Petty edged Buddy Baker to win the Dixie 400 at Atlanta International Raceway. Points leader David Pearson's Dodge was ruled illegal and didn't start the race, while the Junior Johnson Ford driven by Fred Lorenzen was permitted to compete despite unapproved aerodynamic enhancements. NASCAR president Bill France admitted that "the rules were bent at Atlanta," but adds he was also hoping the lax rules would lure Ford drivers back into NASCAR racing.

By 1967, the car makers were back in the NASCAR Grand National chase in full force. At Daytona, more than 80 cars filed into the big speedway, and all factory teams were on hand with the exception of General Motors. A record crowd of 94,250 paid to attend the Daytona 500, which was won in 1967 by Mario Andretti. The excitement at Daytona set the tone for the rest of the thrilling season.

Curtis Turner started the 1967 season with a bang, as he became the first driver to surpass 180 mph on an official qualifying run in Daytona 500 time trials. Turner's No. 13 Smokey Yunick Chevelle was clocked at 180.831 mph, earning the pole position. It was a controversial achievement for two reasons. First, it meant an unsponsored GM car had beaten the Ford and Chrysler factory entries. Second, the car was roughly 7/8 scale. An engine failure in the final 100 miles would ultimately put Turner out of the Daytona 500. USAC star Mario Andretti would lead the final 33 laps and win his first Grand National race, the Daytona 500.

The 1968 NASCAR Grand National season would pit the sleek Ford Torino and Mercury Cyclone models against the brute horsepower of Chrysler's Hemi. General Motors was still on the sidelines, staying out of racing because it feared violating federal safety standards.

The Fords and Cale Yarborough's lone Mercury were the top dogs on the superspeedways, while Richard Petty's Ford racked up wins on the short tracks. Ford scored in nine of the 12 major races on big tracks. The excitement of the season gave NASCAR a needed boost in popularity among fans as well.

Bobby Allison won the 1968 NASCAR Grand National season opener at Middle Georgia Race­way in Macon. As an added bonus to highlight the start to the season, an elaborate moonshine operation was discovered beneath the track. Peach County Sheriff Reggie Mullis called it, "one of the most well-built moonshine stills ever operated."

Cale Yarborough swept both races at Daytona International Speedway in 1968, winning the Daytona 500 in the final laps and romping to an easy win in the Firecracker 400. While the Wood Brothers Mercury team had full Ford factory backing, 60 Minute Cleaners provided additional sponsorship for three years.

As the end of the 1968 season neared, Richard Petty finished seven laps ahead of the field in the 150-miler at Orange Speedway in Hillsborough, N.C. It was the last NASCAR Grand National race ever staged at the venerable 0.9-mile dirt oval. Petty also announced he would leave Plymouth to drive Fords in the 1969 season. All of Petty's 92 wins had come in Plymouths, until then.

At the beginning of the 1969 NASCAR Grand National season, Ford and Mercury were virtually unbeatable. On the big tracks hosting races of 300 miles or more, Ford tied together a 13-race winning streak. Fords took the top five spots at Atlanta, the top four at Michigan, and finished first and second in eight of the 13 victories. All of that changed in September with the introduction of the Dodge Charger Daytona at the Talladega 500.

Meanwhile, behind-the-scenes frustrations built among the drivers, who held a secret meeting in Ann Arbor in August and formed the Professional Drivers Association. The rough track at Talladega proved to be a catalyst: drivers wanted to postpone the race to wait for safer tires to be developed that could handle the surface, but officials refused. Most of the drivers loaded up their cars and went home. The first official drivers’ boycott in NASCAR history had become a reality.

In the final months of the 1969 campaign, the PDA drivers returned to the speedway, albeit with considerable tension, to cap off another season of thrills and controversy. The annual 500-lapper at Martinsville Speedway was run two weeks after the Talladega boycott, and many of the spectators were angered with PDA president Richard Petty for calling the strike. Late in the race, a fan hurled a beer can that struck Petty's windshield. Despite the close call, Petty outran Pearson down the stretch and won the race.

In another example of fan frustration, Richard Petty was denied a possible win due to fan intervention. Petty was seemingly on his way to victory until a late-race caution was thrown to remove a beer bottle that had been thrown from the grandstands. Petty's big lead was erased and David Pearson came on in the final lap to steal the win.

Despite tensions between drivers and fans, manufacturers continued to try pulling out all the stops in their quest to stifle the competition. Ford Motor Co. introduced sloped nose extensions on their Ford Torinos and Mercury Cyclones in 1969 in an effort to lengthen their advantage over Chrysler products. The extensions provided a definite advantage over the conventional Dodge Chargers, particularly on the high-speed ovals. The new Ford was coined the Torino Talladega while the Mercury special edition was the Cyclone Spoiler. Fords didn't lose on a superspeedway until September.

NASCAR signaled a milestone in popularity at the end of the 1969 season, signing a contract with ABC Television, which would televise nine NASCAR Grand National races, including five live broadcasts during the 1970 season. NASCAR was on a roll.

* Many thanks to wikipedia, about.com, and NASCAR.com for some of the data for this article .