1965 — THE YEAR RICHARD PETTY “THE KING” OF NASCAR TURNED DRAG RACER

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In 1964, Mopar unleashed their 426 Hemi-powered fleet at the Daytona 500 and swept Ford clean off the track– taking 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place. Richard Petty (NASCAR 1959 Rookie of the Year, which was amazingly the same year that his father Lee won the Daytona 500) led for an impressive 184 laps, and handily took the win.

That year an outmatched Chevy did not even compete in NASCAR. Ford attempted to debut their new SOHC 427 just days before Daytona– but not only had they failed to list the engine with NASCAR 45 days prior as required, this was not a stock engine at all. Ford was flatly denienied, but even worse than that– Mopar somehow got drug into the high-performance engine debate (many say Ford was muddying the waters for Mopar behind the scenes) that spiraled into the 426 Hemi (reportedly capable of producing 600 HP in NASCAR trim…), which truly was a stock car engine sold to the public, being banned from future NASCAR races.

This easily could have spelled the end of Mopar’s 426 Hemi– arguably the most legendary and iconic American muscle car engine ever. But what Mopar did next was surprising– they decided to turn the tables and boycott NASCAR. This was potentially a major setback for Richard Petty’s racing career, as he was on pace to win the championship that year.

As fate would have it, drag racing was becoming a huge draw– as fans gathered in fevered hordes to see the new wave of super-powered big-block Motor City madness go head-to-head on the drag strips. Plymouth and the Petty crew announced their abrupt move to drag racing– although Petty had no real serious drag racing experience. It would be an exciting, and short-lived venture that would produce a couple of badass Hemi-powered Barracuda dragsters. Unfortunately it was also a period marred by a tragedy that would affect Richard Petty forever.

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August 16th, 1964, Huntington, West Virginia — Original caption: Richard Petty of Randleman, North Carolina flashes a winner’s smile after winning Mountaineer “500″ late model stock car race near here 8/16.  Helping him hold the winner’s trophy is pretty June Patton, “Miss Huntington” and “Miss Mountaineer 500.” — Image by © Bettmann/Corbis

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February 28th, 1965, Dallas, GA — Original caption: Richard Petty’s supercharged dragster flashes down the strip here in this picture made just an instant before the vehicle veered off the track and into the crowd.  Petty’s car plunged into the spectators just left of the pole at right.  An eight-year-old boy was killed and at least eight other spectators were injured. “Outlawed” on the side of the car refers to the fact that the vehicle, a (Hemi-powered) Plymouth, was recently banned from NASCAR stock car racing. Petty, one of the top NASCAR drivers last year, normally doesn’t drive drag races. — Image by © Bettmann/Corbis

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February 28th, 1965, Dallas, GA — Original caption: Volunteers load one of the injured into an ambulance after stock car driver Richard Petty’s car roared off a drag strip here and plunged into a crowd of spectators.  One youth (an 8 yr old boy) was killed and at least eight others injured in the mishap. — Image by © Bettmann/Corbis. Petty suffered minor injuries in the wreck, but was permanently scarred emotionally and has never publicly discussed it. The dragster was promptly hauled behind the Petty’s shop where it was buried– he never wanted to set eyes on that cursed ‘Cuda again. Reports say that Richard Petty walked away from the wreck cussing the car that he now hated– saying over and over, “I’ll never drag race again”. Many cash offers were made for the twisted wreckage– but Petty flatly refused. True to his word– he was determined that no one would ever see it, let alone have it, again.

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Richard Petty in his Hemi-powered Plymouth Barracuda 43/JR. drag racer that replaced the original “Outlawed” ‘Cuda dragster wrecked in the tragic crash. Due to Bill France’s decision to allow Hemi’s to race in NASCAR again, the “Outlawed” badge was retired. 

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Richard Petty’s Hemi-powered Plymouth Barracuda dragster. Street production ‘Cudas would not see a Hemi engine until 1967, when along with the Hemi, the 383 and 440 V-8 engines were options. The new 2nd generation Barracudas were now bigger by 2″ in width and length to house the new torque-twisting power-plants.

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Richard Petty pictured here with his 2nd Plymouth Barracuda (43/JR.) drag racer. The original had sported a bumper sticker that thumbed its nose at the NASCAR ban of Mopar’s Hemi engine– “NASCAR, If you can’t outrun ’em, outlaw ’em.” “Outlawed” was also defiantly painted on the original ‘Cuda’s doors to further make the point. Here you can see that the ‘Cuda’s headlight openings are covered in aluminum and the front bumper has been removed for better performance. 

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Check: The History of Petty Racing & The History of Richard Petty’s Drag Barracuda & Petty’s 1964 / 1965 Barracda

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7 thoughts on “1965 — THE YEAR RICHARD PETTY “THE KING” OF NASCAR TURNED DRAG RACER

  1. I’ve read several tidbits on this car and the tragic crash. Okay, I don’t get it. Petty was so upset by the death of an 8 year old boy and the other injured spectators, that he buried the car forever, saying “I’ll never drag race again”…then goes and builds a second car virtually identical to the first? Not sure why he would do that. Not much spectator protection back then either. Dangerous, but exciting times. Thanks for posting this. -Neil RL7K

  2. V-8′s dont come any more legendary than the 426 hemi-the die hards i chew the fat with at the salt flats cite the ford flatties, which were the previous king, no doubt, but two words seal the 426 as the all time champ- KIETH BLACK.

    great article and a few pics i have not seen before- as ever, vital reading for devout motorheads the world over.

  3. Great job on this one. As a 10 year-old in Southern California, I went with my Dad to many, many races at Riverside Raceway and the Drags at Lions in Long Beach. I never saw the drag ‘Cuda run as I remember but the ‘Hemi-Cuda met a similar fate, ending up on its roof.
    Evil handlers those short-wheelbase early ‘Cudas. Nascar races on a twisty road track like Riverside were quite a sight. Mid-size bodies like the Plymouth Belvedere, Dodge Coronets and Ford Fairlanes of the era were used instead of the full-size Galaxies or later Chargers on the oval tracks. Lots of corner cutting through the dirt, door bashing, pushing and illegal aerodynamic ‘massaging’ in those days. Pretty exciting seeing NASCARS 2 abreast through the turns for an 8 year-old. Great post ! Thanks, Federico

  4. Thanks for posting this, always thought the development of this car was a snapshot of how fast things were changing in both NASCAR and NHRA. The first altered ‘Cuda of note… there’s a good thread on the HAMB about the car for those that would like to see more, including a great photo of the car, crew and matching hauler.

  5. Great post but one correction: Dallas, GA instead of TX. I know a girl that was there as a child with her family that day and she remembers the incident quite well to this day.

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