Richard Petty, the Once and Future King, the most accomplished driver in the history of NASCAR— son of a race car driver, movie star, friends to presidents, the Other American Hero—had a hell of a year in 1971.
It was his “Million Dollar Year:” the year when he won 22 races, including the big one at Daytona (for the third time, no less), became the first driver to break one million dollars, and claimed his third Grand National championship—all behind the wheel of the last stock stock car in NASCAR history. It was the last year he drove for Chrysler, the last year of genuine production cars, the last year he could get away with his famous Petty Blue paint scheme—before the sponsors, famous though they might be, crept in: Colin Chapman might have been able to relate, in 1967, when he scratched out the national livery for Gold Leaf colors, British Racing Green replaced with the red, white, and gold of a cigarette company. But if America ever came close to a nationwide paint scheme, it may have well been Petty Blue, with the big white 43 painted on it.
Sweeping changes happen every once in a while, especially to decades-old institutions like NASCAR, cemented as they are in conservatism. But so much happened in 1971 that calling it a “time of transition” underscores the purpose. For twenty years the premiere NASCAR event had been called the Grand National Series—but before the 1971 season, the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company found itself booted off the airwaves and out of the magazines and swooped in with the only advertising chance it had: earning its stock-car credentials as the Winston Cup. It was the year the rules were rewritten, and the prize money went way up, and aero legends like the Superbird were restricted to engines ending at five liters—Bill France didn’t want to see the Big Three doing R&D on his tracks. Boom: no more Ford Talledega, no more Dodge Daytona. Teams were forced to either put restrictor plates and sleeved carburetors on their six-liter big-blocks, or downsize in displacement. NASCAR’s racers would become increasingly androgynous until the phrase “stock car” became tongue-in-cheek.
Petty, and Chrysler, were no stranger to rule changes. He had won his first Daytona 500 behind the wheel of a 1964 Plymouth Belvedere. Just 26 years old, and with the first 426 Hemi engines ever built, Petty took the lead from pole-sitter Paul Goldsmith and held it until the end—setting a new track record in the process.
That year, Petty said: “we was the quickest car all week long. That car, like the '64 car, was just a real fast car, and we just outrun everybody.”
A year later, NASCAR passed its most sweeping rule changes yet, banning trick, race-only tech from its stock cars—including overhead cams, high risers, and hemispherical heads.
And yet, when Petty won his second Daytona 500, the Chrysler Hemi was back. Its closest rival, Ford, took the year off. Faster and faster, Petty earned pole with an average speed of 175 mph, then led over 100 laps.
Petty was behind the wheel of the new-for-1971 Plymouth Road Runner, the second generation of the B-Bodies, the “fuselage” look that featured so many rounded edges wide and mean with four lidded eyes behind a hunk of chrome shaped like a telephone receiver. (Of course, on the race car, the chrome was gone, and the headlights were blanked out—and replaced, on the right side, by the numbers 4 and 3.)
It seemed new and shiny—and it was—but Chrysler was cutting back heavily that year. They were only fielding cars for two teams. One Dodge team, and one Plymouth. All to be prepared at Petty Enterprises in Level Cross, North Carolina. And from Petty’s legendary Superbird it was nothing close.But it still carried a 426 Hemi, the engine that carried Petty to two Daytona victories. So, some small consolation.
Petty started the 1971 season badly. Engine failure at Riverside. The new Plymouth was still under development, so he raced a year-old model at the Winston Western 500 and wound up finishing 20th.
Barely a month later, on Valentine's Day, was Daytona. The Road Runner was ready to go. Petty started in 5th place. His teammate Buddy Baker, new to Petty Enterprises, started 6th in an all-white Dodge Charger. A. J. Foyt, in a Mercury took pole with a hell of a qualifying speed at 182.744 mph.
And once they got underway—this wild conglomeration of fire and brimstone, these still-stock stock cars, cars these drivers were allegedly to have driven to the race, brand new and late-models, they were on the move. Foyt held his lead, while Dick Brooks and former Petty teammate Pete Hamilton battled for second. The two soon crashed. And while Brooks soldiered on to the finish, Hamilton fought valiantly to hold his car together, before ultimately succumbing to engine trouble near the end.
It was quickly Petty’s battle. Foyt was hampered by a poor pit stop, soon a lap down, and both Petty and current teammate Baker took first and second.
Petty wound up leading 69 laps. He beat Baker by ten seconds. It would be his 120th career victory, double that of the next highest-winning NASCAR driver, David Pearson. The victory pocketed him a cool $48,000—$282,000 in contemporary money—but it was only the beginning of higher and greater things.
In that Year Of Our Lord 1971, and with that Petty Blue Plymouth Road Runner, the “all-time folk hero of Southern stock car racing” (according to Chris Economaki) won 21 out of 47 races that year. He finished within the top five in 38 races. For the 1971 season, he made over $300,000. By that August, after the Dixie 500 at Atlanta International Raceway, he became the first driver to win over a million dollars in his total career, now a little over a decade old. Bask in the inflation, and embrace the mind-boggling adventure of it.
Most people don’t win 21 races in their lifetime. Most people certainly don’t win the Daytona 500 three times, much less seven. Most people don’t turn their cowboy hat into an icon, and most people don’t bring their cars to the White House to meet Richard Nixon, especially now that Nixon’s dead.
Well, you get the idea.
The glory wouldn’t last forever. At the end of the 1971 season Chrysler told Petty that they’d no longer be able to support his efforts. Petty Enterprises scrambled to find money for the 1972 season. A brush with Pepsi-Cola had dug up some cash for their two cars, but where would next year’s come from? Andy Granatelli of STP came through with a deal, and Petty was pleased—but he wanted Petty to drive a car in STP’s Fluorescent Red. Petty wasn’t willing to give up Petty Blue just yet, so Granatelli suggested both colors for the Plymouth. And thus, a new iconic livery would be associated with Petty, for the next 23 years. By 1973 puny 390-cfm carburetors were mandated for the big-blocks, by 1974 the Daytona 500 was shortened by exactly 50 miles, and by 1975 the engines were limited to 358 cubic inches—and by 1978, Petty, soldiering on with Chrysler, found the then-new Dodge Magnum that year too difficult to make competitive: “the switch to Chevrolet was the only feasible change to make under current NASCAR rules…we finally had to face the facts.”
So then, Petty represented the old school, and he wouldn’t have represented anything if he hadn’t been so good at winning.
Petty and STP, and four more Daytona victories—all through the behind the wheels of General Motors products.
But that’s another story, another day, about another car.