In 1970, the NASCAR world hadn’t seen anything like them … and it never will again
It was nearly 50 years ago when NASCAR tracks across the country came under attack from a flock of sleek, winged creatures, the likes of which had only briefly been seen before on the circuit and never since.
“Look … out on the track … it’s a Dodge Charger Daytona … it’s a Plymouth SuperBird ….” Well, that’s sort of how that goes, but for the 1970 season at least, two of the most distinctive models ever manufactured for NASCAR competition truly were super.
No superspeedway was safe from the onslaught of the “winged cars” as they were known, and Talladega Superspeedway, in particular, was a place where the wings were stretched out to their fullest, so much so that one driver left his mark permanently on auto racing history on its 2.66-mile surface that year and another almost did.
In what was known as Grand National competition in 1970, drivers flying Superbirds or charging in Daytonas captured 13 poles, 12 wins and 13 runner-up finishes. And on March 24, 1970, the late Buddy Baker went where no driver had gone before when he officially cracked the 200-mph barrier in a Daytona during what was billed as a “transmission test” at the two-year-old track.
The other, the late Pete Hamilton from Newton, Mass., was so strong in his Petty Enterprises SuperBird that he nearly swept the four races at Talladega and Daytona — a feat that to this day still has not been accomplished in a single season. He won the Daytona 500, took both Talladega races, and was competitive early in the July 4th Firecracker 400 before some strange luck ended his chances of completing NASCAR’s version of a Grand Slam.
“That was a good time for me and really for all of us that drove the winged cars,” Hamilton said. “The Ford products had a little more horsepower than we did but we, no doubt, had an aerodynamic advantage.”
Man, did they ever. With a combination of a pointed nose and the vertical stabilizers and an adjustable horizontal stabilizer that constituted the wing, the cars had a futuristic look and feel that truly were ahead of their time.
“That was a pure-bred racecar,” said Maurice Petty, Richard’s brother and Hamilton’s crew chief. “They were easy to get dialed in. They got through the air good, and they handled good. You just knew when you went to the races in one of those cars you were going to be one of the ones they had to beat.”
Hamilton explained that the “secret” was in the vertical stabilizers.
“As much as the horizontal stabilizer helped, the vertical stabilizers really tightened the car up without increasing any drag,” Hamilton said. “If you look at the rear quarter panel today when they go to places like Daytona or Talladega or even Michigan, they try to have it go down to the ground as far as they can to encompass as much area as they can because it kind of ends up being a vertical stabilizer like we had.”
Having a good driver like Hamilton behind the wheel was a big help, too, Petty admitted.
“Pete was easy to work with,” Petty said. “You could talk to Pete and say, ‘let’s don’t use up the car or the tires,’ and he would do it. Then I’d get on the radio and tell him it was time to go, and he’s just put his foot in it a little further and drive a little harder in the corner. He was a super driver.”
Hamilton recorded 10 Top 5 finishes and 12 Top 10s in 1970 and won a pole at Michigan, but it was his domination at NASCAR’s marquee superspeedways that put him in company with the late Dale Earnhardt as the only drivers to win three of four at those tracks in one year. Earnhardt accomplished it in 1990 by taking both Talladega races and the July race at Daytona, and that’s mighty fine company to be in, Hamilton said.
Hamilton believed he had a car to complete the sweep on July 4th before a piece of insulation broke loose and went down the carburetor where his pit crew couldn’t see it to remove it.
“Stuff happens,” Hamilton said.
Just like after the 1970 season was complete when NASCAR outlawed the “winged” cars, and Hamilton lost his ride with Petty despite his success.
“Selfishly I would have liked to have continued racing with the Pettys and driving the SuperBird, but there’s an old racing term that says you don’t want to stink up the show,” Hamilton said. “When a guy’s way out front and he leads the whole race, he stinks up the show. Well NASCAR certainly didn’t want the winged cars to do that so I could understand it.” H&A
Cover photo: Pete Hamilton squats in front of his Plymouth SuperBird for a promotional shot for the 1970 Daytona 500, which he went on to win that year. | Courtesy ISC Archives & Research Center
As seen in the Talladega Superspeedway official souvenir program in Fall 2015. Reprinted by permission of Talladega Superspeedway.