Friday, July 24, 2009

Built for Speed


By Eric Johnson

Last February, I alighted from a rental car in front of the massive grandstands that surround Daytona International Speedway. Affixed to these massive structures constructed of aluminum cross beams and steel girders were massive sepia-toned posters featuring great moments in NASCAR. One of them immediately caught my eye. The image was of the #40 Petty Enterprises Plymouth Superbird, driver Pete Hamilton behind the wheel, crossing the finish line in victory at Daytona in 1970.

While Daytona is now known as the stomping grounds of great drivers like Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and others, in 1970, the Superbird was the star attraction at the speedway. Reason being? It was the most outlandish, futuristic and downright frighteningly fast stock car to ever leave streaks of rubber on superspeedways such as the 2.5-mile, 31-degree banked tri-oval of Daytona and the 2.66-mile, 33 degree high banks of Talladega Superspeedway. An exercise in the fantastic, the Plymouth Superbird was brought to life for one reason and one reason only: To beat the then omnipotent Ford Torino Talladega.

Throwing caution to the wind, Plymouth gathered around its finest engineers. Armed with T-squares and new technology. The engineers were told to ignore the accountants and immediately set about creating a stock car the likes Planet Earth had ever seen. Through their research and development efforts, the Superbird was designed aerodynamically by using a wind tunnel and computer analysis. Pure Detroit muscle, the Superbird’s body was silky smooth and seamless and graced with a shark-like front nose and a 23-inch high tail wing.

And with a 426-cubic inch big block dropped in the car, the Superbird cur through the air like an arrow, drivers like Richard Petty and Hamilton surpassing the 200 mile per hour mark like a NASA rocket. With Hamilton mashing the gas pedal into the floor, the Superbird won the first race it entered – the 1970 Daytona 500. So supernaturally fast was the Superbird that by 1971, NASCAR stepped in and restricted the car’s engine size, effectively clipping the Superbird’s wings. The car would effectively go the way of the dinosaur, but man alive, what a brilliant legacy it left behind.

Don’t believe the hype? Check out this YouTube segment.

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