Dodge Charger Daytona Cotton Owens

“Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” was never more important than in the years that crossed the intersection of the Sixties and the Seventies. These were the days of all-out, no holds barred, performance. Ford, Chrysler and GM deployed teams of engineers, drivers, mechanics to devise technical advantages and finesse the rules makers.

In the late Sixties the focus was on engines and power. Chrysler, GM and Ford deployed fabulous, exotic engines – the porcupine head Chevy, the Dodge and Plymouth 426 Wedge, Ford’s threatened sohc 427 – while NASCAR, NHRA, USAC and an alphabet soup of other sanctioning bodies and promoters fiddled with rules to try to keep one brand from running off with everything, keep the cars looking like something fans could buy in the showroom on Monday and keep one step ahead of the imaginative ways cagey guys like Dale Inman, Smokey Yunick and Bud Moore came up with to gain an advantage over their competition.

The most egregious example of manufacturers’ specialization to meet NASCAR and USAC production requirement is Chrysler’s 1963 creation of the second generation Hemi engine and then putting it into the wildest automobiles ever offered to the general public, the 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona and the 1970 Plymouth Road Runner Superbird.

The Hemi

Chrysler was getting hammered on the NASCAR ovals and the NHRA strips in the early Sixties. The story goes, too, that Chrysler Chairman Lynn Townsend’s teenage sons were coming back from Woodward Avenue and giving their dad the word that his company’s products were nowhere. In late 1962 Townsend gave the go-ahead to create a second generation Hemi. To minimize development time and costs it was based on the basic dimensions of the 413/426 wedge block so it could be machined on existing tooling.

Working with a nearly impossibly short deadline, the 1964 Daytona 500, Chrysler’s program was a success, with Hemi powered Plymouths taking the top three places and five of the top ten. Richard Petty’s pole-winning speed for the 500 was more than 13 mph faster than his pace in 1963.

NASCAR banned the Hemis in 1965, then relented. Ford withdrew in 1966 citing the Hemi’s advantage, then came back when NASCAR allowed them dual 4-barrel carbs. Chrysler came back in 1967, dominating the season in his Plymouth. Ford responded in 1968 and 1969 with the Holman-Moody Fords driven by 

Cotton Owens grew up with NASCAR from the earliest days driving modifieds. In 1959 he finished second to Lee Petty in the season points with 22 top ten finishes in 37 races, including winning the Daytona Beach and Road race in Pontiac’s first NASCAR victory. In 1960 he won his qualifying race at the Daytona Speedway, the first NASCAR race carried on live television.

He was one of the team owners consulted by Chrysler in 1962 before development began on the new Hemi, telling Chrysler, “I told them if they’d go back to the Hemi engine I’d do it. The Hemi builds more horsepower than any other engine…. Dodge promised if I’d sign I’d get a Hemi, so I signed under those conditions,” and became part of the effort from the very beginning. ("All Around The Track", Anne B. Jones and Rex White, McFarland 2007).

In 1969 Owens teamed up with Buddy Baker, son of NASCAR pioneer Buck Baker from Darlington’s Rebel 400 on. The pair scored an impressive series of results including a run of eight straight top ten finishes at the end of the season.

Owens and Baker started 1970 off strong, starting their Daytona qualifying race from the pole and finishing second to Charlie Glotzbach but an ignition problem put them out of the 500 itself. Problems dogged them at Rockingham and Atlanta but Baker in the #6 Charger Daytona were the class of the field in the Alabama 500 at Talladega on April 12, leading 101 laps until a spin and a fire put them out of the race.

It was in this race as Baker was leading the field that he accomplished the feat which will forever make this car famous: recording the first NASCAR race lap at over 200 mph.

The accomplishment was heavily promoted by Chrysler, even more than the continuing successes of the Chargers and Superbirds, because it was a singular accomplishment. It led inevitably to another of Bill France’s competition building innovations, the carburetor restrictor plate, which has forever limited superspeedway speeds to well below 200 mph.

Baker drove Owens’ #6 Charger Daytona to a second place finish in the Firecracker 400 at Daytona in July, to fourth at Atlanta in August, sixth in Michigan on August 16, fifth at the Talladega 500 August 23.

With this car Baker then won the Southern 500 at Darlington on September 7 by a lap over second place Bobby Isaac. On the same weekend Cotton Owens was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame at Darlington.

By now NASCAR had announced the rules for 1971. They limited the aerodynamically bodied cars to just 305 cubic inches displacement, spelling the end of the brief, brilliant career of the Dodge Charger Daytona and its counterparts from Plymouth, Ford and Mercury. When this car was in an accident at Charlotte on October 11 (after qualifying third and leading twenty laps) Owens rebuilt it as a display car to participate in Dodge’s national promotion of the 200-mph lap. In rebuilding it, he made the changes to the interior, doors and windows that are visible today.

It was displayed by Dodge at Cobo Hall in Detroit in January 1971 then was brought back home to Spartanburg before being taken to Darlington – NASCAR’s first superspeedway – and put on display in the museum there. It remained on display for the next generation, an example of a famed, golden era in American racing.

On July 19, 2005 it was released from the museum and brought once again back to Cotton Owens Garage in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Cotton himself put in new oil, pulled the plugs and oiled the cylinders, disconnected the distributor, put in a new battery and cranked the engine to pump oil pressure. With new plugs and the ignition reconnected he hooked a line from a gas can to the fuel pump and squirted some gas into the carb.

This car was auctioned off by RM Auctions in September 2009 at the Petersen Automotive Museum, Los Angeles, California.

Est. 550 hp, 426 cu. in. pushrod overhead valve V8 engine, four-speed manual transmission, independent front suspension with coil springs, live axle rear suspension, front disc, rear drum hydraulic brakes. Wheelbase: 117"

Source: RM Auctions
Photo Credit: Copyright Darin Schnabel

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