King Richard’s Drag Race days…
Story Submitted by John C. Hill or MoparMagic
Virtually everyone who has an interest in automobiles knows who Richard Petty is. “The King” is considered the very best NASCAR driver fomr the early era, about the early 60s through the late 70s. Richard went on to win hundreds of NASCAR races, and multiple NASCAR Championships until his retirement from active driving in the early 90s. But, did you know for a very brief period in the mid-60’s, King Richard was a drag racer?
It’s true, and not only was he a drag racer, but Petty Enterprises created and built one of the earliest “F/X” cars, which could arguably be considered the first Hemi powered funny car. It’s also quite possible that without this particular car, the Chrysler 426 Hemi as we know it may have been eliminated from production in early 1965, never to be produced again! If this doesn’t peak your interest, nothing will! So read on about “43 jr” and find out how a Plymouth Barracuda with Richard Petty at the wheel, saved the 426 Hemi from extinction.
On February 23, 1964 the Chrysler 426 Hemi made its first appearance at the Daytona 500. The engine was light years ahead of the rest in terms of technological advancement, and the Mopars finished 1st, 2nd, and 3rd with Richard Petty winning the race. By this time, Chevrolet had already opted out of NASCAR racing. Ford on the other hand was upset that the overhead cam 427 engine was rejected by Bill France since absolutely no street cars with this engine were sold.
After the Daytona race, Ford lobbied France heavily to outlaw the Hemi as well. Since Bill France was “NASCAR” and it was essentially a monopoly, what he ruled was law. Perhaps his motivation was to even out the field and get Chevy back into racing. Whatever the motive, NASCAR decided to outlaw the 426 Hemi on October 19, 1964. By that time, Richard had accumulated enough points behind the wheel of his Hemi powered Plymouth to win his first NASCAR Championship. Petty Enterprises of Randleman, North Carolina had been in the Plymouth camp for several years. Plymouth had decided to stick with the Pettys and go up against Bill France. They told NASCAR that they didn’t need them and decided to make a very public move into drag racing!
On October 6, 1964, the Pettys had a Plymouth Barracuda in their build shop. The car had a slight engine setback, a fabricated firewall and a large fabricated trans tunnel. As can be imagined, shoehorning a huge 426 Hemi with a big 727 Torqueflite into the little A-body Barracuda was an engineering challenge! The car used an 8 3/4 rear end rather than the small and weaker 7 1/4 that came in the Barracuda. To lighten up the car, the Pettys installed fiberglass fenders, hood and trunk lid. They cut away all of the inner front fenders, and strengthened it with added steel tubing above the stock frame. This tubing ran from the front wheel area back along the underbody to over the rear wheels. The seat was fiberglass set back because Richard Petty was rather tall. Finally, a large “loop type” roll bar with one single brace running back to the rear floor was added for safety. The car must have been ridiculously light, in my estimation, probably about 2,500 or 2,600 pounds. The safety features were probably OK for the mid-60s but a car like this would never pass an NHRA inspection today.
The car was finished and on the tracks by November of 1964. A sign on the front of the car read, “NASCAR, If you can’t outrun ’em, outlaw ’em.” On the doors, the Pettys painted “Outlawed” and “43 jr” was painted on the rear quarter panels. I have seen old movie footage of some of the earliest passes at Piedmont Dragstrip in North Carolina. This track is a story in itself! It used to be a section of highway, but when a new road was built, the highway became a dragstrip. Oddly enough, the “lanes” were barely a car width wide, and there was a big grass median strip running down the center of the entire “track”!
On November 22, 1964 Richard “match raced” against Ronnie Sox who at that time was driving a 1965 Comet with a big block Ford engine in F/X form. Ronnie beat Richard on several passes, probably due to his greater drag racing experience at the time. A rematch was held at Piedmont on December 13, 1964 and this time Richard was able to post some wins against Ronnie. By January 4, 1965 Ronnie Sox had switched to a now severely altered wheelbase Plymouth sporting a Hemi. Richard match raced him with “43jr” once again splitting round wins with Ronnie.
The experience gained match racing Ronnie Sox in 1964 gave the Pettys the confidence to hit the national level scene. “Outlawed 43 jr” was hauled across country to the AHRA drag race at Bee Line in Arizona for the January 29 – 31, 1965 race. A special class was created for home-built one of a kind cars called “Super/Stock Experimental” or S/SX. Richard’s Barracuda ran a 10.38 to win the class against a 427 Chevy II. At the same race, Ronnie Sox was running a 10.78 with his altered wheelbase B-body Plymouth, so Richard’s Barracuda was actually quicker at the time. Meanwhile, attendance was dropping off sharply for the all Ford NASCAR events. Bill France was forced to concede, and the Chrysler 426 Hemi engine was reinstated to NASCAR competition in late 1965.
But back in early 1965, “43 jr” was being booked at drag strips across the nation doing “exhibition” class racing where most of the exposure and money could be found. Unfortunately, all was not perfect with “43 jr”. A match race against Arnie Beswick at Southeastern Dragway in Dallas, Georgia on February 28, 1965 ended in tragedy. A piece of the front suspension on “43 jr” malfunctioned causing the car to go out of control into the crowd of spectators. Several of the spectators were injured, including an 8 year old boy that was killed.
The car was totaled and put in the junk pile behind the garage at Petty Enterprises. The Petty family was understandably upset, but undeterred, they build another Barracuda to continue drag racing. This particular Barracuda was a step up from the old “43 jr”. The word “Outlawed” was removed and a large white “43 jr” was the only graphics on the side doors. The Hemi carbs eventually gave way to Hilborne fuel injector stacks, and the Barracuda really picked up in performance. This car had a slightly altered wheelbase.
Petty ran the car at the NHRA Spring Nationals June 6, 1965. But, by June of 1965 Bill France had begun working on rules to allow the big 426 Hemi back into NASCAR racing. The Pettys and Chrysler/Plymouth had won the war of nerves! The 426 Hemi was soon to be in full production for six more years, and used in NASCAR sanctioned racing for several more years after that. Richard soon gave up drag racing the stout little “43 jr” and the Pettys began preparing for the 1966 NASCAR season with a Hemi Powered Plymouth.
The moral of the story is what would have happened if the “43 jr” Barracuda F/X drag race car had never been built? The 426 Hemi had been engineered to race in NASCAR competition. If the Hemi could not be used in NASCAR would Chrysler have continued to develop and build it, probably not. But, since NASCAR required engines to be build and produced in publicly sold vehicles, the “Street Hemi” was produced, and the rest is history!
In addition, the little F/X Barracuda probably opened the doors (and eyes) for many drag racers. Light weight cars, with big Hemi motors were unbelievably fast and quick. Soon after “43 jr” an entire class of A/FX cars were born, soon to be morphed into the NHRA class known as “Funny Car”. And to this day, virtually every Top Fuel and Funny Car team run an aftermarket aluminum version if the fabled 426 Hemi, thanks in part to the Petty’s and the little S/XS car known as “43 jr”.
Final Thoughts: I have been so inspired by “43 jr” and the Barracuda A/FX cars of Sox and Martin that I went out and bought a 1965 Barracuda myself. I’ve been a drag racer since 1983 and continue to race today at Firebird Raceway in Phoenix, Arizona. I run a Super Comp Mopar powered dragster and a 1970 440 Powered Cuda in brackets. I plan on building the 1965 Barracuda into a bracket car for my wife to drive. Plans are to either paint it to be a tribute to “43 jr” (more than likely) or just like the Sox and Martin Barracuda. I’ll post pictures on this site to keep you informed of my progress.
John C. Hill
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