You might say that Chrysler Corporation's entry into NASCAR was uphill. Right from the start. It was so much uphill that it might just as well have been at the Pike's Peak Hill Climb, for crying out loud. For openers, Johnny Mantz won the first Southern 500 at Darlington in a 6-cylinder Plymouth business coupe that had been used as a sort of jitney before the race by Bill France and Curtis Turner. It was maybe the slowest car in the 75-car field, yet it won by two full laps. Mantz outfoxed the entire field by driving low and slow. While all the other drivers went pedal to the metal, blowing tires to smithereens, Mantz was on a Sunday drive to racing history.

Later on, Richard Petty developed his up-near-the-wall driving style out of despair because his Plymouth lacked power. He found he could muster a few hundred more RPMs by staying up high and slamming down off the banks of the turns. And we all know where he wound up. King of the hill. In fact, it was 1955 before MoPar (nicknamed for Chrysler’s Motor Parts Division) began to win races with horsepower instead of horse sense. Prior to 1955, when MoPars won it was because the drivers outsmarted and outdrove everyone else, never outpowered them. But when Karl Kiekhaefer came on the scene with his trick Prussian general impression and a brace of mighty Chrysler 300s, the whole picture changed. Everybody else was racing uphill. Chrysler was elated. Kiekhaefer, who had amassed a fortune through the development of his Mercury outboard motors, wanted to win races, so he chose the 300s. And he prepared them flawlessly. To say that he turned heads when he showed up with his traveling medicine show for the first time would be a colossal understatement. Most of the race cars were towed on the ground. Kiekhaefer had gleaming white trucks. Inside the nifty haulers were pristine white Chrysler 300s. His teams were the first to wear uniforms-drivers and crew alike. Up to that time they had raced in tee shirts, if they wore any shirts at all. The whole 300 circus was akin to Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey.

"It's all show," said one old-timer. And then Tim Flock proved that it was "the greatest show in racing." In the 1955 season he won 18 of the 38 races he entered, leading every single lap in 11 of them. Kiekhaefer cars won a total of 22 races. By 1956 the irrepressible Kiekhaefer got serious. Buck Baker had been one of Flock's toughest competitors the season before, so Kiekhaefer hired him as the other team driver. In the first 25 races that season, his cars won 21 of them, 16 in a row at one point. Kiekhaefer was a perfectionist, demanding absolute superiority from everybody who worked for him. Often he would rent an entire motel, 40 or 50 rooms, leaving most of them vacant because he wanted his drivers to be left alone. Really alone. The husbands stayed in one wing and the wives in the other. There was a curfew and bed checks. "It was like the army," said Buck. "Or prison," said Flock.

When Fonty Flock was hired as the driver of a third car, it became a true "dream team." But the dream didn't last long. Tim quit. The strict regime and stern demands were giving him an ulcer. "Karl did everything but make us stand in the corner," he said. "Racing just wasn't fun anymore." Speedy Thompson was hired to replace Tim. And then Herb Thomas was added. Another dream team. It was an almost unbeatable combination and the 300s went right on winning. Thirty times in 1956. Baker, Thomas and Thompson made it look easy. Thomas won two "impossible" races in a row, starting 46th once and 47th the other time. As if he had proven his point, Kiekhaefer was gone just as abruptly as he had arrived. In two seasons his cars had totally dominated NASCAR racing. And it had established Chrysler as an almost instant powerhouse in stock car racing--and this was in days when "stock" meant just that. Lee Petty's Plymouth was pretty much left to take up the slack, and he did right well, thank you, winning eleven times and taking the championship in 1957. When Lee was seriously injured in a qualifying crash at Daytona, it was left to son Richard to take over the reins as the MoPar standard bearer. One thing was apparent: It was going to take some help from Chrysler. He got it. Big time.

The Hemi

Ford had dominated NASCAR from 1961-1963. Their racing program was tagged "Total Performance." And total it was with drivers such as Fireball Roberts, Marvin Panch, Fred Lorenzen and Ned Jarrett. The Holman-Moody and Wood Brothers’ cars were in charge. But in 1964 Chrysler introduced to racing what was to become the textbook engine -- the Hemi. Their first step was to streamline the Plymouth and Dodge bodies. And then they dug around and came up with some blueprints and set out to build the engine that would make their cars run like scalded dogs. It was to be called the Super-Commando in Plymouths and the Hemi-Charger in Dodges. They reached into their bag of tricks and added another innovation from their racing past, a double-rocker arm system. The huge valves were placed on opposite sides of the combustion chamber, rather than side-by-side, giving the engine a free-breathing chamber which produced incredible power at the top end--about 500 or so brute horsepower.

Chrysler took cars with the 426 Hemi engine to Goodyear's five-mile circular test track in San Angelo, Texas, and turned unbelievable speeds--for the time--of 180 mph. Ford won the season opener on the Riverside, California, road course, taking the first five places. The Hemis were still in wraps. When the MoPar teams unloaded their cars at Daytona there was one noticeable change: Painted on the hoods were the words "Hemi-Powered." The Ford, Chevy and Pontiac teams weren't sure what it really meant but they had a feeling that they would soon find out. It didn't take long. Petty qualified at 174.418, which was 20 mph faster than his speed one year before. And then Paul Goldsmith in the Ray Nichels-prepared Hemi went even faster. He captured the pole with a speed of 174.910. The Fords qualified in the high 160s, which, suddenly, was lumbering. Petty, Jimmy Pardue and Goldsmith crossed the finish line 1-2-3 in the Daytona 500, while Plymouth P. R. man Dick Williford went through the pits passing out badges which read "Total What?"

Petty ended up winning the championship in 1964 by an immense margin. But the high speeds that season would cost Chrysler their treasured engine. In an effort to slow things down, NASCAR banned the Hemi. For safety, they said. With the suddenness of a bolt of lightning, Chrysler was out of NASCAR. So, too, was Richard Petty, who went drag racing with a Hemi-powered Plymouth Barracuda named "Outlawed." At mid season, with crowds down at NASCAR races because of a Chrysler boycott, NASCAR-founder Bill France made an unprecedented move--he reinstated the Hemi engine for tracks of one mile or less and for road courses. The MoPar teams and the crowds came back.

In 1967 Richard Petty became "the king." He won 27 races--including ten in a row--in his trademark blue No. 43 Plymouth Belvedere, a record that surely will never be broken. The new monarch, though, came close in 1968, winning 21 times and finishing in the top five in 38 of the 46 races. The following year, Buddy Baker became the first driver to exceed 200 mph on a closed circuit. He did it in a Dodge Daytona.

The Beginning of the End

Thanks to years of Superbirds and Daytonas and Chargers, MoPar continued to excel in NASCAR, but all of the squabbling with the ruling body took its toll. Chrysler put less and less into the racing program and by 1978, when Ford and Chevrolet were allowed to race smaller Thunderbirds, Cougars and Monte Carlos, Chrysler was left at the starting line with only the bulky Dodge Magnum, which their two top drivers, Petty and Neil Bonnett, could not make competitive. "The Magnum is undrivable at 190 mph," said Petty. By mid-season he still was struggling with the Dodge. He had finished in the top five only six times in the first 18 races. Petty switched to Chevrolet for the Michigan race in 1978. It was the death knoll for Chrysler Corporation in racing.

The anguish of the early days, the glory in the middle years, and the frustration in the later times were put to rest. Loyal MoPar fans would never again see the likes of the 300s, Superbirds, Daytonas, Belvederes and Chargers. Racing hasn't been quite the same without them. But wait! Listen carefully now. Is that a MoPar engine we hear coming out of the smoke in Turn Four?