HAIL TO THE KING: A FITTING PETTY TRIBUTE
ONE SUPER BIRD
Al Jensen’s tribute to the King, Richard Petty / Words / Photos Jim Maxwell
There are many “Kings” in history. Elvis was The King of Rock and Roll. Michael Jackson was the King of Pop, and drag racer Kenny Bernstein was The King of Speed.
But for NASCAR fans, there is only one King: Richard Petty. The winningest racer in the history of racing — with 200 NASCAR wins — he has no peer. Earnhardt Sr., Gordon, Yarborough, Allison, and the rest never came close to that figure. So, Hail to the King. Al Jensen’s Superbird is a mobile shrine to that legacy.
Petty was a Mopar racer, as any NASCAR fan will tell you. Except for a change to Pontiacs in his twilight years, the only exception to the Chrysler race team came in 1969 when, after a disagreement with the Mopar brass, he jumped ship running a Ford Torino Talladega, much to the chagrin of his fan base. That year proved to be a very respectable racing effort, but nothing like his earlier efforts. Remember in 1967, Petty won 27 races, in one year — 10 race wins in a row. Now, that’s a good year.
What caused the departure to Ford is well documented. The Dodge division debuted a special Dodge Charger “500” in June 1968 that featured subtle but important body modifications learned from wind tunnel testing. The new mid-year car was built with a revised forward-mounted grille, smoothed covers placed over the A-pillars, and a new rear window glass that was now flush with the bodywork of the C-pillars. All this was to improve high-speed stability on the super-speedways.
The only problem was that Petty Enterprises was a Plymouth team member and there was intense on-track rivalry between the two Mopar divisions, Plymouth and Dodge. When Richard asked to be released from driving for the Plymouth brand to move over to Dodge, he was told “no” in no uncertain terms and reminded that he was a contracted Plymouth driver.
Richard mentioned to the boss at Plymouth racing, Ronnie Householder, that he could call on Ford Motor Company to see if they would be interested in having Petty Enterprises in a Ford product for the next year. Householder told him, “Go ahead,” and Petty called his bluff. At the time, Ford was working on their own aerodynamic machines, having just completed the Torino “Talladega” and Mercury Cyclone “Spoiler II,” which featured a small nose extension on the front end, lowered grille and much better aerodynamics.
Ford’s top racing man, Jacque H. Passino, in Dearborn, Michigan, didn’t have to think twice before he said yes to Richard Petty’s request! Petty’s win at California’s Riverside International Raceway in the first race of the year must have had the Chrysler folks crying while Ford was celebrating. The win by the Petty Blue Ford #43 was Richard’s 92nd victory in Grand National racing and the first time ever in a racecar other than a Plymouth.
The Great Return
With Richard’s Torino already a winner (and with no other significant names driving Plymouths in 1969), panic set in at the front offices of the Chrysler/Plymouth headquarters. The edict came down to win Petty back to the team. The contract between FoMoCo and Petty Enterprises was on a year-to-year basis, so the earliest Chrysler could get Petty back into their fold would be 1970. To persuade him back, first and foremost, a new very special Plymouth model would be needed.
In early 1969, Dodge continued to tune the Charger 500 body to make it competitive with its Ford and Mercury counterparts. Up front, a large 18-inch extended nose cone was added. Reverse-facing scoops were fitted over the front wheels (for tire clearance in the corners during extreme high-speeds), and then a massive 23-inch tall wing was placed atop the deck lid, positioned high above the roofline in the “clean” air.
In initial testing, the Dodge Daytona prototype reached speeds in excess of 204 mph on the Chrysler Chelsea Proving Grounds five-mile oval test track in July ’69 with legendary NASCAR driver Charlie Glotzbach behind the wheel. In its public racing debut that September at Talladega, it won the race, becoming the fastest Grand National stock car ever with an average lap speed of 199.466 mph around the 2.66-mile track. What makes that more incredible were the terrible track conditions, so rough that tires were quickly worn on the high-bank course. But, it proved to intimidate the competition. Ford driver David Pearson, another top contender in the NASCAR series, said “It scares me to death just to look at it.”
By mid-season 1969, Petty won his 100th career victory and the future looked like a lock for him to have a long tenure with Ford. Undeterred, the president of Plymouth Division (Glenn White) personally traveled from Detroit down to Level Cross, North Carolina, to Petty headquarters and extended an olive branch. His first question? “What’s it going to take to get you back to Plymouth?” His answer was that he needed a car just like the Dodge Daytona for the 1970 season.
The rush was on for Chrysler designers at Plymouth to get busy on converting their B-Body-sized Road Runner into an aerodynamic Daytona clone. Key to that change was including the massive rear wing, revised flush-mounted taillight, A-pillar covers, and the big extended nose cone. The Road Runner moniker itself came from a fast-running Warner Brothers cartoon bird, so the obvious new vehicle name: “SuperBird.”
The Superbird modifications were not the same as the Daytona, despite the obvious similarities. In fact, Chrysler decided there were improvements that could make the new car even better. One thing learned between the time the Daytona was released for competition use and during early development of the Plymouth version was that the rear wing also helped cornering. To take it to the next level, the SuperBird wing was given a wider base, adding 40 percent more mass area.
With the new SuperBird as the star car of the Plymouth/Petty racing program for 1970, the goal was now to get out there and win races! With the increased involvement from the factory, the Petty shop was contracted to campaign two different SuperBird racecars, one for Richard and one for a new fresh face on the scene, Pete Hamilton (car #40). This two-car assault for Plymouth turned out to be a grand idea as Hamilton won three races during the year. Richard himself won 18 races, a number that surely would have been higher if not for a devastating crash at Darlington that put him in the hospital with a dislocated shoulder. The injury caused him to miss six crucial races that year (and most likely the championship).
All this winged Mopar excitement came to a screeching halt with the announcement of new rules for 1971 from the ACCUS (Automobile Com petition Committee of the United States), which governed NASCAR. To correct and ultimately outlaw the aerodynamic monster cars, they were restricted to 305c.i. or smaller engines. Cars with factory style “stock car” bodies could run the standard big cubic inch engines.
The factory responses were quick and to the point: “There is no way we can develop a 305c.i. engine and the company has no inclination to do this,” stated Chrysler’s field manager Ronnie Householder upon hearing the news. “We have to take the most competitive car.” With the wing cars pronounced dead for ‘71, Plymouth and Petty remained strong and promptly went out to Daytona with a new 1971 standard Road Runner body and won the first race of the year. Historians look upon the 1969-70 NASCAR seasons as iconic years in the sport, which were never to be repeated.
The Tribute Takes Shape
Al Jensen from Mesa, Arizona, is a huge Mopar fan. Owner of one of the original 135 Hemi-powered SuperBirds, his concours-quality Lemon Twist Yellow, numbers-matching machine is a better investment than real estate in southern California. A student of these cars, Jensen is well versed on the history that motivated the factory to build these amazing cars. Impressed with the legacy of these cars, he decided to pay tribute to the legendary driver, building a tribute car to The King.
Starting with a standard Belvedere body shell to provide the base for his SuperBird tribute car, Jensen used a fabricated steel replacement nose, steel rear window plug, reproduction composite wing, and a pair of salvage year 1970 Coronet fenders and hood to get things rolling. Next, he did an extensive search on everything he could find in the way of photographs, books, old magazine articles, movies, and talking with people that were involved in NASCAR racing during the timeframe of Petty running his SuperBird, all to help make his project as authentic as possible. Jensen went as far as flying to the Petty Museum in Randleman, North Carolina, so he could see firsthand (as well as take hundreds of photos) the #43 Plymouth wing car displayed there.
After purchasing the main bodywork components, Jensen purchased a 472c.i. Chrysler Hemi crate engine from Mopar. For that engine, he found one of the highly desirable “track” manifolds that these late ‘60s / early ‘70s Chrysler Hemi cars ran in NASCAR competition on eBay and quickly made a purchase. The single four-barrel manifold is known as the “bathtub” intake and came out for the 1966 racing season. Further hunting on eBay netted a set of original racing exhaust manifolds that were quickly installed on the fresh engine.
With the body completely disassembled, the fitting of the rollcage was done using the same basic design as the Petty cars, with provisions to allow for operating doors and easy ingress and egress. A big step forward in building the car came when Jensen and Mitch Connett met at a Las Vegas Mopar car show. A former stock car racer himself, Connett has a business (www.mitchshotrods.com) located in Quartz Hill, California, that specializes in building everything from traditional hot rods to award-winning Mopar show cars. After they spoke, it was soon apparent that taking on the build responsibilities of this Richard Petty tribute car would be an ideal situation for both parties.
Locating all the correct race-spec components was extremely difficult, but Jensen had done his homework. The directive was to make the final product really look the part of a vintage racer. However some new, modernized features (4-wheel disc braking, power rack and pinion steering, and air suspension to deal with the low ground clearance on the nose) were in order as well.
Connett dealt with every modification using a large degree of detail, which speaks volumes of his dedication and quality of workmanship. This Richard Petty tribute car goes to the extreme in paying homage to the legendary race driver, as evidenced by all the double-takes and inquires it continually receives when out on the road and/or at a show. This remarkable Hemi-powered Mopar is a fast and well-built road-worthy creation that honors perhaps the highest speeds ever attained in NASCAR racing history, and the most famous of all NASCAR racers, Richard Petty.
Soon after a car was found, Al Jensen purchased a 472c.i. crate engine from the local Mopar dealership, topping it with an ultra-rare aluminum intake built for NASCAR Hemis back in the day. Jensen used the detail photographs he personally took at Petty’s museum for correct fabrication of the double breather arrangement.
The 472c.i. Hemi crate engine received a power increase with higher compression pistons (now 9.67:1 as compared to standard 9.0:1 as delivered from Mopar Performance) and a camshaft upgrade (mechanical 0.561 lift, 248/255-degree duration). The full-race induction system and MSD ignition were completed by Duffee Motorsports, Glendale, Arizona.
As the car was being constructed at Mitch’s Hotrod and Fabrication shop in Quarts Hill, California (near the Los Angeles area), it almost appears as a full-sized 1:1 model kit car being assembled!
At this stage of the build, the body had already received a six-point roll cage, the torsion bars were removed, rear wheel openings enlarged, and modifications made to the rear floorpan for the 22-gallon fuel tank / ballast box.
To convert the standard 2-door Plymouth B-Body into a SuperBird, a new streamlined rear window was included in the transformation. To keep it snug, a pair of aluminum straps secure the glass, per NASCAR rules.
This sheetmetal race dash was fabricated and covered with Flat Black naugahyde material. The hand-formed aluminum gauge panel was drilled for AutoMeter tach, speedometer, oil pressure, oil temp, water temp, amp, and fuel pressure gauges.
The 1970 front fenders from a production Dodge Coronet were part of the original SuperBird conversion package. The front lower edges are modified in order to line up with the nose. In addition, they were further modified with welded seams, and the front side marker lights were removed.
A steel nose was chosen for the car (like the originals), although there are reproduction fiberglass versions available.
Consistent with the original Petty-built wing cars are these strong stanchions welded into place to inside the trunk area, providing the required rigidity to withstand the 600 pounds of rear down force.
All interior wiring for the taillights was hidden in the rocker panel area. Shown here prior to seat installation is the electrical system shut-off switch and air compressor. A tank for air ride is hidden underneath the dashboard on passenger’s side.
Jensen paid special attention to the little things that made the overall impact of the car’s final look so impressive.
The front parking lamps were also fitted with bright LED bulbs for efficiency. The car’s paint takes on a different flavor after the sun goes down, which is a unique characteristic of the “Corporate Blue” Chrysler paint code!
Using the same industrial rubber material as over-the-road truckers have run for years on their 18-wheelers, the Ridetech air springs allow for quick ride height adjustments at the touch of a button. The stamped steel race wheels are five lug on five-inch diameter bolt circle diameter. The modern rubber is Goodyear Eagle GT II radial tires sized 275/60R-15. The stencil-painted Goodyear Eagle letter is authentic.
The huge five-inch diameter tachometer and speedometer are situated center of the steering column. To allow for each reading at speed, the gauges are “clocked” so that when they are operating in the proper range, the gauge needles point at the 12 o’clock position.