Charger gives NASCAR old juice back

Return of Dodge model at Daytona brings cheers from young and old alike

Auto Racing

February 19, 2005|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Say the name Charger, and NBC commentator and retired NASCAR champion Benny Parsons, who never even drove one, wraps his hands over his ample belly and sighs with contentment.

"Thirty years ago, that car won me the Daytona 500," said Parsons, who won the 1975 race in a Chevrolet. "Richard Petty's Dodge Charger was unbelievably fast that day, but he had a crack in his radiator and had to keep stopping for water.

"With 12 laps to go, he came out of the pits and picked me up and carried me to the front. David Pearson was leading, but Petty's Dodge was flying and when we came up on Pearson, Pearson got into another car and I went on to win the race. Man, that car was really, really fast."

The Charger is back at Daytona International Speedway for the first time since 1977. Just hearing the name makes past winners like Buddy Baker light up. It excites young Dodge drivers like Jamie McMurray.

"I hope it wins as many races this time around as it did the last," said McMurray. "It sure looks good, and when a car looks good it usually runs good."

But don't be fooled. The Charger, in this year of the retro return of the Ford Mustang and Pontiac GTO to sports car racing, is not the long-hooded, sloped roof or winged wonder of the past.

In fact, if you park its competitors from Ford and Chevrolet beside it, it's difficult to pick out the Charger from the crowd unless you are, perhaps, right in front and can see the grilles.

"But it does have the old Charger DNA from the days of the original baby blue No. 43 that Richard Petty drove," said car owner Ray Evernham.

Evernham, who owns the cars of Kasey Kahne, Jeremy Mayfield and Bill Elliott, helped design the new Dodge and pointed to the nose, tail and windows, the few places where there can be some variation within NASCAR's template designs.

And Baker, who is credited with auto racing's first lap of over 200 mph while driving a Charger at Talladega, said the car still comes with star status.

"Charger is a racing name," he said. "There's a lot of tradition around it. Seeing it, hearing its name, well, it makes a lot of men walk around with their chests out. Some people never had any success in anything else.

"I always thought the Charger set the scene for the history of racing. It was always a great race car."

From 1966 through 1977, the Charger won 124 times. Petty won 37 of those, Bobby Isaac 36 - including one in the "famed" wing Charger - and David Pearson 17. Pearson won his 1966 championship driving one. Isaac won the 1970 title driving one. And Petty won the title in 1972, 1974 and 1975 driving one.

Petty is surprisingly blase about it.

"It was a good car," he said. "But it was just another race car. Course, if it starts winning again, I'll like it."

On the track here at Daytona International Speedway, the Charger has looked better and better this week. It disappointed the 10 Dodge drivers during qualifying last Sunday when Kyle Petty's Dodge was the highest qualifier in 12th place.

But Wednesday, three cars, including those of McMurray and Kahne, were among the 10 fastest in practice, and Thursday in the Duel 150s, Dodge challenged for the win in both races. Ryan Newman's Charger was the only car of any make in either race that was able to make a pass on its own.

Tomorrow, Rusty Wallace and Kahne will start their Chargers among the top 10.

"Charger brings back the nostalgia," said Kyle Petty. "The Mustang and GTO, the same thing. It recalls memories of the muscle cars. It's a marketing gimmick, but saying you drive a Charger is a lot cooler than to say you're driving an Intrepid. The Charger has won a lot of races."

To Dave Marcis, who earned four of his five Cup victories in 1975 and 1976 while driving a Charger for Harry Hyde, the return of the car brings goose bumps.

"When I heard it was back, I got excited," he said. "The Charger! It brings back memories. I won my first race in a Dodge Charger. Of course, it doesn't look as good as the old ones I drove with the long hood and sloped roof."

Marcis remembers when the new Chargers would come out in the 1960s and 1970s, leading to a rush to the showroom floors.

"We were always looking at the new models for something, a certain thing that would catch your eye that you thought would be a benefit on the race track," he said.

"The sport has lost that excitement with its templates making all the cars look so much alike. But in the old days, the Charger had a great nose, a great front bumper. It had a solid steel bumper all the way around it. You could hit another car and the Charger would be easy to fix."

Daytona 500

What: NASCAR Nextel Cup season opener and premier event

Where: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.

When: Tomorrow, 1 p.m.

TV: Chs. 45, 5

Pole-sitter: Dale Jarrett

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