Something monumental happened during the 1978 NASCAR Cup Series season.
In fact, it was so monumental it shook the entire racing world. It was on a scale of, say, the New York Yankees trading Mickey Mantle at the pinnacle of his career.
Richard Petty, who, with his family-owned Petty Enterprises, had been a famous standard-bearer for Chrysler and its Dodge and Plymouth models for nearly three decades, made the switch to Chevrolet.
He had tried to remain loyal to Chrysler, driving its new Dodge Magnum as the 1978 campaign began. But the car was bulky and decidedly un-aerodynamic.
During the early part of the season, Petty struggled – mightily. The winner of 185 career races at the time failed to finish four of the first five races and finished on the lead lap in only one of the first 10 events.
Petty was growing frustrated.
“The way I’m running now, I sure have a lot more competition than I used to,” he said. “In two years, I can’t go from being as good as I was to what I am now.”
J.D. Stacy’s team, with driver Neil Bonnett, also campaigned a Magnum but gave up on it by May in favor of an Oldsmobile – the car most teams used on superspeedways.
Bonnett’s crew chief was the irascible veteran Harry Hyde.
“We’ve been running out of a junk yard,” he said. “Trying to run these Dodges with the engine blocks we get is like trying run a mule in the Kentucky Derby.”
General Motors won seven of the first 11 races in 1978. The only thing Chrysler had won was the animosity of its teams – and fans.
For Petty, the final straw came in May at the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. His Magnum was disallowed by NASCAR after pre-qualifying inspection. He was forced to return to the Petty shops in Level Cross, N.C., to get another one. He thought about not returning but decided to do so.
“I’ve got too many commitments to the sponsors and the fans not to,” he said.
His fortunes with the Magnum didn’t change. He finished only six times in the top five in 18 races and most of the time was several laps off the pace at the finish.
This was embarrassing for a driver who had won six championships.
By July, Petty said he had suffered enough.
“We’ve tried everything with the Magnum, and it’s just not competitive,” he said. “We’ve had some improvement since the start of the year, but everyone else is going faster too.”
NASCAR President Bill France Jr. sympathized with Petty but said the sanctioning body could not change the rules simply to benefit one team.
Petty announced that he was switching to a Chevrolet. He bought one from independent driver/owner Cecil Gordon. He said that the Chevy would make its debut on Aug. 20 – at Michigan International Speedway.
Michigan made its NASCAR debut in 1969, and perhaps at no other time had the speedway enjoyed more attention than in the summer of 1978. News that Petty had joined the General Motors camp spread like a California wildfire. Fans and media alike were eager to see what Petty would do in the Champion Spark Plug 400.
The core of NASCAR’s media was in the South and consisted primarily of newspapers. Naturally, the motorsports writers were eager to go to Michigan and cover what would be the story of the decade at the time.
There was just one problem – money. Sports budgets at most Southern papers were not huge, and they certainly didn’t set aside a sizable amount for auto racing.
It was one thing to drive to any one of the many speedways in the South. But it was quite another to get to places like Riverside, Ca., Pocono, Pa. and Michigan. Airline tickets were budget busters.
That didn’t deter a contingent of writers from the South. A couple of them literally begged their editors to let them go. Petty driving a Chevrolet was huge news, they said, adding their readers would demand full information.
I know of one who told his editor he’d eat nothing but peanut butter sandwiches to save money.
Turns out he didn’t have to do that. As the August race at Michigan loomed, a contingent of writers who regularly covered NASCAR was on its way. They hailed from Richmond, Roanoke, Greensboro, High Point, Charlotte, Spartanburg and Atlanta.
Their Michigan colleagues took note, and some wrote pieces about the “Southern Invasion” that was descending upon the speedway.
The first thing the Southerners noticed about Michigan was how handsome it was. It was a well-kept, clean facility, much unlike several others they had seen.
And it wasn’t long before they learned how fast the two-mile track could be and how its layout enabled routine four-abreast racing.
For most of the Champion Spark Plug 400, Petty returned to his old, familiar form. He only qualified 14th, but as the race wore on, he moved up steadily. With just 10 laps to go, he was running fifth – and on the lead lap.
Suddenly, the Chevrolet blew out a tire and slammed hard into the steel guard rail, tearing three posts out of the ground. Petty was through for the day and wound up 14th, 10 laps down.
“We learned how to build a Chevrolet, and now I reckon we’ll learn how to fix one,” he said.
Petty raced Chevrolets for the remainder of the season. He went winless for the first time since 1959.
But things would change dramatically. Petty won the wild, controversial 1979 Daytona 500 in an Oldsmobile and then won four more times that year in a Chevrolet. He earned his seventh, and final, championship.
He raced in Chevrolets and Oldsmobiles that year. And he gave Petty Enterprises its first victories in a Chevrolet.
Ironically, one of those came in the Champion Spark Plug 400 at Michigan on Aug. 19, 1979.
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