Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Thunderbird for a Thunderdome

I know I talk about Dick Johnson and NASCAR a lot on this blog, so I thought I'd kick off the new year with... more Dick Johnson and NASCAR. Specifically, a video of the inaugural Goodyear NASCAR 500 at Calder Park - the first NASCAR race outside North America, and the grand opening of the Thunderdome.

What's often forgotten in these cars is the wider context - simply, they were the fastest stock cars ever built. When the Thunderdome opened in 1988, Daytona had just seen its first restrictor plate 500. The year before had seen the final generation of cars to run at Talladega without them, where on April 30 Bill Elliott set a qualifying record that will absolutely never be beaten: 212.809mph, or 342.483km/h. The opposition were horrified: Elliott was more than two seconds faster than them, and Monte Carlo drivers said at that speed their wheels were actually leaving the tarmac entering Turn 3. And Elliott was disappointed: in testing over in the winter of '86 he claimed he'd managed a one-lap average above 345km/h. By comparison, Mario Andretti's pole at Indianapolis that year was "only" 346.637km/h.
It was 1983 when Cale [Yarborough] turned over trying to run just a little over 200 and then here we are four years later running 210 around that place. I guess why I said it impressed me the most is I was sitting down watching Cale try to run that deal, and I saw him get loose and lose it off turn four and turn over. I’ve said this a thousand times, but when I left pit road that day I didn’t know what would happen... It probably took me another 30 minutes to start breathing normal again. - Bill Elliott, interviewed on
Clearly a very special driver with a very special team behind him. What I didn't know until I started researching this article is what a garagiste operation Elliott's team actually was. Coming out of the Euro F1/Australian touring car tradition you learn to accept factory teams as the norm, expect to find them everywhere. But no, Elliott's team was just a family business, started by his dad George and run out of their workshop in Dawsonville, Georgia. The engines were built by his brother Ernie, and by the mid-80s were on a level beyond anything the other teams were putting together, even the Wood Brothers. In the '85 Winston 500 at Talladega, a broken oil fitting cost him two whole laps - five miles. Nothing daunted, he came roaring out of the pits, put the hammer down and, in a shocking display of power and reliability, made them back up - under green - to take the win! In fact, they did such a good job that some conspiracy theorists believe the restrictor plate rule was put in place not for spectator safety, but to keep Elliott from dominating any further. When they have to change the rules to put you on a leash, you're morally crushing on a Michael Schumacher level.

The design of the '87 Thunderbird itself didn't hurt, either. Of course Elliott's car was a "Thunderbird" in name only, since NASCAR had already made the leap to bespoke tube-frame chassis that V8 Supercars wouldn't make until 2002. The roadgoing version was actually a shopping-friendly front-wheel drive V6, not a fire-breathing 358ci V8. But it was a genuine Thunderbird in its most crucial aspect - its aero. For the first time since the 1970s Detroit was tweaking its cars for competition, and the '87 Thunderbird became one of the first mass-production cars to be put through a windtunnel, with fabulous results.
If ever there was a car shaped to go fast it was Ford's 1987 Thunderbird. From the point of its slick beak to the slightly elevated trunk lid, the '87 T-Bird was shaped like a perfect projectile – three-quarters bullet and one-quarter B-1B wing. - Daytona's Top Ten Stock Cars
And it's not like the opposition was hanging around being a punching bag, either. Like V8 Supercars, NASCAR in those days was strictly Henry vs. The General, since Chrysler had pulled the Dodge boys out for the time being. But where Ford were represented by the 'bird alone, GM entered models from all their subsidiaries - Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, the lot (but Chevrolet's "Aerodeck" Monte Carlo SS was the most dangerous). It wasn't hard to do, NASCAR had already ruled the Chevy small-block could race under the bonnet of any GM product, so all it took was a different "aluminum" skin and a team willing to use it.

So these were the cars delivered to Australia in February '88, mostly in kit form. A Thunderbird for Dick Johnson (in the colours of Redkote, the American brand of Ross Palmer's empire); a Pontiac Grand Prix for Neil Bonnett; a Buick LaSabre for Bobby Allison; and, most impressively, an Oldsmobile Delta 88 for Allan Grice, who qualified an astounding 3rd. Despite what you may think, NASCAR favours those who can really hustle their cars over the smooth-n-easy types, partly explaining Gricey's unexpected talent for the 'dome. By rights Dick Johnson should therefore have been starting right alongside him (he was always better at winning the ATCC than Bathurst, remember), but I'm guessing all his time and money had gone into the Sierras and left the Thunderbird an orphaned side project. In the end it didn't matter though: they were both wiped out in an early pile-up.

Either way, the vision there is stunning: the onboard shots bring it all back for me, the heat, the violence, the sensation of being in a tunnel, the incredible G-force (seriously, it's like leaning against a freezer). A fantastic kind of racing, whatever the snobs say. The confines of Calder were never going to allow Ford's 'bird of prey fly as high as it had on the superspeedways, but just thinking of a great driver like Dick Johnson at the wheel of a car as fast as Bill Elliott's has me nursing a semi. And at the same time, isn't it nice to know in those days we were building a Falcon better than the Thunderbird and a Commodore better than a whole shelf full of GM products? Hmm?

1 comment:

  1. i went to the first auscar race on saturday, where terri saywer won.i lived 5 k's from calder so i went to most big events.australian nationals drags.around 87..then oval.i drove in the track in me xa ford and no1 was around,no gate security,fordwas a hack,1 lap then home