Friday, February 18, 2005
DAYTONA BEACH — One of NASCAR's biggest, baddest stars of the '60s is back.
It isn't Richard Petty or David Pearson, but it does evoke memories of those two legendary drivers.
It's the Dodge Charger.
Petty, NASCAR's all-time wins leader with 200, recorded 37 victories in a Charger, the model he drove to three of his seven championships.
"The King ran the Charger body style for 10 years, it seemed like," said Petty's son, Kyle Petty. "When I started hanging out at the shop, from the time I was 10 until I was about 18, we ran a Charger."
"Charger sounds like racing to me," Richard Petty said. "Hopefully, some of the Charger tradition will rub off on the team. I know our crew is excited."
Petty Enterprises will field Chargers driven by Kyle Petty and Jeff Green. Among other Charger drivers on the Nextel Cup circuit are Kasey Kahne, Jeremy Mayfield, Sterling Marlin, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman and Rusty Wallace.
Between Feb. 25, 1966, when Earl Balmer won a 100-mile qualifying race for the Daytona 500, and Nov. 20, 1977, when Neil Bonnett won the season-ending race at Ontario (Calif.) Motor Speedway, Chargers won 124 races.
Six of the wins were recorded by the winged Daytona model of the Charger, the cousin to the Plymouth Superbird.
The Charger also is the answer to a trivia question: Which car was the first to break the 200-mph barrier? That was the No. 88 Daytona Charger driven by Buddy Baker on March 24, 1970, when he recorded a fast lap of 200.447 mph at Talladega.
The Charger personified Dodge's presence in the muscle-car culture of the 1960s and '70s. In the movie Bullitt, a Charger and Steve McQueen's Mustang created the most famous car chase in cinema. "General Lee," a Confederate flag-adorned Charger from the Dukes of Hazzard, is one of the most famous cars in TV history.
The new Charger, introduced this year, looks nothing like its ancestor. Where the muscle-car Charger was a two-door coupe, the new version is a four-door sedan.
This change has not been well-received among many hard-core fans of the original. On the Web site Dodge-Charger.com, a poll asks "Do you like the new Charger?" As of Thursday, the vote was a resounding "No" by an 89-10 percentage.
"The new Charger looks like a big fat lowered SUV . . . and has nothing to do with the '66-74 Chargers" reads a typical comment. Most of the venom seems to be directed at the addition of two doors.
Such sentiments are not unusual when an old, revered name is attached to a new, different-looking product. Pontiac experienced much the same reaction in 2003 when it revived the GTO name with a body style that critics dismissed as bland.
On the racetrack, the Charger looks mostly like Chevy's Monte Carlo and Ford's Taurus. This is an unavoidable result of NASCAR's "common template rule," which allows for individuality of body style only in the front and rear 10 inches.
Early reaction from Nextel Cup teams has been positive. "The Charger is a better piece than we had last year," Kahne said last week after the Budweiser Shootout. "It drafts up much better" than its predecessor, the Intrepid.
"We've made a lot of progress on the car," said John Fernandez, director of Dodge Motorsports Operations, "but we've still got some work to do."
No matter what it looks like, the Charger name will always be magical to some in the same way that Thunderbird and Mustang and GTO and Camaro are to others.
"I think the Charger is a name that brings back a lot of the '60s and the horsepower and get-up-and-go and stuff," Kyle Petty said. "You've got the GTO and the Nova, but for Petty Enterprises, it's the Charger."