Race Car Of The Month
Penske NASCAR Matador
Back in 1951 it was almost impossible to beat the Hudson Hornet in NASCAR competition. With drivers like Marshall Teague, Herb Thomas, and Tim Flock behind the wheel, Hudsons won 12 of the 41 races that year. In fact, Teague's "Fabulous Hudson Hornet" team was the first factory-supported team in NASCAR. In 1952 they won 27 of 34 races, then 22 of 37 in 1953, and 17 of 37 in 1954. But there was only one win by a Hudson in 1955 and then ... nothing for any make that would eventually become part of AMC (and ultimately today's DaimlerChrysler).
But there was one glorious attempt to bring the Hudson Hornet's racing legend over to AMC, and it started in 1972 with a series of Roger Penske-prepared Matadors. Penske and driver Mark Donohue had considerable success with Javelins in SCCA Trans Am racing after their legendary run from 1967 through 1969 in Chevrolet Camaro Z/28s. So even though NASCAR was something new to both Penske and Donohue, and the boxy '72 Matador couldn't have been more ill-suited to competition, they entered stock car racing with great expectations.
Besides the AMC's challenging aerodynamics, the big problem for the team was engines. Going up against the well-developed big-block engines from GM, Ford, and Chrysler, AMC had to run a 366ci small-block, which in many ways was an upsized version of AMC's 305ci Trans Am engines. Despite rules that favored small-blocks, reliability hampered the Penske effort throughout 1972. Their best finish was a Third in the Golden State 400 road race at Riverside with Donnie Allison driving.
But the team broke through during the first race of the 1973 season when they won the Riverside 500 road race. Penske's big trick (beyond having one of the all-time great road racers, Mark Donohue, behind the wheel) was their use of four-wheel disc brakes on the Matador; a NASCAR first. Those effective brakes let Donohue dive deeper into corners than the competition, and that was the difference. Four-wheel discs quickly spread throughout NASCAR and have been part of every car in the series ever since. Dave Marcis' Fifth Place in the '73 American 500 at Rockingham was the team's second-best showing.
The boxy Matador was replaced by a new fastback in '74, and that car had some success, earning one win with Bobby Allison in 1974 and three wins in 1975. But AMC and Penske parted ways in 1976 after running just one race in the Matador. Allison would return with his own team and Matador for 1977 but found little success, and Jock Maggiacomo's one race during 1978 only lasted 45 laps.
AMC was gone from NASCAR for good, but it left an impression with its red, white, and blue painted cars. And during 2003, the Penske South NASCAR team acknowledged that when it painted one of Ryan Newman's #12 Intrepids in the distinctive AMC livery for the Pop Secret Microwave Popcorn 400 at Rockingham. Appropriately, Newman spun and struggled throughout the race only to surprise fans by finishing a sterling Fifth. And that's the way it was.
In and Out List
In: Watching the snow melt.
Out: Getting your car out for the first time in the spring and running straight into a mud hole.
In: Switching from a mechanical to an electric fan to save a few horsepower.
In: Fourth-generation Firebird Formulas
In: Third-generation Firebird Formula 350s.
In: Second-generation Firebird Formula 400s and 455s.
Out: There's a new Mustang coming out, and no new Firebird or Camaro is on the horizon.
In: Driving cross-country with your kids.
Out: All they want to do is watch The Wiggles on the minivan's DVD player over and over and over and over again.
In: Going to Sears to buy a new 11/42-inch box wrench after losing yours.
Out: Finding the 11/42-inch box wrench just after you get back from Sears with a new one.