In 1964, Ronney Householder took control of Chrysler Corporation’s stock car racing efforts. The rest as they say was history. Householder led Chrysler Corporation to some amazing successes in racing. Under his guidance Chrysler Corporation dominated stock car racing into the early 70’s.
Householder had some great individuals and minds working for him; and one of his best decisions was to hire Ray Nichels away from Pontiac. Nichels had a proven record in NASCAR and his experience was invaluable. Householder attended all of the races he could and it wasn’t unusual for him to spend quite a lot of time in Nichels’ shops where the racecars were built.
The Chrysler onslaught was led by two teams, the Dodge team of Griffith, Indiana based Ray Nichels Engineering and the Plymouths of Norm Nelson Automotive based in Racine, Wisconsin. Together these two teams totally dominated the 1966 USAC season.
To illustrate just how dominating the Chrysler racing effort was during the period of time we decided to research the 1966 United States Auto Club (USAC) Stock Car Division season. Why? Because in a 17-race season (18 if you count the Pike’s Peak Hill Climb which was sanctioned by USAC but ran on the same day as another USAC Stock Car race) Chrysler Corporation not only dominated they simply destroyed the competition.
In the 17 races (not including Pike’s Peak) they not only won all seventeen races but ran at least one-two in all but two of the 17 events and in two of the events Chrysler products swept at least the top seven positions and amazing performance.
So let’s take a look at that unbelievable season. The USAC Stock Car season started off on April 17 at the famous mile track, the Langhorne Speedway in Pennsylvania. Defending USAC Stock Car champion Norm Nelson started things off by grabbing the pole with a lap of 33.01 seconds in his #1 Plymouth.
Then in the 150-miler, the cagey 43-year-old Nelson with 26 years of competition paced himself for 130 miles then made a sprint to the finish to one second ahead of teammate Jim Hurtubise. Hurtubise lead the first 89 miles before encountered tire trouble. Chrysler products took the top five spots with Sal Tovella third in the Sal’s Auto Sales Plymouth, Don White fourth in the Nichels Engineering Dodge and Billy Foster fifth in the Rudy Hoerr Dodge. Nelson covered the distance in one hour 27 minutes 2.28 seconds.
“My only worries were before the race,” said Nelson. “I was only worried about myself. This is the only track in the country that tires me. I seem to get stiff and arm wary here. I kept flexing my arms and shifting positions in the car during the race so I wouldn’t get tired. And I didn’t.”
On May 1st, on the 1.875-mile road course of Indianapolis Raceway Park in Clermont, Indiana, Nelson continued his assault of the series by taking the 160 lap Yankee 300. Luck may have played into the end result of the event as Billy Foster was leading the event in his Dodge when on lap 127 his right rear wheel collapsed.
Nelson made his last pit stop on lap 142 and cruised to an easy win. “It was a fairly easy win,” said Nelson in victory lane. “We planned pit stops about every 41 laps. After I saw four guys working on Foster’s right rear I realized all I had to do was finish to win.” Foster came back to finish a distance second with Bay Darnell third in the Watts Plymouth and J. C. Klotz fourth in the Ernie Harris Plymouth.
Nelson made it three in a row on June 3 at the Grand Rapids Speedrome as he won the 100-lap feature with Foster once again finishing second and Klotz third. Jim Hurtubise back in a Nelson Plymouth gave Chrysler products the top four spots.
Don White set fast time of 23.87 seconds in his Nichels Engineering Dodge and set a torrid pace from the start of the race with Nelson always close behind. Then on Lap 57, White pitted with tire issues and Nelson took over and led the remainder of the event. “I could see he (White) was having problems with his right rear tire, so I kept pushing him.” Nelson said after the race.
The Nelson onslaught continued on July 2 at the Indiana State Fairgrounds but to keep the string alive he had to hold off a torrid challenge of Don White in Nichels Dodge. Nelson set fast time with White second and as soon as the green dropped White beat Nelson in to turn one and took the lead. The pair quickly started pulling away from the rest of the field. White held the lead for 45 laps with Nelson pushing every lap.
Finally, White got over eager going into turn one slid wide and Nelson shot under to take the point. Two laps later, Nelson hot footed it into turn one went up the track and allowed White to retake the lead. They swapped the lead again on lap 58 and 59 before Nelson regained the point and held on for an exciting win. Future USAC Champion Butch Hartman brought his Dodge home third to give Chrysler another sweep.
On July 4, it was off to the De Pere Speedway in Wisconsin where Nelson wheeled his Plymouth to a flag-to-flag victory in front of the home state fans. However, for the first half of the event Gary Bettenhausen in a Nichels Dodge dogged Nelson. Eventually, Bettenhausen faded a bit and finished a straightaway behind Nelson at the event of the 100-lap event.
Billy Foster took third in his Dodge after spinning on lap 23 as he attempted to take second from Bettenhausen. Nelson set fast time in qualifying with a lap of 26.82 seconds.
July 10 saw the series at the famed Milwaukee Mile for a 200-lap paved event. Finally, somebody had something for Norm Nelson and that person was Don White. White took the lead of the race for good on lap 49 and then sailed to an almost three-quarter of a lap victory with Nelson and Hurtibise bringing their Plymouth’s home second and third.
White had also taken the pole position with a lap of 36.452 seconds to edge out Nelson, who turned the mile in 36.467. White led the event for the first seven circuits bowing to Nelson on Lap 8 who gave up the lead to Foster on Lap 12. Later, White and Foster thrilled the crowd 24,723 fans by racing down the front stretch side-by-side but shortly White took the lead for good and led the rest of the event.
White made just two pit stops (on laps 91 and 120). “We figured on making only two stops.” said White. “The first for tires on the right side and the second for tires on the left side.” White completed the 200 miles in two hours and eight minutes.
On July 22, the series returned to the Grand Rapids Speedrome where Don White lead the final 55 laps of the 100-lap event to pick up his second win in a row. White took the lead on lap 45 from Jim Hurtubise and steadily increased his lead to a quarter of a lap.
Hurtubise beat pole sitter Norm Nelson into the first turn and by Lap 11 Hurtubise was in lapped traffic with Nelson a close second and White third. The trio put on a spectacular driving exhibition and finally White moved inside Nelson to take over second on lap 24. Hurtubise went high going into the fourth turn on lap 45 and White slipped inside to take the lead. Nelson, trying to avoid a collision, spun-out. Billy Foster took over third but Nelson regained it five laps later.
“I thought something was wrong with Nelson’s car.” Said White. “It looked like his car was not handling but when I took the lead my car didn’t feel just right either.” As for Nelson he said, “It’s the first time in 25 years I’ve spun a race car.” Billy Foster hung on for fourth with Andy Hampton finishing fifth in a Dodge.
As you have seen Chrysler was in total control of the United States Auto Club Stock Car Series in 1966. In the next episode we will complete our review of that season and Chrysler Corporation continued domination.