In 1964, Richard Petty was a 26-year-old up-and-coming driver in stock car racing and Chrysler was ready to run a new racing engine that used hemispherical combustion chambers.
Sunday, Feb. 23, 1964 in Daytona Beach, Fla., would be a big day for both.
Petty would take the checkered flag to win the Daytona 500 for the first time in his career (he would win the race six more times in his career). And his utter domination of the field would cement the prowess of the 426 HEMI® racing engine. Mopar is spending this year celebrating the 50th anniversary of this legendary powerplant.
Petty started the 200-lap race on the front row but early in the race fell to 15th place due to a bungled pit stop that had two team cars in the pits at the same time. The combination of Petty’s skill and the 426 HEMI’s power enabled him to lead 184 of the race’s 200 laps – with the car reaching speeds of 180 mph on Daytona’s backstretch and setting a new record average speed of 154.334 miles an hour.
How dominant was this new HEMI? The first three cars to finish the 1964 Daytona 500 were Plymouths powered by the 426 HEMI racing engine. Petty took the win with a one-lap-and-9-second lead over second-place driver Jimmy Pardue. Pole sitter, Paul Goldsmith finished third and was another lap behind. Two more HEMI entries finished in the Top-10 with Jim Paschal in fifth and Junior Johnson coming in ninth. Petty went on to finish the NASCAR season as the 1964 NASCAR champion.
The first-generation HEMI engine powered street cars in the 1950s using the brand names FirePower, FireDome and Red Ram. This second-generation HEMI was originally designed as a pure racing engine – and the same basic design continues to power cars in the National Hot Rod Association drag races today.
Its dominance in stock car racing was so overwhelming that it prompted NASCAR to change its rules, forcing Chrysler to develop a street version of the 426 HEMI before it would be permitted to compete again and causing it to miss the 1965 stock car racing season.
The 426 HEMI race engine was a game-changer in 1964 and the HEMI name still commands respect on drag strips and the street today. Not bad for a 50-year-old.
What would you do with HEMI power?