Friday, April 29, 2016

Oldsmobile: Old School & New Life for Pettys

Twelve years ago - April 29, 2004 - the last Oldsmobile rolled off GM's assembly line. Oldsmobile was America's oldest automotive brand, and it was the second brand to roll into General Motors. Over the decades, however, the brand found itself as the red-headed stepchild of GM. It wasn't the most luxurious, cheapest, hippest, coolest, oldest, creative or any other adjective. It was solidly in the middle of the company's product offerings, and GM made the decision to shutter the brand.

Oldsmobile had its place in racing, particularly NASCAR. In the mid to late 1950s, Lee Petty fielded cars for himself and often other drivers. The race car of choice during that time was an Oldsmobile Delta 88. Other Petty drivers included the likes of Bill Lutz, Tiny Lund...

From Andy Towler at
...Bobby Myers (father of long-time Richard Childress Racing crewman Chocolate Myers)...

Final photo taken of Bobby Myers courtesy of Randy Myers
....and even Ralph Earnhardt.

Courtesy of Don Smyle / Smyle Media
Richard Petty's first career start at Columbia Speedway was in a hand-me-down Oldsmobile convertible. The remnants of what is believed to be the Olds that King drove in that first race in 1958 now resides in Memory Lane Museum in Mooresville, NC. It's also likely the car was the same Petty Olds raced by Billy Myers (Bobby's brother, Chocolate's uncle) to his final win in a convertible race at North Wilkesboro in 1958.

TMC Photo
The Pettys field a pair of Oldsmobiles in the first Daytona 500 in 1959. Richard entered an older Olds convertible, and Lee narrowly won the race in his new Olds hardtop.

Partway through the 1959 season, the Pettys became a full-time Plymouth team. In 1971, Petty Enterprises fielded a Dodge Charger for Buddy Baker while keeping the King in a Plymouth. In early 1972, the decision was made to move the 43 to a Dodge as well. The 43 stayed a Dodge through 1978 with Richard racing the 1974 Charger and the ill-fated 1978 Magnum.

Midway through 1978, the Dodge was no longer competetive. The Pettys made a logical - yet unpopular to many - decision to switch to Chevrolet. The team ran a purchased Monte Carlo the rest of the season until they could begin to build their own.

In the off-season, the team expanded its General Motors fleet beyond just the workhorse Monte Carlo. As previously blogged, a Caprice was built to run several of the short tracks. And for the superspeedways, the Pettys returned to the name brand with which Richard started: Oldsmobile.

Junior Johnson fielded the Olds Cutlass 442 for Cale Yarborough in 1978. By 1979, just about every GM team built one for the big tracks. Junior's team ran the 442 frequently, but most other teams raced it sparingly - primarily at tracks such as Daytona and Talladega.

1979 Daytona 500 - This race is perhaps the most well-known race for the 43 442. With a solid Petty blue hood and no STP oval because of an on-going financial chess match between STP and the Pettys, the newly built 442 won its debut race.

1979 Atlanta 500 - This 442 started and finished 11th with a one-time, unique look. The STP oval was back on the hood - but a small one. And a series of varying sized STP decals were applied to the quarter panels.

1979 Southeastern 500 - The 43 finished a strong 4th at Bristol in the first of only two short-track races for the 442.

Credit: Woody Delbridge
Credit: David Allio /
Courtesy of Ray Lamm
1979 Winston 500 - The car took a beating in this race at Talladega. A spin by Buddy Baker triggered a multi-car crash in which the majority of the top running cars were collected. Amazingly, most were able to continue and be competitive albeit with hundreds of yards of duct tape applied. The King brought home his mangled 442 to a P4 finish. A new deal had also been worked out with STP, and the 43 again sported a large STP oval on its hood.

1979 Mason-Dixon 500 - Petty's Olds was wiped out in lap 2 accident at Dover. The 442 finished 30th in the 31-car field. Richard was hurt badly enough that he needed relief help from Jimmy Insolo three races later in Riverside, California.

Credit: Lee Greenawalt
1979 Firecracker 400 - Though Petty wasn't able to sweep Daytona in 1979, he did back up his Daytona 500 win with a fifth place finish in the July 4th Firecracker race.

1979 Talladega 500 - The race earned double-chicken money for the Petty teams. Richard finished fourth in his Olds to match his P4 from the spring's Winston 500, and Kyle finished ninth in the Dodge Magnum in his debut Cup race.

After the second Talladega race, the Olds was parked in favor of the Monte Carlo and Caprice. The two Chevy cars were used in the stretch run as Richard successfully battled Waltrip for the championship. With his seventh title in the books, the team went back to work readying for 1980. The team went with what worked before, and they again prepared the 442 to defend their title at Daytona.

1980 Daytona 500 - This one was my first Daytona race to see in person. I watched from atop a small motorhome in the infield and was mesmerized by the brilliantly-bright, day-glo red despite the great distance from me to the track. Though King won the 500 for the 6th time in 1979 and his 7th and final time in 1981, my first trip wasn't a good day for the King or the Olds. After starting 4th, the 442 broke a clutch and Petty finished a disappointing 25th.

Adding insult to injury was that Kyle missed his first Daytona 500 after wrecking his hand-me-down Dodge Magnum in his 125-mile qualifier. The accident started when Nashville's Gary Baker spun and wrecked coming out of turn 4 in his #4  ...  Olds 442.

TMC Archives
1980 Winston 500 - The superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega were great to the 43 in 1979 with finishes of 1st and 5th at Daytona and a pair of P4s at Talladega. In 1980, the big tracks weren't quite as kind. After a 25th at Daytona, Richard finished 31st at Talladega after losing an engine in his Olds. Kyle (foreground) was back to working on his dad's pit crew.

Credit: Robert Turner
1980 Firecracker 400 - After a miserable first two races at the superspeedways, Richard finished a respectable fifth in Daytona's summer scorcher.

1980 Talladega 500 - The previous week at Pocono, Richard suffered a terrible crash in his Monte Carlo. He spun, backed into the wall hard, and was then t-boned by Darrell Waltrip. He walked away from the crash - but his face showed obvious pain. Folks learned later that Richard suffered broken vertebrae in his neck. Amazingly, the safety crew didn't stabilize the King's neck after taking him from the car.

Yet, the King soldiered on. He belted into the Olds at Talladega long enough to start the race. A midday rain shower benefited the team. The race was started under a green-yellow flag (laps count, speed doesn't - a NASCAR rule I truly disdain). Richard completed one official lap and was therefore credited with the race's driver points. As he neared completion of the second lap, the 43 hit pit road. Previous Petty driver and crewman Joe Millikan qualified the car fifth and then jumped into the Olds to race the full event. Unfortunately for Millikan, however, Maurice Petty's engine soured as it did in the spring at Talladega. The 442 finished 18th after completing only 154 of the race's 188 laps.

Source: SportingNews
1980 Old Dominion 500 - Kyle raced the Olds 442 at Martinsville in its second and last short-track race. He qualified 29th and finished 27th in his one and only career start in an Olds.

In the end, the Pettys won only one modern-era race in an Olds. Yet in my opinion, the 442 remains one of the best looking rides from the Level Cross shops in that era.

A year or so after Petty Enterprises moved to a 110-inch wheelbase Buick Regal on the track...

...I began learning how to drive... my parents' Oldsmobile...
...with a wheelbase far longer than 110 inches.

The car was a 1969 Oldsmobile Delta 88. The four-door sled had a 455 cubic inch engine. A true beast.

The Petty Olds? I miss it. My family's Delta 88? Ehh, not so much.

R.I.P. Oldsmobile



  1. I have a little racing connection with the Olds brand. In 1987 and 1988 I ghost wrote material for Oldsmobile NASCAR press kits for the Olds racing division manager, Dave Jarrard and acted as a media liaison at the track.

    My unexpected moment during that time was probably standing in victory Lane in April 1989 when Lake Speed drove the nameplate to a win at Darlington.

    Every Monday morning I'd have a telephone debriefing with Jarrard to discuss topics for the current week press kits. He'd end each call by saying he needed to call "Crash" Wilson. Rick at the time was piloting the Morgan-McClure Kodak ride out of Abingdon, Virginia.

    My other Olds connection came when I drove a 1958 model in my first, last and only demolition derby in Wilson,NC. With broken power steering and having to hold the column shifter to stay in reverse, I was a sitting duck. And, with no seat belt, I'd slide across the the slick bench seat with every hit. My demo career was extremely short lived.

  2. Another great post! I always wondered why that 1979 Daytona Winning Oldsmobile didn't have the big STP on the hood. Looks like none of the Oldsmobiles they ran had "OIL TREATMENT" next to the STP-unlike a lot of the models. Was it the aerodynamics of the Oldsmobile that made it so dominant on the superspeedways? That Petty Blue Oldsmobile winning the 1979 Daytona 500 is just an iconic moment-especially on the way to victory lane.
    That's also a great photo of the Caprice running in front of Kyle's Oldsmobile.
    You have so many awesome photos of The King on here-have you ever thought of contributing to a second edition of "Cars of the King?" You've made me want to get a new copy-mine was lost to a nasty breakup. Thank you thank you!