As long as competitions have had a rulebook, competitors have tried to find a way around it. Sure, all motorsports are like this, but it’s only NASCAR that turned it into a catchphrase.
As we enter the Next Gen era, however, NASCAR’s emphasis on parity and cost control has taken the design of the cars out of teams’ hands. The future of the sport will see a lot less patience for the kind of “innovation” that used to be dismissed with a wink and a “boys, have at it.” This series is my chance to pour one out for what we’ve lost. Join me as I investigate the most innovative, ingenious, and downright illegal designs in NASCAR history. After all, if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.
JUNIOR JOHNSON’S YELLOW BANANA
Right alongside last week’s spotlight Smokey Yunick in the proverbial Racing Cheaters Hall of Fame is Ronda, North Carolina’s Robert Glen Johnson, better known as Junior.
After all, he built the engine that dominated the inaugural All-Star Race under the hood of Darrell Waltrip’s Chevy, and blew up just as DW crossed the finish line. NASCAR officials couldn’t inspect an engine scattered all over the frontstretch, and so Junior Johnson and Associates walked away with the $250,000 check.
In a 1998 interview with the Orlando Sentinel, Junior said: “Getting away with cheating was easy. It was based on how smart you were. But you really didn’t have to be that smart because the officials sure weren’t smart at all. Of course, NASCAR don’t like you telling them that, but it’s true.” Smokey Yunick used to claim that he was just trying to keep up with “other guys cheatin’ ten times as much.” He might have just meant Junior.
The peak of his extralegal innovation came early in his illustrious career as a NASCAR car owner. In 1965, Johnson had fielded the #26 Ford as an owner-driver, but a rule change during the 1966 season banned Ford’s 427ci “Cammer” engine, and the Blue Oval factory teams boycotted in protest, just as Chrysler had done the year before when NASCAR banned the Hemi. So the 1966 season began with no Wood Brothers, no Holman-Moody, and no Junior Johnson.
With the loss of Ford, and perhaps more importantly, fan-favorite Blue Oval driver Fred Lorenzen, weighing heavily on NASCAR’s pockets, word somehow got around to Junior Johnson that, were he to enter a Ford in the August race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, officials might be willing to look the other way on a few minor infringements. That was their first mistake: inviting Junior Johnson to cheat.
With under-the-table backing from Ford HQ in Detroit, Junior Johnson built a custom ‘66 Galaxie for Fred Lorenzen to make a triumphant return. Junior shortened the nose of the car and lowered the front clip, angling the hood downward for better aerodynamics. The windshield was angled way, way back, and the roof itself was lowered somewhere between two and five inches – more on the left side than the right. Most distinctively, Junior curved the trunk lid upward for downforce. It was that distinctive profile: yellow paint, low roof, bent-up rear end, that gave this car the nickname “the Yellow Banana.”
The car was blatantly illegal. From 20 feet away you could tell the Banana was as much a ‘66 Galaxie as I am, but to placate Ford, it passed inspection anyway. Lorenzen barely squeezed through the tiny driver’s-side window and qualified the car third (Curtis Turner took pole in a Smokey Yunick Chevelle).
After pushing Turner into blowing a motor, the Banana roared into the lead. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t last. On lap 139, a failure (conflicting reports suggest either a tire or wheel hub issue) sent Lorenzen into the wall, leading a rival crew member to remark “no wonder, I’ve never seen someone drive a banana at 150 miles an hour.” Richard Petty went on to win the race behind the wheel of a more conventional-looking Plymouth.
Even though the Yellow Banana failed to finish its only start, it was overwhelmingly successful. NASCAR made some engine-size concessions to Ford that brought the Blue Oval teams back before the end of 1966, and Junior Johnson finally retired from driving to focus on running his team. Junior Johnson and Associates would go on to win 132 races and six championships before closing down in 1995.
It was the one-two punch of the Yellow Banana and the 7/8ths Chevelle that led NASCAR to adopt standard manufacturer templates in the late ‘60s – just in time to get the manufacturers themselves involved in the aero wars. While the Torino Talladega, Comet Cyclone, Charger Daytona, and Superbird took the aerodynamic trickery of Yunick and Johnson to the next level, all subsequent “aero wars” would have the full endorsement of the manufacturers, and templates to match.
Read Part 1, Part 3, and Part 4 here.
Featured image sourced from Mac’s Motor City Garage. Original source unknown