Retro Racing: Large and small chassis run side by side

Mark Aumann, NASCAR.COM
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Retro Racing: Large and small chassis run side by side

Dale Earnhardt was the highest finisher among those driving the new chassis at Riverside in 1981, finishing third. (Smyle Media)

The only constant in life is change, and that's certainly the case with NASCAR through the years. After a five-year run, the current Sprint Cup chassis is getting a makeover for the 2013 season. A similar situation occurred in 1981, when NASCAR decided to shrink down the chassis in its premier series, moving from a wheelbase of 115 inches to 110 inches.

But unlike what will happen in February at Daytona, both chassis types were approved for the 1981 season-opener at Riverside International Raceway, resulting in an odd final curtain call for NASCAR's "big boats."

During Detroit's "muscle-car era," bigger had been better: larger, more powerful engines needed big wheelbases to carry all that additional weight. But the gas crises of the 1970s, a decade-long recession and federal mandates on fuel economy changed consumer buying habits, and automakers naturally followed suit, shrinking the wheelbases on passenger cars to around 110 inches.

With fewer full-size cars on the market, NASCAR realized it had gotten out of step with its fan base. It began considering reducing the wheelbase of the Cup car in 1976 but didn't make it mandatory until after the 1980 season.

But there was a problem. Making the cars significantly smaller, particularly on the hood and rear deck, created reductions in aerodynamic downforce. Darrell Waltrip was one of the first to speak out on that topic after testing the new chassis during the offseason.

"It's going take us some time to sort these cars out," Waltrip was quoted by the Associated Press after Riverside qualifying. "These small cars aren't made for racing, so it'll take some time.

"We're able to go about as fast as the old cars with the new ones, but it's the handling that's a problem. The longer we've driven them in testing, the worse they've performed."

With that in mind -- and with many teams loathe to part with their tried-and-true standard chassis -- NASCAR decided to push back the full introduction of the 110-inch wheelbase to Daytona, which was the second race on the schedule then.

Dale Earnhardt and Neil Bonnett went with the smaller chassis at Riverside, but most of the other Cup regulars stuck with what they knew well.

"[The car] felt pretty good out there, but we won't know what it can do over a long haul until we get it into the race," Earnhardt said. "And then it could be a totally different situation when we get to Daytona."

Waltrip won the pole with a lap of 114.711 mph on the 2.62-mile road course, with Bobby Allison winding up second.

According to Albert Hammond's hit song, it never rains in southern California, but it poured on race morning, creating a 90-minute delay. As the track dried, NASCAR officials asked Allison to take his car out on a fast lap to check the conditions.

As soon as he got up to speed, Allison realized there was a problem, not with the track but with his car. The rear-end setup was wrong, and he could barely control his car in the corners.

That wasn't going to work at all, not for 300 miles. So Allison made a snap decision. When the field rolled out for the pace lap, he pitted for adjustments. That meant starting from the tail end of the field, but with a car he felt was fast enough to work its way back to the front.

"It turned out to be a lucky lap," Allison said afterwards. "Even though it meant I had to start from the rear instead of on the front row, it allowed me to start with a strong car.

"If I had waited until the race to discover the problem, I would have had to pit under green, and I'd have lost a lot more."

Allison's decision was the right one. He passed 10 cars on the first lap and was fifth by Lap 29. But six caution flags played havoc with his race strategy.

"It seemed like all day it was catch up, catch up," Allison said. "Every time I thought I was about to make a big move, a yellow flag came out. It really fouled up my race plan and made it tough getting to the front.

"I knew the way my car was running, I'd make it eventually. But it took longer than I'd have liked. It was unpleasant and uncomfortable starting at the rear, but I never felt like it was a hopeless situation."

On the other hand, Waltrip's day went from bad to worse. After spinning while leading, he had to pit to change a fouled spark plug. Then, after battling back into contention, he lost 11 laps while his crew switched out distributors.

The race eventually came down to a two-car battle between Allison and Terry Labonte. On the final restart with 15 laps to go, Allison beat Labonte down the backstretch and pulled away for a 1.73-second victory in his debut for Harry Ranier.

Earnhardt was third, the highest finisher among the new chassis, while two Richards -- Childress and Petty -- rounded out the top five. Childress was leading and perhaps heading for his first Cup victory when he began experiencing issues with his clutch and faded.

Petty was in the familiar red-and-blue STP livery, but with an unfamiliar number, at least for him. In an effort to get two team cars qualified for NASCAR's Winners Circle bonus-paying program, Petty stuck his father's famous No. 42 on his car and gave his son Kyle the No. 43 for the first and only time in his Cup career.

It was the 29th and final time that Richard Petty drove the No. 42, which included victories at Roanoke in 1962 and Augusta in 1966. He never deviated from the No. 43 for the rest of his career.

As for Kyle Petty, he finished 20th after his engine expired, becoming the third generation of Pettys to carry that numeral. Lee Petty had driven the No. 43 three times in his career, including a win at North Wilkesboro in 1959, the year before his grandson was born.