Richard Petty’s last Chrysler stock car, a 1977 Dodge Magnum. Photos courtesy Dragone Auctions.
For the first two decades of Richard Petty’s legendary stock car racing career, and excluding the 1969 season when he drove a Ford, The King had an unwavering loyalty to Mopar products. The 1978 season, which began with Petty switching from a 1974 Dodge Charger to a 1977 Dodge Magnum, was his final one in a Chrysler product, and on Sunday, September 3, at Lime Rock Park in Lakeville, Connecticut, Dragone Auctions will be selling the last Chrysler raced by Petty in Winston Cup competition.
By 1977, Chrysler was in financial dire straits, and no longer produced a body style approved by NASCAR for competition. To keep the Winston Cup teams running Mopars in the hunt for one more season, the sanctioning body revised the rules to allow the 1974 Dodge Charger to run for four years instead of the normal three, and Richard Petty, in his ’74 Charger, finished the season with five wins and a second-place finish in points.
Four of Petty’s five wins had come in the first half of the season, and by year end it was clear that the team’s Charger was simply no longer competitive. Its last race came in January of 1978 at Riverside, and Petty finished a disappointing 16th after retiring early with a broken differential. The next race of 1978, the Daytona 500, dawned with great promise for Petty and his team, thanks to a new NASCAR-approved Mopar body – the 1977 Dodge Magnum. Showing its potential, Petty qualified second and finished second at the car’s first outing, the Twin 125 Qualifier.
After qualifying sixth for the 1978 Daytona 500, Petty’s race ended early with a flat tire and crash on lap 61, after leading the race for 39 laps. His performance behind the wheel aside, The King described the car as “undriveable above 190 MPH,” hardly a glowing endorsement for a car meant to reverse team’s fortunes. Turning the Magnum into a competitive race car would clearly be no easy task.
Despite the prognosis, the Petty team went to work, investing more time into developing and sorting the car than with any previous chassis. The body shape wasn’t as stable at high speeds as the previous 1974 Dodge Charger, but teams running new bodies from Ford and GM seemed to be complaining about the exact same thing. Worse, Chrysler’s financial woes meant that parts necessary for engine development or rebuilding weren’t available, at least not with any regularity. It wasn’t uncommon for the team to scour junkyards for 340 wedge engine blocks, and even in the 1970s, junkyard engines didn’t win championships at NASCAR’s highest level.
While the Magnum wasn’t the equal of the Charger on the superspeedways like Daytona or Talladega, eventually it was made competitive on the short tracks and road courses. The highlights of Petty’s 1978 season with the Magnum included podium finishes at North Wilkesboro, Martinsville, Nashville, and Riverside, but by August of 1978 the rumors that Chrysler would be withdrawing from NASCAR in 1979 could no longer be ignored.
After finishing seventh at Talladega on August 6, the team switched to a Chevy Monte Carlo for the August 20 race at Michigan. Petty’s two-decade run with Chrysler had ended, and a relationship with General Motors that would last until The King’s retirement in 1992 had begun. Sorting the Monte Carlo would take the rest of the season, and 1978 is remembered as Petty’s first year without a win in NASCAR Cup competition since 1959.
The Talladega race wasn’t the last event in which the Petty team ran the Magnum to be sold in Connecticut. On February 11, 1979, Kyle Petty, Richard’s son, made his ARCA stock car racing debut at Daytona behind the wheel of the Magnum, then finished in a Petty Blue and white livery and carrying the number 44. After qualifying second, Kyle would go on to lead 51 of the race’s 80 laps, taking a win in his first ARCA start. He’d drive the Magnum in four other events during the 1979 season, finishing no higher than ninth, and its last race was at the 1980 Daytona Twin 125 Qualifier.
Following a crash on lap 25, the car was retired to the Petty team’s garage and later restored to the livery used by Richard during the 1978 season. Sold by Petty to the consignor circa 1995, the Dodge was placed on loan to Humpy Wheeler, who kept the car on display at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Petty poses with the car prior to delivery to the consignor.
Given the car’s significance as the last Mopar raced by The King, Dragone expects a selling price between $80,000 and $90,000 when the car crosses the auction block in Connecticut on Sunday, September 3. For more information on the Lime Rock sale, visit DragoneAuctions.com.