Minter: RIP, Mercury
The news this week that Ford is dropping the Mercury line that has for years produced cars for people who wanted a little more than a Ford but not as much as a Lincoln brings to mind the 1970s in NASCAR, when the “Big Cars” still ruled the roost in the series now known as Sprint Cup.
David Pearson and the Wood Brothers dominated the superspeedways with their Mercury Montego. Later, Neil Bonnett took the Woods to Victory Lane in a Mercury Cyclone.
Dale Earnhardt was pretty intimidating in his big, long Monte Carlo. Donnie Allison was wheeling Hoss Ellington’s Hawaiian Tropic Monte Carlo when he tangled with Cale Yarborough at Daytona in 1979 and when he won at Atlanta in a race that saw Richard Petty originally go to Victory Lane before a teen-age Brian France helped sort out the scoring snafu.
In my college years, I spent a good bit of time hanging out in a former elementary school on the highway between Dawsonville and Dahlonega in north Georgia. On one end of the building was George Elliott’s small Ford dealership. The upper side of the old school was a race shop where Bill, Ernie and Dan Elliott prepared race cars. In the rooms where the race cars were prepared, the chalkboards still hung on the walls.
Out back was a junkyard.
The Elliotts initially raced an old Ford Torino that had been run in previous years by Richie Panch. But when Roger Penske, who had been running both Mercuries and AMC Matadors on the circuit now known as Sprint Cup, decided to focus solely on Matadors, he sold all of his Mercury equipment to the Elliotts.
If memory serves me correct, the sales price was around $28,000. Rumor had it at the time that Penske made the low-buck deal with the then-upstart Elliotts rather than see his technology go to the Wood Brothers or to Bud Moore, who were much more likely to use it to beat him at the time.
The red-and-white Mercury Montego was a great step up for the Elliotts. To look at the cars, one might assume that they simply replaced the”2” on the doors with a “9” and raced the car just as they received it. The truth was that they studied every detail of the car used their new-found knowledge to improve their overall racing program.
Seemingly overnight, Elliott moved from mid-pack to the lead group. The Mercury played a huge role.
But by the time the Elliotts bought that car, the days of the “Big Cars” on the NASCAR speedways already had been doomed by Detroit’s decision to begin building more smaller and mid-size cars.
After the 1980 season, NASCAR announced a major rules change, dropping the wheelbase for Cup cars from 115 to 110 inches. At the time, it created as much stir as the switch to the Car of Tomorrow did a few years back.
Some teams, like the Wood Brothers and the Elliotts tried to convert their big Mercuries to mid-side Ford Thunderbirds. But they soon realized it was easier to build a new one from the ground up.
The Mercury race cars went out in style. In a little over a month’s time in the summer of 1980, Bobby Allison drove a Mercury to victory at Daytona and Neil Bonnett, in the Wood Brothers No. 21 Mercury Cyclone, won back-to-back races at Pocono and Talladega.
The Talladega win was the final one in Cup for Mercury, which traced it roots in NASCAR all the way back to the circuit’s inaugural race race, at Charlotte in 1949 when Bill Snowden drove a ’48 Mercury to a 22nd-place finish.
– Rick Minter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments