Many of today’s NASCAR fans have never heard of the American Motors Corp., and they definitely are not familiar with the AMC Matador that played a significant role in NASCAR racing during the early 1970s.
Generally thought of as an underdog, the Matador frequently found success against its competitors from General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.
AMC’s quest to go stock car racing began in the SCCA Trans-Am Series in 1970 with driver Mark Donohue and team owner Roger Penske. Nine Trans-Am victories in 1971 for Donohue aboard an AMC Javelin prompted AMC executives to consider entering the NASCAR Cup Series in 1972.
And they did it with Penske and Donohue, utilizing cars built by Dick Hutcherson and Eddie Pagan of Hutcherson-Pagan fame and with Jake Elder serving as crew chief. Penske also hired Dave Marcis to drive the car in six races that season. Marcis collected a pair of seventh-place finishes.
“We will run a minimum of eight races up to 12,” Penske told the Spartanburg (S.C.) Herald. “We are capable of running 25 races if we want to. Our first race is the Riverside 500. Mark can drive in the first four races — Riverside, the Daytona 500, the Ontario 500 and Atlanta 500. Our schedule doesn’t get in full swing until April.”
Donohue knew the Matadors would be a work in progress.
“We aren’t saying we are (initially) going to win,” Donohue stressed. “We are coming down here (to NASCAR) very humbly. We have a lot of respect for this kind of racing. It has been around for a long time.”
Donohue’s words were accurate as he finished 39th, 35th, 44th and 15th, respectively, in the first four races with the Matador. Victory came a year later when the 1973 season opened at California’s Riverside Int’l Raceway. It was AMC’s first NASCAR victory as Donohue led 138 of the 191 laps. He credited his car’s four-wheel disc brakes, something new to NASCAR at that time, for giving him the advantage.
“My brakes were better than the other cars,” Donohue said in the Jan. 24, 1973, issue of National Speed Sport News. “I could go deeper into the turns.”
Donohue’s only other start in 1973 came at Atlanta Motor Speedway where he suffered engine issues in the Matador and finished 30th. Commitments to Indy car, Cam-Am and Formula One events kept Donohue away from NASCAR, even though he served in a management role for all teams fielded by Penske.
Penske hired Indy car standout Gary Bettenhausen to wheel his Matadors for five races, with a best finish of fourth at Michigan Int’l Speedway.
Bobby Allison fielded his own Chevrolets during the first half of the 1974 Cup Series season, winning at Richmond (Va.) Raceway in March. When racing at Michigan in June, Allison told Penske he’d drive the Matador if asked.
That call came prior to the Firecracker 400 at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
“I was at my shop in Hueytown, Ala., working on my car when the phone rang and it was Mark Donohue,” Allison said. “He asked me if I would drive the Matador for them at Daytona and I said, ‘sure.’ Mark said, ‘We have to meet so come to Reading, Pa., right now.’ I ran in the house, packed a quick bag and told my wife, Judy, what was going on and headed for my airplane.”
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