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These Are the Most Influential Cars In Auto Racing History

Cameron EittreimNovember 18, 2022

The automotive industry and racing have gone hand in hand since the creation of the first mass-produced automobile. When racing turned into professional motorsports, the big three automakers decided to get involved as a way to market their newest vehicles to consumers. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, stock car racing exploded in popularity, and these cars became rolling billboards worth millions of dollars. It’s been repeatedly said that when a car did well at the racetrack on Sunday, it would be flying off dealership lots that Monday.

Cars like the Plymouth Superbird, Chevy Monte Carlo, and Ford Thunderbird were some of the best-known cars to dominate the racing circuit. It also helped things out to have major star power behind the wheel of these cars, thanks to Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, and Jeff Gordon, just to name a few. We looked at some of the most influential cars in automotive racing history and how these cars changed the face of the automotive industry. You don’t have to be an auto historian to appreciate the relevance of these cars, so enjoy them right here.

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Ford GT

The original Ford GT was a car built with a specific purpose in mind, and that was to dethrone Ferrari in world races. The car did exactly that and was one of the most victorious cars in the history of the LeMans. What made the GT special was not only its beautifully shaped aerodynamic design but also the powerful engine under the hood (via Ford).

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The GT was such an instrumental part of automotive history that it inspired the movie “Ford vs Ferrari”. There has never been another car designed like the GT, and especially not without the interesting story behind it. In a way, the GT was the car that got the world into automotive racing on a major level.

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BMW E30 M3

BMW has cultivated a stellar reputation for racing and that doesn’t stop with the F1 circuit. The E30 M3 was also one of the most decorated cars in the racing world. The E30 M3 won two European Championships, two British Championships, and four Italian Championships. The M3 is world-renowned for its performance and laser build quality (via DCI Solution).

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The E30 M3 was also big in the endurance racing scene. The car was built for the type of endurance racing that made it the most famous in the world. There are very few cars that could perform like the E30 M3 did and that’s half the reason why the car is still popular today. When it comes to legendary race cars from the ’80s and ’90s, the M3 is undoubtedly one of the most well-known.

Photo Credit: Edmunds

Ferrari F2004

The Indy Car racing world is unlike anything else in motorsports. But the Ferrari F2004 definitely stood out from the crowd. Legendary driver Michael Schumacher piloted the car to 15 wins in 18 races. The build quality of the F2004 was unlike anything else in the Indy car world. There was a level of precision unmatched when compared to other F1 race cars (via Ferrari).

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The Ferrari F2004 was one of the best-designed F1 race cars on the track. The competition unmatched the win column and the detail put into the performance of the car. Ferrari always had a stellar reputation in the F1 racing community and this car was no exception. F1 racing has continued to evolve yet the Ferrari F2004 was far ahead of its time.

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1949 Oldsmobile Rocket V-8

The 1949 Rocket V-8 was the very first production race car or “stock” car as they were called. Back when the Rocket V-8 was racing, the cars were so factory stock that many of the drivers would drive themselves to the race in the same car that they were driving in the race. Bill France Sr. saw a lot of potential in how race cars could drive the sales of production vehicles and he was right. After successful runs in the early days of NASCAR, the Rocket V-8 was a sales success. The success of the Rocket V-8 also propelled higher sales of the Oldsmobile 88 to the public and the automotive industry began to take notice (via Britanica).

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The Rocket V8 was the car that introduced the world to stock car racing in the mainstream. The design of the car itself was family-friendly and the performance was admirable. Oldsmobile was an innovator in the automotive industry and this was one of the most influential cars. A lot of modern drivers don’t realize that Oldsmobile was the backbone of the auto industry at one point. Although the company fell off in the 1990s and ultimately met its demise, there was a time when Oldsmobile commanded respect as a company.

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1955 Chrysler C-300

The Chrysler C-300 was the second most influential car in stock car racing because it was the next evolution of the design. The C-300 utilized new technology and an aerodynamic design to achieve much better results on the racing circuit. This was the first car that gave Oldsmobile a run for its money. The OHV 331 cu in (5.4 L) FirePower “Hemi” V8 was one of the first Hemi engines to be incorporated into a mainstream car. Chrysler designer Virgil Exner was behind the 100-million dollar design as it was touted. The car was by far one of the most popular offerings in the automotive world at the time (via Hemmings).

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Part of the reason that the car was so popular was due to the exterior design, but it was also because of the powerful V8 engine. Chrysler gave the other automakers a run for their money and Oldsmobile had to go back to the drawing board. The C-300 proved to be one of the most popular cars on the road at the time and it was also a great ride when it came to the stock car racing circuit. The C-300 further cemented the notion that a car that was successful at Sunday races would fly off the lot on Monday.

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1957 Mercury Monterey

The next most influential car in the world of stock car racing was the 1957 Monterey. The car had an amazing string of luck in terms of wins until a deadly crash in 1957 when a Monterey came barreling into the crowd and killed some of the spectators. After that, the sport was changed from being done on a dirt track to a traditional race track. So you could say in one sense that the Monterey helped to pave the way for the NASCAR we have today (via Barnfinds).

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The Monterey is not always credited with its role in the history of automotive racing, but it was an influential car. Similar to how Oldsmobile broke the mold in terms of performance and racing technology the Monterey continued that onward track. Unfortunately, Mercury was never a big part of the motorsports world and it was sad that the brand never got a better chance to shine.

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1957 Chevrolet Bel Air

The Bel Air is one of the most popular cars on the hot rod scene right now, but how did it get so popular? That was because the 1957 Bel Air was one of the first fuel-injected cars on the road and the first fuel-injected race car. The Bel Air had such a string of good luck on the NASCAR circuit that the racing organization banned all fuel-injected cars during the era. The car was not only great on the racetrack but it was also popular with families. The low-slung styling and powerful engine made the Bel Air the choice of drivers who wanted something fun to drive and easy on the wallet (via Trus Auto).

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Take a look at any hotrod show nowadays and the 1957 Bel Air is one of the most prevalent cars. And a lot of that prevalence has to do with the fact that the Bel Air was such a popular race car back in its heyday. The amount of engineering that went into the Bel Air made it lightyears ahead of the other cars on the circuit at the time. The consumer version of the Bel Air was also one of the most innovative and comfortable cars to drive.

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1961 Galaxie “Starliner”

The Ford Galaxie was one of the most well-known cars of its era. But the Starliner was also an influential NASCAR in the formative years of the racing circuit. The Starliner had 61 championship wins during its initial run in the racing circuits. The Chevrolet Impala outdid the car, which came onto the scene in late 1961. The low-slung styling and design of the Galaxie Starliner was its strong suit (via Hemmings).

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The Galaxie Starliner wasn’t the most notorious NASCAR in the history of the motorsport, but it developed a stellar reputation. Many stock cars that came after the Starliner utilized the same type of design. The aerodynamic slow-slung design of the Starliner was one of the things that made it dominant on the track.

1961 Chevrolet Impala SS
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1963 Chevrolet Impala 409

Even though Ford had a great run in the stock car racing circuit, they were not the only company to have success. Chevrolet also had a successful run in the early 1960s thanks to the Impala 409. The 409 was a low-slung race car with all the aerodynamics and performance. Many drivers don’t know that the Impala was originally a race car. But the model proved so popular that it lasted for decades on the market (via Hemmings).

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The Impala 409 was a generational shift from the slow cars of the past decade. Chevrolet ended up having decades of success in the NASCAR circuit, and it was the Impala 409 that started it. Even though the Bel Air came before it, the Impala 409 was a completely different type of car. There was something to be said about the honest design and excellent performance of the car.

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Pontiac Catalina Superduty 421

The Pontiac that gets all the attention is the GTO, the most well-known muscle car of its era. But it was the Catalina Superduty 421 that made an impact on the stock car racing circuit. The main thing that made the Catalina special was the 421 V8 engine under the hood. This was the base for everything that made the Catalina a great car and showcased the power of Pontiac engineering (via Hemmings).

Photo Credit: Hagerty

The Catalina doesn’t get enough credit for innovating the stock car racing segment. But the car had a lot of things going for it on the track and the consumer level. Pontiac was an innovator in the automotive industry and especially when it came to performance. There was a lot to like about Catalina and that made the car popular.

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Dodge Max Wedge 426

The Chrysler Corporation wanted to get in on the success that the stock car racing circuit brought to the showroom. There is no denying that when a car did well on the race track, it sold well on the retail side of things. The Max Wedge was designed with the 426 V8 engine specifically to qualify for racing. The Max Wedge had some of the best success in the racing world that Chrysler has ever had up until the Dodge Intrepid returned in 2001 (via Driving Line).

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The Max Wedge was one of the first stock cars considerably smaller in size. The previous race cars were a lot heavier and larger, and the Max Wedge showed that you could get great performance out of a smaller package. In the hot rod world, the Max Wedge is one of the most highly coveted models.

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Plymouth Max Wedge

Chrysler had a distinct advantage during the early stock car racing era. The company had two different brands competing simultaneously. The Plymouth Max Wedge was sold alongside the Dodge Max Wedge and both were successful on the circuit. The 426 Hemi that was under the hood of the car just oozes performance. Coupled with the short-snubbed design, the Max Wedge was a car that had no problem holding its own on the racetrack (via Hemmings).

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The Max Wedge was one of the most influential NASCARs of its era. The design innovated what had been previously established in the stock car racing circuit. The powerful engine crammed into the compact design was excellent. The car was the pinnacle of MOPAR engineering during these early years of the racing world.

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1963 Chevrolet Corvette Z06

Unbeknownst to many, the Corvette had an early run in the NASCAR circuit. The Z06 was designed specifically with a larger gas tank and a massive 427 V8 to dominate the circuit. The 1963 Z06 was considered one of the rarest Corvette models of all time. The slick design of the car gave it a dominant position on the racetrack. The big tank option was also offered on the consumer version of the Corvette Z06 and was successful (via Motor Trend).

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The Corvette model was one of the most well-known and influential cars on the road. As stock car racing became more popular, the Corvette had a dominant role. Although the later models of the Corvette were more focused on the LeMans circuit and pace car duty, as opposed to being a main part of the racing.

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1964 Plymouth Belvedere “Sport Fury”

If you haven’t noticed by now, the Plymouth brand found stellar success in the early days of stock car racing. The Belvedere Sport Fury was a popular car, and part of that was due to success on the race track. The low-slung style of the car was completely different than what came before it. The Belvedere Sport Fury was a family-friendly car that performed just as well on the race track. Chrysler had a successful run, and much of it had to do with the success of Plymouth cars (via Street Side Classics).

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The Belvedere with its low-slung style and powerful Hemi engine was a breath of fresh air. The Hemi V8 engine continued to be a popular engine choice in the 1970s. The engine was among one of the most iconic V8 engines ever built. Mopar fans are familiar with the success that the Belvedere had on the racetrack.

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Ford 427 Cammer

When Ford introduced two single-overhead-cams to their FE 427 V8 in 1965, it allowed the engine to run at higher RPMs. This was exactly what the doctor ordered when Ford was dominant on the race track. The 427 Cammer won in the 1965 racing season, although NASCAR banned dual cams the following year. Nevertheless, the 427 Cammer was a novel car that gave Chrysler a run for its money (via Eastern Restoration).

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The 427 Cammer was the epiphany of everything Ford was doing right at the time. Although the car wasn’t as recognizable as the GM offerings, it had a successful run. The Ford 427 V8 engine was considered one of the best engines of its time. The trademark exhaust note and performance are two things enthusiasts can’t forget.

Photo Credit: Hemmings

1966 Dodge Charger Fastback

The Charger Fastback was the unsung hero of the early NASCAR era. By 1966, Chrysler sold enough 426 Hemi engines to qualify the Charger as a stock car. The resulting vehicle had a fastback design to go with the powerful engine, and that vehicle was called the Charger Fastback. What made Fastback unique was that it broke performance records on and off the track. The Charger proved to still be one of the most popular cars in Detroit (via Garage Kept Motors).

Photo Credit: Hemmings

The boxier design of the car helped it win 27 of 48 races (including 10 in a row). At the time, that was a stock car racing record and showed the Charger was a competent racecar. The design was also popular outside the track, and dealerships couldn’t keep the Charger on their lots fast enough.

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Ford Torino “Talladega”

Building on the success of the previous racing seasons wasn’t hard for Ford. The Torino also introduced a new fastback design, like Chrysler. The resulting car had a much better drag efficiency and allowed the car to reach higher speeds more quicker. The V8 engine under the hood was also vastly improved over the previous Galaxie models. The Torino Talladega was a dominant NASCAR for most of the season (via Hemmings).

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The Torino Talladega was as popular as it was fast, and that proved to be a lethal combination on the track. The build quality of the Torino made it an instant success for consumers. The NASCAR drivers favored the car because of the low-slung aerodynamic design and stellar performance under the hood.

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1969 Dodge Daytona

The Daytona was one of the most influential cars in the NASCAR world. The design has become synonymous with the type of design and execution that made NASCAR a household name. The slant nose and powerful performance of the Daytona were two things that set it apart from every other automaker. The Daytona was so successful that NASCAR changed the rules when it came to aero-themed cars and a maximum displacement was set at 305 cu in (5.0 L) (via FOX News).

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The Charger Daytona was everything that a NASCAR team needed to be successful. The look and feel of the car were so ahead of their time in terms of technology and design. Few cars became more iconic or popular than the Daytona and the car still fetches a high price tag on the resale market.

1970 Plymouth Superbird
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Plymouth Superbird

The Plymouth Superbird was the car that made Richard Petty a star. His string of wins was directly due to the innovative aerodynamic design that the car had. The Superbird shared most of its design with the Charger Daytona, but there were subtle differences. The Superbird was designed with a 200 MPH top speed in mind, which Petty achieved with no problem. The performance of the Superbird alone gave the car a legendary reputation in the racing industry (via Classic).

1970 Plymouth Superbird
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Unfortunately, the Superbird didn’t last long as NASCAR instituted stricter regulations on aero-designed cars. The Superbird is still one of the most popular muscle cars ever built. That’s because of the ridiculous success that the car had on the racetrack in the earliest days of NASCAR.

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1981 Buick Regal

The third-generation NASCAR cars were a complete departure from the cars that came before them. General Motors had eight different car models in the races during this generation. The most forgotten model is the 1981 Buick Regal. The car weighed considerably less than the cars that came before it, and there were notable safety enhancements. The 358 cubic inches (5,870 ccs) was an exceptional engine and it was one of the most successful (via Opposite Lock).

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When we look back on the third generation of NASCAR, the Regal was probably the most underrated model there was. General Motors was heavy in the racing scene back then and the Regal was at the forefront. Of course, the rest of the GM G-Body cars were also prevalent in the racing world during this time.

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1987 Buick LeSabre

The LeSabre was also prevalent during the third generation of NASCAR. During this period, the GM G-Body was shared across multiple nameplates. The LeSabre had a successful run in the NASCAR circuit and gained quite a few wins during its initial run. The LeSabre was only used from 1986 to 1987. There was a lot more potential for the car to capture more championships, but GM already had too many models in the same race (via I Racing).

Photo Credit: NASCAR Museum

There is a place in the history books for the LeSabre and its mark on NASCAR. The car was never one of the mainstays in the NASCAR world but it was a great piece of automotive design. The third-generation NASCAR models were the last to race without a roof flap as this became mandated in the 1990s.

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1989 Chevrolet Lumina

The Lumina is probably the most well-known NASCAR that was around during the third generation. That’s thanks mainly due to Dale Earnhardt and his reputation for winning. The GM Goodwrench #3 NASCAR was popular as a toy and on the track, winning numerous championships during its short time. GM was attempting to position the Lumina as a replacement for the Chevrolet Camaro, so entering it into the NASCAR circuit was the logical next step (via Barrett Jackson).

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The Lumina didn’t become the success that GM hoped for, and the sales of the car were sluggish. It was replaced with the Monte Carlo later in the NASCAR series. There were good aspects that the Lumina offered, but it wasn’t going to replace the Camaro. There just wasn’t enough of a reputation there.

Photo Credit: Barrett Jackson

Ford Thunderbird

The Thunderbird was also an instrumental car in the racing world and was the only car Ford ran in the 1980s. The racing version of the Thunderbird shared almost all the sheet metal styling with the production car. This meant consumers got the same aerodynamic benefits as the race car. This proved to be a successful selling point for Ford, and the 1980s were a high point for the Thunderbird brand (via Mecum).

Photo Credit: Mecum

The Thunderbird was a successful NASCAR for whatever team had won, but Bill Elliott was the most successful driver in one of these. His Budweiser car was known for grabbing championships. This was the generation of the Thunderbird, which went from being a weekend cruiser to a lightweight performance car.

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Ford Taurus

The late 1990s were an important time for NASCAR as the fourth-generation cars were released to the public. The Taurus became a mainstay in the NASCAR world when the Thunderbird was discontinued. The Taurus was used by a lot of racing teams thanks to its aerodynamic design and excellent performance. To say the Taurus was successful would be an understatement as the car was one of the most successful NASCAR of all time (via Hagerty).

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The Taurus was one of the last cars from the 1990s that was in the NASCAR circuit. The Ford Fusion replaced it in 2006 and eventually the Mustang. When you go back through the history books of NASCAR, you can’t miss the impact that the Taurus had on the sport during its run.

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Pontiac Grand Prix

The Grand Prix was an important piece of NASCAR history because it marked the end of Pontiac. Support for the car was dropped after 2003 and Pontiac was no more by 2010. The Pontiac brand was always an integral part of the performance world, and it was shocking to see the brand disappear. The Grand Prix had a good run in the NASCAR circuit, capturing dozens of championships during its two-decade run on the racing scene (via Motor 1).

Photo Credit: Motorious

The Grand Prix was piloted by many well-known NASCAR drivers and teams during its run. Although the car shared its underpinnings with the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, it was a unique offering in its own right. The way automakers used to embrace NASCAR shows how much the times have changed.

Photo Credit: NASCAR

2007 Toyota Camry

The Camry is one of the most influential NASCAR ever introduced. The Camry marked the first time a Japanese automaker competed in an American-based auto sport. There was a lot of flack received when it was announced the Camry would be part of NASCAR. But the car has enjoyed great success since Toyota introduced it into the sport in 2007. Toyota has also branched out into truck racing with the Tundra (via Racing News).

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Many observers didn’t see the Camry as a real threat to domestic automakers, but the car has won many championships. Toyota knew that investing in NASCAR would increase the brand awareness of the Camry even further. The Camry is still a major part of the NASCAR circuit today and the car is more popular than ever.

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Ford RS200

The Ford RS200 was one of the most influential rally cars in the world. The short wheel-based car was designed specifically to assert dominance in the rally racing circuit. The car enjoyed success from the first day it hit the track, with many famous drivers getting behind the wheel (via Road & Track).

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The RS200 was considered the wildest car to ever wear a Ford badge. The amount of engineering and perfection that went into the car cannot be understated. There was a lot to love about the RS200 and there were even a few production examples that made it onto the market.

Photo Credit: Road & Track

Audi Sport Quattro S1

The Audi Sport Quattro S1 was one of the most successful rally cars ever to enter the racing scene. When people hear the word Audi and Quattro, they almost always think of the S1. The design of the car was unlike anything else on the road at the time. Before the S1 rally, cars didn’t have the kind of performance that this one did. The car won numerous worldwide championships and was a force to reckon with (via Overdrive).

Photo Credit: Road & Track

No other car has matched the Quattro S1 in the sheer number of wins it obtained during its time on the circuit. The build quality of the car and the engineering were both aspects that made it unlike anything else on the road. Audi has continued to improve and innovate in the rally racing scene to this day.

Photo Credit: Road & Track

Corvette LeMans Racer

The Corvette has had an amazing run in the LeMans racing circuit over the past few decades. Whenever the car is improved or redesigned, it continues to win. Some consider the LeMans Corvette the ultimate road car. The car has not only won a series of championships but also achieved many land speed records (via Pinterest).

Photo Credit: Road & Track

The 24/Hour LeMans race can be a brutal race for even the most experienced drivers. But the Corvette has held its own in the race year after year and continues to be a strong performer. The Corvette itself was one of the most iconic sports cars ever built and its success in LeMans only fueled that reputation.

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