Chrysler and Dodge have a long and often odd history in the racing realm. Throughout the years, the company has gone from winning championships to pulling out of motorsports altogether on multiple occasions. The latest give-and-take came last year after Dodge and SRT Racing won the now Weathertech Sportscar Championship with the latest generation of Dodge Viper GT3 cars, then promptly left the race series just three days after the team accepted the trophy.
In a similar occurrence, Dodge’s and Chrysler’s predilection for wafting and wavering in motorsport almost quelled a racing great’s entire career. According to Hemmings, in 1972, a young Dale Earnhardt was ready to give up racing for good. He had had enough of the racing world, and was ready to just get up and leave without looking back. That is, until Chrysler tapped the young driver to test a “kit car.”
“As lore has it,” explains the Hemmings article, “Dale Earnhardt was just about ready to hang up his helmet in 1974 and turn his back on racing for good when he got the opportunity to test a factory-built kit car Chrysler was developing. Encouragement from the Chrysler engineer on hand led Earnhardt to reconsider and go on to race professionally.” While the late Earnhardt is now considered one of racing’s great drivers, at the time, he was just a new driver. However, what made this encounter even more memorable was the car Earnhardt tested.
In 1972, Chrysler had once again left the racing world. The company was at the top of its game, and had a huge supply of racing knowledge that it could have tapped and returned triumphant. However, like the Viper’s mentioned earlier, the company just decided to leave. In the interim, the company had decided to develop a short course racecar that customers could buy from the factory. Essentially, Chrysler was developing a Porsche Cayman GT4.R in the 1970s.
Earnhardt was brought in onto the program in 1974, and tested Chrysler’s prototype kit car. Later dubbed “Saturday Night Specials” by Richard Petty’s company Petty Enterprises, the kit cars came either fully assembled, or in pieces for the owner to build themselves and customize. While if you selected to build the car yourself, you had the ability to drop any engine you conceived of into the engine bay, if you bought the car from Chrysler fully-assembled, it featured the company’s “W2 Head” 355ci V8 that made 650 horsepower.
Here’s where it becomes truly interesting. When the Saturday Night Specials were introduced, the only body shapes you could buy were a Dart, a Valiant Scamp, and a Duster. Only 130 cars were sold, 30 full-assembled and 100 kits. However, there was at least one prototype that was built using a Challenger exterior, and to tie in Earnhardt, the original prototype that he tested had a Challenger body. Now a Challenger-bodied Saturday Night Special is coming up for sale and it could be the car that convinced Earnhardt to stay.
The Challenger-bodied Saturday Night Special will be heading to Mecum’s Kissimmee auction this upcoming January. While no one has been able to properly trace this car’s provenance, it’s very likely that this is that same car that helped convince a racing legend to continue to race.
Due to the incomplete provenance, the car’s pre-auction estimate is between $40,000 and $80,000, which, if ever proven accurate, would be an absolute steal.