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1967-1973 Mercury Cougar

Mercury Cougar in Competition

Lincoln-Mercury may have tried to portray it as a class of one, but the Mercury Cougar was, after all, a ponycar. So it was only natural that the division would get the urge to take on Ford's rival Mustang in the Trans-American road racing series, launched by the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) in 1966 and devised expressly for production "sedans."

dan gurney racing a mercury cougar
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
Dan Gurney in action during Mercury Cougar's 1967 Trans-Am campaign.

Mustang was in a class by itself for 1965-1966, and it won the inaugural Trans-Am season hands down. Knowing that a few well-placed wins or even capturing the series championship would only help sales, L-M decided to field a factory-backed squad of its new Cougars for the T-A's sophomore season.

The team assembled was an impressive one, and Cougar stood every chance of winning the 1967 championship outright. That didn't happen, but the cars did well for a new model in its first campaign.

Why then did L-M pull Cougar off the Trans-Am circuit after only one year? Some observers believe that had L-M persisted for a second season, the Mercury Cougar would not only have emerged number one but would have redefined one of the most exciting series in American racing. We may never understand L-M's reasoning, but going back to the beginning will at least provide some facts.

Leo C. Beebe, the mastermind behind Ford's 1-2-3 finish at Le Mans in 1966, moved to Lincoln-Mercury in 1967, the year Cougar hit the market. His remarks at the time were tough and to the point: "If you're not in automobile racing, you're not in the automobile business, and we're in the automobile business right up to our ears!"

As if to back up his claim, Beebe announced that stock-car ace Bud Moore had been signed to prepare a team of Cougars for the 1967 Trans-Am. With famed pilot Dan Gurney as team captain and NASCAR veteran Parnelli Jones as lead driver, it was clear L-M was serious. Nicely rounding out the crew was driver Ed Leslie.

There was good news and bad news when the "Group II" Cougar opened its campaign at Daytona International Speedway on February 4th. The good news was that Gurney captured the pole. The bad news was that both he and Jones were forced to retire from the race early. Leslie finished the season curtain-raiser, but out of the points.

1968 mercury cougar funny car
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
"Dyno" Don Nicholson's 1968 Cougar funny car for the National Hot Rod Association drag wars.

This lackluster showing was repeated at Sebring on March 31, but then the team's luck changed. Gurney came home first at Smithfield, Texas, and Jones was right behind him. Peter Revson joined the team in time for the May 30th outing at Lime Rock, Connecticut, and celebrated with a solid victory.

Then Lady Luck frowned again, and the team scored no championship points at Lexington, Ohio, on June 11 or at Watkins Glen, New York, on June 25. The losing streak continued at Bryar, New Hampshire, at Marlboro, Maryland, at Castle Rock, Colorado, and at Crows Landing, California.

Then oval-track star David Pearson came to the aid of Team Cougar by taking first at Riverside in the Mission Bell 250 on September 17, with Ed Leslie kissing his bumper in second. By season's end, it was a toss-up whether the coveted Manufacturer's Trophy would go to Cougar or Mustang.

When the dust cleared, though, it was Mustang by a horse's hair. Cougar was second overall, with Chevy's new Camaro a relatively distant third. Apparently, Ford Motor Company thought that yanking Cougar's factory backing would help Mustang's chances for the 1968 season, which sounded reasonable -- except that Camaro ended up romping all over the Dearborn herd. What the results would have been had the factory Cougars returned is anybody's guess.

Of course, Cougars did see action in 1968, a lot of it. Several independent teams ran them in that year's Trans-Am with varying degrees of success, and stock-car pro Tiny Lund won the 1968 title in NASCAR's newly created Grand Touring series for sporty compacts with one of the Bud Moore T-A team cars.

But the Cougar found its real niche in the racing world on the drag strips. Forced to shift its official competition involvement, Mercury signed "Dyno" Don Nicholson and "Fast Eddie" Schartman to campaign Cougar "funny cars" in NHRA events. This was ideal for promotion purposes, since a fiberglass body only faintly resembling the stock issue was all that counted.

The fact that the real-life Cougar was at a weight disadvantage in production-class racing made no difference here. Even so, the drag effort would be cut short by the continuing decline in the performance market.

Sic transit the Mercury Cougar's competition career. It was all too brief and none too sweet -- but, oh, what might have been.

Despite the end of its competition days, the Cougar remained popular with sport-car enthusiasts in 1969. Learn more about the 1969 Cougar next.

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