Through the years, drag racing has produced dozens of big stars like Don “the Snake” Prudhomme, Sox & Martin, and many more. But during the 60s, one name was responsible for more innovation, technology, and fan enthusiasm than any other. The name belonged to a group of guys who all shared the same passion: making Mopars go faster than anyone else on the racetrack. They called themselves the Ramchargers.
The Ramchargers were drag racing’s first dream team. All were young men in their 20s and practically all of them were Chrysler engineers. From 8 to 5, Monday through Friday, they helped Chrysler create some of the muscle car era’s most powerful hardware. But on weekends they took this hardware to the track and blew everyone away. Starting at 1958 and racing through 1967, the original Ramchargers did more than anyone else to create Chrysler corporation’s high performance image. In their spare time, the guys in those candy stripe cars became the most successful and the most popular drag racing team the young sport had ever seen. What makes their success all the more amazing is the fact that this group did most of this on their own.
Despite what many people thought, the Ramchargers wasn’t a high dollar Chrysler racing team. They started out as a car club. “We had a group of ten or twelve guys that were really devoted,” says Dan Mancini, “and we had other members of the Ramchargers that came and went.” Dan Mancini was an engine builder and one of the original group who formed the Ramchargers. “Most of them were engineers and we got together a couple times a month at a meeting after work. Each of the individuals had their own project they wanted to do. If they didn’t have their own project, they would help one of the other fellows who did have a project. And we’d help one another.”
Jim Thornton shared the driving with many others. He eventually became the club president. When he joined up, the Ramchargers were already becoming famous. “I had read about the Ramchargers in hot rod magazine before I came to work at Chrysler. I started in February of ’60 and the second assignment I had, I went to a group in the engine lab and there were two people in the engine lab that were Ramchargers. So I thought I died and gone to heaven and they invited me to go to one of the meetings and then later to join the club.”
Gary Congdon was a fuel system specialist from Holley carburetors, on loan to Chrysler corporation. A little engineering department networking brought him into the club. “Danny invited me. He told me to clean up the floors and wax the cars and said, ‘You oughtta come down and see what this is all about.’” Tom Coddington adds: “Chrysler was a very unique corporation at that time. While it was a big company, you got to know everybody. Everybody was very approachable in engineering and everybody was helpful and it was a great place for a young engineer to start out.”
Tom Coddington was a fuel system expert and he soon became one of the club’s engine builders. For him and the other Ramchargers, getting into drag racing was a natural. “Every community of any size had a drag strip that was either full time or an airport runway they used once a month. That’s the way it was when I grew up. And anybody could get involved as long as they had a driver’s license and the car passed tech.” Within months of their first meeting, the Ramchargers had built their first club car: a funny looking ’59 Plymouth. Dan Mancini explains: “We built a car called the High and Mighty. It was quite an exotic car. It did some unusual things on the track because of the suspension but it was a very successful car. For a low budget car. I mean low budget! Probably $200-$300 and all the parts we could scrounge up.”
Drag Racing – A Come As You Are Motor Sport
Drag racing in the early 60s was a real come as you are motor sport. The racers who went the fastest were the people who weren’t afraid to try anything. Obviously the Ramchargers were those kinds of racers. Racing a ’49 Plymouth Coupe was weird enough but from its up in the sky suspension to its outlandish intake manifold, actually the first tunnel ram, to its wild looking exhaust headers, High and Mighty was a collection of new ideas that only a bunch of engineers like the Ramchargers could dream up.
Jim Thornton recalls: “The plan was to get the center of gravity high and get weight transfer to the rear tires to get traction and it was known at Chrysler at that time that a tune length intake manifold system would develop more power than the standard put the carburetors down on the manifold. And the first time they ran at a NHRA event, the Ramchargers’ High and Mighty set the speed record for that class and held it for three years.” High and Mighty did more than set speed records. It opened some doors inside Chrysler for the Ramchargers.
In 1961, they finally got some factory help. The Ramchargers’ first factory race car was a ’61 Dodge. It was different. But when they give it the Ramcharger treatment, the competition was in for a real surprise. Jim Thornton goes on: “It came to stock eliminator and we had turned some real good times and good ETs and Don Nickelson in a Chevy won the race. There was a lull in racing and the announcer just kind of passed some time, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to see that Mopar run Nickelson?’ and the crowd started chanting for a race and they asked Nickelson, ‘You hear that? They want you to race that Mopar’ and he made a fatal mistake. He said ‘Sure!’ And the picture that was shown in all the magazines was the Ramchargers’ car on Nickelson and the Ramchargers going through the tracks. Within a month after all those magazines came out, Chrysler decided ‘Hey, we oughtta get into drag racing.’”
When 1962 rolled around, Dodge was hard at work presenting a racy image to America’s car buyers and now thanks to the Ramchargers they had the hardware to back it up. Finally, here was a Mopar that could go toe to a toe with a 409 Chevy and the super duty Pontiacs. The ’62 max wedge cars were all business. 3200 pounds of pure muscle with a 413 cubic inch engine that would go from 0 to hang on in a heartbeat. With 13.5 to 1 compression, dual Carter four barrels on an aluminum cross-ram intake manifold and low-restriction exhaust manifolds, this thing was made to go racing.
And in a long overdue tribute to their home team, and maybe an attempt to share some of the glory, Dodge named their bad boy power plant the Ramcharger engine. But even though this team was mostly responsible for Chrysler’s new racy attitude, they were still going racing on their own time and on their own dime. Dan Mancini explains: “Any of the work we’d done for the Ramchargers’ cars was done after work hours. None of the work was done during work hours. This was early on. We left our job and went to the garage and worked on our various cars and the factory really looked down at drag racing. They put it in the same category as motorcycles.” But even if the suits at Chrysler weren’t impressed, the Ramchargers were winning.
Mopar – Taking Control of Super Stock
The 1963 drag racing season came blasting in on a wave of excitement thanks to all the side by side racing in 1962. Now the stock classes were the fan favorites. Looking at the staging lanes, it was plain to see that Mopar was now in total control of stock and super stock. But now, those hot max wedge cars were available to everyone.
For 1963, Dodge turned it up a few more clicks. The max wedge cars were still lighter than the competition but the hardware was even more brawny with sure grip rear ends, heavy duty torque light transmissions and more cubic inches other the hood. This year, Dodge’s Ramcharger engine was punched out to 426 cubic inches with larger intake and exhaust ports and a solid lifter cam. Even Plymouth, who hadn’t seen any future in drag racing just two years earlier, was down with the program now putting their version of the max wedge engine into everything. Plymouth even called their max wedge engines the super stock series. They were available in single four barrel 385 horse power or a dual four barrel 415 horse version with 11 to 1 compression or the 13.5 to 1 compression racing version which cranked out 425 horse power. Racers could even get aluminum hoods, fenders, front bumpers and doors, taking 150 pounds off the front end of those already slim cars.
These lightweight max wedge Mopars were the closest things to over the counter race cars anyone had ever seen. “You could drive the car to the drag strip. We had caps you took off the exhaust system,” says Jim Thornton, “and that added another 90 horse power. And you could go race! You could race any Ford or Chevy or Pontiac and usually beat them. And if you’re running the automatic trans, you’d surely beat them because the traction was so poor at that time. It was a car ready to race.”
From day one, the ’63 max wedge cars rolled up the competition at every drag strip in the country. And now, thanks to the availability of all this good stuff, there were dozens of Dodge and Plymouth race teams armed with the parts that Ramchargers helped develop and everyone gunning for those red and white cars. As the competition heated up, the team members now started to feel the effects of working full time jobs and running what was becoming a full time racing operation.
Sometimes there weren’t enough hours in the day. Gary Congdon explains: “I really didn’t expect the long hours that we put in, lot of times. And I can finally remember going to the summer nationals with a ’63 car that we towed down there and we’re break in the engine going to Indy. So I had to sit in the car, no windows of course. We left at about midnight. It’s cold out and we’re trying to keep the noise down but yet keep the RPM up around 2000 to get it broken in as much as we could.” The hard work, the long hours, and the engineering expertise paid off nicely for the Ramchargers in ’63. The team won top stock eliminator at the winter nationals and the US nationals, finishing 1-2 at Indy and setting a new class record. Not bad for a bunch of full time engineers and part time racers. Sailing into 1964, the Ramchargers could be sure of two things: they’d be going faster and there would be even tougher competition.
The 1964 Max Wedge Chrysler
When 1964 began, the max wedge 426 still owned drag racing stock classes but this was about to change. Down south, there was another kind of racing going on and Chrysler had a magic bullet ready to go into these circle track cars. It was a new version of an old friend from the 50s: the Hemi engine. And as you might expect, the Ramchargers played a big part in developing this engine. Jim Thornton reveals: “It was pretty secretive that the design of the Hemi started. Hoover was involved with it. At the time I had moved into the race group working for Tom and I didn’t even know about it for quite a while.”
For 1964, Tom Hoover had redesigned the Hemi engine until it was a totally new creation. About the only thing it shared with the early Hemi was the shape of its combustion chamber. For the past few years, the Nascar Fords had more power than the Dodges and Plymouth. The new Hemi was going to shake things up. “The first time the Hemi ran as a Nascar engine, the number 1 run it made, it made more horse power than the wedge engine had ever run and Ford was absolutely berserk because the cars were going fast and a lot faster than the Fords were and of course, Petty won the race.” The Nascar Hemi had one set of problems getting dialed in but the drag racers were going to have to deal with a different set of issues. As usual, the Ramchargers were totally involved. “Gary and I both worked on the fuel system,” shares Tom Coddington, “and we had some initial carburetor problems in the drag racing version.
The emphasis was on the Nascar version and the drag racing version was brought along but the two carburetor version, when we went to drag race it, took some work.” Gary Congdon adds: “Being a cross ram it had a lot of cylinder to cylinder variation that we had to overcome and also at the time the carburetors were double pumpers and they were vacuum operated secondaries so that took some development time to get it to work right.” Once these problems were sorted out, the Hemi immediately put more distance between the Mopars and everyone racing anything else. Jim Thornton adds: “We took it out for the first time and never had run it. It was an NHRA meet and I think it was running in FX and set ET and speed records for the class the first time it ran with the Holley carburetors and it ran with Holleys from then on.” Still, though, there was the old problem of no traction and a shot of new horse power from the Hemi only made things worse.
It was time for another engineering solution and this one would revolutionize the sport. To get better weight distribution, the team made a radical change, moving both the front and rear wheels forward four inches. This shifted more weight over the cars’ rear wheels for better bite. The whole thing was so cleverly done, many people didn’t even notice. This little wheel base adjustment worked so the team decided that if a little was good, a lot would be just right. Jim Thornton explains: “For ’65, we decided that we’d go just a bit more radical so we moved the front wheels forward ten inches and moved the rear wheels forward fifteen.” The altered factory experimental car was pretty off the wall, even for a bunch of forward thinkers like the Ramchargers. And not everybody thought it was a good idea. “They brought NHRA in to show them what our next factory experimental car would be and they came in and there were only 2-3 people that were allowed to be there with them and they went away and said, ‘No way.’” Even though NHRA didn’t like it, it worked great and in drag racing, if something works, it catches on. Almost overnight, altered wheel base cars started showing up everywhere and the Ramchargers had invented a whole new class of race car. “People at the races wanted to see those ‘funny looking cars’ run which were the Mopars. It got from the funny looking cars to the funny cars.” With the Hemi, the new car and more competition, running a top racing team was demanding even more time.
The Explosion of the Door Slammer Classes
Between 1963 and 1966, drag racing’s door slammer classes exploded. Super Stock had evolved from stock cars running into 12s at 120 miles an hour to exotic cars with altered wheel bases running in the 8s at over 150 miles per hour. At the head of this pack, as usual, were the Ramchargers. In addition to the ’65 Dodge Coronet, the team was now running a top drag strip and for many of the team members, drag racing was becoming another full time job. Dan Mancini recalls: “Our regular weekend in the summertime was leave work on Friday night. We’d run from Ohio and drive to the East coast, run another match race on Saturday and then on Sunday we’d race another match race against somebody else and then drive all the way back and be at work Monday morning.”
Drag racing was also becoming an expensive pastime. Despite some help from the corporation, the Ramchargers were still paying for most of this out of their own pockets. But luckily they were able to make some of their racing pay off. Jim Thornton says: “The owner of the track here in Detroit contacted us and said he was going to have Nickelson come in and he’d like us to race them and we expected $50 or $100 or something and free pit passes and then kept working on him and an hour and a half later it was $500 and I was sitting there and I couldn’t keep a straight face, just laughing! We just kept squeezing him and squeezing him and we got to $500 and we thought that’s probably all he’s going to pay us and that was our first match race and we got paid for it and we found out from that experience that we could go other places and get paid for it.”
By 1966, funny cars had evolved from the wild AFXers into full two chassis fiberglass body race cars and the speeds in both funny car and top fuels were approaching 200 mph. It was a very different sport and a very different environment than the one they took on in 1959. The Ramchargers had been at the top of the sport for nearly 10 years and their list of achievements was incredible. They were the first to run a 9 second quarter mile on gasoline. The first AFXer in the 8s in Nitro. And their ’66 Dart was the first funny car to run in the 7s. And amazingly, they did it all without giving up their day jobs. Says Tom Coddington: “Within the engineering establishment the racers were still looked on as a little bit odd. Why we wanted to do this. And it probably wasn’t the best thing for corporate advancement, which is probably why we didn’t stay much after racing.”
The Ramchargers Take a Look Around
But in 1967, after having achieved practically every goal there was in drag racing, it was time to stop and take a look around. Jim Thornton remembers: “We had moved up somewhat in the corporation, more responsible jobs, not necessarily working in the race group anymore and it was, ‘Hey, what are we going to do? Quit work and race?’ And at the end of ’67 we finally decided it was time to get out.”
After the original group retired, a Ramchargers racing team, led by Dick Maxwell, Dan Knapp, and others continued to run top fuel, funny car, and pro stock for several more years. This group finally hung it up in 1975, converting the racing enterprise into a successful retail auto parts business. Many of the team still gets together today, but not to go racing. These guys have been there and done that. And today’s drag racers and fans all owe them thanks for making the sport so exciting.