Terrorize the Competition with a Mopar

During the muscle car years, Chrysler corporation had a habit of building the most radical racing hardware and hiding it under some very plain jane sheet metal, like a 426 max wedge engine in a Dodge Polara. They would then take this combo out to the local drag strip and terrorize the competition. It might not sound like fun for everybody, but if you were a Chrysler fan, it’s what you lived for. Says Paul Zazarine: “They saw the opportunity to enhance the engineering of the vehicles through racing and, of course, most of these guys were gear heads anyway and just liked racing.”

When drag racing started, the excitement was centered around the open wheel dragsters and altered coupes. Nobody paid much attention to the handful of people out there racing their daily drivers. But, by the early 60s, Detroit was starting to crank out some pretty fast street cars and the drag strips was a great and safe place to blow somebody’s doors off. Soon, street cars filled out two classes: one for purely stock cars and another for cars with special factory racing parts. They called this class “Super Stock.” By the end of the 60s, super stock had become drag racing’s most popular class and Chrysler corporation owned it. Teams like the Ramchargers and cars like the Melrose Missiles are legends today, icons of drag racing’s golden age. Chrysler’s engineers ensured their success by coming up with one huge horse power maker after another: these max wedge and Hemi engines known by names like Red Ram, Golden Commando, Ramcharger, and Magnum, were nearly indestructible and made more power than any other engine.

When Chrysler installed these bad boy engines into their lightweight bodies, they created unforgettable race cars and awesome street machines. Herb McCandless has spent 35 years building and racing Chryslers and working with their engineers. He considers them the best in the business. “They were hands on racers, all of them. The Ramchargers were all hands on, that’s why that program was so successful because they knew what it took to make it work.” More than any other cars, Chrysler’s super stockers were responsible for drag racing’s incredible rise in popularity through the 60s. These cars and the people that build them and rive them created a style of racing that influenced an entire generation of street muscle cars and put a young sport like drag racing on the map. “They were just the leader of the industry as far as drag racing. They went to the races to win.”

Drag Racing Comes of Age

But back when it alls tarted, it was just a bunch of good ol’ boys on an abandoned race strip, lining them up and racing them off. Drag racing was coming of age in the mid 50s but it was still grassroots motor sports at its finest. The name of the game was “Run what you brung and hope you brung enough.” Saturday afternoon show downs were happening at local drag strips all over America. The age old question of whose car was fastest was a huge drawing card for spectators and racers alike as Ford, Chevy, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and even Studebaker were going at it head to head. About the only car you didn’t see at the drag strip was a Chrysler product. Drag racing’s first principle was power to weight and even by mid 50′s standards, Chryslers were real tanks. They did have a revolutionary new engine, though. And it could make incredible horse power.

Drag racing legend Big Daddy Don Garlitz remembers his first glimpse of this engine at the local Chrysler dealership: “My buddy and I were driving to work and we drove by the Chrysler dealership, which had a sign with a big V that said 180 horse power. I said, ‘Stop the car, there’s something wrong here, we gotta go check this out.’ So we spun around there, went back to the dealership, went inside and said ‘There’s a sign that says 180 horse power and a V. Has Chrysler have a V8 now? Surely that must be a mistake!’ A hot flat head was 175 with everything on it so how could a stock engine be 180?” They called it a Hemi because the shape of the combustion chamber was a hemisphere, a design which allowed better intake and exhaust breathing. Garlitz soon installed one of these engines in his car, but not his dragster. He put it in his tow car! “I got my hands on one for my coupe but I only bought ti to put in that coupe to tow with. I was still towing my flat head dragster behind it. So, one day at the drags, I told my wife, ‘I think I’ll make a timed run with the ’39.’ And I drove this little ’39 coupe down the drag strip, it went 14 seconds, 114. And I knew right then, if I put that engine in a dragster, it would really be something.”

Before long, the Hemi took ownership of the dragster classes as it grew from 331 to 354 and finally, to 392 cubic inches. Thanks to Don Garlitz and others, there was a Chrysler Hemi in the winners circle every week. By the early 60s, though, those stock cars were becoming as popular as the dragsters. Paul Zazarine explains: “Super stock took a huge jump forward in 1960 at the NHRA nationals in Detroit when Pontiac made an extremely good showing in front of the home town crowd, which included GM execs. They saw the crowd reaction to these cars and realized they could sell cars from this.” Sell cars is exactly what Ford and GM did. The factory Impalas and Galaxy super stockers were world beaters at the strip and on the sales floor. Finally, in late 1961, Chrysler decided to join the fun with a brand new ’62 Dodge that looked pretty racy. To help them get their super stock program on track, they called Big Daddy. “It was a beautiful red little jewel. They took this 413 wedge motor they used int eh stock automobiles and they put dual carbs on it. This was a car for racing.”

Following drag racing’s winning formula of putting your biggest engine in your lightest body, Chrysler stuffed its new 413 max wedge engine into the lightweight Dodge Dart 330 and Plymouth Belvedere and created an instant super stocker. Chrysler had stopped building the Hemi engine in 1958 as an economy move. They replaced this all world power plant with a 413 cubic inch wedge head engine. The wedge, again named for the shape of its combustion chambers, wasn’t as sexy as the Hemi but in typical Chrysler fashion, they had a hot version of this engine. They called it the max wedge. “The name max wedge meant they had taken the engine out to what they felt was the maximum. It was really a great piece of workmanship.”

Finally, Mopar had a competitive super stock package and a pretty nice street car as well. Garlitz remembers that one of the nicest thing about super stock was being able to drive his race car to the track: “I drove it to Green Valley from Tampa and my wife and I put our luggage int he back and drove out there and got our motel. We went to the Dodge dealership, he put a 456 rear in it, jacked it up, left the 331 laying on the ground. When the race was over, we went back and put the 331 back in and drove back home. It was incredible.” The balance of power was shifting in super stock racing. From now on, the Ford and GM drivers would have to deal with a full assault from Dodge and Plymouth.

Sheer Horsepower

The 1962 super stock season was a fight between the new max wedge Dodges and Plymouths and the factor backed lightweight Pontiacs, Fords, and Chevrolets. While their competition made extensive of lightweight aluminum or fiberglass body parts, the Mopars relied on sheer horse power. “They completely dominated the sport. When they introduced them at the winter nationals in 1962, let me tell you, they were just killers. It put all of the factories in high gear, setting up special racing versions and it got completely wild before it was over.”

By 1963, Chrysler was having way too much fun to quit. Even though the 413 max wedge had performed well, this year, in classic Mopar fashion, it was bored out to 426 cubic inches and packed with more heavy duty parts. The tall deck block was bored to 4.25 inches and used a stroke of 3.75 inches with two Carter AFB four barrel carburetors on an aluminum cross ram intake manifold, special upswept exhaust headers, and 10.25 to 1 compression, Chrysler rated this engine at 425 horse power, which absolutely no one believed. These mid sized Mopars were long on performance but short on image.

Super Duty Pontiacs and 409 Impalas could be pretty fancy cars but the Polara and the Belvedere were about as fancy as the inside of a phone booth. These interiors never won any awards for luxury, but the car looked good enough to race. The no frills interior also contributed to the car’s skinny curb weight of 3050 pounds. This year, the racing Mopars could slim down even more. A special lightweight racing package included aluminum front fenders, hood, doors, and front bumper. The beauty of it all was, this entire car, from its aluminum nose from its 486 sure grip rear end could be bought over the counter at your Dodge and Plymouth dealer. There were no back doors, no special codes, no secret handshakes. You just sat down with a salesman and ordered it. The price tag for this ready to race Mopar? $3602, which included AM radio, two speed wipers, power steering, and of course, the 415 horse Ramcharger engine. Adds Paul Zazarine: “One of the greatest things about super stock drag racing in that period of time is how level the playing field was. You didn’t have to have a lot of money to be competitive. You just had to have a passion. Mopar’s turnkey race cars made this Walter Mitty dream a reality for more than one young race fan.” My favorite story is a guy by the name of Dick Dyke who, from Sioux City, Iowa, at the age of 23 ordered a super stock Dodge, took the car home, modified the rear suspension, changed the valving int eh automatic transmission, put a set of headers on it and ran a 12.32 right out of the box. He flat toed the car to the NHRA nationals and cleaned house. He beat everybody and he ended up as top stock eliminator. There was no big money. Any guy could win.”

Going into 1964, there was still room at the top for ambitious young super stock racers. Super stock’s popularity was having a trickle down effect on every part of drag racing. Super stock attracted racers, which attracted more spectators, more spectators attracted the big car companies, who built faster cars, which attracted more racers. In short, super stock was the best thing that ever happened to this little sport. “Looking back, that was a turning point for drag racing that really made it professional because when the factories took notice and were producing vehicles just for drag racing it gave all the other sponsors the incentive to get involved.” Comments Garlits. And by far, to date, the best thing that had happened to super stock, at least from a Chrysler fan’s perspective, was the re-appearance of the Hemi engine. After a six year vacation, the Hemi was back with a vengeance. Chrysler had brought it out of retirement to win races on the Nascar tracks but the drag racers jumped all over it. The Hemi engine caused champion Bullet Bob Reed to switch from Chevy to Mopar. “I was at the drag way one day and Beecher White unloaded a ’64 Plymouth Savoy with a Hemi in it off a ramp truck. When he fired that thing up, my Dad says, ‘You might as well get rid of the 409 because it’s all over with.’”

The new 426 race Hemi was superior to earlier Hemis in many ways. This power plant used the 426 wedge block. The new Hemi heads squeezed out a 12.5 to 1 compression ratio. The Hemi also came with a solid lifter cam and a new design intake manifold mounting two Carter AFB four barrels. This new elephant motor was so strong that engine failures were practically a thing of the past. “I used to go to Continental and shop and that’s what he’d do. He’d put them on the Dino, pull a throttle back, set them at 425 horse power around 7000 and we’d go to lunch! He said, ‘If it’s running when we get back it’s a good one.’” Now with the Hemi and the max wedge, drag strips were playgrounds for Mopar races. Out on the street, though, a revolution was happening GM’s lineup for 1964 included some lightweight intermediate cars with mountain motor engines. Unlike Mopar’s cars, however, these cars were loaded with plush options and rich kid image. They called them muscle cars. They had tough sounding names like GTO and Super Sport and suddenly they were the cars young people had to have.

None of them could stay with a full house max wedge for a city block but that didn’t matter at the drive in. Next to them, Polaras and Belvederes were old people cars. Over the next two years, Chrysler’s drag racing and Nascar stars kept Dodge and Plymouth fans happy while their styling department searched for the magic combo that would lure young America back into the showrooms. Finally they found it. All they had to do was take a super stocker and load it down with class. One Mopar lover chose a ’67 Belvedere GTX for its luxury and performance: “This car was about $3800 with the Hemi engine option. But the GTX also had moldings and all the chrome and consoles and all the dress up so this was a high end version of the muscle cars.” Cars like the ’67 GTX were light, racy looking, and as luxurious as a Chrysler imperial. But with a standard 440 cubic inch Super Commando or the optional 426 street Hemi under the hood, they didn’t back down from anyone. But some exciting years lay just ahead for Mopar fans.

Mopar Racers – Test Drivers For New Technology

Since the beginning of the Super Stock days, Mopar racers have been test drivers for new technology. “We found out with Chrysler that the stuff we would test and run in our cars would line up in the production cars in the next couple years.” Remember Ronnie Sox. One of drag racing’s most famous teams was Sox & Martin. Their red, white, and blue cars were synonymous with Chrysler corporation. Ronnie Sox remembers how Chrysler used the data that he and other racers developed. “Chrysler got more from their money from what they spent in racing than Ford or Chevrolet thought about doing. We would test a lot all week long and then, at the end of every test, Chrysler would mail out what they learned at these tests to all their contracted cars. I think they were smart by doing that. They really sold a lot, especially when they came out with that Road Runner in ’68.”

The 1968 Road Runner was, at last, Mopar’s hit with the youth market After years of making ground shaking muscle cars, finally they hit a home run in the image department. The Road Runner’s claim to fame was speed on a budget. The car was designed to run 100 mph in the quarter mile and sell for less than $3000. On that budget, the Road Runner featured a bench seat, rubber floor mats, and no creature comforts at all. Young people ate it up from its cartoon decals to its beep beep horn, Plymouth sold 46000 Road Runners in 1968 coming full circle back to the formula they pioneered in 1962: put your baddest engine in your lightest car and take it to the track.

Through the years, super stock has led drag racing in many different directions, thanks to technology and the racers’ own creativity, the factory experimental class grew out of super stock. As did funny car and pro stock, which has become one of drag racing’s all time favorite competitions. But those early 60s Dodges and Plymouths still hold a place in many peoples’ hearts. Today, even with all the changes in racing, or maybe because of them, the Mopar super stockers are just as popular as they ever were and thanks to some new technology, they’re even faster. Says Sox: “People love these ’68 cars because they wheel stand and they go fast. They’re really fun to drive.” So, whether you were there in the 60s, or you’re watching your first drag race today, seeing two of these ground pounders pull up to the line together is still one of the most exciting moments in motor sports because there’s just nothing else like them. Comments Reed: “When you have a Hemi car, it’s a little bit different and I used to say there are two kinds of people, people who have Hemis and people who want Hemis, it’s just that simple! That’s all there is to it!” He laughs.

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