When the email came Tuesday from Eileen Daniels, wife of the late NHRA Division 3 Director Bob Daniels, advising of the death of Jim Thornton, it was in the form of a simple link to an online obituary. She didn’t say any more and probably didn’t need to. Although I had never written a word about the man let alone spoken to him, my mind drew an immediate and pretty certain link to the Ramchargers. As proud as I was of myself for my brain’s ability to connect the synapses to form that thought, I was saddened by his passing.
I wrote a quick obituary for the NHRA.com Notebook to share the sad news, then quickly headed for the photo library and hefted from the drawers a thick folder of Ramchargers photos that I quickly decided I wanted to share with you all. I’m not about to delve into the full history of the Ramchargers, a diverse blend of Chrysler engineers who worked their magic on Dodge-bodied machines in the 1960s and ‘70s, because there is so much good and accurate information already out there, including Dr. Dave Rockwell’s impressive and authoritative book We Were The Ramchargers (Amazon link), the official Ramchargers website, and a detailed 25-part story by team driver Mike Buckel on the Wild About Cars website.
I’ll let Dr. Rockwell synopsize the Ramchargers story with this paragraph from a great article he wrote for the Muscle Mopar website:
“Who the Ramchargers were is most easily understood if two things are kept in mind. First, they were always a free-standing group; financially and operationally from Chrysler. Members' activities were always after hours and off the clock from Chrysler. However, several members' day jobs at Chrysler did eventually involve developing its race program. Second, there were four phases through which the group evolved during its life: Phase 1) spanned 1958 and 1959, when a confederation of individuals working on their cars banded together to form an NHRA-sanctioned Hot Rod Club, the Ramchargers. Phase 2) spanned 1959 through 1961, with the group evolving from a confederation of individuals with separate interests to a group with a common interest. This federation built the first team car in the form of a '49 Plymouth C/Altered; High and Mighty, followed in 1961 by the team's first Super Stock Dodge. Phase 3) spanned 1962 through 1967, where the team incorporated itself, raced Super Stocks, developed the Funny Car, and introduced the 426 Hemi to Top Fuel. After 1967, in Phase 4) a number of members retired to their day jobs at Chrysler, while four members opened Ramchargers Racing Engines, building engines. They opened five Detroit-area speed shops while competing in Top Fuel and Funny Car through the mid-1970s.”
Or, if you don't feel like a lot of reading, you can simply watch the video at right, which was a segment on Speed TV’s American Muscle show and includes a pretty thorough history unto itself. So, you can see why I wouldn’t want to bore you with a couple of thousand words rehashing all of that, but what I can share is a buncha photos that I found in the National Dragster archives.
You know me, I’m like a kid in a candy shop when it comes to this kind of thing, and, quite honestly, in my 30-plus years here, I can’t ever remember delving into the Ramchargers file, so I greedily dug into it, pulling photo after photo that I knew I’d want to share with you guys, and when I was done, I had about 50 photos. Oops.
So I painstakingly (and painfully) winnowed it to the manageable number you see below. It’s not meant to be a by-the-numbers history of the Ramchargers, just a bunch of cool photos that caught my eye and that honor the legacy of the group.
So, who were the Ramchargers and what did they look like? Fortunately, they were as adept at PR as they were racing and sent cool photos like the one above and the one below, spotlighting some of the key members. The photo above shows the team’s three drivers in the 1960s, from left on both top and bottom, Thornton, Herm Moser, and Hartford “Mike” Buckel, in their snazzy (if not too confidence-building) racing helmets and working on their cars. I’ll get into their individual heroics in a bit.
And here are the mechanical geniuses behind those great drivers. At far left is Tom Hoover (not the Funny Car driver of the same name), who had master's degrees in physics and automotive engineering and would become known as the “Father of the 426 Hemi”; at far right is Dan Mancini, a carburetion and dynamometer technician at Chrysler who helped develop the first tunnel-ram manifold and assisted Hoover in engine building; the top two are Dick Maxwell and Dan Knapp. Maxwell built the Ramchargers High and Mighty C/Altered car and was the team’s most business-savvy member, interacting with sanctioning bodies, negotiating rules, selecting and writing contracts, and disseminating and implementing technical information to racers. He also developed the Direct Connection Parts program, which would become Mopar Performance, and eventually became overall director of the race group in 1975, where he thrived until his retirement in 1998, but not before being inducted into the SEMA Hall of Fame. Knapp was a fabricator par excellence and eventually became one of the team’s Top Fuel drivers. The bottom three are Tom Coddington, a fuel-systems specialist and coordinator for development of the famed Chrysler/Hilborn fuel-injection system in 1965; Jerry Donley, who worked in “the cold room” at Chrysler, where engines were routinely cold-tested to start at -20 degrees Fahrenheit; and Gary Congdon, the team’s carburetor expert.
Here’s where it all started, the famed High and Mighty ‘49 Plymouth business coupe, the first Ramchargers machine, powered by a 354 Hemi with 392 Hemi heads for better breathing and shifted through a three-speed manual transmission. In two years (1959-60), the car set NHRA C/Altered records for speed (109.75 mph) and elapsed time (12.62).
(Above and below) Moser really put the Ramchargers on the map with his Stock victory at the 1963 Nationals with the Max Wedge Dart. The team’s car was so dominant that, according to Buckel, NHRA inspected the engine every night, then sealed it, then broke the seal and examined it again the next night.
I love this photo, taken at Maryland’s Aquasco Speedway, of a Ramchargers member sweeping in the traction-enhancing rosin on the starting line.
As drag racing evolved, so did the Ramchargers. With the famed 426 now in full production, it obviously found its way into Ramchargers cars, including its early AFXers. Thornton, a suspension expert, was key in the development of the altered-wheelbase concept, beginning with the '63 Ramchargers team cars, that led to a Coronet in 1965 that ran first on gas, then methanol, then light loads of nitro, and was followed by this Dart in 1966, which both Thornton and Buckel drove and is shown racing Bill Lawton in the Tasca Ford Mystery 8 Mustang at Connecticut Dragway.
Thornton suited up and ready with the ’66 Dart. The car had a real race car chassis and a tilt-forward hood. Soon, tilt-up hoods were superseded by tilt-up bodies that became the norm as the altered-wheelbase cars evolved into Funny Cars. This car ran 100 percent nitro, sometimes even laced with hydrazine.
This ’67 Dart was the Ramchargers’ first true Funny Car, the first to have a supercharger, and was driven again by Thornton and Buckel. I’m not sure who’s at the wheel here as they battled “Jungle Jim” Liberman at U.S. 131 Dragway in Martin, Mich. “Jungle” won this go-round, 8.45 to 8.73. Buckel was injured in the car one day in Gary, Ind., when a tremendous clutch explosion sent shrapnel into the cockpit, forcing him to bail out of the car at speed, resulting in a broken right foot.
The Ramchargers also began fielding a Top Fuel car in 1964 with a car built by Knapp, with Don Westerdale driving. Westerdale was not a Ramchargers member (and, in fact, worked at Ford) but had driven some of Knapp’s earlier cars and was someone Knapp trusted at the wheel. The dragster, powered by the new 426 Hemi, did not have the distinctive Ramchargers candy stripes, probably because it had just a short body, which was painted Chrysler Orange.
A Woody Gilmore dragster was commissioned for following seasons. The caption on the back of this publicity photo showing the Top Fuel team loading up in front of Hodges Dodge, a Ferndale, Mich., Dodge dealership, reads “going first class,” which, at that time, the enclosed trailer must have seemed so. The Ramchargers dragster set low e.t. and top speed at the 1965 and 1967 Nationals.
After Westerdale retired from driving, he was replaced in 1966 by 22-year-old Merek Chertkow, a California bachelor with Detroit roots. After a year with the Ramchargers, Chertkow moved back to California, where he built racing engines. He didn’t return to the cockpit until 1974, in a short stint with an SOHC-powered Pinto Funny Car with partner Rick Watson. When Phil Goulet joined the Ramchargers in 1967, he brought with him his driver, Chuck Kurzawa, who had driven their modified roadsters and took over the dragster.
The Ramchargers splintered after the 1967 season, many feeling they had proven what they had set out to prove. The assets were divided, and a group consisting of Knapp, Dick Skoglund, Goulet, and, to a lesser degree, Maxwell, Mancini, and Rockwell carried on with the nitro cars and even opened Ramchargers Racing Engines, selling fuel motors to all comers. Leroy Goldstein, who had wheeled Jim Nicoll's No. 2 car the previous year, started out as a Top Fuel driver for the Ramchargers, with the Division 3 title in 1969, but found himself very comfortable in its fast ’70 Challenger. “The Israeli Rocket” made the first six-second Funny Car pass, a 6.95, June 30, 1970, at New York National Speedway, then took Funny Car honors in Dallas at the 1970 Springnationals, was runner-up to Don Schumacher at the 1970 Nationals, and won the Gatornationals in 1971.
It wasn’t all wine and roses for Goldstein in 1971, as this Steve Reyes photo from Green Valley Race City in Texas shows. The Ramchargers machine lost the entire rear end out of the car!
After Goldstein left the Ramchargers to drive for Candies & Hughes, a succession of drivers filled the cockpit of the team’s new Demon in 1972, including Arnie Behling, Jim Paoli, Clare Sanders, and, finally, Dick Rosberg, who crashed the car, ending the team’s efforts.
So there you have it, a photographic but not complete by any means history of the Ramchargers team. Go back and read some of the information using the links I provided at the head of the article if you want more; there certainly is more than enough to satisfy any curiosity!
By the time you read this Friday, I’ll be in Englishtown for another trip to one of my favorite races, the Toyota NHRA Summernationals. I’ve been going to the East Coast classic since the 1980s, and it seems that each race there provides something incredible to remember. I’m sure this year will be no different.
If you’re a schedule watcher, you’ll know we’re in the midst of a hellacious stretch, with 10 races in 12 weeks, so my ND compadres and I are spending a lot of time on the road. It’s easy to get backed up on work and correspondence, so I’m going to clear a little of the latter today.
I found this very cool but little-watched (63 views at the time of this posting) video about "Otie" Smith that was lovingly created a year ago by Randy Lipscomb.
Before I get into that, I’d like to take time to acknowledge the passing last Friday of Otis “Otie” Smith, the 1959 Middle Eliminator winner at the Nationals in Detroit. Smith, who wheeled a very cool supercharged '23-T to victory that year, was 94.
Along with Art and Walt Arfons and Arlen Vanke, Smith was one of several hot rodding heroes to come out of Akron, Ohio, and an early supporter of NHRA, running the regional in his hometown before the Nationals was even established and racing all over the Midwest as well as taking trips to Florida, Maine, and California.
An avowed lifelong car nut – he began driving his father’s '29 Model A Ford before he reached his teen years -- Smith began racing in 1953, driving a '32 Ford roadster at the Akron airport track, and by his estimation went on to compete in about 100 NHRA events in his 13-year career. Smith also operated Otie’s Automotive Specialties in Akron for 33 years until 1988. Asked once why he liked to drive fast, Smith replied, “You got to be a little nuts. It was just fun. That's all.”
Smith is survived by wife Betty, son Bill, daughters Debbie Hughes and Laurie Smith, six grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. I spoke to Bill on the phone earlier this week. The two had competed in the gas dragster ranks for years after "Otie" stopped driving, and he confirmed that his father had been in ill health lately.
If you’ve hung around this pop stand long enough, the name Robert Nielsen should be a familiar one. The longtime SoCal fan and photographer has contributed numerous items and photos to this column throughout the years and is not afraid to debate me. You might remember us going back and forth about who was behind the wheel of the Beach City Corvette when it ran off the end of the Orange County Int’l Raceway track in flames (I won) and the question about who was the greatest Hawaiian drag racer of all time (I say Roland Leong, he says Danny Ongais; one day, I’ll get around to proving it), and now he’s taking me to task on the terminology of race cars whose engines sit behind the driver. I used the terms “rear-engine” and “mid-engine” interchangeably in my discussions of that configuration, but Nielsen is insistent that the dragsters and Funny Cars of that ilk are simply mid-engine.
“A while back, we discussed rear-engine cars versus mid-engine cars,” he wrote me recently. “I was advocating rear-engine cars were actually misnamed. I professed that a rear-engine car would have its engine behind the rear axle, whereas a mid-engine – like all of the current Top Fuel cars – would have the engine behind the driver, yet ahead of the rear axle.”
Don Garlits' Swamp Rat 14: rear- or mid-engine? Or both ...
Best of both worlds: Lloyd Scott's Bustle Bomb, Olds in front, Caddy in the rear
Front-engined. Definitely front-engined
In truth, he’s right. If you look up production cars that are designated as “rear-engine,” you see cars such as Volkswagen Beetles, Chevy Corvairs, and Porsche 911s where the layout places the engine at the rear of the vehicle (on or behind the rear axle), whereas cars like your typical Ferrari and even the humble Pontiac Fiero are considered mid-engine. Point Nielsen.
Still, just about everyone I know refers to the old slingshot dragsters as front-engine Top Fuelers, so, at least in name to me, their antithesis was the rear-engine car. And if you got out a measuring tape, I’m fairly certain that you’d find that the slingshot dragsters had their engines as close to the rear end (or closer) than today’s so-called rear-engine cars, but everyone still calls them front-engine cars. So, I asked Nielsen, the designation is in relation to where the engine is in the overall length of the wheelbase?
“NO!” I imagine he shouted his reply. “The designation is in relationship to where the engine is located relative to where the rear axle and driver are. Front-engine cars have the engine ahead of both the rear axle and driver – like the old-school slingshot cars. Mid-engine cars have the engine between the driver and rear axle – like the Javelin 1 Funny in your latest column. Rear-engine cars have the engine behind the rear axle.
“Rear-engine versus mid-engine is just one of many examples where the media have promoted the incorrect use of terminology to the point where it probably cannot be reversed. Another example is when two airplanes accidentally fly in close proximity to one another. These events are incorrectly referred to as near misses. A near miss in the true sense would be an event where the two planes actually come in contact with one another. So instead of saying near miss when they do not collide, it should be more properly called a near hit!”
Drag racing magazines of the early 1970s often called the new breed of Top Fuelers “mid-engine” or “midis,” and I’ll concede, it’s a more accurate term than “rear-engine,” but even the guy who perfected the design, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, calls his famous Swamp Rat 14 a rear-engined car throughout his newest self-written book, Don Garlits and His Cars. How can you argue with "Big Daddy"?
So, like a lot of legacy drag racing terms that are more colorful than they are accurate (bleach box, Funny Car, Christmas Tree, etc.), I don’t think “rear-engine” is going away anytime soon, even though “mid-engine” is more correct. But, Robert … yeah, it’s still Leong.
Cliff Morgan, another Insider regular, noticed the blue and yellow graphic (above) that I use to switch subjects and said that it reminded him of Norm Wilcox's “back-motor car” (his words, Robert!), the Skyjacker.
“I think he first ran it in late 1971, but I remember it at Lions, etc. in 1972. It was a good car, ran some numbers. Car was yellow with blue lettering. I remember thinking it was a strange name for a Top Fuel car, but sign of the times as airplane hijackings were called ‘skyjackings’ at the time. Wilcox always had strong front-engine cars, and his won his share. I think he may have run Top Gas but not sure. Maybe one day do a blurb on him.”
Wilcox certainly has been around, from driving Top Fuel to Top Gas (national record holder!) to Funny Car (including being one of Leong’s many pilots), and the Skyjacker that Morgan mentions actually was the cover car on the November 1972 issue of Drag Racing USA. As you can see, it’s a concept piece, with Wilcox stepping off a plane, lensed by another good pal of the Insider, Jere Alhadeff.
According to the article (which carried the cute subheadline “It’s a federal offense at 30,000 feet, but on the quarter it’s legal Top Fuel money”), the car was named for safety equipment manufacturer Bill Simpson’s new, lower-priced, cross-form parachute, known as the Skyjacker, no doubt in tribute to hijacker D.B. Cooper, who the previous November had pulled off his great escape via parachute. The fate of Cooper may never be known, but the Skyjacker lives on in the Simpson product line.
Simpson and Wilcox fielded the Skyjacker Top Fueler together; Wilcox then was the assistant manager at Simpson’s famous shop in Torrance, Calif. (Wilcox lived in nearby Redondo Beach and according to the article was known then as “the Redondo Rocket”; first time I’ve heard that!) The car, powered then by a 392, qualified an impressive No. 2 at the famous 1972 PRO National Challenge in Tulsa, Okla., with a 6.246 at 228.42 mph but exited early; a Donovan 417 was soon planned with “hopes the ‘Skyjacker’ will be able to escape from the strip with more ransom money than the infamous D.B. Cooper,” according to the article. Records show that Simpson and Wilcox ran this car together for at least two seasons, but I’m sure there’s much more to be told on Wilcox’s long career. I’ll add him to my list!
During the Vega panel thread, I heard from Rich Hanna, who mentioned that one of his team’s drivers, Alyson Kurtas, was hoping to become the first licensed female wheelstander pilot in the famed Paddy Wagon entry; reader Ralph Reiter pointed out that that ship had long ago sailed when Canadian Sylvia Braddick earned her wheelstander license in 1973. Turns out he is correct.
In the time when we’re talking about female accomplishments and milestones in the wake of Courtney Force’s victory last weekend in Topeka, the 100th Pro win by a woman in NHRA competition, I guess we need to get this one straight, too.
Braddick, born in Winnipeg and raised in Vancouver, became interested in cars while in high school. She began attending the drag races at Abbotsford Airport as a spectator but soon took her love of cars to the track, where she raced a '58 Chevy Biscayne and then a GTO. After that became too tame for her, she and her husband, Stewie, purchased Chuck Poole’s Chuckwagon wheelstanding pickup in 1972, installed a pair of alcohol-burning 426 Hemis in the bed, and renamed it the Canadian Lady. She later changed the name to Ecstacy to describe the emotion she felt driving the machine. According to a story published a few years ago, to get her license, Braddick had to make 60 clean runs on dragstrips sanctioned by NHRA; that seems a bit excessive and may have been misinterpreted by the reporter but nonetheless shows she did go through channels to get an official license. She raced the exhibition machine until 1977, when she quit to spend more time with her children and the family business, Payless Auto Accessories.
And finally, because we’re talking about this being Englishtown weekend, I wanted to share this drawing, sent by East Coast artist John Bell. It’s a sketch that he made in 1975 that was commissioned by a young racer who had Funny Car dreams, or maybe just fantasies. You know him today as Lewis “Stat Guy” Bloom, who grew up at Raceway Park, announcing and watching race cars. We had a great interview with Lewis in a recent issue of National Dragster talking about his background and his stats-keeping routines. Check it out when you get a chance.
I also got a note from Jim Wemett, former car owner and partner with the recently departed Tom Anderson, who wanted me to share this link to a tribute video he created for his friend. Check it out.
OK, that’s it for today. I’ll say hi to Lewis and Jim for you guys.
I really had no intention of continuing the AMC drag car thread this week, but apparently, y’all weren’t ready to let it go, at least based on the outpouring of photos and thoughts that rained into my email this past week.
Steve Reyes and Bob Snyder sent care packages of a slew of AMC racers on the strip, some of which I will share. Some do not have a large amount of information associated with them, but I’ll share what I have, beginning with another series by our pal Reyes.
Preston Honea’s rare altered-wheelbase AMC Marlin, provided by SoCal Dodge dealer Bill Kraft Rambler, was powered by a 426 Chrysler Hemi. Honea, of St. Louis, went on to race in Pro Stock in the early 1970s but with Chevys. He passed away in February 2012.
The super-wild AMX-1 of Jim Thomas and Gerry Walker, with the driver’s head protruding through the rear window.
Larry Derr’s Glass Rat ’70 Javelin takes flight at Lions Drag Strip. As could be inferred from its name, it, too, was Chevy-powered.
Clyde Morgan’s EXP Javelin launches at Lions. Check out starter Larry Sutton, resplendent in black hat, black tie, and tuxedo-like jacket!
Morgan gets ‘er sideways on the launch at Irwindale.
“Banzai Bill” Hayes and the original Grant Rambler on the trailer at Irwindale Raceway. Dennis Doubleday confirmed some information on the Grant Rebel, noting that Hayes drove it early in 1967 and that Hayden Proffitt took over later in the year. A new car was built for 1968, and the 1967 car was then run by Ron Roseberry as the King Rebel in 1968 and later run by Weidlein & Blandford as an A/FC in 1970. Proffitt drove the new Rebel in 1968, and Pat Johnson and driver Hank Clark teamed up on the car in 1969. Charlie Adams ran the car in 1970 and Kenny Dobson in 1971.
The King Rebel of Roseberry gets prepped in the pits at Sacramento Raceway in 1968.
Gary Crane and the Scrima-built Travelin’ Javelin at Orange County Int’l Raceway in 1969. According to Phil Elliott, he sold it to Larry Palmer, a painter by profession, who ran it with a new paint scheme.
Michigan’s Ron Ellis traded in his T-bucket body for an AMX shell but kept the same Logghe chassis framerails around his blown gas Chrysler engine. This is Dallas in 1970.
The blower guys weren’t the only ones having fun. Here’s Johnny O’Neil taking a wild ride at Lions in 1971 in his injected Javelin.
From the lens of Bob Snyder
Virginia’s Butch Kernodle and driver Charles Lee ran the Super Javelin injected nitro flopper in 1970 and 1971, then sold it to Ron Richter and Tony Tillman. Power came from a 427 Chevy.
Hayden Proffitt’s version of the Grant Rebel SST, under tow.
Lou Azar’s Funny Gremlin had one of just a trio of bodies of the unique subcompact car made by Pat Murphey of Riviera Plastics. I heard from Bill Engle, who had one of the others and was planning to build an injected Gremlin Funny Car of his own in 1969 but couldn’t finish it due to financial reasons. When Azar crashed his own body, Engle, who lives in Oklahoma City, agreed to meet Azar at Tulsa that year to sell him his body.
Dick Bourgeois and Earl Wade were originally part of the Doug Thorley AMC effort with a tricolor Javelin (see below) in 1969 but went out on their own in 1970 with this all-red edition.
And some random images from the Dragster files.
The Javelin 2, the Bourgeois & Wade conventional follow-up to Thorley’s ill-fated rear-engine Javelin 1.
Here’s Hank Clark, one of the later owners of the Rebel, running Curt Wasson’s Superstitious Camaro.
Dickie Harrell may have been “Mr. Chevrolet,” but Dick Vendl was "Mr. AMX." The Illinois racer bought two new AMXes in 1968, one for the street and one to race. He took on the “Mr. AMX” moniker, which he says was officially endorsed by American Motors and led to a position with the company as a sales engineer selling the idea of AMC high performance to dealers. He has since raced in a bunch of other motorsports. You can see more photos here: http://www.superstockamx.com/page77.php
I can’t find any information anywhere on this one, but this injected nitro Javelin, the Preferred Javelin, was run by Dick Hedrick.
Jim Hill, whose encyclopedic knowledge of drag racing came in part through his long tenure with Crane Cams, remembers well AMC’s dedicated effort to challenge the Big Three in the performance market, which led to the creation of the 52-car run of the famed Super Stock-edition AMXes (most sanctioning bodies, including NHRA, insisted on a minimum factory production run of 50 cars, known as homologation).
Here is his remembrance, and some more Reyes photos:
Just like GM, Ford, and Chrysler, AMC's marketing team felt that they too could create showroom sales by using drag racing competition as a lure to the "youth market" coveted by all.
I well remember the efforts of the very dedicated and driven AMC racing staff as they toiled at creating seriously competitive AMC vehicles and parts for NHRA and AHRA competition. In those days I was Harvey Crane's "ad guy" and saw firsthand the effort put forth by AMC to create a dragstrip winner.
|Eugene “Pete” Peterson got No. 39 when he was operating Peterson Motor Co. in Kearney, Neb., and turned it into the fabled Pete's Patriot machine, which was driven by Lou Downing, whose son, Rob, is one of the top wrenches on the KB Racing Pro Stock team. There's a pretty swell three-part story on the car, which recently was restored, here.
|The Frog, No. 15 of 52 Super Stock AMXes, was sold to Bundy Motors in Lakewood, Colo., and owned by John Bandimere (of Bandimere Speedway fame) and driven by "Friendly Frank" Peterson. (Read more here)
Kansas City AMC/Brian Rodekopf, AMX No. 50. Brian’s father, Bill, and Bob Smith helped pioneer the work on those early AMC engines.
An AMC development team of engineers and technicians spent several weeks at Crane Cams' sunny Hallandale, Fla., facilities during the winter of 1967-68. While there they spent considerable time dyno testing and then proving their efforts at Miami-Hollywood Dragway. Crane Cams was not only a "warm weather welcome test venue," but also a primary vendor for camshafts, valvetrain parts, and even professionally ported cylinder heads used in the fledgling AMC S/S racing program.
Their "test mule" was a nondescript, plain-white, AMC sedan, not the very sporty AMX coupes in which the race variety of the 390-cid V-8 was ultimately installed. It did have a professionally built roll cage and heavy-duty rear axle. The car was also equipped with a Borg-Warner T-10, four-speed manual trans connected to a Lakewood safety bellhousing.
The program created and proved the capabilities of the AMC race parts, which were intended to be NHRA and AHRA rules-legal for Super Stock racing. That meant each item had to carry an AMC factory part number and be available through the AMC dealership network for anyone to purchase.
As part of the program, Crane Cams provided 8620 steel-billet roller camshafts, roller lifters, valve springs, spring retainers, pushrods, roller-tip, needle bearing fulcrum, extruded aluminum rocker arms, and completely ported, AMC cylinder heads with big valves and legal components installed, ready for bolt on. Each of these components carried an official AMC part number and could be ordered through the AMC dealer network. Several different roller cam profiles were available, each with its own part number.
The components and tuning was eventually incorporated into the 390 AMX S/S racing program. These vehicles were purpose-built by Hurst Performance Corp., in their Royal Oak, Mich., short-run vehicle assembly-line facilities. AMC used the same Hurst facility that created those still remarkable 426 Hemi Dodge Dart and Plymouth Barracudas.
These race-bred AMXes carried 390-cid V-8 engines with all the AMC cataloged go-fast goodies. Included was a cross-ram, aluminum intake manifold and a pair of Holley four-barrel carburetors, tube steel headers, a heavy-duty rear axle, fiberglass front-end parts, and other select items engineered for the purpose of dominating the NHRA SS/C class.
To obtain one of those Hurst-built vehicles required prior success in serious drag racing, and of course you had to "know someone" to get your order included for the limited production run.
The AMX cars were reasonably successful in NHRA S/S and the new AHRA GT class. As expected, they encountered stiff competition from the many 426 Hemi and wedge-powered Dodge and Plymouth entries populating the S/S ranks. Still, much of what AMC's race folks learned through that initial program led them to greater success in early Pro Stock racing, most notably the Wally Booth-Dick Arons and Dick Maskin-Dave Kanners Hornets.
That winter season where AMC's race bunch occupied Crane Cams back shop and kept the Heenan-Froude dyno buzzing was indeed fun. It also served as an inside look at what even a minor player such as AMC could do when provided with reasonable funding and personnel targeting a specific drag racing goal.
You can read more about the AMX Super Stock program and see a ton of cool photos here (follow the History links on the left side of the page). There’s a list on this page of the original owners of the 52.
“If you had to compete with the three biggest car companies in America, what would you do?” This was the tagline on some American Motors television commercials back in the early 1970s, and it’s a valid question, for which AMC had some good ideas.
Strong engines like the 390 and 401 gave lots of power, and innovative (if not critically received) styling were part of the answer, but, let’s face it: It’s tough being an American Motors fan, believe me. Even though the Kenosha, Wis., car maker actually built some pretty nice (and fast) cars, it was always looking up to its “Big Three” brothers at General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, and so were its admirers. I mean, who would rather have a ’69 AMX when they could have a Z/28 or a Shelby Mustang? Sure, those AMXs came with a pretty stout 401 powerplant but nothing like the legendary engines from Chevy and Ford, especially when it came to aftermarket add-ons.
As I mentioned last week, my first hot rod was an AMC Javelin, and before that my stepfather had a '66 Marlin, a fastback-looking thing somewhat akin to the Dodge Chargers of the era. (In what I find a very amusing corollary, AMC designer Bob Nixon described the Marlin as "like trying to build a Corvette on a Buick sedan body. It just doesn't work" and dismissed the project as an "ugly embarrassment," yet a few years later, he designed the Gremlin. Ha!)
I don’t know that many Marlins made it to the dragstrip (I know of just one, the Preston Honea-driven ’65 Marlin that ran out of Bill Kraft’s Rambler dealership in Norwalk, Calif.), but there were quite a few racers who took advantage of the racy look of the AMC Javelin/AMX. As promised last week, here’s a look at some of the other wild American Motors machinery that hit the quarter-mile in the 1970s, focusing mostly on the nitro Funny Car ranks.
American Motors was among the last of the major manufacturers to abandon the Automobile Manufacturers Association’s 1957 decree that automakers not be involved in racing nor promote racing products for their cars (leading to the brief but popular “police” line of high-performance cars). Both Ford and Chevy had jumped ship from the mandate (created in the wake of the tragic 1955 LeMans accident that killed 77 people) in the early 1960s, and AMC, battling financial problems, finally joined the race in 1966 by creating the Grant Rebel program to gain exposure, publicity, and a performance image.
AMC Performance Activities Director Carl Chamakian instrumented a $1 million agreement in 1967 with Grant McCoon, owner of Los Angeles-based Grant Industries, a manufacturer of piston rings, ignition systems, and steering wheels, to build the Grant Rambler Rebel Funny Car to run in NHRA’s X/S (Experimental Stock) and S/XS (Super Experimental Stock) classes.
An AMC 343-cid engine was bored and stroked to 438 cubes by “Famous Amos” Saterlee and topped with a GMC 6-71 blower. Initially driven by "Banzai Bill” Hayes in June 1967, and painted red featuring a blue racing stripe with white stars, established star Hayden Proffitt soon took over the Grant Funny Car program. A new car was built in 1968 and renamed the Grant Rebel SST and painted in the new hash red, white, and blue AMC corporate racing colors.
Proffitt sold the car to Pat Johnson, and it was driven by 1970 March Meet winner Hank Clark. Clark was from Bell Gardens, Calif., and anything fast that came out of Bell Gardens in those days had a tie to the Beaver family, as apparently did Clark’s machine, but to what extent I’m not sure. It appears that they and Clark were part owners of the car that Ron Rosenberry also drove at times. I also found a listing for Illinois-based Kenny Dobson racing in Division 3 with a Grant Rebel SST Funny Car.
Thorley poses with his wild Javelin outside Orange County Int'l Raceway in early 1968.
While it wasn’t the first AMC Funny Car, one of the wildest to hit the track was the mid-engine Javelin 1 built for header manufacturer Doug Thorley by Woody Gilmore in 1968. Thorley was tapped by AMC for the project thanks to the success of his 1967 Indy-winning Corvair flopper.
At the time, the AMC Funny Car body of choice was the big-bodied Rebel and no aftermarket Javelin bodies existed, but the owner of Randall Rambler, an Arizona AMC dealer, also owned a boat business and used his fiberglass experience to make the body for Javelin 1.
Reath Automotive’s Gary Slusser was tapped to work on the engine, which AMC first demanded be based on their 390 wedge, but when that engine proved underpowered, they later converted to 392 Chrysler power. A dragster-style B&M Torkmaster automatic transmission was used.
Because the engine was underpowered, Thorley had the car built super light — 1,665 pounds wet — which, combined with the unusual configuration of the rear-engine car, may have contributed to the car’s spooky handling. Thorley initially drove his car, which Norm Weekly also piloted. Jim Dunn, who was between rides then (and, of course, would go on to become a big part of rear-engine Funny Car history), reportedly nearly drove the car, but he would have had to quit his job at the fire department, so he backed out. Bob Hightower finally flipped it over backwards in the lights at Irwindale Raceway in June 1969.
Thorley’s Javelin wasn’t the only one to meet a dramatic end. Future national event winner Bob Pickett had a Javelin Funny Car in 1969-70 that eventually took flight at Orange County Int’l Raceway seriously injuring him.
Pickett built the chassis in his garage, copying the frame designed by Pat Foster for Thompson's famous Mustangs right out of a magazine article. “We knew how long the chassis was, so we copied the design right out of the magazine,” he admitted. “We chalk-lined it on the garage floor, tacked it together, then had someone else weld it up. I did all the tinwork myself. I’d never built a car before that. I was just driven.”
Pickett cloaked his new creation with an AMC Javelin body, and the car flew … literally. After racking up an eye-opening best of 7.25 at 201 mph, the car took flight in the lights May 2, 1970, at Orange County Int’l Raceway’s Big 4 race.
“They said I was dangling the front tires off the ground at 800 feet, and then right in the lights, it went straight up,” recalled Pickett, who was knocked unconscious and suffered a broken back in the wreck. “It went as high as a telephone pole and went a long way and went into the guardrail. I was just telling myself, 'It's not my time.' "
As could be expected, AMC’s sport Javelin made an attractive and swoopy race car, and fans in the late 1960s could see them throughout Southern California.
After the failure of the rear-engine car, Dick Bourgeois and Earl Wade fielded the Javelin 2 in 1969-70, a Logghe-built entry powered by a 440-cid Chevy engine tuned by Earl Wade and sponsored in part by Thorley. Bourgeois and Wade had been running Thorley's second Corvair and updated the car to this Javelin, which ran on the Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars circuit in 1969.
Gary Crane owned the Travelin' Javelin, a 426 Hemi-powered '69 AMC Javelin built by Ronnie Scrima at his Exhibition Engineering emporium that also was driven briefly by rising Funny Car shoe Dale Armstrong.
As the owner of fiberglass body manufacturer Fiberglas Trends, Marv Eldridge had his choice of bodies, and for three seasons, he ran the Javelin in a car driven quite successfully by SoCal’s Rusty Delling. The 392-powered machine scored several big wins, including the 1969 World News Nationals in Kansas City. Eldrige also had his own car, an AMX.
The Genuine Suspension AMX-1, which was owned by Jim Thomas and driven at times by Kenny DuBose, Tom Ferraro, and Gerry Walker, ran on a fuel altered chassis and powered by a 35 Chrysler Hemi. Clyde Morgan’s EXP Javelin was another Southern California machine, his built by Dick Fletcher and powered by a 427 Chevy, and future fuel dragster star Gary Read had the Nutcracker 392-powered Javelin (above).
AMCs weren’t limited to the Golden State; Texan Ken Hare had the Logghe-built 427 Chevy-powered Ramblin' Rose Javelin and Oregon’s Larry Palmer had the Can-Am Scorpion Javelin, both in 1969.
AMCs also enjoyed some time in the spotlight in Pro Stock in the mid-1970s, with Hornets driven by Wally Booth and partners Dick Maskin and Dave Kanners. As I wrote last week, Booth had the first AMC factory entry in 1972 but, after little success with a Gremlin, joined Maskin & Kanners in fielding a Hornet.
Booth earned AMC its historic first Pro win at the 1974 Gatornationals when he defeated Wayne Gapp in the final round and went on to add wins at the 1976 Springnationals, Grandnational, U.S. Nationals, Fallnationals, and World Finals en route to a third-place finish that season behind Larry Lombardo and Warren Johnson. (According to Insider regular Franklin Amiano, Booth used 392 Chrysler valve guides in his AMC engines. The stock AMC valves had 3/8 stems, but by using the 392 guides, he could run small-block Chevy valves with a 5/16 stem. They were the same length, used Chevy keepers, retainers and springs, and were an ounce lighter, which equals a pound of valvetrain weight [16 valves]).
That 1976 Finals at Ontario Motor Speedway may have been AMC’s single greatest day of drag racing as Booth defeated Kanners for the title. Kanners, the 1967 U.S. Nationals modified champ, never scored in Pro Stock but had two runner-ups, at the 1975 Gatornationals and the 1976 Finals.
Other Hornets in Pro Stock were driven by Missouri AMC dealer Brian Rodekopf, Maine’s Dave Street, and Pat Ulik, from AMC’s home state of Wisconsin.
AMC did score a pretty good publicity coup in the early 1970s when they wooed H.L. and Shirley Shahan to the AMC family. Shirley, of course, made NHRA history in her Drag-on Lady Mopar in 1966 when she became the first woman to win an NHRA national event (the Winternationals), but the Shahans, who raced out of the central California town of Tulare, had a flying 390-powered AMX Super Stocker in which they sometimes were able to compete in Pro Stock.
In an impressive feat, the couple actually qualified two AMXs for the 32-car Pro Stock field at the 1971 U.S. Nationals, at which more than 80 cars were entered. H.L. clocked a 9.892 for the No. 20 spot and Shirley a 10.006 for No. 31, but both lost in round one. Ironically, H.L. lost to Butch Leal, who had grown up in Pixley, not far from Tulare, and had run one of his first cars, a 409 ’62 Chevy, with Shahan’s help. Shirley lost her opening-round race to “Fast Eddie” Schartman’s Comet, and a woman would not win a round of NHRA Pro Stock competition until 21 years later, when Lucinda McFarlin became the first at the 1992 event in Memphis.
So, there you have it, a brief history of AMC cars in the NHRA Pro ranks. They had to compete with the three biggest car companies in America and did all right for themselves. Until next week, I’ll AMC-ya later.