NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

The Ramchargers

06 Jun 2014
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

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!