Wingin’ It

Chrysler had enjoyed success with their NASCAR program from the very beginning. But, as the late 60’s came around, the competition seemed to be catching up and actually winning. While the early Charger proved adequate on the high banked super speedways along with the Dodge Coronets and Plymouth Belvederes, it was the Hemi engine that was the dominant force pushing them into the winner’s circle. When 1968 came around, it was thought that the new Dodge Charger would be a real contender with its sleeker shape, but in fact it was realized that the car needed to be aerodynamically sorted out. The engineers felt that they had taken horsepower about as far as they could, and if they wanted to increase top speed, they needed to do it aerodynamically. Testing at the Chelsea Proving Grounds showed promising results, but when they got to Daytona, the cars were only running 184 mph--about 3 mph faster than previous models. The competition though was running 187 and 189 mph, so they knew they had to make changes to stay competitive. One of the individuals involved was the supervisor of the Special Vehicles Group, Larry Rathgeb. Larry was able to put his finger on the problem right away. The cars had too much front end lift. The Charger especially, had severe front lift due to its deeply recessed grille area, and a huge amount of turbulence in the rear window area between the rear roof pillars. All this translated into drag, making the car run slower than the competition. One of the Chrysler test engineers, John Pointer saw that even with additional power from the Hemi engine, it would not guarantee the car to be any faster.

The decision was made to go “aero”, and thus, development work started on the Charger 500. They knew they could not race just what they built, so they had to build what they wanted to race. To really define which changes were going to be beneficial for the 1968 Charger, wind tunnel tests had to be conducted. While this was done with aircraft at the time, it rarely happened with cars. Chrysler had no facility, so it was decided to go with the Wichita State University 3/8-scale wind tunnel. Testing supported what the Chrysler engineers thought was happening. They had to convert the surface area into a fastback to smooth out the turbulent air on the rear, and bring the grille flush with the front end to reduce lift. It was felt that these changes would boost the top speed by 5 mph. VP of Dodge Marketing at the time was Bob McCurry. He didn’t like losing, and he quickly made the call for these changes to occur. The task to mock something up went out to the Woodward Avenue garage. It was determined that some “off the shelf” parts could work just fine. Hence, the Coronet grille was utilized, a flush backlight plug and smaller glass was designed that flowed from the roof line, back to the middle of the trunk to get that fastback shape. This required the trunk lid to be shortened. The test mule was taken to the Chelsea Proving Grounds for testing. Bill McNulty, the test supervisor at the grounds confirmed that the car was indeed faster by a few miles per hour. Of course NASCAR regulations required that you had to build at least 500 production units of a given body type in order to race it. Dale Reeker was the product planner, but since he came from the race group, he had contacts in the sanctioning bodies, and knew how they operated. Since such a limited run of cars had to be made, making the modifications on the assembly line wouldn’t work. Creative Industries, basically a retired Chrysler employee owned shop where Vern Kopin, Charles Shell, and Lou Wiser spent their days, were given the task by Reeker to handle the work. The NASCAR homologation minimum gave the car its name “500” even though that number was not achieved. Only 392 Charger 500’s were built. So, to quickly sell the cars, Dodge cranked out a promotion announcing the new car in a small brochure that stated a new Charger was available that was even “sleeker” and faster than the R/T. “The Charger 500 is offered specifically for the high performance race track. It is available only to qualified performance participants and is being built to special order on a limited production basis.” Who wouldn’t want one after reading that? Offered at $3,843, it was $300 more than the price of the Charger R/T. Popular Hot Rodding tested both the auto and manual-shifted 426 Hemi versions, reporting quarter mile times of 14.01at 100 mph, and 13.60at 107.44 mph respectively. For a car weighing 4,100 pounds, those times weren’t bad. Obviously drag racing the new Charger missed the whole point of the car. The Charger 500 debuted in January 1969, at Riverside Raceway with Al Unser behind the wheel. The competition realized what was happening and rushed with their “Aero” versions. Ford announced their Talladega, and Mercury their Cyclone Spoiler versions to compete with the Dodges later in the year. Of course Chrysler was not sitting on their haunches. They were developing another much improved version, to be known as the Charger Daytona. The data gained from the 500, and testing at the new Lockheed-Georgia wind tunnel, proved to be quite beneficial. The NASA Apollo program had wound down, so Chrysler’s space division was available for testing. John Vaughn, an aerodynamics engineer at Chrysler’s Huntsville, Alabama, facility was tasked with the studies.

Chrysler was the first vehicle manufacturer to go into the Lockheed tunnel, up to this point, tests were never run on a car. They had to find a way to bolt the car down to the floor. Gary Rathgeb was in charge, and he directed Bob Marcel and others to come up with sketches based on specific lift and drag figures. It turns out that the sketches from the different engineers were all close to one another, and just in time for Christmas of 1968. They basically took the 1970 Charger’s front bumper off, and replaced it with a streamlined fairing. At this time in the development cycle, there was no rear spoiler. Wanting to make sure to get the program approved, Rathgeb and Reeker met with Bob Rodger the Chief Engineer of Chrysler Product Planning. Bob had played a large role in the introduction of the famed Chrysler 300 and other performance models. After seeing the sketches he said , “Hey, if you can sell it to one of the divisions, go for it”. The Plymouth guys didn’t want it (Petty was still at Ford), but the Dodge boys did! The Daytona was treated as a public relations project with one objective, beat Ford. Chrysler went back to the wind tunnels with the goal of a 15-percent drag reduction over the Charger 500. A new, highly detailed 3/8-scale model was built for testing, with special attention focused on the underbody features, as well as the engine compartment, radiator and even the cooling fan. While testing was going on in the wind tunnels, Chelsea was using the Charger raced by Bobby Isaac in the 1968 Firecracker 400 as its development property. Since the vehicle has been chopped and channeled and deemed illegal by NASCAR, it would serve as the perfect test mule. Work on the all-new nose began in January 1969, by the time the Daytona 500 race was getting close, the first prototype was completed. Pointer snapped a Polaroid of the car and gave it to Reeker to take to Daytona. Reeker sold the project to McCurry on the way back from the race, where Chrysler got tromped by the Ford guys. McCurry was so pissed, that anything to make the Dodges more competitive would have been approved. So the testing at Chelsea showed that with the all-new front end, the rear balance of the car was all messed up. They played with deck spoilers but they would have to be too large, which would induce even more drag. It was deemed they needed an inverted airfoil on struts, which would also be adjustable. Gary Romberg joined Marcel in wind tunnel testing, and even wrote an SAE paper on their work. Whatever looked good in the tunnel could be confirmed at the track. The cars drag coefficient depended on the angle of the rear wing. As the wing was pitched, it changed the induced drag and the rear lift, and that changed the drag on the entire car. Initially, two nose cones were developed, one was 9-inches, and the other was 18-inches long. Three different versions of a front spoiler were also tested. Testing showed that the 18-inch nose with front spoiler having a 5-inch chord, mounted 13 inches back from the tip gave the best results. The decision on the rear spoiler was to use a Clark Y inverted airfoil. It was adjustable from plus to minus 10 degrees, and had a 7-1/2-inch chord. It was mounted 23-1/2 inches above the rear deck on vertical stabilizers, having an NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) 0012 symmetrical airfoil section. The horizontal wing could have been lower, but as was found out by Reeker, the trunk lid did have to open far enough to be usable for production cars. A lot of work went into the front air intake for maximum cooling abilities, and still maintain the aerodynamic improvements. Testing showed that 40 square-inches of air space were needed. One more detail was found in the tunnel, and that was that adding wind deflectors to the A-pillars would stop the turbulence coming off them. The design of the reverse facing scoops on the front fenders was thought by many to be for pressure relief in the wheel wells or to cool the brakes. It was actually needed for tire clearance due to the car’s attitude with the front end dropped down. It was tested to make sure it did not aerodynamically affect anything. Originally conceived as a 1970 model, Dodge didn’t want to wait, and in mid-March 1969, it was decided it would debut at Talladega. What better place to beat the Fords than at the inaugural race at Talladega in September. The car won the race its first time out. To qualify the car as 1969 models, it meant production would have to start by June 10th, and all 500 cars had to be built and delivered by September. The burden of meeting this shortened schedule fell on Reeker. He had to coordinate the design, engineering, and manufacture of all the unique parts. Besides the nose cone, there were the retractable headlights, the rear aluminum stabilizers and horizontal airfoil had to be cast and extruded, not to mention the side marker lamps, scissors jack etc.

When it came time to test the Daytona at race speeds, the Chelsea proving grounds was selected. With a corporate rule of not exceeding 120 mph for safety, test speeds were limited. So on a certain Sunday in July of 1969, the Proving Grounds staff checked the track to make sure everything was clean and free of any debris. Nichol’s Engineering brought up one of their Charger 500’s to see the differences between the two cars. People were stationed around the track, and an ambulance and fire equipment stood by. With Charlie Glotzbach at the wheel, the Daytona went significantly faster than the 500, hitting 194 miles per hour. It didn’t break the 200 mph barrier due to engine issues. That was Sunday July 20, 1969 the same day the astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. The following Sunday, with engine problems fixed, Glotzbach lapped the track at 204 mph.

The 1969 Charger Daytona was introduced with a MSRP of $3,993. Production Charger R/T’s were shipped to Creative Industries for the conversion process at the rate of 7 a day. Car number one went to Kingston, Ontario, Canada, on June 27th, 1969, and the 500th was shipped to Lafayette Dodge in Indiana, on September 8th. It is documented that 503 Daytona’s were built by Creative, of which only 70 were 426 Hemi’s. While the cars were crowd pleasers, they had to be sorted out by the race teams and there weren’t many 1969 races left. The cars offered to the public came with either a 440 or 426 Hemi engine. Auto or manual transmissions were offered. Production versions were available in all colors.

For the 1970 season, the Daytona’s had a lot more testing and tweaking done to them. Petty left Plymouth in 1969 to drive the aerodynamically superior Ford Talladega, so they only got two wins for all of the 1969 season. As a way to lure Petty back, Plymouth got to work on their version of the Daytona. Done exclusively in the wind tunnel, the car had its own host of development issues. The front fenders of the Belvedere/Road Runners were not suited to accept a nose cone like the Charger was. Plymouth looked in the parts bin and used the Coronet fenders. With the nose cone designed and the Coronet fenders creating a mismatch with the hood, a plug had to be designed to provide a smooth transition. The rear glass also required a special plug and backlight. To cut costs on production cars, they came with a mandatory vinyl top. This alleviated have to do all the body work that was done on the Chargers rear window plug. Colors were limited to Alpine white, Vitamin C Orange, Lemon Twist, Lime Light, Fire Metallic, Tor-Red, and Corporate blue. Three engines were available, the 440 four and Six Barrel, and the 426 Hemi. Wind tunnel work gave the Superbird some unique features over the Daytona. The air inlet was lower and larger, and the rear vertical stabilizers had greater area and were more swept back. Creative Industries performed the work, but now NASCAR required 2,000 units to be built to qualify for racing. Also, the cars had to be built by January 1, 1970, there was new Federal lighting laws coming out, so the work had to be done quickly to meet all the deadlines. You know the history, 1,971 cars were completed, not 2,000, and King Richard came back and took 18 wins, 27 top 5s, and 9 poles. The Dodges were very successful too. On March 24, 1970 Buddy Baker was the first driver to average over 200 mph in a Grand National Race, and he did it at Talladega in a Daytona. The K&K Insurance Daytona driven by Bobby Isaac, entered 47 of 48 NASCAR races (Grand National and short track), and won 11 of them. Oh yeah, he also won the Championship. Isaac went on to beat Buddy’s top speed record at Talladega, establishing the world’s closed-course speed record of 201.104 miles per hour. Plymouth took the checkered flag 21 times. Of the eight superspeedway wins by Superbirds, Petty won 5 of them. The Daytonas won 17 Grand National races, and at the Darlington Southern 500 took a 1-2-3 sweep with Buddy Baker in first , Isaac second, and Pete Hamilton third in his Superbird. For the 1970 season, Ford only won six times, and Mercury four. Combined, Dodge and Plymouth won 38 NASCAR events in 1970, the most successful season in Chrysler’s history.

The Rod Shop Tribute

The Rod Shop, based out of Columbus, Ohio, started out simply as an engine rebuilding shop. With a lack of high-performance parts being warehoused in the Midwest, Gil Kirk thought it would be a great idea to start ordering the most popular high-performance parts, and having them on the shelf for performance enthusiasts in the area. Until then, people had to order parts from California and wait 4-5 days to receive them. Gil Kirk and Jim Thompson were the owners of the Rod Shop, and they sponsored and raced GM products until mid-1970, when they were approached by Chrysler Corporation to develop an all-Dodge team.

While almost standard practice these days, this was a new concept to the sport of drag racing in 1970. This new team would be outfitted in and all-new slick, All-American paint schemes of red, white, and blue. Initially, it would consist of eight cars, the flagship being a trick new Dodge Challenger, driven by Detroit’s Mike Fons. Fons was a well-known Detroit-area racer, who had built his reputation winning with big block Chevrolets. Chrysler and the Rod Shop wanted good drivers to field the team, so everyone worked together to bring successful racers together.

Bob Riffle, who was already a Chrysler racer and Ohio gasser favorite, was provided a Dodge Demon to run NHRA’s B/Gas class. This car would have the ability to double as a Pro Stocker at selected events. There was an SS/DA Hemi Challenger to be driven by Dave Conner, and a Charger for Bill McGraw. McGraw had made quite a reputation, locally in Ohio, with the “Batcar” Camaro convertibles. There were also a couple of 383 cars, a Charger for well-known Michigan racer Dave Boertman, and a Coronet wagon for his wife, Judy. These cars would go on to great success in Stock Eliminator, even meeting each other for Stock Eliminator at the 1971 NHRA Summer Nationals in Englishtown, New Jersey. Of course Dave wisely red lighted to give his wife Judy the win, or so the story goes. In addition, Thompson’s flip-top Cuda was converted to a Challenger for B/A class, and run by Eckard and Kirk.

By far the most unique and memorable Rod Shop entry was the Stickel and Noltemeyer Dodge Colt station wagon that competed in C/A Class. On top of being a wagon, the unique part of the car was the power plant. It was a spin-off of a short-lived Chrysler Indianapolis Champ car program. It had some trick parts like a Guerney Weslake overhead cam, and cylinder heads designed in England. They were mounted on a Chrysler small block, and the car ran pretty good, gathering a few NHRA class wins. The high winding Indy motor in the small Colt wagon turned out to be a real crowd pleaser. The downfall though was parts availability, and the sheer complexity of the design as it took its toll. Eventually, the trick stuff was eventually shelved, and the car was run with a tunnel ram small block, which was not nearly as competitive. It was barely competitive in D/Altered.

This was the opening lineup for the Rod Shop’s newly formed team, and it turned out to be extremely successful. Mike Fons won the Pro Stock World Championship in 1971 with his Challenger. NHRA Professional racing, at that time, was not decided by cumulative point totals, but by the person that won the NHRA World Finals located in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at that time. This marked the first of many successes the Rod Shop enjoyed. It would become one of the most recognizable teams in the history of the sport, and would be responsible for launching the careers of some of drag racing’s most recognizable stars. Some of the Rod Shop drivers, crew members, and former employees were; Arlen Vanke, Bob Riffle, Bill McGraw, Mike Fons, Bruce Meihls, John Staley, Tony Capuano, Dick Hickernel, Rick Stickel, Ray Noltemeyer, Tom Schumacher, Gordon Collett, Lance Boyer, Ed Eckard, Carl Kirk, Cliff Ghetti, Bob Bond, Steve “Moocher” Thomas, Mike Fowler, Dave Boertman, Yvette and Dawn Meihls, and Carroll Fink

This year’s Mopar Nationals will feature a few of the famous Rod Shop cars along with some of the drivers and team members. It’s amazing just how many of the cars have survived to this day and have been restored to period-correct stature.