Those in the know in collector car circles recognize that pedigree often plays a most important part in determining a car's value. For those of us with production Mopars, determining pedigree can be difficult, but it is far from impossible.
That's not the case with vintage racing iron, especially Chrysler Performance Parts/Petty Enterprises mid-'70s Chrysler Kit Cars.
Ed Skanes and his son Bryan of Lexington, Kentucky, know the challenges of owning vintage race cars of pedigree first hand. This '73 Challenger-skinned Chrysler Kit Car and its garage-mate-the Dan Gurney/Suede Savage-driven '70 AAR 'Cuda-are certainly cars of racing heritage, but there is always a degree of uncertainty.
"This was perhaps one of the early development kit cars built at Petty Enterprises, but we're not quite sure," says Ed.
What Ed and Bryan are sure of is that it went from Petty Enterprises to an individual who lived in or near Petty's Randleman, North Carolina, location. From there, it was purchased by Chrysler dealer Buddy Crouch of Erland, Kentucky. The car would have two other Kentucky-based owners prior to the Skanes purchase in 1992.
Its racing pedigree-asphalt and dirt short tracks throughout the South-may not be considered the big leagues of NASCAR Winston Cup, but the car did enjoy racing success. According to Ed, "
"The car had a total of three different bodies on it," says Ed. "It started as a Challenger, despite promotional material saying that the Chrysler Kit Cars first became available in 1975 in two A-Body/F-Body wheelbase dimensions-112-inch Valiant Scamps and Dart Swingers and 108-inch Dart Sports and Dusters."
Bryan also mentioned to us a November 1973 article in Motor Trend titled "Chrysler's Saturday Night Special." "The article informs readers that four different wheelbases-108-, 110-, 112-, and 115-inches-and six different bodies-Duster, Barracuda, Road Runner/Charger, Dart Sport, and Challenger-were to be offered," says Bryan. "We found one Kit Car Barracuda-an IMSA Radial T/A series Barracuda owned and driven by Carson Baird. We bought the car in 1992 and plan to restore it."
After wearing Challenger panels, this 110-inch wheelbase racer would become a Dart and from there it would become a Mirada. In fact, it was driven by Marty Robbins, the late Country/Western star known for his songs-"El Paso" and "White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation." He was the only country singer to ever compete in NASCAR's premier racing series, Winston Cup. Robbins campaigned this particular car when it was in Dodge Magnum/Mirada form and likely in ARCA competition. Buddy Crouch, a Kentucky Chrysler car dealer, owned the Kit Car when Robbins drove it.
Bryan adds, "While Buddy Crouch owned the Kit Car, it raced ARCA from 1974 though 1980 with two drivers in addition to Robbins. One was a local Kentucky boy named Buddy Medlock. I believe he won several ARCA races in the Kit Car as the No. 74 Dodge Dart."
One of this Kit Car's last races was at Isom, Kentucky, in the early '90s. "Beyond that history," says Ed, "the only people who might know something about the cars would be Chrysler Performance Parts or Petty Enterprises employees."
With that challenge, we began a search for information. Fortune was on our side when we contacted Larry Shepard of Mopar Performance Parts and Bill Hancock of Arrow Racing Engines. In the late '60s through the '70s, Shepard and Hancock had adjoining office space at Chrysler Performance Parts. In fact, Hancock, under direction from his boss, Larry Rathgeb, served as engineer over the entire Kit Car program, working to combine Chrysler's parts with the best in racing aftermarket components and the capabilities of Petty Enterprises.
Hancock says, "Grand National racing was very expensive, and while people came to us all the time from NASCAR's top ranks for parts, we weren't in the business of selling those components to the general public."
Shepard adds, "The time had come where small-blocks were the future of racing." He went on to say that the ban of Hemi power led to the use of 426 Wedge engines in NASCAR's premier series. "If you go back 30 years ago to about 1972," he says, "up to that point the Winston Cup program was based solely on big blocks, but the factors made the Wedge and Hemi nearly uncompetitive. The actual beginning of our NASCAR small-block development began with the P69 Indy program and continued with the 1970 Trans Am AAR 'Cuda and T/A Challenger. This was our first small-block racing activity with the main engine building conducted by Keith Black."
At the end of 1970, NASCAR basically said no more Superbirds and Daytonas by placing a 5-liter displacement limit on the wing cars. However, this didn't deter the motorsports guys at Chrysler Performance Parts. The thought was, "Let's take the Superbird with a 305ci Keith Black Trans Am engine to Daytona." So, Dick Brooks, driving Mario Rossi's No. 22 Superbird powered by a KB Trans Am engine, qualified eighth, and led laps 60, 61, 64, 96, and 98. An incident involving Pete Hamilton on lap 98 put Brooks two laps down, but he finished the race in eighth place. It was the last time a wingcar ran in a Grand National race, but it proved that Chrysler's small-block had the power and the durability for stock car racing.
"There was no formal NASCAR development of the small block Rossi's car ran at the 1971 Daytona 500," says Shephard. "That success of the only small-block in that race led Chrysler to consider that they could race the small block. As we went racing into 1972 and 1973 with the Pettys, so did Chrysler's small-block."
Perhaps simultaneously, Chrysler Performance Parts determined there was a need for a short track small-block program to equal the small-block efforts being accomplished in drag racing. Shepard says, "The parts program drove the deal. Direct Connection looked at the marketplace and determined where people were spending their performance money. Direct Connection went to talk to personnel at Petty Enterprises and other racing teams. We talked to the circle track sanctioning bodies, and after some time to figure it out, Larry Rathgeb and Bill Hancock took the years of racing experience that we had in support of our programs and made it happen."
Hancock concludes, "The Chrysler Kit Car was a scaled down Winston Cup car. It had all of the features that GN racers had. It was our goal to give the racer a car for less than $10,000. We built the prototypes down at Petty's and tested the combinations on both asphalt and in the dirt."
Testing proved to be an interesting scenario. At Petty's, they were too busy chasing Winston Cup championships and their own Petty Enterprises business. Hancock notes, "Petty Enterprises recommended that we contact Pete Hamilton who would handle our asphalt testing. As for the dirt, it would be a young phenom's first paid job in a race car.
"We wanted a very good, local dirt track racer," says Hancock. "We wanted a driver who was a good test driver and represented the kind of customers that we were seeking with the Kit Car program. We went to Harry Hyde and he suggested a name and we got the driver's phone number." The driver-Dale Earnhardt. "Earnhardt drove and tested for us for $100 per day," he says.
Hancock speculates that the car that Hamilton and Earnhardt drove was given to Pete Hamilton. "The car was a 110-inch wheelbase car, a Challenger."
However, don't speculate that the Skanes car shown here-which is also a 110-inch Kit Car-is that car. Suffice it to say that there were Kit Cars in Challenger bodies. Hancock says, "We tried to get every rule book we could and by doing so, build a universal car for circle track racing."
Getting back to the Skanes Kit Car, it was a Dodge Mirada when Edward got it and it was quite beat up. Ed says, "I saw it advertised in Piston Magazine and I knew the car. At that time, Paul Brewer had it for sale, but I didn't have the funds, so he sold it to a racer in Isom, Kentucky. The next time I saw it, I bought it for $450."
But the car's condition was rough. According to Ed, "The only thing that was any good in the car was the chassis; everything else was worn out. I didn't think it would be worth restoring, but I called Paul Brewer and he had the original Keith Black engine and many other parts. I got it all at a reasonable price, so that made it economical to restore. It has the original wheels. I spent a fortune having them rechromed since that was how it appeared new.
"It obviously needed to be rebodied and we took it back to its Challenger form." Ed tells us that proved to be the best move. "Since it was originally a Challenger, the coupe skin fit it all the better." Jimmy Jones of Cincinnati, Ohio, installed the sheetmetal to the Kit Car chassis and applied the Petty Blue hue. "Jimmy is a drag racer and really understands how to build and restore vintage racecars," says Ed. "Our hope to restore it as an original Petty Kit Car was accomplished due mainly to the parts we acquired from Paul Brewer and Jimmy's expertise."
When we saw the Skanes Kit Car, it was at the '99 Mopar Nationals. Ed tells us, "I take it out for exhibitions, like the Speedweeks event, where they allow significant cars to run for 24 minutes prior to the 24 Hours of Daytona. I turn the driving over to Gary Savage, the son of Suede Savage. In fact, Gary got to talk to Bill France, Jr. at Daytona in February 1999 about the car. I think France was interested because of its Petty heritage."
In closing, Ed says, "It's amazing to me, I often get greater interest at shows over the Kit Car than I do with Gurney's AAR 'Cuda." Is it the Petty heritage? The circle track association? The concept of buying a race car in kit form from Chrysler Performance Parts? Or is it just the mystery? Yep, we think it is the mystery of how yankees and good 'ol boys got together and created something that, when put into the hands of grassroots enthusiasts, helped put them in the Winner's Circle.
Names You Know
The saying goes, "It's a small world." In addition to the efforts of Petty Enterprises, Pete Hamilton, and a young Dale Earnhardt, consider some other names who were involved at some level in the development and building of Chrysler's Kit Cars:
* The tubes and connectors for the Kit Car chassis were built by Bob Keselowski who today owns the No. 1 NASCAR Craftsman Series Ram driven by Dennis Setzer. In addition, Bob drives the No. 29 NASCAR Craftsman Series Ram as part of the two-truck Keselowski team sponsored by Team Mopar and Dodge.
* Welding the chassis together once the parts arrived at Petty Enterprises was the job of Steve Hmiel. Hancock tells us that Hmiel, currently Dale Earnhardt's Technical Director at DEI and former Roush crewchief, was the welder down at Petty's. "He welded nearly every one of the cages for the Kit Cars."