Race Hemi Memories
In the Good Ole Days
From the November, 2010 issue of Mopar Muscle
By Geoff Stunkard
Photography by Geoff Stunkard
When it comes to talking about Mopars racing heritage, it is virtually impossible to not include the Chrysler Hemi in one form or another. The versions built in the 50s proved their worth on the speedways rather quickly as competitors built them for racing, but in 1964, the factory unleashed the engine that would make Mopars the most feared machines on either the street or track. Bred primarily as racehorses, the 426 Hemis built from 1964 to 1971 became the stuff of legend. So, to celebrate that, we will let some prime movers and shakers of the performance era tell tales about their involvement with Detroits finest.
392 vs. 426
Due to my close relationship with Chrysler, I was well aware of the development work on the new 426 Hemi long before it was public knowledge. Prior to the release of the engine, Chrysler sent me five complete crated Hemis. Swamp Rat VIII was the first 426 car we ran, and Connie Swingle was driving for me at the time. We struggled for two years with the 426 and couldnt get out of the 8-second zone at 192 mph. Conversely, people who were running the old 392 were in the mid-7s at 214 by now. We werent the only ones having the problem; the Ramchargers, and just about everyone else, were locked in the 8s struggling with the 426. With the 392, you ran 34 degrees of timing; 35 degrees would burn a cylinder, so we were running the 426 at 34 degrees, just like the 392.
In 1966, we were racing at National Trail Raceway near Columbus, Ohio, and could only run 190 mph. On our way to the next race at Rockford, Illinois, I made up my mind to run the engine at 40 degrees, blow it up, and put a 392 back into the car. At 40 degrees, the car went 7.55 at 214. I figured Id go to 50 degrees and grenade it for sureit went 7.40 at 219! We had found that the secret to the 426 was fuel volume and lots of spark advance. With the stock Chrysler aluminum heads, we went 6.77 at 222 mph; with worked heads, a Keith Black 3/8-inch stroker crank and 30 percent blower drive, we could run 6.15 at 243. We were showing 1,600-1,700 hp and turning the motor in excess of 8,000 rpm, and we were still using the stock block, exhaust valves, and rocker arms and shafts.
Don Garlits, abridged from Mopar Muscle, Vol. 1, No. 2
The Riot of 65
We went to the Super Stock Magazine Nationals in York, Pennsylvania, that summer with the Golden Commandos altered-wheelbase car. It was a fabulous race. Everyone who was anyone was there, and if you werent anyone, forget it. By then, the cars were really, really radical, and we were wearing a lot of safety equipment and burning nitromethane. That day, I raced in an Unlimited Class they had developed. Hour after hour it went on.
Jon Lundburg was announcing, and he knew how to work the crowd. There were thousands upon thousands of people there that night. I remember they were letting people in for free by the time it got dark and you couldnt move in the place. Nobody was manning the gates. We had won some money earlier in the night and I went to go collect it; they had put all the cash in this shed. Baskets full of it. It was literally falling out.
It was an unbelievable sight. People were on the track and the cars were rushing down between them. I thought for certain that somebody was going to get killed. There was no place to sit, and moreover, the cars were wheelstanding. In the darkness, people down the track had turned on their headlights so we could keep racing.
More than anything else, though, I just remember the feeling of winning. Round after round, we were killing them. You would have to back up to the starting line and these people were right there, almost on top of the car. You would rev the motor and they would part just a little and then, as the car launched, all you could see was darkness. That was because the car was going up and you were looking at the stars. I had never pulled wheelstands that high before, and the first time I wasnt sure what had even happened when everything disappeared. Then it would come down and the people would be opening up and the car next to you was running as hard as you were and you would pull away and win. It was great.
In the final, it seemed like 4:00 in the morning, I was up against Dick Landy. Landy was a very pleasant man. He always had this cigar but I dont recall him ever lighting it up; that was his trademark. He was from California and his Dodge was one of the toughest in the country. It had been guys like him, along with Mickey Thompson and Hayden Proffitt, who had put stock car drag racing on the map out there.
Right then, Jon Lundburg was trying to control the crowd, which was surging out onto the track. I dont remember exactly what he said, but it was something to the effect of, If you dont get off the track, somebody ought to throw a Coke bottle at you. It wasnt meant to be incendiary, and he was just try to warn them that they were out of line being that close, but you can imagine what happened next. This hailstorm of Coke and beer bottles came roaring out of the stands, people were getting hit right and left. Luckily, I dont think anyone was badly hurt, but it made the whole thing seem even more out of control than it already was.
They got it cleaned up, and I raced Landy and won that night. We talked about it years later at a display at a Chrysler show in New Jersey, and I dont know if he ever got over me beating him at that race. It doesnt matter. We were the best two cars in the country that night, and nobody can ever take that away from either of us. It was my last big drag race win; I retired at the end of the season.
Al The Lawman Eckstrand, from an unpublished interview with Geoff Stunkard
The End of the 409
We did well with the Chevrolets and didnt pay much attention to Chryslers until one day this hillbilly from Tennessee came up with a new Hemi car in 1964. My dad was standing there, and the guy fired it up. My dad heard it, came over to me and said, Boy, you going to have sell all this 409 stuff, cause we aint gonna outrun nobody.
Super Stock racer and SS/A record holder Bob Reed
How Arlen Vanke Spoiled Grumpys Day
It was the summer of 1969 and we were having a ball racing my original 63 Dodge 426 Max Wedge Dragn Wagn. My friend Arlen Vanke had originally built the engine and was involved in every step of preparing it, and from the onset, that Dodge was an outstanding race car, capable of running under the national record whenever and wherever it needed to.
Since we raced off of the national record, it was important then to be able to run quicker than it; there was no index. Meanwhile, Arlen was running rampant over the other NHRA Super Stock cars in Division 3 in his manually-shifted SS/B Hemi Barracuda; the car could clock 10.20s-10.30s on the 10.64 record, and he and Ronnie Sox were winning many of the national events.
Unfortunately, with the NHRA World Finals only a few months away in Amarillo, Texas, things were not going so great for the guys at Chryslers Performance Product Planning. What had happened was that Chevrolet had just succeeded in persuading NHRA to approve the new ZL1 Camaro for Super Stock C stick. These were lightweight Camaros with high-compression, mechanical-cammed 427 motors, decked out with aluminum parts. To be legal, they had to make 50 of them, but many people felt GM reached that number using mirrors. What really compounded the problem was that Bill Grumpy Jenkins and Dave Strickler quickly got the ZL1s dialed in to where they could run 10.90s on the soft SS/C 11.31 record. Now, you may not like the Grump because of his affiliation with the Bow Tie brand, but he was truly way ahead of everyone else when it came to Chevrolet engines, and was absolutely brilliant when it came to setting up a drag car. Strickler, with an uncanny sense on the tree, was recognized as a great driver; put him in a car with black Jenkins Competition arrows on the rear quarters, and he was awesome. Running off that soft class record, they would be a real problem to beat.
So Arlen got a call from Dick Maxwell at Chrysler Performance Product Planning. Can Arlen find a 65 A990 car to build into an SS/C machine? Sure. Oh, and by the way, can you have it done in the next couple weeks to run at the NHRA points meet at National Trail Raceway? You see, at the time, you could only set a record during NHRA-authorized record runs at events, and that new record would be the subsequent class index. If you were more than a tenth of a second under your class record during eliminations, you automatically lost. The only time this rule was waived was if you went to the final round; in that case, you ran whatever you could, and that number could count as a new record if applicable. Arlen assured Dick that, yes, he could get this done and would be at National Trail Raceway (current site of the Mopar Nationals) to set the SS/C mark low enough that the ZL1 would not be a problem. Arlen told Maxwell, Start shipping parts, Ill find a car.
With only a couple of weeks to do it, Arlen ended up getting the Golden Commandos old back-up car, an A990-code Plymouth. But since it had never been used as a race car, it needed extra preparation time for a tach, electric fuel pumps, and wheelwell reworking, among other things, plus the manual transmission. Time was the one thing Arlen didnt have, but a lot of people, to a small extent myself included, got busy helping him make it happen, while he put together an engine, transmission, and rear end himself. As the event drew near, we knew we would get it done, but it was going to be close.
Saturday morning at the National Trail event featured tech, time trials, and record runs, with Sunday reserved for eliminations. Needless to say, Arlen got in late; that big fresh Hemi hadnt even been fired yet. The car was unloaded, he set the timing and drove it for the first time ever, taking it to get teched in. It passed without problems, and since it was new, Arlen had a couple of friends drive it around in the pits to get some time on the engine and driveline.
Now, everyone at the track figured something was going on. Akron Arlen Vanke had one of the strongest Hemi Barracudas in the country, and he showed up at a major event like this with a 65 car? The rumors were rampant, but, as we all eventually realized, there are no real secrets in drag racing. Somebody had let the cat out of the bag, and, lo and behold, who came through the gate as a spectator but none other than Bill Grumpy Jenkins himself! (Remember, I told you he was smart.)
So, with some pit time in on the engine, Arlen pulled into the staging lanes, but instead of making a time trial, he pulled into the lane for record runs. When he got to the front of the line, it seemed like everything at the track stopped. There was no water box then, so Arlen did a series of dry hops to warm the tires. The car sounded threatening; he would wing the motor, dump the clutch, and have it stopped in a couple of feet. Staged for the run, the five-count tree came down, Arlen matted the gas, and I swear you could hear that Super Stock Hemi five miles away. WHAM. At the flick of green, he let the clutch fly and the car began what would surely be one of the quickest runs ever for an A990 car. But it was not to be; moments later, the car wouldnt shift into Second gear, the rpm fell, and Arlen coasted through the traps. I figured the worst had happened, that something must have broken. I knew Arlen would not be happy, and I knew that Grump would be smiling. However, an inspection revealed that the number 7 header pipe had interfered with the clutch linkage. As quickly as possible, Arlen got the header off, flattened that tube with a hammer, and prepared for another try at the number.
Once back in line for his second attempt, the whole place knew that C record was going down, and going down hard. Man, I knew itI was grinning from ear to earthe Grump was history. As the Belvedere came to the line, everyone was standing, and at the last yellow, Arlens foot came off the clutch pedal and the monster was loose. This time, a smooth shift to Second. This was it! He was on one! Then nothing; the front end dropped down, the car wouldnt shift into Third, and it was over. By now, the day was late, and the opportunity was past. Something more serious had happened, and there would not be another chance to set the record. I didnt even want to go to his pit; Arlen had to be hurting. What could I say? What could anybody say at that point? Arlen had told Maxwell that he could do this, made every human effort to make it happen, and had failed. The Grump, probably now wearing the grin I had had only moments earlier, left for Pennsylvania, knowing his record was intact. Or was it?
Sunday dawned a little overcast, but was a perfect fall race day. Overnight, Arlen had returned to his shop in Akron, pulled the transmission, and repaired the blocker ring that had caused the Third-gear problem. He worked most of the night, got very little sleep, and then returned to the track for the race. Record runs were over, but perhaps we could still salvage some round wins with the new car.
Up against a full field of Super Stock entries, I was able to see Arlen win the first round with an 11.50 on the 11.31 index. That monster Hemi growled on every run, caught up with its opponents and then inched ahead at the finish. But, as I watched, I noticed Arlen never extended the car, running just good enough to win without going under the record. By now, a lot of onlookers figured that Arlen had built a good 11.3011.40 machine, nothing less and nothing more. Then, in the late afternoon, there were only two cars left in the Super Stock: Dewey Cook in a similar 65 A990 Hemi car, and Arlen.
At that moment, everyone suddenly realized that if Vanke indeed had a record-setting car, he could do it right then. His failures yesterday had all been mechanical; this car had never been run flat out. So when they called the final for Super Stock, you could feel the excitement in the air. The two big Hemi cars were fired and ready, carefully staging for the money run. Arlens car had a sound all its own. At the final yellow, Arlen dumped the clutch, and, by the green, the monster jumped out of the gate. We were on our way! Bang! Second gear came quickly and the car was moving. Oh, man, let him get Third this time. Got it! Cook was dropping backhe must have been having problems. In Fourth gear, Vankes Hemi was roaring as it hit the traps. His win light came on and pandemonium broke loose. There were no scoreboards in this era, and we waited to hear announcer Clark Raders voice through the speakers.
Arlen Vanke wins and resets the national record to10.64!Seven tenths of a second! The record was hammered! Of course, at the time-card shack, NHRA officials were waiting as Arlen came down from the top end and he was escorted to the scales. No problem; the car was legal by a solid 20 pounds. Next came teardown to ensure that, indeed, no funny business was going on, and like Arlens other cars, it passed with flying colors.
I was with Arlen when he won Indy, and I had been there for some of his other wins, but this fall points race was the proudest day he ever had. While it was good to win the race and good to set the record, I will always believe that to Arlen, the most important thing was that he had done what he had promised Maxwell and lived up to his word. As for Grump, well, Sox would win the 69 World Finals. That afternoon was one of the sports finest hours in my mind, and I am fortunate to say, I was there.
Dave Duell, longtime Mopar Sportsman drag racer, in a story done for this feature.