While a lot of racers probably won't admit it, drag racing is an addictive sport. Jack Werst knows all about it. After all, Jack was in the middle of the fray during the glory days of factory racing in the '60s, moving from Super Stock to Pro Stock. By 1972, when the Detroit conduit was running dry, Jack wisely decided it was time to do something else. After leaving Chrysler, he went to work for Winnebago Industries-a career spanning 20 years-before returning to a dragstrip. Now, with a couple of years back in the saddle in a Max Wedge car built by Jerry Stein, "Mr. 5 and 50" is loading fuel into a Hemi again.
As recounted in the historical story that accompanies this car feature, the A990 Plymouth that Jack drove in 1965 and 1966 was no slouch. After all, he had none less than Bill "Da Grump" himself Jenkins spinning wrenches on those first 426 drag machines, and Werst was a pretty good shoe. To his recollection, the only time the car didn't live up to its reputation as a winner was at the NHRA Nationals in Indianapolis, where mechanical problems sidelined him both seasons. Still, of all the storied cars in his career, the '65 was his favorite, so his obvious choice was to move back into the dome-chamber brigade.
As luck would have it, Joe Smith of Dallas is building full-tilt '65 Hemi car replicas. Since the car would be running in Nostalgia Super Stock instead of the more intense NHRA/IHRA version, it was a perfect solution. Therefore, the body was built just like in the old days, with a 115-inch wheelbase, lightweight body stampings, and corning glass. Smith also did the tin work, adding tubs to support larger rubber in the back and a 12-point cage to keep Jack out of trouble if the car got out of shape. Inside were the JAZ seats, a Grant steering wheel, Simpson belts, and Autometer gauges.
Suspension technology is light years from what it was in 1966, and Jack took full advantage of it. Mopar shocks help support the front, and the traction factor out back is a Joe Smith ladder-bar suspension tricked out by S&W Racecars. Mickey Thompson rubber is on all four corners, riding on Centerline Convo Pro rims, and braking duties are accomplished with Wilwood brakes. The next 5 and 50 is covered in the '65 option Spanish Red Metallic paint sprayed by Media Camping Center, and it sports gold-leaf lettering by Motor Sportz Creative in Novi, Michigan. About the only difference between this car and his original is that it rides a lot better.
Did we mention it's fast? After the Grump decided he really wanted to be a Chevy guy, others aptly filled the shoes and are now premier builders of the big ol' pachyderm. One of those is Ray Barton, who held a number of records during the '90s. Werst called on Ray to create an iron lung for the Plymouth, which sent the dyno needle to-brace yourself-898 horses! The new Hemi block is overbored .070, and Ray's magicians brewed up a combination that uses 13.5 compression JE pistons, Barton-designed Manley rods, and a Comp Cams roller grind that . . . well, let's just say it works.
On this Hemi block went new MP aluminum heads, which breathe in high octane Sunoco race fuel through one of Barton's hand-picked intake manifolds. A pair of Holley 780s are mounted on top in cross-ram fashion. Once used in the cylinders, the rich smell of that Sun fuel exits into the atmosphere through a Hooker Header/Flowmaster exhaust system that has been given the Jet-Hot Coatings treatment for increased reliability. An MSD ignition and NGK plugs spark the fire with a pair of Turbo Start batteries mounted in the trunk.
Behind the engine is a 904 TorqueFlite built by Pro Trans. It's equipped with a Pro Trans manual valvebody and an 8-inch ATI converter that stalls at 4,500 rpm. A Turbo Action grab handle using an ACD air shifter assures there will be no missing the next gear. The horsepower leaves the driveshaft and goes through a set of Richmond 5.67 gears and Strange components in a 9-inch modular housing before hitting the pavement.
Crew chief duties at the track are the responsibility of Wayne Degen, while "The Cops," John Dimarco and Joe DeLoreto, two of Jack's buddies, lend a helping hand. Jack, however, saves his greatest thanks for his wife, Eileen, for putting up with his second wind. Sponsorship and help on the project comes from Media Camping Center of Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania, McCormack Motorsports in Michigan, and Ray Barton, along with Flowmaster. Now retired from Winnebago, Jack was willing to admit he spent a lot of his grandchildren's inheritance to relive the '65 dream, not to mention countless hours.
The result, however, was worth it. He ran a blistering 9.29 e.t. at 141.40 mph at the Field of Dreams Supercar Showdown at Maple Grove Raceway. Jack held records in NHRA and AHRA throughout the '60s. With performances like the one listed above, we're willing to bet that part of his former legacy will be back again.
An Interview With Jack Werst
The '60s bred many well-known factory-backed racers. During this time, Jack Werst was employed by Chrysler in the warranty department of the Philadelphia region. He was typical of a number of average Joes who had regular jobs but still got some factory assistance. He raced Super Stock and Pro Stock from 1963 to 1972, during one of the most exciting decades in American racing history. Now coming full circle to run Nostalgia Super Stock, Mopar Muscle recently had a chance to sit down with the man nicknamed "Mr. 5 and 50" to hear some tales from the past.
Mopar Muscle (MM): How did the whole Nostalgia program come together for you?
Jack Werst (JW): Jerry Stein, who used to do a lot of racing, is a good friend of mine. He owns these two cars we have now. He and I got together and built the Plymouth, and I put together some factory support through Mopar Performance. Then, we decided to build the Dodge, which I'm driving now because Dodge is the factory's performance division. Paul Suloff drives the Plymouth.
As for the whole Nostalgia thing, I think it's a lot of fun, and I'm going to keep doing it for a couple more years. I don't know how long it will last. My dad used to talk about '30s-era Model-A Fords, stock ones, and nobody seems to care about those types of cars today. Don't get me wrong-I like this stuff, I just don't know how long it can go on. A lot of kids and guys under 40 come up to me and ask about the car, though.
MM: When did you get started in drag racing?
JW: I started racing in 1955, when I was 15 years old, at an old airport near Allentown, Pennsylvania. I went with a friend of mine who could legally drive in his '53 Olds, which had a column shifter. Well, he couldn't drive the car [because it was standard shift], and he said to me, "If you think you're so good, you go out and drive it." So I did, and I won the event, and that was the end. I was hooked.
I finished high school in 1957, so from 1955 to 1957, I ran some lower-class stock cars. I went to college for a semester or so, dropped out, and bought a brand-new 320hp Chevy Biscayne. I ran it with some success on the local level for a year in Super Stock. I went back to school, did my time in the Army at Fort Dix, and got out in 1963. I couldn't find a job right away, so I went to work for a car dealership named Bill Duke Motors in Willingboro, New Jersey. I talked them into sponsoring me as the driver of one of the new aluminum-nosed, 426 Max Wedge Plymouths that came out in 1964. The car was called the Jersey Duke. Soon afterward, I won three or four big Super Stock events with the car, and the next thing I knew, I had a new Hemi car and a factory deal that ended up lasting nine years, until I retired in 1972.
That first '64 Wedge car was a stick, and I thought I was a good stick-shift driver. Four transmissions later, the dashboard buttons went into the car, and I ran an automatic until I got my first Pro Stock ride.
MM: How did the "Mr. 5 and 50" name come about?
JW: By the time I got my '65 A990 Hemi Plymouth, I had left the dealership and gone to work for Chrysler as a warranty and service administrator in the Philadelphia Zone office. Dick Maxwell, who was in charge of the factory racing program, hung that name on me because the warranty plan at that time was a five-year, 50,000-mile program. Maxwell put "Mr. 5 and 50" on me based on my job at Chrysler, and the name just stuck. I had it on the cars until I retired.
MM: Did you have any relationships with the other drivers, like Bobby Harrop, who were based in that region?
JW: Bobby and I have been good friends since the early-'60s, when I ran Chevys and he ran Pontiacs. Later, we were sponsored by the different factory divisions (Dodge and Plymouth) through dealer groups. I was backed by the Philadelphia Region Plymouth dealers, and Harrop was backed by Philadelphia Region Dodge dealers.
MM: How did you feel about being in the Super Stock class as opposed to one of the altered-wheelbase cars?
JW: Those [altered-wheelbase] cars got a lot of coverage that year, but they couldn't run NHRA races, and that really hurt Chrysler. For that reason, cars like mine-the factory-supported Super Stockers-were needed as well. Since I was match racing when NHRA races weren't running, we actually developed plans to create an adjustable wheelbase. We wanted to open up the wheelwells and be able to move the rear axle forward, but the factory didn't want us to do that. They wanted the cars to appear as stock as possible, which made sense. At any rate, those A990 cars pretty much owned Super Stock in 1965 and 1966, so we were successful in what we had tried to do.
Harrop and I met in the final round of SS/A at Indy for the top spot in the eliminator. I lost that one on a quirk. At that time, my engines were being built by "Jiggs" Jenkins, who everyone now knows as "Grumpy." To reduce drag on the engine, he would trim part of the fins off the water-pump impeller. As long as the car didn't get hot, it wasn't a problem. When I hit high gear against Harrop at the Nationals, the pump broke and the car slowed down. Still, it was a great race car for the two years that I raced it.
That car gave me some of my best memories. We set the record with it at 11.15 e.t., using a Jenkins motor, and it became the first car to run quicker than 11.20. We even did it on 7-inch [wide] tires. It also became the first legal car on 7-inch tires to go in the 10-second zone, doing so at Cecil County in May 1965.
MM: Was there a reason you kept running that '65 car the following year?
JW: First of all, I liked it, and I needed something that I could really race with. The Street Hemi cars, like the one that Bill Stiles had [which won the World Championship in 1966], were relegated into A/Stock, so they were really restricted in that regard. I had good success with the A990 car, and I ran it until the end of that season.
After Richard Petty's accident in his Barracuda, the factory no longer wanted any liability. The suit had cost them millions of dollars. So, I bought my car. We were also banned from running any unsanctioned racetracks. Of course, we still did because that was where the money was. NHRA racing paid pretty poorly.
The factory sent us all paperwork on a proposed '66 Super Stock package, but that didn't materialize until the following model year. They never had any appropriations to make it happen during the first year of the street Hemi.
MM: Who were some of the people you remember from Super Stock racing at that time?
JW: Arlen Vanke comes to mind, primarily because we had the same cars through a lot of that time period, and he and I raced each other quite a bit. He was always a good racer, and we were very good friends. Bill Stiles is another, and I met Jerry Stein during that time as well. Now, Jerry was running Stock with his Max Wedge cars, but he was a good racer, and we became good friends also.
Jenkins, who used to call me "Worry Werst," built my motors, and they were the best as far as I was concerned. They made more horsepower then anybody else's. In fact, Dick Housey, who owned the car that Ted Spehar tuned, would often come out and race the Jenkins' cars. We would match-race them and, in most cases, beat them three straight. Then the factory guys would go back to Detroit and call me and tell me to find out what Jenkins was doing. I'd ask him, but he would never tell me, or anybody for that matter. They never liked the guy, and I got stuck in the middle because I was working for the factory at the time. At any rate, that ruffled some feathers, and Jenkins went to Chevrolets the following year. We are still good friends.
MM: Tell us about those '67 cars.
JW: The '67s were very poor cars. That's the truth. They were slow, heavy, and had a low- compression street Hemi motor instead of the good stuff. Ford brought out their 427 high-riser Fairlanes at the same time, and they were far too fast for us to run with because we were so heavy. That year, Jenkins also had sorted out his little Chevy II, so the Chrysler street Hemis in A/Stock didn't have any hope. Jere Stahl, who had won the championship in 1966, didn't even try to run in the Stock class that year.
So we had some special transmissions made that year by a guy in Scranton, Pennsylvania, named Tim Richards, who later tuned Joe Amato's fuel dragster and is well known today. With those transmissions, we began doing what came to be known as Banzai starts. They even called me "Banzai" at some of the tracks I went to. The trick was to wind that Hemi up to 8,000 rpm in Neutral and then drop it into First gear. KA-baam! The car would drop a half-second under the index by doing that. It would also cause some very bad transmission explosions in the car. Parts would go everywhere. We got smart and put a blanket on it later, but that was some scary stuff.
I got a lot of ink doing those kinds of starts, but now I see it as being pretty foolish. I blew windshields out of the car, dashboards out of it. I was just so frustrated with the car, I'd try anything to get it to run.
Anyway, the funny thing is we go to Indy, and I was ready. I knew how fast the car would go, and I'm in the lanes and figuring I've got the class in the bag. In fact, this car was basically set up just like a stick shift, Dana rear and big rear springs. Well, I got to the staging lane, and Buster Couch and all these guys were laughing. Here was this big sign: No Neutral starts. So then we had to take the whole car apart and set it back up for the standard way of running the automatic. The cars were classed in SS/BA, and I red lit with the other combination. A guy named Tom Myl won the class with a car Vanke had built for him. But those things were slugs.
MM: What was your feeling about the relationship between NHRA and Chrysler?
JW: [Beginning in] 1965, Chrysler had an adversarial relationship with NHRA. The company dominated all of their events. By the time the Pro Stock era began, the sanctioning body just kept indexing our cars, adding weight to them, and, I hate to say it, but that was the main reason why I quit. By 1972, we had already taken a 300-pound lump-we had to weigh that much more than the Pintos and the Chevys. We just weren't competitive because of it. They were at 2,700 pounds, and the Hemis were up at 3,300. There was just no way to overcome that disadvantage. By the next year or so, a lot of the other guys left, too. Even Sox and Martin broke up.
MM: The '67 cars gave way to the '68 Super Stock program. Tell us about that.
JW: Hemi Darts and Barracudas. Actually, Ronnie Sox got the first one, and I got the second one. They were awful cars to start with because they were only half put together, and we had to finish them.
MM: What condition was yours in when you got it?
JW: Not good, not good at all. The fenders were just hanging there, the steering wheel was loose, and the wheels were loose-it was sad. We had to go to Michigan to get them, which was the only way the factory-backed racers got theirs, and we brought it back in a driving snowstorm. It took us the better part of a month and half to get it ready to race. In April, we tested at Englishtown, and the cars wouldn't go straight, they didn't handle, and the front-end geometry was all screwed up. They were thrown together, and they were not good cars for the first three months. Once we had the frontends straightened out, they became very good cars. When I got rid of mine in 1970, those cars were going low 10s at 133 mph. Now they can run 8.80s at 150. We were limited to .590-inch cams and 10.5-inch-wide tires. Now there's no limit on cams, and you can run a 15x30-inch tire under them.
Anyway, the car held the record for a while when we had it in late-'68, but they took that away later when they decided something on the car wasn't right.
MM: Did you run any of the East Coast Super Stock circuits?
JW: Very much so. We ran from the Carolinas up into New England and went as far west as Indiana and Ohio. There were three or four different series, and you could run three events or more a week if you wanted to. If you scheduled your week right, you could run on Wednesday night, Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday. Plus, if you could move quick enough, you could also race a Sunday night. I only did that four or five times, but I did a lot of four-race weekends. It would pay $750 to $1,500 per race if you were winning. It all depended on who you ran, where you ran, and also whether you would take cash or a check. If you took a check, it paid more, but it also meant that you had to take a 1099 tax form with it. I made a lot more money with the car than I did with my day job.
In the infancy of Pro Stock, the cars were just basically revitalized Super Stockers. Prior to the tube frames, they were simply acid-dipped bodies with fiberglass front ends, lightweight glass, and no interiors. The '68 cars fit into it very easily. We used rosin for traction, and with it my 'Cuda could run with the best of them. We ran a lot of events against lesser-known Pro Stock cars-local cars-and I won a lot of those by simply taking weight out of my '68 car and using a good motor. After I beat Dave Strickler-while driving one of Jenkins' cars-in the first round of the Division 1 final at Atco [which allowed another Chrysler car to go to Dallas for a shot at the overall championship at the World Finals], I got a Pro Stock deal. So I went and ran Pro Stock in 1971 and 1972.
When match-racing, there was some stuff we could do to the car. We had stroker motors, better fuel, and better tires-there was a lot of stuff that guys did. Unless it had been agreed that no changes would be allowed, you could do what you wanted to do. The promoters and fans wanted to see a best out of three, or best out of five, and as long as it was close racing, they didn't care. In the beginning, it was usually just a pair of cars, but then it went to four or six or eight cars, and those races usually paid more. They needed to have more than two because these cars didn't always stay together, and they sometimes had backup cars waiting if one of the cars broke.
MM: What were some of the tricks the racers did? Did you create some of these changes yourself or did the factory racers help the others with tips, so to speak?
JW: Both. Actually, we all had things we would do, but the factory would tell us if they found something that made a real difference. The Ramchargers and the Golden Commandos would run this technology in testing and, if something worked, we would know about it before anybody else. In that regard, it seemed like our cars were on the cutting edge. In terms of tricks, everybody had some. One trick was to stagger the front wheels, which was very easy to do with Chrysler's torsion-bar front suspensions. It gave the driver a little more rollout, which resulted in being able to cut a better light.
MM: You made news when you spun your car out at the Nationals one year. Why did that happen?
JW: At Indy in 1968, when it came down to Gary Ostrich and myself for the SS/BA title, [the company made us] flip a coin to see who would work towards the title at Indy. The factory wanted to get as many cars into the final field as they could. Well, Gary, who was a factory-backed guy from Iowa, won the flip, so I had to [lose] during the class runoffs. I was supposed to red light. Instead, I cut the best green light I ever had, and I spun it out in the grass by the old tower. If I didn't lose, my deal with Chrysler could have ended right there.
MM: Were you part of the Mopar Nationals in 1969?
JW: All the factories were involved in Super Stock eliminator, and they all did something different to get ready for the Nationals. NHRA had a rule then that said you had to run against your index, which was the national record. They didn't want anybody to sandbag at Indy, so every good run down the track became the new record and subsequently became the new index. There would be no real qualifying to get a class winner. The two quickest e.t's in each class would be allowed to run on Monday with a no breakout rule in effect. [This was a] 36-car program. We had a lot of cars there, and we had to make sure we got the best cars into the final program. We also wanted to make sure that we didn't reset the indexes and hurt our own efforts.
We went out to a little racetrack called Thompson Dragway in Ohio. There were about 30 cars there from SS/B, SS/BA, SS/C, and SS/CA classes. We all ran for a few hours to see who was the best. Thirteen Chrysler cars-the fastest ones at Thompson-made the program at Indy with soft runs that didn't hurt the index, and the rest sat out the race.
Sox ended up winning that race, and because Dave Wren broke in the final, we didn't even reset the SS/B record that weekend. NHRA was pretty unhappy about that whole deal, and eventually they changed that rule. Today, it's run on a dial-in bracket.
MM: You raced a Super Bird briefly in 1970. How did that come about?
JW: That was a very special car. I was asked if I would race this car at Indy. It was built solely to be competitive with Ray Allen, who was a Chevy racer in SS/EA. As the class runoffs wound down, I deliberately lost in the third round. We wanted to make sure the car didn't have to go through teardown. I had a terrible time at tech with that thing when I brought it in. Somebody had leaked out that the car was only coming to make sure Allen didn't advance, so the NHRA guys were all over it.
We had built the car in four weeks, made a couple of test laps with it at Atco, and went to Indy. The motor, which was a bit bigger than stock, was set back, the wheels were moved, and it had a 300-pound wing in the back, as well as a super-heavy back window. The car would launch incredibly hard. It had a very light nosepiece, light sheetmetal on the hood, front fenders, and doors. All of the sheetmetal had been in the acid tank. We got a body from North Carolina and put all this trick stuff on it. It was originally a stick-shift car, and the clutch pedal is still in it.
We got back from Indy, pulled the motor, which wasn't mine [it went back to Detroit], and sold the car with a stock 426 Hemi two weeks later. I only raced it one other time, at the Atco points finale, and it was retired. The guy who owns it now realized it was something special when he ordered a set of headers for it from Hooker and they wouldn't fit. I'd like to have it back, but he wants a mint of money for it.
MM: Tell us about your Pro Stock years.
JW: My car was a twin to the Motown Missile of 1971, only it was the Plymouth version. It was built in Detroit with an acid-dipped body, and like the Missile, it had a Clutchflite automatic to start with in 1971. I changed over to a Lenco in 1972. Tom Tigenelli built the car using the blueprint of the Missile, and it would run in the 9.50 range, which was good for that time period. Jake King at Sox and Martin was building my motors, and they were good motors.
By the beginning of 1972, when Jenkins showed up at Pomona with his tube-chassis Vega, the NHRA rules had made us almost noncompetitive. Later, they put even more weight on us, and that was the end. The World Finals in Amarillo, Texas, that year, was the final for me. Sox, who, in my opinion, was the best driver out there, couldn't win either. Vanke, Sox, all of those guys, they saw the writing on the wall, and that ended it. Most of us quit. It was a bad, bad, bad scene.
It was also getting a lot more expensive. You had to buy a car from one of the chassis builders; you couldn't just do it yourself anymore. We were already buying motors from Sox and Martin, and they were not going to get cheaper, either. It was hard to go back to my $660 paycheck from Chrysler every two weeks compared to the money we made match racing, but I had to grow up. As it turned out, I'm glad I left when I did, because it got even worse.
After I lost in the second round at Texas the end of the year, I had a 26-hour ride home to think about what I wanted to do with my life. Either race fulltime in Pro Stock, in a very bad atmosphere, or quit, raise my family, and keep my day job at Chrysler. When we got home, I knew what I was going to do. However, once I parked the race car, Chrysler was willing to transfer me around-they hadn't wanted to do that when I was racing. Six months later, they told me I was being transferred to Dallas, and I refused. Shortly thereafter, they wanted to move me to Minneapolis, and there was no refusing. I knew then it was time to quit. I didn't want to move, so I got the job at Winnebago Industries until early in 2002.
MM: What do you think of drag racing today?
JW: I'm glad I raced when I did. It was a wonderful time to be a racer, and I don't know how these guys do it today. I don't know what these teams are spending today in Pro Stock, but it takes millions of dollars to run. Super Stock is almost as bad. To do well at it, you need to race full time and spend a lot of your own money. If you don't have those resources, stay home. No, I did it at the right time. I wouldn't have traded those early years of Pro Stock for anything. It was a lot of fun, and it was the best time of my life.
This was the sport of the '60s. It was in its infancy, and we were all good friends. If you broke down beside the road and one of the Ford or Chevy racers saw you, they would stop and help you out. We all raced match races together, and we were all friends.
Jack "Mr. 5 And 50" Werst's A990 '65 Plymouth Replica
Owner: Jack Werst
Use: Nostalgia Super Stock racing
Car Builder: Joe Smith Race Cars, Dallas, TX
Body: R051 code Belvedere replica
Weight: 3,450 pounds
Wheelbase: 115 inches
Rims: Centerline Convo Pro
Tires: Mickey Thompson
Engine builder: Ray Barton Racing Engines, Wernersville, PA
Horsepower: 898 big ones
Block: New Mopar Performance Hemi
Heads: MP aluminum
Intake: Ray Barton
Transmission: ProTrans 904
Converter: 8-inch ATI 4,500 stall
Rear gear ratio: 5.67
Best performance: 9:29 e.t. at 141 mph