Mopar Plymouth Race Car Driver Ronnie Sox - Mr. Four Speed
A/FX and Pro Stock Legend Ronnie Sox Passes At 67
From the September, 2006 issue of Mopar Muscle
By Jim Hill
Photography by Eric Brooks, Geoff Stunkard, Jim Hill, John Asher, Leslie Lovett
To say that Ronnie Sox was...
To say that Ronnie Sox was the greatest four-speed driver that ever lived is a bold, but in my opinion, a true statement. The longtime racing partner of Buddy Martin was the winningest Pro Stock driver during the short-lived four-speed era (1970-'72) of drag racing. He claimed six Super Stock victories from 1967 to 1969. according to teammate Buddy Martin, "Ronnie's skills as a driver were a gift. He was coordinated with the hand and foot. In addition to his shifting, his reaction times were outstanding. Everybody drove four-speed cars at that time, and other drivers would miss gears left and right. That never happened with Ronnie. Everybody had an excuse, but Ronnie could get into anyone's car and have no problems whatsoever." Sadly, Ronnie Sox passed away on April 22 after a long battle with cancer. -Randy Bolig
Sox and the Sox & Martin race...
Sox and the Sox & Martin race cars were loved by fans wherever they traveled, but the crowds at Bristol International Dragway were something special. Here, Ronnie leaves against Dick Harrell's Camaro in the AHRA Spring National Grand American race at the old Bristol, prior to its complete makeover a few years ago.
Ronnie Sox, the quiet, blonde-haired, southern gentleman known for his mystical mastery of power-shifting a manual four-speed transmission passed away Saturday, April 22, 2006, at his home near Richmond, Virginia. Ronnie succumbed following a lengthy battle with prostate cancer. His beloved wife Diane, family, and friends were nearby when the legendary driver took his last ride.
During his long and storied drag racing career, the Burlington, North Carolina, native garnered practically every honor and championship available for the full-bodied drag race cars he loved. His wins included NHRA and IHRA World Championships, and he was nominated as AHRA Driver of the Year in 1968. In 2002, Ronnie was an inaugural inductee into the East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame, just one of the many honors bestowed upon him during his five-decades-long racing career. in 2001, he was named Number 15 in the Top 50 Drivers poll announced by NHRA .
In 1971, Ronnie, along with other invitees Richard Petty and Bobby Unser, were honored guests at the White House, meeting President Richard Nixon. With help from a co-author, Ronnie penned a book titled: The Sox & Martin Book of Drag Racing, which was published in 1974.
Ronnie began his drag racing career as a teenager, sneaking into the local drags and racing his dad's '49 Oldsmobile Rocket 88. Seeking more speed, he soon switched to a Y-Block 312-powered '57 Ford. At the time, his family owned the Sox Sinclair Service, a combination Sinclair gas station and repair shop. the family business developed into a high-performance tuning and speed shop operation where young Ronnie gained both knowledge and customers for his rapidly expanding skills. It was out of that service station that he began running Chevy 409-powered cars and gained a reputation as a skilled driver and power tuner. His '62 409 Chevy "Bubble Top" Bel-Air sedan was a feared competitor in the Optional/Super Stock classes in the Carolinas, or wherever he chose to run his four-speed 409 Chevy.
In 1963, Ronnie partnered with another local Burlington, North Carolina, drag racer, Buddy Martin. The two had previously been competitors, but teamed up to campaign an aluminum front-end, '63 Z-11 option, 427 Impala in the new A/Factory Experimental class. Thus was born the fabled Sox & Martin racing team. Ronnie's own drag racing career would include notable accomplishments during each of the next four decades.
Ronnie Sox (right) talks it...
Ronnie Sox (right) talks it over with fellow Pro Stock competitor "Fast Eddie" Schartman. Sox and Schartman (who drove a factory-sponsored Mercury Cougar) were fierce competitors on the track and good friends everywhere else. Like Sox, Schartman began driving and tuning race cars and power-shifting manual four-speed transmissions. On this day, they were on hand for an early spring, round-robin-style, Pro Stock shoot-out at Detroit Dragway. Sox was very much an old school racer, fully capable of turning wrenches and making tuning adjustments. Fortunately, the S&M teams were so professionally organized that other team members like Jake King allowed him to concentrate solely on driving. Without mechanical distractions, he excelled at timely starting line leaves and his legendary four-speed wizardry.
Ronnie Sox's first Pro Stock...
Ronnie Sox's first Pro Stock 'Cuda leaves the starting line on a time trial run at Detroit Dragway. Ronnie, Eddie Schartman from Ohio, Bill Jenkins from Pennsylvania, Bill Hielscher from Texas, Don Nicholson from California, plus Dave Lyall and Mike Fons from Detroit, were booked into Gil Kohn's famed Detroit Dragway for a round-robin-style Pro Stock event. Kohn owned tracks at Detroit, New York, and Kansas City.
Although Sox & Martin ran...
Although Sox & Martin ran a 426 Hemi-powered Belvedere sedan in NHRA Super Stock Eliminator, they fielded this considerably more radical '66 Barracuda coupe in match races and AHRA heads-up competition. The Barracuda featured an altered wheelbase, gutted interior with full rollcage protection, fiberglass front end, a straight axle front end, American magnesium five-spoke wheels up front, and Keystone Kustomags on the rear with M&H Racemaster tires. Power came from a Jake King-built, 426 Hemi running Hilborn injectors (note the long intake stacks protruding through the hood) on heavy doses of nitro methane and alcohol fuel. The toothy Barracuda painted on the door became a S&M trademark. Sponsors were scarce, but included Gate City Motor Company, a Plymouth dealer in Greensboro, North Carolina; Doug Thorley, who built headers to fit the car at his California shop; and the Hurst Corporation.
Ronnie's reputation as the...
Ronnie's reputation as the premier four-speed master was unquestioned, and his driving ability was highly respected by Pro Stock racing peers. Here, he takes on "Akron Arlen" Vanke in Vanke's '68 Barracuda at the NHRA '70 Winternationals. Vanke's car was hastily converted from Super Stock/B class trim to run as a Pro Stocker. Many racers lucky enough to have a '68 Barracuda or Dart made little more than engine modifications and tire changes to compete in the earliest days of Pro Stock (1970-1971). By 1972, the engineered efforts of the Ted Spehar-developed Motown Missile factory test mule, Don Nicholson's 427 SOHC Ford-powered Maverick, and Bill Jenkins' surprising '72 small-block Vega made the S/S-trimmed Darts and Barracudas obsolete. With the '70 'Cuda, Ronnie dominated Pro Stock, going undefeated until losing the Gatornationals to Jenkins' big-block Camaro. Displayed decals are all sponsors in the Sox & Martin Performance Clinic program. Manufacturers anteed up $5,000 for the entire year's program.
Although Ronnie didn't win...
Although Ronnie didn't win the '70 NHRA U.S. Nationals, a Sox & Martin team car driven by fellow North Carolinian Herb McCandless did. Here, McCandless leaves almost dead-on with "Akron Arlen" Vanke in a heads-up duel between Hemi 426-powered Plymouth Dusters. McCandless was part of the S&M Pro Stock juggernaugt for several years and always a solid back-up to the team's multi-car effort.
Ronnie leaves the line at...
Ronnie leaves the line at the '71 NHRA Winternationals held at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds, Pomona, California. Note the Halibrand magnesium rear wheels and Firestone tires. Dave Christie's name now adorns the door along with Jake King's. Christie turned wrenches and took turns driving other S&M cars as part of the S&M team effort.
When General Motors boycotted all forms of racing for its divisions, Sox and Martin reluctantly signed on with rival Mercury Division. The former Chevy racers were provided with one of the new '64 Comets equipped with a dual four-barrel, 427 FE Series V-8, with a fiberglass front end, a heavy-duty Top Loader four-speed transmission, and a heavy-duty 9-inch Ford rear axle. Their car was a Comet hardtop coupe, while Mercury teammate Don Nicholson chose the Comet station wagon for its better rear weight distribution. The difference between coupe and wagon was insignificant, and they found immediate success running A/Factory Experimental class in open competition and match races against all challengers in the southeast. They were mostly unknown by the California guys, but their Mercury Division sponsors ordered its North Carolina-based S&M race team to report to Pomona, California, to race at the NHRA Winternationals.
Uncharacteristically, Ronnie was late off the line and lost the A/FX class trophy to Bill Shrewsberry, who later gained fame as a driver of the Hurst Hemi Under Glass Barracuda and other exhibition wheelstanders. Stung by the loss, he righted the ship in that Sunday's Top Stock final eliminations, cleaning house and winning the posted cash ($500), as well as a new Dodge 426 Hemi engine. In those days before huge factory funding, it was usually difficult to make ends meet, so they promptly sold the Hemi engine to help pay for their trip back home to North Carolina.
It was the beginning of a very successful year for the Sox & Martin team and Mercury, and offered what seemed like an exciting proposal for the duo's '65 racing campaign. However, a contract dispute with Mercury found S&M abandoning their short-lived association with Mercury. instead, they signed with Chrysler's Plymouth Division after they were convinced the impressive 426 Hemi engines would be theirs. The team took delivery of their '65 Plymouth Belvedere 426 Hemi four-speed sedan and launched the Plymouth Division's second most successful racing team, just behind NASCAR's Richard Petty.
The familiar red, white, and blue Sox & Martin colors adorned the '65 legal Super Stocker, but the altered wheelbase '65 Plymouth A/FX was easily the most popular with fans. Sox & Martin ran this gutted, lightweight, steel-bodied, homebuilt Funny Car in AHRA open competition events and match races at both well-known and two-lane blacktop-style backwoods local drag strips. They easily racked up an impressive win record against the best match race rivals of the day. Burning through powdered rosin and then backing up to do several more similar burn-throughs for the crowd, the S&M team wowed the usually capacity crowds, running low 9-second runs at 140-plus mph. Those wide-open throttle, power-shifted runs were often performed with the front wheels off the pavement as the legend of Mr. Four Speed grew.
The AWB '65 led to an even wilder '66 Plymouth built on the all-new Barracuda platform. Sox & Martin gutted the car, added structural strength with a tube steel rollcage, added a lightweight fiberglass front clip, altered the wheelbase by shifting the body to the rear on the chassis, and dropped in one of Jake King's powerful 426 Hemi engines. The traditional S&M paint was complemented by eight 26-inch-long ram tubes atop a Hilborn fuel injector that made the crowd's eyes water with heavy doses of nitromethane and alcohol racing fuel. Big loads of nitro and stroker crank match race engines were known to create excessive shock loading on the drivetrain parts and reliability suffered. To remedy the new Funny Car's hunger for parts, S&M reluctantly added a modified Torqueflite transmission. Although Ronnie missed the four-speed, the auto transmission's softer launches all but eliminated the Hemi's hunger for parts.
This Plymouth GTX Sox & Martin...
This Plymouth GTX Sox & Martin team car was running in B/Modified Production class. Both Hemi 426 and 440 V-8 engines were run in this chassis, depending on which sanctioning body and Eliminator the team chose to enter. Although it appears stock, the extra-deep oil pan sump appears beneath the undercarriage, and the Firestone slicks show this heavyweight Plymouth was a serious effort.
Ronnie enjoyed driving the...
Ronnie enjoyed driving the Sox & Martin 426 Hemi-powered, Hurst Performance-built '68 Plymouth Barracuda over all his other rides. His unequalled mastery of the full-throttle, power-shifting technique and instant starting line reflexes were tops in the late-'60s. Later, when a resurgence of the Hemi cars in SS/A surfaced, he assembled his own stick-shift Barracuda and drove Bob Reed's S&M clone '68 SS/A at several nostalgia events.
NHRA's Springnationals were...
NHRA's Springnationals were run only one year-1968 at the Englishtown, New Jersey, track. Later, E-Town events included NHRA Summernationals in July, and the current Mopar NHRA Nationals in the fall. Here, Sox leaves under the watchful eye of NHRA Chief Starter and Division 2 Director Buster Couch. Couch considered the NC-based Sox & Martin team one of his "own" Division 2 racers and proudly beamed when they won, which was often. Note the Hooker Headers decals that replaced Doug's Headers on the car's front fenders. Hooker signed on with the S&M Performance Clinic program and gained access to the team cars for their products. The Hooker Heart logo has become a classic.
In spite of a successful match racing season, the arrival of Mercury and Ford's new Logghe tube chassis, flip-top fiberglass Funny Cars, and their 427 SOHC V-8 engines placed the S&M Barracuda at a disadvantage. Ironically, it was old rival Don Nicholson that led the charge when Don's revolutionary new Funny Car won heavily in both 1966 and 1967. Sox & Martin continued to soldier on until 1967 when Chrysler's drag racing brass called a halt to the Funny Car program.
In 1967, Ronnie found himself back at the wheel of an 11-second, four-speed, full-bodied race car, which he adapted to with immediate success. Along with the more docile Super Stocks came the immensely popular Performance Clinics. Sox & Martin carried the banner for the Plymouth Division on the East Coast, while Dick Landy was their West Coast counterpart for Dodge Division. Staged at dealerships, the clinics lured new customers into Plymouth and Dodge dealers by teaching basic as well as advanced drag racing techniques. The clinics covered engines, tuning, chassis prep and tuning, and driving tips, all from the well-traveled, well-schooled clinic stars-Sox & Martin. New car dealers loved the clinics, and reportedly sold thousands of cars as a direct result. The clinics also enhanced awareness of drag racing and increased attendance at local tracks. It was a win-win situation all around when the S&M hauler ramp truck and second race car on an open trailer parked in front of a local Plymouth dealer's showroom. Sox and Martin were the epitome of professionalism for a race team. They dressed in matching uniforms and handled questions with articulate aplomb, capturing legions of fans for Chrysler vehicles and Mopar Performance parts.
Chrysler's two divisions liked the race results and sales they were generating with their drag racing programs. Bolstered by this success, they placed their engineering focus on creating vehicles, parts, and support that would dominate drag racing. When R&D and testing efforts were complete, Chrysler contracted Hurst Corporation to build a short production run of 426 Hemi-powered '68 Dodge Darts and Plymouth Barracuda coupes. Hurst set up a line in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak and began assembling the all-time baddest production-built vehicles ever offered to the American public. The 426 Hemi Barracudas and Darts were instant legends, claiming loads of Super Stock class and Super Stock Eliminator wins at national and regional events, as well as local tracks.
These street missiles featured the heavy-duty Dana 60 rear axle for stick-shift cars or an 831/44 axle for automatics, a heavy-duty New Process four-speed gearbox or 727 Torqueflite automatic, a thoroughly engineered cross-ram intake manifold carrying a pair of Holley four-barrel carburetors, and a gigantic hoodscoop designed to intimidate the competition, as well as ram cold air to the sealed inlets of the carbs. Factory compression ratios for the Race Hemi 426 were quoted as 14.0:1, and the cylinder heads came with sizeable intake and exhaust ports more than capable of allowing the engines to be revved at 8,000-plus rpm. It was a skillful job of total overkill, and an example of the powerful strength of a vehicle company when it chooses to create a winning racing program.
Today Pro Stock chassis science...
Today Pro Stock chassis science teaches us that wheelstands should be avoided as wasted motion, but in 1970, they were both entertaining and a means of transferring weight and increased traction to the rear tires. Here, Sox performs a perfectly executed, wheels-up launch in the '70 'Cuda.
Ronnie leaves the line at...
Ronnie leaves the line at the NHRA Springnationals, 1968, in Englishtown, New Jersey, in the famed '68 Barracuda of Sox & Martin. Note the relatively small diameter header collector. Drag tire engineering hadn't caught up with the 426 Hemi's power-making abilities, and sharp engine builders and tuners such as Jake King used lots of tricks to prevent low-end tire spin.
Sox & Martin's Plymouth Omni...
Sox & Martin's Plymouth Omni leaves the burnout box during the NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway, Gainesville, Florida. These short Hemi-powered Pro Stockers were a handful to drive and proved fatal to a few drivers. Ronnie warms the Goodyears before making another 7-second, 190-plus-mph run.
The new '68 Sox & Martin Hemi Barracuda, capably shoed by Ronnie Sox, was an immediate 10-second winner that kept getting quicker and faster as the team moved its development forward. Now the flagship team for Chrysler's drag racing program, S&M raced, did clinics, and tested hard on their rare off days. It was an all-out, total-war effort intended to dominate in any theatre. S&M clinic appearances were often scheduled for the same weekend as a major event or one of the points meets staged across the country. the team often brought diverse cars, such as their Hemi-powered Road Runner, a 440 wedge B-block-powered GTX, and a Hemi-powered Plymouth Super Bird with the NASCAR-style rear wing. Regardless of body style, any car trimmed in the Sox & Martin colors flat hauled the mail.
Not only did these cars excel in NHRA Super Stock Eliminator, they were also fast in match race trim. This phenomenon grew out of the Chrysler, Ford, and GM drivers' dislike for handicap-style racing and disqualifying break outs for going too fast. They preferred heads-up starts and basic run-whatcha-brung rules. Curiously, most of this was a throwback to the early Funny Car days and the Match Race Mania so loved by tracks and fans.
The Hemi Barracudas and Darts were right at home in these heads-up events and match races. It was this popularity that brought both NHRA and AHRA to offer Pro Stock heads-up racing, beginning with both association's '70 winter meets. Bill Jenkins, always one of S&M's toughest competitors, had a head start on the field by running numerous heads-up events and match races with a two-four carbed, Tunnel-Rammed 427 Camaro running at lighter weight. He dominated the Pro Stock events in early 1970, taking AHRA and NHRA races and the NHRA Gatornationals in March. S&M quickly caught up and dominated the rest of the season. This run-the-table sweep included a team win by Herb McCandless in the Sox & Martin Plymouth Hemi Duster at the Nationals. S&M won every remaining NHRA Pro Stock event that year.
They opened the '71 season where they left off in 1970, winning all the way to midyear in 1971, when they lost at the NHRA Summernationals in Englishtown, New Jersey. The formidable S&M team wasn't outrun at that race, but fell to an untimely flat tire just as they were moving towards the starting line during eliminations.
Note the major differences...
Note the major differences in this '68 photo of Ronnie in the Sox & Martin Hemi Barracuda and the current SS/A Automatic and SS/A race cars. In the early days, these cars were basically stock vehicles with no interior rollcage and an up-in-the-air stance. They ran under considerably more restrictive engine rules, but still managed low 10s at 149-plus mph.
One of Ronnie's last Pro Stock...
One of Ronnie's last Pro Stock rides was this Sox & Martin Plymouth Omni. This car was built by Don Hardy Race Cars and ran a destroked 396-inch Hemi. These Omnis and Dodge Colts were unstable because of their short wheelbase and extreme front/rear weight bias. Here, he makes a run on the concrete surface of Suffolk Dragway in Virginia.
Although they were teammates...
Although they were teammates in the Chrysler Corporation's drag racing program in the '60s, Ronnie often faced Dick Landy's California-based Dodge Division cars during class run-offs and eliminations. His SS/D Plymouth Hemi 426 GTX takes on Bob Lambeck in Landy's SS/E Automatic Dodge with 440 wedge power. This was during the '68 NHRA Springnationals in Englishtown, New Jersey's Madison Township Raceway. Note the old E-Town timing tower and absence of tall sound walls in this photo.
Those Pro Stock successes were also captured with Ronnie giving his own clinic in shifting the Chrysler Red Stripe four-speed manual gearbox. Unfortunately, the '68 Barracuda he so cherished wasn't the focus of the '70 Pro Stock program. Instead, S&M began the Pro Stock wars with a brand-new, purpose-built '70 Plymouth Hemi 'Cuda coupe and a Hemi Duster. This came about as a result of Chrysler understandably wanting to race what it was selling. That meant 'Cudas (Plymouth shortened the brand name to 'Cuda instead of Barracuda) and Dusters. No matter, S&M's domination of the bracket had all the brand-Xers howling for a rules' break. NHRA's solution meant added weight for any Hemi-powered Pro Stock race car. It seemed that whenever a Hemi car won in NHRA, the rules officials quickly added weight to the minimum for the Chrysler marques. Ultimately, this led to the NHRA's complex system of weight breaks for engines with different heads and bodies with different wheelbases. The 426 Hemi-powered cars were forced to give away more and more until they were finally no longer competitive running at the rules' mandates. By the mid-'70s, Chrysler had scaled back their drag racing programs to avoid the Pro Stock weight break dilemma and what all Chrysler racers and fans thought of as a vendetta against their beloved 426 Hemi engines.
Ronnie Sox and Buddy Martin eventually dissolved their long-standing partnership, but Ronnie continued to field a familiar red, white, and blue, Hemi-powered Pro Stocker. First, it was a Dodge Colt, and, later, a Plymouth Omni. He even drove Dean Thompson's Ford Mustang to an '81 IHRA Pro Stock championship with power provided by Jack Roush.
Sox and Martin briefly teamed up again in 1995, running an IHRA Ford Probe with an 815-inch, Jon Kaase-built, 429 shotgun-style Hemi engine. They planned to run IHRA's Mountain Motor Pro Stock category that year, but a nasty crash totaled the car and nearly cost Ronnie his life. After recuperating, he confined his efforts mainly to the '68 Barracuda SS/A and to driving long-time friend Bob Reed's Sox & Martin clone '68 Barracuda. Showing that he still had it, Ronnie clocked high-8-second, 152-plus-mph times with the four-speed car, thrilling crowds whenever he ran and bringing the fans and even other competitors running to the fences to watch and listen as "Sox hit the gears." It was with the manual four-speed transmission that he gained his reputation as a virtual "can't miss."
Ronnie turned out for last October's East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame weekend in Henderson, North Carolina. He reported that his treatments and battle against his cancer were going well, and he was optimistic as to the outcome. Sadly, Ronnie Sox passed from us forever on Saturday, April 22, 2006, but his legacy as a driver, racer, and likeable personality will endure forever.