Seminar photos by Richard Oldfield.
A LOOK BACK -- For its 11th Annual Reunion, the East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame named Don Carlton, Chrysler test driver and pilot of the famous Pro Stock drag race cars, the Motown Missile and the Mopar Missile, to receive its Ronnie Sox Memorial Award. Carlton died in 1977 due to injuries in the crash of a Dodge Colt race car he was testing. The 2012 reunion took place on the weekend of October 19-21, 2012. It followed the usual program of Friday cruise and barbecue at Satterwhite Point Park near Henderson; followed by an outstanding Saturday car show along Garnett Street, the historic town’s main thoroughfare; and, an award ceremony and banquet on Sunday. Present for that weekend were four of Carlton’s Pro Stock teammates: Tom Hoover, Ted Spehar, Dick Oldfield and Joe Pappas. During the morning hours before the award ceremony, they came together to talk about the initial Mopar Pro Stock program as they experienced it, following the creation of the class by the National Hot Rod Association in 1969, through 1974 -- when the company suspended most of its support for drag racing. A transcript of that seminar is online at east13.org. In effect, it is “Part One” to the “Part Two” text that follows. The latter part fills in some historical topics not covered in 2012. Taken together the two transcripts constitute a detailed history of the Mopar program in the words of most of its major participants. – G.Y.
Transcription Copyright: ©Eugene Yetter
Moderator: Gene Yetter (M)
M: I’ll get started. We’ve had to move up our start time a bit. First, I point out to you that we had a similar seminar in 2012, when Don Carlton was awarded the Ronnie Sox Memorial Award by the Hall of Fame. At that time I recorded the seminar and transcribed it. The first transcript is online at the Web site, east13.org, under “Hall of Fame 2012”.
I take this opportunity to recommend a few publications. First, the 2014 Hall of Fame Reunion catalog. I have a complete collection of these catalogs, which feature biographical info about all of the inductees. Second, a self-published book by Eugene Coard, Hole Shot. It describes how a few Pro Stock racing events broke down by qualifiers, winners, losers, etc. It also presents an interesting memoir of Eugene’s growing up in South Carolina, before moving to Brooklyn, New York, where he street raced with “Rapid Ronnie” Lyles. Finally, I hope everyone knows about the very excellent book by Dave Rockwell, We Were the Ramchargers. It brings you through the years of Ramcharger history, up to the creation by the NHRA of the Pro Stock class; and it presents Chrysler’s developmental entries in the class, the Motown Missile and Mopar Missile race cars.
To start our discussions, I will ask Mr. Hoover, if he will, to recap as best as he can the overview he presented in 2012 about Chrysler’s corporate support for Pro Stock racing.
T: The race program at Chrysler began officially, in my view, in October of 1961. We were very successful for a few years, but the focus in those days was on “Super Stock”. The National Hot Rod Association’s view of what constituted Super Stock was seven-inch tires on a stock car, with exhaust headers, after-market cams and so on. To our good fortune, it turned out the combination, if you were racing one of our package cars like the Max Wedge, included automatic transmission. We called our new automatic, the TorqueFlite. As the years went by our big name racers became very adept with the TorqueFlite and seven-inch tire combination. It worked better than manual transmission for most people ninety percent of the time, in spite of efforts of our design people to develop effective rear suspension that controlled things like torque steer on shifting. Things went along very well for a few years, but the “Funny Car” thing started and got crazy. Wisely, we went back to Super Stock. Again things went well. But drivers wanted to match race to make money. It became evident by 1969 that Pro Stock was coming.
Left to right: Al Adam, Tom Hoover, Ron Killen
The state of North Carolina seemed to produce the best four-speed manual Super Stock drivers. Interesting! Anyway, throughout the rest of the country most of our Chrysler Super Stock racers were still tuned to automatic transmissions. When Pro Stock became a major activity at NHRA meets, we recognized that it would grab all of the drag racing media coverage. So we thought we better get busy and figure out how to support the Mopar racers who were not proficient with four-speed manual operation.
Stage one, we started working hard and long on the ClutchFlite transmission approach. That involved replacing the converter in the TorqueFlite with a clutch, which I thought it worked pretty well. Certainly the Missile ran well. But we were a little disappointed because, as Pro Stock got running, the guys didn’t accept the ClutchFlite. Everybody’s got an ego. Even I have an ego! I know you’ll find that hard to believe but it’s true. Their attitude was something like: “If Ronnie Sox can do it with four-speed, so can I!"
Well, some of the guys could do it. Don Carlton, Herb McCandless, maybe Butch Leal. But the rest of them, including some big names, really didn’t get it. They’d just look bad. We got busy rounding up people for our project, starting with Dick Oldfield, and Ted Spehar, at Ted’s shop, Performance Automotive in Detroit. For the NHRA World Finals in late 1969, Ted stole his wife’s, Tina’s daily driver Dart, and made it into a C/Automatic Super Stock, the Iron Butterfly.
Our guys were testing somewhere in Michigan and they were hanging out. Arlen Vanke, who has a dry sense of humor, was there. When he saw the Iron Butterfly, he turns to somebody and says, “Uh, oh! Here comes the "motown missile.” That was it. Everybody picked up on that name for the new car, the Challenger we built for the first official Pro Stock year. We thought the name was kind of cute. It sent the right message. But the Motown music people didn’t like us using it and we started getting nasty letters from their lawyer. That was why, in Donnie Carlton’s time, we changed the name of our Pro Stock development car to the Mopar Missile to get the music company off our back.
M: Dick, what can you say about the work that went into coming up with a transmission.
D: I think the biggest problem we had was, the case wouldn’t hold up. It would distort and then we’d start losing pressure. We tried several varieties. A high pressure transmission, low pressure . . . a few clutches, a lot of clutches. If you went with a couple clutches and low pressure you could definitely get some good speed out of the car. But only for one run!. And if you ran a reliable transmission you could get maybe five or six runs, but then it wouldn’t go quite as fast. We probably went through about thirty-five transmission cases that year, just to run one season.
M: Anyone want to add anything about the saga of the transmissions?
T to RK: Ron Killen, tell them why you came north? To Cecil County. You didn’t come to Detroit. You went to Cecil County.
RK: That’s correct. I was working at Huntsville, Alabama, at the time – Chrysler’s facility at the Marshall Space Flight Center.
T: This is going to be rocket science, folks. Grab your chair!
RK: In 1969 my boss at Aerospace got a phone call. Racing wanted someone to put together an instrumentation package to put in one of the cars. Vanke’s car, if my memory’s right. There was a phone call to come up to Cecil County and put a bunch of instruments in the car, because they were looking for increments that were pretty small. With the variation from run to run, there were things you just couldn’t follow. With the instrumentation we could measure distinct results. In the evenings we could sit back and look at all the tapes to figure out what modifications represented real performance gains. But then, at the drag strip in Cecil County, I actually got a call from my boss in Huntsville. He told me Chrysler’s space program would be cut back and I was being laid off. He said, “Pile all your stuff in the van and come back to Huntsville”. That didn’t go over with Tom Hoover. No way! Tom countered with, “We’re in the middle of a test”. After few phone calls to the corporate offices, I ended up working for Tom out of Detroit. I stayed at the track for the rest of the test, but soon moved to Detroit.
M: What was waiting for you when you first got to Detroit?
RK: When I first got there, I actually worked out of Teddy’s shop. They set me up with a little lab in a corner. That was the home of our instrumentation for the next several years. When Teddy moved from Performance Automotive to SVI, I moved with them.
M: What kind of new equipment and materiel did you bring in?
Well, initially the car had a tape recorder. It wasn’t super efficient. We’d make a run and I’d have to pull the tape recorder out.
T: How many channels?
RK: Initially only six. Eventually seven. I would have the car set up to measure fifteen or twenty performance points. Because we could only test six things, the guys would tell me which six they wanted to test. The downside was they’d have to wait for me to get the recorder out of the car, play it back on a chart recorder where they could look at the charts. After a couple of years we switched to a telemetry system. Then we actually got the data as the car was going down the track. We would be sitting in the van and we could instantly see what was going on. By the time the car came back to the pits they had already figured out what they wanted to tweet next. That made a huge difference. For me it meant I didn’t have to run out and pull stuff apart between every round.
M: What cars did you work on related to the Pro Stock research and development?
RK: I think we used the instrumentation in all the Missile cars. From time to time we’d transfer it to different cars, everything from Super Stock cars to off-road cars. The other side of my story, every now and then Larry Rathgeb would steal me to do something in the Grand National (NASCAR) programs. So I’d load up and go there. But most of what I did was with the Missile cars.
T: The difficulty with the transmissions cited by Dick I believe refers to the normal three-speed ClutchFlite. We figured we might be able to do better if we could provide more gear ratios – make it into a four-speed automatic. And that’s where Ron’s instrumentation and data collection came in. We talked to B&M Transmissions and basically what resulted from that was a conventional clutch, with a conventional three-speed behind it; and a hacked up 727 two-speed splitter behind that. It had two shift handles. Remember, Dick?
T: I always admired Dick’s ability to figure out which handle to pull, when. But anyway, having committed that kind of effort and budget to getting the hardware available, having cut the car up to do so, because suddenly the floor pan was too close to everything. This whole mess was how long? Two oil pans, the whole shot. So, we didn’t want to evaluate it guessing. And what you needed was instrumentation that would provide a real trace of engine speed, what speed it shifted at, and so on. So folks like Coddington and the rest of us would look on, and look at the tape to see what it meant. There was a major motivation to bring Ron and the gear up to Cecil County to do it. And the reason was . . . I don’t know what to call it. Twin TorqueFlite-ClutchFlite , let’s call it. But, I’ll stop there.
M: By the way I should introduce some special guests. The folks in the front row, outfitted with Missile team shirts, are all members of Don Carlton’s family. Including his son, Donnie, and daughter, Robin, and Jonnie, his widow. It’s an honor to have you here. Please feel free to ask questions or make comments at any time. Two guests are here who brought the Mopar Missile . . . they are not present, but I expect they will show up. Meanwhile I’d like to ask Al Adam about his role with the project.
AA: My whole purpose was to make sure that we learned from our efforts and we weren’t guessing, or letting the weather fool us. We corrected all of our data to standard SAE conditions, which are sixty degrees Fahrenheit, zero-percent humidity and thirty inches of mercury. If we did, say, a camshaft test, because it takes time to change out components, we’d run a baseline in the morning, then change the camshaft. We might be running the new camshaft at one o’clock in the afternoon. Later we’d have to close the loop and put the old camshaft back in. This is the standard for engineering tests: A, B, A tests. A lot of the racers didn’t like that. Spending all that wrenching time, and what have you. But that way, if the loop closed, and the car performed equally to the baseline that morning, we knew we had a valid test. All of the data was corrected to SAE conditions. It got to the point where we were accurate to two- to three-hundredths of a second throughout a whole day.
We wrote reports for every test that we ran. Tom Coddington, whom I reported to, wrote some of the reports. Later into the project I began writing reports. That’s how we kept track of what we did. That information was shared among all of our racers throughout the country, as soon as possible, once we were sure we had something that worked.
M: Ted, how about introducing Len Bartush?
Left to right: Joe Pappas, Dick Oldfield, Len Bartush.
TS: Leonard worked for me for a long time. Our families were close friends. His older brother and I went to school together in Detroit. Len started with me in the mid Sixties, working in the engine shop as a fabricator. In those days, that meant you did everything. You weren’t a master of anything. You were self-taught. Eventually Leonard did most of our engine work.
M: So, Len was “authorized” to go in the engine room.
TS: Oh, it wasn’t like that. It was an open door – to anybody that had a pass!
M: Len could you talk about your experiences in the shop?
L: Ted hired me at age sixteen to wash parts. That’s how I originally started. I moved from every shop that he was ever in, from Wyandotte to Royal Oak. Then to the Gulf Station, and the Sunoco Station. Then to the big shop, then to the SVI shop that Mike runs today. Mostly in the motor room. But, as Ted suggested, you worked wherever you were needed.
M: How did you get channeled into building engines?
L: Well, my brother had . . . my other brothers were car guys, too. So I grew up around cars. And one brother had a dragster. I’d go to track with him when I was real young. It was a natural to keep progressing up.
M: I know you are now working on boat engines. Is it the same as working on car engines?
L: Oh, yeah. You still wind up doing everything. Getting parts to the right specs. Being accurate.
T: Hey, I’d put an engine that Leonard built in my own car anytime!
M: Another member of the team, John Baumann. Apparently you’ve lost contact with him. Who will sum up his activities? [Laughter!]
Tom Coddington (left), Ted Spehar
TC: That was always a mystery!
T: Keep it clean, Tom!
TC: He had all these carburetor tuning packages. I think we had our chief executive finally sit him down, and told him, “You better write these down!” He was kind of secretive about the things he did. Of course that meant job security. He was a member of the team. He went to almost all of the tests with us.
M: How did everybody like his work?
TC: They were pretty happy with the carburetors.
T: He was a real asset at the national meets because he could go through all the troops, on particular priority, and if the guys were lost . . . Folks get lost when they start “helping” carburetors. That’s a real issue. And they get panicky. I did this, and I did that, now I’m two miles an hour slower. Baumann was very helpful in that regard. He would tirelessly circle the pits with his little box of tools and get the guys back on track.
RK: I traveled with John a lot. I had the van with all the instruments. I even pulled our test car a few times. Once John tells me, “I need a cabinet in your van to put all of my stuff.” I think that whoever has that van, if it still exists, it smells like carburetor bowl gaskets. “What is that stuff, John?” It was interesting because we did a lot of testing together. Some of the manifolds he kept, like the Edelbrock Rat Roaster open-plenum manifold. I remember a problem we worked on. Was it ignition or fuel? It turned out to be fuel. He was relentless in working on things until he finally figured them out.
M: Does that mean he had input on development of the so-called IR manifolds?
T: Well, sure. But I think the IRs were a Holly effort basically. The company had invested mightily in its 4500 manifold. The very large Holly. They brought in Zora Arkus-Dontov, the famous and very qualified race engineer. All European race engines that had carburetors at one point or other ran Weber carburetors. Typically they were two-barrel, each barrel feeding one cylinder. “IR” means “individual runner”. So Holly, with Arkus-Duntov’s encouragement, converted the big 4500 manifold into an IR manifold. Essentially each bore fed one cylinder.
Another reason for the Missile program was that, late in the Sixties, engineering division was kept busy by the Federal Emission Compliance Regulations, which was an enormous amount of work. So the pressure was on in terms of the division’s time available to do things. Believe me, the Grand Nationals got the bulk of engineering time available for racing. So we got squeezed in a corner and almost out the door, and we had to go outside for that component.
But the IR manifold program was successful partly owing to the fact that John Wehrly, the engineer in charge of development, snuck us in, so to speak. He facilitated development and refinement of the IR manifold on a NASCAR engine, so it was ready to try on the drag cars. It was an improvement over the A990 setup, which was the basic initial cross-ram, with two little Holly four-barrels.
M: Tom Coddington, you were involved in the build of the Butler cars.
TC: Yes, I was in charge of having those cars built. They were built in California by Ron Butler. My boss at the time thought I was going to go to work out there permanently. I think I was out there every other week, under Tom’s direction, getting those cars built. The chassis were highly modified A-Body Dart chassis. It was a small car, going by several other names.
M: You also had a supervisory role?
TC: Yes, I was the head of engineering, testing and all. Al worked for me and we all worked for Tom Hoover. Actually I had taken over Tom’s position. He moved over to planning and promotion. And Al and I worked on engineering. We were the ones that farmed out the work to the engineering departments to get support for the car builds. And we ran the testing program.
M: We haven’t heard from Mike Koran yet.
Mike Koran, Al Adam
MK: I was brought into the organization by Len, with Ted. And it was “OJT”, on-the-job- training. I hired on late in 1969, in a “baptism by fire.” You learned how to build a car, how to maintain a ClutchFlite, how to get the cars to the test track, how to make sure that they were ready for the test. That the ambulances were there; everything was all set up. So a lot of it was logistical support, but a lot of learning on the job as well. I remember Len and I were supposed to acid dip a bellhousing. We didn’t know anything about nitric acid and what the ratio of acid to water should be. So we buy a plastic garbage can, fill it with dilute nitric acid and lower in the Lakewood bell housing. The next thing you know the plastic garbage can heats up and starts to melt, and the bottom opens up. Dilute nitric acid is going all over the place, and there’s not a whole lot of bellhousing left! We learned such things as we went along. But what an organization we had. Everyone had the ability to make a contribution and suggestions were listened to. If it was had merit, it got a shot. I think that was unique among all of the racing organizations.
M: You were involved with hands-on work. What else?
MK: Under the tutelage of Len, and Dick, and Ted, we built the car. We did the ‘70 car, the face lift on the ‘71 car, and we built the ‘72 car. Working with all of the vendors as well. There was a maturation that occurred, and that is, we had to worry about sponsors. Early on, that was not a problem. We were a test car. That’s “closed circuit” so to speak. Then it came to the point that we had to get sponsors, to recover costs. We looked at other drag race cars with contingency stickers stuck all over them. But we decided to back off on the number of sponsorship stickers while increasing the amount of a sponsorship buy-in. That was a strong contribution, and trailblazing for the sport at that time.
M: Don Carlton is not here to speak for himself. How about members of panel sharing their recollections of working with Don?
AA: One thing from a testing standpoint. First of all, he was an excellent four-speed driver. He was very consistent and that’s what’s really important in testing. To make sure he can put one run down, after another, after another, that are the same. That was important to me trying to make sense out of the testing. And it minimizes the number of runs we have to make on each component. So he was a real asset./p>
M: How was it working with him? Did you have contact at the track?/p>
AA: Sure. We were close friends. We were all close friends, a closely-knit family. No question./p>
T: Donnie was a gentleman. And he was a cool head, and consistent. Exactly what we needed for the program./p>
RK: It’s been said everybody did everything, especially during tests. Whatever you were asked, you pitched in. Donnie as driver didn’t sit off in a corner waiting until the next run. Whatever we were doing, whatever we were working on, he was right there doing what he could to help./p>
TS: In the beginning, not only was Don doing transmission work. When Don came on board and we changed to four-speed manual. There were a whole lot of clutches available in the aftermarket. Chrysler did a clutch and there were problems. So we did clutch development, with Donnie being very proficient in the transmission area. He brought lots of good ideas to the team, and we all learned from him./p>
MK: A very patient teacher. I second Tom Hoover’s comment: a true gentleman./p>
T: We tried to set that tone through the whole operation. We didn’t know it at the time. But, we made a real effort to make the group such that everybody could contribute and everybody have ownership in the results. That everyone felt like they were part of the reason why things were happening. It’s very interesting because some of the amateur historians around Chrysler actually gathered a bunch of us one time many years ago. And they realized that the race program, particularly the Hemi© program, and then extending to the Missile program, was something special. We operated in a horizontal manner. That is to say, in those days all American corporations were organized vertically, as many as many as thirteen to fifteen layers, between the guys that turned the wrenches or operated the pencils and the main boss. It was very cumbersome, stiff, and things didn’t always go smoothly. Many people at the lowest levels didn’t have ownership of what they were doing. Nor were they able to contribute any of their ideas. With the Missile program it was different.
I think one of the main cornerstones of all that is what we laughingly called the “cabal meeting”. Guys, remember the cabal meeting? It was usually on Thursday afternoon. The purpose was to get everybody to stop everything and sit around the table and talk. Where are we? Where are we going? Why are we going there? What ideas do you have? I want to hear them, as long as they aren’t contrary to the fundamental laws of physics. We’ll take a damn good look at them. That contributes over time to a feeling of ownership. Not, “I’m a robot. Push my button and I’ll do something for you”.
M: Don was not based at Chrysler. He was based at Ted’s shop, or his own shop. Does that mean he took part in the meetings?
RK: I’d like to add something to that. When we were at the track, especially for a race, we were usually there mid-week. It wasn’t unusual for work days to run eighteen to twenty hours, right up until Sunday afternoon. We could be anywhere: California, Florida, wherever; most of us having come from Michigan. I can’t remember too many tests when Tom Hoover didn’t get us together for dinner, usually on Sunday evening. We’d go over what had happened. Then Tom would say, “Well, I’ll see you guys Wednesday morning back at work.” That usually meant, take a day, stay here. You’re still on an expense report. Chill out. There was some recognition that everybody gave all they could give. Take some time and relax. Not just, “Thanks. Let’s get back to work”. The whole team was treated that way.
T: We didn’t realize at the time, but folks eventually become aware of the fact that the Japanese penetrated, revolutionized, changed the whole automobile industry. That was actually helped by an American military officer, after the Great War, who stuck around in Japan. He became a consultant to the Japanese, and he wrote books. He was W. Edwards Deming. We didn’t know it, but in our Pro Stock team project we were applying the fundamental principles that he taught the Japanese. It took Detroit a while to realize we were in big trouble with Japanese competition. Then Deming became a hero. He went around to the main man’s office in Detroit on a regular basis, and they had to learn how to manage things in a way not unlike the race and Missile programs: horizontally. We were doing some things right, and didn’t realize it.
MK: One thing about this group, everybody to a person would work after hours without either worry or pay. And it was for a simple equation summed up as: “We win, they lose!”
M: I’d like to ask Donnie, and . . . or Jonnie, if one of you will comment about your experiences at the track with Don. Would you talk about that a bit?
DC: Well, obviously I was around all these guys. I was 12 or 13 years old.
M: Stand up?
DC: They were big guys, back then. And they’re all little guys now! They were talking about my dad being the Southern gentleman. It was a treat for me being among them. You know, a lot of intelligence, personality, very talented guys. But my deal was to be seen and not heard. Not be a kid and cause havoc and stuff. I’d sit in and listen in to Mr. Hoover or Ted or Joe or Dick, or anybody. They were talking about things that were way up here. After everybody was gone, I’d ask my dad, what is this and what is that? Just like they were saying, my dad was always real patient. He’d try to explain to me in kid terms, or layman’s terms, where I could understand what was going on. I got to hang out with some of the guys. Mike and I used to race mini-bikes. Joe was my babysitter! I used to play with Dick’s son, Richard. The main thing was, obviously I didn’t realize how special these guys were. I was a kid. I went to work with dad. These were the guys I was dealing with. So after the fact, it has been always hard for me to have a man to look up to. Or a group of people, because this group is kind of hard to top. Most people had a hard time getting my audience. My dad always held his teammates at a real high level. He thought of you as great guys.
M: Didn’t your dad put you to work now and then?
DC: Oh, yeah! He kept me busy. I was the best sweeper. And Leonard was talking about starting with Ted. When I came on, Leonard had moved up and I took over washing the parts. Like they were saying, everybody was putting in, so you didn’t want to be a “lazy-set-around-on-a-bucket.” What could I do to help? To the point I probably aggravated some of them. But I always wanted to be involved. There was only so much you could have a kid do. But anything they’d let me do, I’d jump in there and do it. Sweeping, keeping the truck clean, returning tools to the tool box . . .
M: How did you like being at the track?
DC: I loved it. I got to enjoy all the attention. Lot of the guys were so busy and they couldn’t take time out to hear all the accolades. Almost like a spokesperson, I usually had time to talk to people.
D: I remember leaving you and Richard at Indianapolis. You kids were told to come back to the car after we make a run, because we were going to load up and go back to the motel. And you didn’t come back so we left you there! You had to hitch a ride with Sox & Martin. [Laughter.]
BW: I just want to say what an extra ordinary group you are. We have remained friends, all of us, for over 45 years. That’s a long time.
M: I’d like to ask Dave Koffel for his input in Mopar Pro Stock.
T: Wake him up, Sue!
DK: I’m almost speechless. We all gravitated to Pro Stock. It wasn’t something that, one day there wasn’t Pro Stock, and the next day, there was. It’s kind of like the Super Stock rules and how people interpreted them, just sort of by osmosis, we moved in the Pro Stock direction. Fans liked Pro Stock.
M: What contact did you have with the team?
DK: On a day-to-day basis, we all worked together. But we had different bosses. It gets kind of muddy because it all happened over a period of time. I’ve worked for Tom quite a bit. I worked for Dick Maxwell. We all worked for Bob Cahill. Pretty much once a week we all got together and shared ideas and communicated with each other. Then you sort of went off and did your own thing. It was a real team effort for sure.
T: Well, Dave on certain occasions has called himself the head “Nazi”.
DK: I still have the helmet to prove it!
T: He had the job of managing all of the contract teams. Now think about that. How many were there, Dave? Thirty-seven?
DK: Roughly. As high as thirty or better.
T: Now think about that! We’re talking about guys like Gilman V. Kirk of Rod Shop fame. You know, there are a lot of egos among the drivers and teams. They were all concerned. Hey, he’s getting this and I’m not. She did that, and all that stuff. Dave kept them straight, let me tell you. He spent a lot of time on the phone.
M: The guys who have brought the Mopar Missile to Henderson just came in, after situating the car in the assembly hall I assume. They are Ben Donhoff and Larry Mayes, both based in Florida. Ben and Larry, do you have any questions or comments for the members of the Detroit crew who originally built your car?
LM: This would be the time to do it. Could get a lot of history now. I’ve done a lot of research on the guys here, and I’ve talked to them this weekend. We’re just thankful that we are able to keep the car around. Keep the car going. Keep it alive. It was in the Garlits museum for twenty years, and we took it out and started playing with it, started racing it a little bit. You’d be surprised at all the people who remember that car. We took it to Top Sportsman NHRA five years ago. That was down in Florida. At the first race we ran, the announcer came up and asked if it was the original car. Yes it is, I said. That went out over the public address speakers and we had people coming over. They were amazed. A gentleman from Michigan came up to me in staging and asked is it the original car. He said, “I can’t believe it. I raced against this son-of-a-gun in Michigan and here I am racing against him again.” Everywhere we go with the car, people know it and recognize it.
M: What do you think about the car? How do you like?
LM: I love it. It’s an honor for me to be driving it. And it drives like a Cadillac.
M: Ben, how did you acquire it?
BD: It’s a long story. I’ll make it short. I used to watch that car run down at the track in West Palm Beach. Juno Joe, Stewart Pomeroy, Zorian Machine Shop out of Tampa were part of the team. The track at West Palm had a Pro Stock show every month. It was just a joy to go down and watch the old Pro Stock cars. Well they weren’t that old back then! I was a spectator thinking I would never be able to own a car like the Missile. But I kept track of it, when It changed owners to a guy named Pat Williams. Then I heard it was in a crash. A year went by, and one day I figured I’d give Williams a call to see if he fixed it, or what he wanted to do. When I called him, he said something like, “I think I’ll go ahead and sell it”. “Really!” I answered. “I’ll be down there this weekend.” We came up with a deal. I went down with a trailer to pick it up. I didn’t let any time go by. Then I spent about a year looking it over, every piece. To me, it was about the best professionally built car I had ever seen. When you look back at how many years since the car was built. Then I raced it for ten years, hard. I’m not easy on stuff. It was in the Don Garlits Museum for 18 years. We decided to take it out of Garlits and race it again. First thing was to get the NHRA tech people to see if the cage was thick enough to pass today’s rules. The inspector came back and said the cage is thicker than it needs to be! That’s saying something for a car built that long ago. It still meets requirements to run as fast as 7:50 seconds in the quarter mile.
T: You’ve got the Butler car?
BD: Yes, sir.
T: Thank Mr. Coddington, and Mr. Butler!
BD: Thank you all. The first time I drove the car, I let the clutch out. I was used to a car with a Super Stock feel, with Super Stock frames. When I let the clutch out, it was like night and day. When you are not used to something that hooks that well, and goes that quick. I’ve had it on the edge of the track a few times, because I raced it a lot. It’s a wonderful car. I’ve had it for over thirty years. I think of everything that went into building it and that makes me wonder how far your program could have gone if NHRA hadn’t put a stop to things.
T: I think they were worried about that too. One way to fix it was with the factoring pencil!
BD: When you start dominating and . . . Don was such an excellent driver. I never knew him but I always heard how good he was.
T: I’d like to speak for the group to thank you, Ben and Larry, and Arnie . . . where’s Arnie? THANK YOU! As an old Ramcharger, I’d like to tell you that the Ramcharger thing never was preserved in the way you guys have done the Pro Stocks. We get claims here and there: I’ve got the ‘63 something or that part of the Funny Car, or a bolt off something or other. But it’s all just gone. We were so busy! The Ramcharger stuff was from a time when the whole sport was accelerating at an absolutely insane rate. So it was a continuous scramble to stay in there. I call it crazy. You wind up in Funny Cars and all that stuff. So when the cars became obsolete you just got rid of them. They are flat gone. You guys have changed that. So we thank you. All of us. That you preserved this part of the legacy. I would never have believed fifty years ago that we would be able to view the history that we can now, because of your efforts. THANK YOU. [Applause]
AK: The flipside of that is that the team built cars that we could keep alive! That’s the best part.
T: Well, the opposite is true with many of the Ramcharger cars. They got thunked up. As things got “Funny”! I didn’t find it fun at that point. You just tore stuff up.
RK: You talk about keeping the memory of the cars alive. I teach high school now. Several times in the last few years I’ve had kids come to me with a current picture of one of the cars for me to autograph. Their dad told them about the car. At the time these cars were running, dad was maybe four years old. But they remembered, and the kids that weren’t even thought about. But they go somewhere and see the car. It’s their favorite car now. It’s amazing. You’re right, half a century later people still know the car, and want to hear about its history. You guys have done an awesome job.
BD: It’s as competitive today as the brand new cars. It gets the job done.
TC: Tom, you might want to mention the official apology you got from NHRA.
T: That’s worth saying a few words for sure. When the Gen III 5.7-liter Hemi© came out, Chrysler put together a reception at the Walter P. Chrysler Museum in Auburn Hills. They invited Wally Parks, founder of the National Hot Rod Association. He was the “Bill France” of drag racing, if you understand what that means. Bob Lees called me. I was retired back in Pennsylvania at the time. I went to the event and Wally Parks was there. He took me aside that evening in the museum. He was smooth and laid back. He fundamentally apologized for having made us uncompetitive to the point that essentially we had to quit in 1974. He realized that was a mistake.
TC: Every time we won they added fifty pounds to us for the next race.
T: Sure! The factoring pen will beat you every time. Anyway to Wally, in the final analysis, we were one of his show providers. That is to say, he made the sport, and he made his living, and what have you. We put on the show! Our contributions, and Chevy, even Ford, sporadically – I never really respected the Ford program. They would leap in, throw money all over the place, and then they’d disappear for a while. Then they’d realize they goofed and they’d come back in. Chevy was steady, baby! They stayed in the game and they were consistent. Anyway, the man apologized. He wished he hadn’t done that, or perhaps done it in a more moderate way. Not the big hammer approach.
M: Can we continue with the development of a small block for lightened cars; the post-NHRA activity; the “wire car”, etc.?
AA: I’ll tell you a bit about the “wire car.” Not so much the A engine. Ted might be able to talk about that. During this era, our big boss, Tom Cahill, certainly began deliberating on whether we were going to keep putting up with this business of NHRA factoring. While he’s deliberating, Tom Hoover came to me one day and said, “Al, we’re going to try this one more time. Go design and build a 2,000-pound ready-to-race A-Body. And I went, “Gulp!”
T: Was that with the motor or without the motor?
AA: That’s ready to run. With the motor.
T: That was pretty near impossible, by the way!
AA: I said, “Okay, boss. I’ll get right on it.” I knew I was going to need some help and advice in the chassis and roll-cage construction area. So I summoned two colleagues and friends of mine, both of whom you may not have heard of before: Bill Surber and John Rasbach. Bill worked directly for Larry Rathgeb in the NASCAR side of our racing division. He was Larry’s right-hand man in building the Chrysler kit car. Which was a circuit race car that Chrysler built; it could be purchased either ready to race, or in a kit form. And the buyer would assemble it himself. So Bill was well learned on how to build race cars. Jon Rasbach did not work in the race group. He worked in the mainstream of Chrysler, in the advanced area. He was responsible for finite element analysis for the corporation. He did a lot of work on the earlier Missile cars in the finite element analysis of the roll cage construction. I got Bill and Jon together and I asked them: “Can we build a 2,000-pound car that’s ready to race, that’s going to be safe, and have the torsion and rigidity that it needs?” Bill said, “Yes, I think we can. It’s going to take some innovation but we can.” I was impressed by Bill’s confidence. Here’s a guy who comes from the NASCAR side of the fence, where they build Sherman tanks. They’re the safest cars in the world! He understood what we needed in drag racing, and he said it could be done. These cars had a four-link rear suspension. So Bill says, the back end of the car doesn’t do anything buy hold up the taillights when it’s going down the track. So we don’t need any major structure going back there. We’ll hold it up with two cables. Put turnbuckles in it. Attach the two corners of the car up to the roll cage in the C-post area, crisscross the cables. And that’s going to hold up the back of the car. And we thought, oh boy! Wait until NHRA sees this one! But we proceeded. We had some other innovations. Like the two frame rails that it has. They started out as just flat stock steel laying on the floor. Dan Knapp, who used to work in the Ramcharger group on the fuel cars, was an excellent fabricator and welder. He did the frame rails. He rolled them into a rectangular form, welding them full length. The tubes that held up the sills went straight through the frame rails and out the other side, welded on both sides of the frame rails. No butt welding. The tubes go right through the frame rails. So those were some of the main innovations in the structural department. In addition there were a lot of exotic materials in the car: magnesium, aluminum and titanium. Barney [aka, Dick Oldfield] and Joe can elaborate on that. Jon Rasbach suggested we do finite element analysis on the roll cage design. If any of you have seen finite element analysis, it results in a color mat. The pieces that are overstressed show in red; the ones that are okay are green; and, the ones that don’t do anything are blue. So whenever I’d find a blue tube in there, I got them to make it smaller! We went through four or five iterations of the analysis.
T: That tube was just ballast! It didn’t do anything.
AA: Right. So that’s how the roll-cage was designed. We built the car and the weight came in on spec. I think Joe can attest to that. In fact I think it weighs less than 2,000 pounds.
J: Yes. It weighs about 1,850 pounds, ready to run.
AA: But right about then the big boss put the hammer down, and said: “That’s it. We’re out of racing.” To my knowledge we never ran or tested that car. So the team broke up, all of us going in different directions in Chrysler. I went back into the mainstream in the company, in the transmission area. I lost track of where the car even went at that point.
J: We hauled it to North Carolina, and parked it at Don’s shop, in front of the building. Right, Donnie? And it sat there. We had painted the inside, the underside. The car was, I believe, plumbed, wired. If it had a motor in it, you could run it. It was not painted on the outside. At some point, Don finished the car, painted it with the Missile colors. I saw a picture of it with his name on it. But it was subsequently sold to Betty Sigmon.
Audience question: Did Don Carlton ever run it?
J: Did he, Don Donnie?
DC: Not to my knowledge. I think before Betty got it, . . . well, there was a concrete pad in front of the shop. [Laughter.]
J: It had black burnout marks on it!
TC: At least he dropped the hammer on it anyway!
J: Does that sound right, Ben?
BD: That sounds just perfect.
J: Ben does that in his shop in Florida. And Betty had an incident with the car. After speaking with her here in 2012, I kind of got the impression that she thought the car was a little ill handling. But we all knew how to tune the chassis to make it run real well. If you give a rocket launcher to someone who isn’t used to using a rocket launcher you might have poor results with their aim.
BW: I know a little bit more about that. Betty was frightened of the car. After Clyde Hodges [Don’s partner at their shop in Lenoir, North Carolina.] finished it and Betty took it over, they did run it several times. But Betty herself would not make a full pass. She insisted there was something wrong with the car, that maybe it felt like it was moving off the track. She had other excuses why she wouldn’t complete a pass. This was an eighth-mile track. It wasn’t even a quarter mile. Betty’s husband, Ray, got mad and called on Frank Teague to test it. He didn’t believe there could be anything wrong with the car because, he said, “Clyde don’t work that way.” Frank got in the car and made a full pass. He had not been in the car for twenty years. He was the first one that drove it when Betty got it, and he hadn’t driven it since then. He got in the car and made a hard, dead-on, full eighth-mile pass. He came back and told Ray there is nothing wrong with the car. Ray got mad, drove it home, parked it in a field, and that was it. They never raced the car. It set out in the field behind their house all those years. I don’t understand how Arnie Klann ever brought that car back the way it is today.
J: That’s a pretty special car.
BW: I know it is. I did a story on them for my publication in ’81, maybe ‘82. I didn’t know this was the only car of its kind. They didn’t tell me that. They did tell me certain things about it, so I knew it was not a regular drag car. I crawled up under the car and took pictures and did all this stuff. And printed pictures in my paper, Quick Times Racing News. It also was in the IHRA Drag Review. I didn’t know this was an usual car until two or three years ago. Just to see it in the field at that time, was totally amazing. And this is even more so.
J: Before we put a motor in it. I think we had the rear housing in the car. Dick and I could pick the car up and carry it around the shop. The third member was titanium. We had a titanium driveshaft. It was a floater rear end, which was unusual for a Pro Stock car back then. You saw that in “fuel cars” and “funny cars”, but not typically in a Pro Stock car. The little tiny front brakes. All the nuts and bolts were titanium. What wasn’t titanium was aluminum, and what wasn’t aluminum was magnesium. And all the tin work was magnesium. Well, we knew it wasn’t a proper material. But with the paint on it, it looked pretty good. It’s still the original stuff today. Right, Arnie?
AK: I can make a comment. Something about what Al said. You know, when we first got the car I had one of our engineers at my office do a finite-element analysis on it. We had done some sonic testing, looking at the main frame rails that Dan Knapp put together. I thought 0.095-inch steel is not that strong. I think it was down to that size because it sat for twenty years in the field. Rust happens. What was really intriguing about that design was its sophistication. There wasn’t one tube on the cage that didn’t do something. When we did our finite-element analysis of our other Pro Stock car, there were so many tubes on it that didn’t do anything. Except look good, I guess. The wire car was the ultimate design. When you looked at the rigidity of the chassis, it wasn’t just the rear end that was stabilized by the wires. There was the front motor plate, over the engine and under the chassis. Also the mid plate and the plate that’s on the Lenco mounting across the frame rails in the back. If any one of those three plates were missing, the car would just twist. You have all three plates in there and that is one of the most rigid chassis. The engine that’s in it is actually one of Bob Glidden’s Arrow engines. That he ran in the Arrow in ’78, ’79. That’s the actual engine that’s in there now. I desperately want to do some hits on this car, and see what it can really do with proper horsepower. I could not get a single track to allow me to run it, because they couldn’t certify it. They say it doesn’t meet any certifications, and we’re not even going to allow you to do a burnout. So we’ve never really run the car down the track. But if I ever find a track -- other than the highway outside my house -- that would let us, I’d like to do a hit on it. Because as Joe said: we pick that chassis up with the main body panels and two guys can carry it around.
BW: There are probably a lot of tracks in North Carolina that [noise] the tech thing! [Laughter.]
AA: Thank you, Arnie.
M: We have to quit pretty soon. But let me ask another question. The company withdrew racing support, but it continued some research and development on Colt and Arrow race cars.
TC: I left the program about the time that we finished the first car in this area. It had a pretty sophisticated design. The weakness was its short wheelbase, which made it potentially pretty squirrely.
T: How many did Knapp build? Five?
TC: Five or six.
T: Arnie, I stumbled on one of those Knapp Colt cars in Roanoke one day.
AK: And I’m still talking about it. I’m going to get that car eventually!
T: We had just moved to Virginia and I had bought a used Magnum. To carry my toy trains, by the way. I went into one of these places that’ll put black shade on your windows. Well the Magnum had the black material on the windows, and I wanted to get it removed so it could pass inspection. I didn’t want to tear it off myself so I went to one of the shops. That’s where the contact occurred.
BW: That’s the car that Lynwood Craft raced in Pro Stock and bracket racing.
T: Yes, Lynwood Craft. Well, there was a big fuss later on about whose car it really was, I gather. The guy at that shop has the car.
AK: He’s got the car, but he is weakening!
TC: Was that the long wheelbase car? One of the cars had a longer wheelbase!
T: That was the D-5 Colt that we built.
J: I took out the bumpers. Ron Butler did the tin work. Then I brought it back and we took it down to Schramm’s.
T: That’s where it sat, though. Very dusty.
J: One last thing. Three weeks ago Dick and I picked up the wire car in California. We were at Gary Hansen’s shop, Hansen Racing. Gary used to work for Ron Butler, and Gary told me that Ron still has all the fixtures for all those A-Body cars. Ron’s a hoarder!
AK: He lives up in the Central Valley.
J: Yes, and he’s got a big place. He’s got big barns, and they’re full. He’s got surface plates, but he’s got all the fixturing for those A-Body cars. It’ll all rot away up there, but he just won’t let anything go.
Audience Comment to Donnie: Can I say something? Everybody here knows of Don Carlton’s accomplishments with the Motown Missile and the Mopar Missile, but I want to tell you before that. They used to run drag races out of Charlotte Motor Speedway. And in 1968, I believe it was, I was running a Harley dragster out there. Your dad was running a ’63 Impala with the 409 engine. I was a 409 fanatic. Well, this was ’68, four years after the 409s began to dominate. The Impala looked like it had just been driven off the showroom floor. Don was competing against other cars in the stock class, like big block Chevrolets, 396 and 427 Chevrolets. And run after run he was winning. I went over to talk to the guy who was working with him, asked him if it was his car. Yes, it was. I asked who built the engine. He said, I did. I said, you sure have a good driver. He said, I know. The next time I saw Don Carlton’s name on a car was two years later at Rockingham in 1971. Well, I’m not the only person who thought what a great driver Don Carlton was.”
M: Thanks. Well, okay. I guess we have to conclude.