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Inside Chrysler: the 426 Hemi tears up NASCAR in 1964

I cannot make any claim to accuracy for the materials that I have used to make these articles. In some cases, the journals go back 50 years. — Curtis Redgap

As the 1964 season opened, there were many rumors that Chrysler was going back to NASCAR to whip the boys there, once and for all — but that the machine that would do the deed might not be ready. A new breed of 426 cubic inch V-8s was being built with the legendary “Hemi” heads, said to be cranking out a routine 750 horsepower. The opening shot was set for the 1964 NASCAR season opener at Daytona on February 23, 1964.

426 Hemi with Mike Buckel and Forrest PitcockIt was a painful secret that to hold, that the engine blocks for that race had been poured into molds in December 1963. After careful assembly at Chrysler's engine lab in Highland Park, these prototype engines were run out at full power. Disaster and disappointment prevailed. The blocks developed several cracks on the thrust side of the right hand bank.

Engineers scrambled to find a solution. It didn't take long to figure out that with a whole lot of that sort of horsepower, thicker walls was the only means to solve the problem. It sounds simple, but scraping away the cooling core to increase the wall thickness resulted in not being able to get a correct bore casting — even though the casting was being done by one of the best foundries in the USA, in Indianapolis.

Engineers quickly converged on the plant. New templates were made up and tried. After nearly 20 hours, the engineers went to the motel while new blocks were poured. All the pourings failed! Giant holes had developed in the freshly poured blocks. New templates were made, new cores built, and new iron was poured. Again, again, and again. Three times the process was tried. The foundry and the engineers worked around the clock, straight, for 24 hours before the right template was finally made that got a good block. Nearly 5 days had gone by, and it was February 3, 1964!

Several more blocks were cast, and the order was out...... “ship them!” These blocks were sent to the stress testing lab in Highland Park, where the engines were hand assembled and put on the dynometers. The engineers worked around the clock for the first time in Chrysler history. One eight hour shift would complete their data and hand it to the next shift.

The engine lab was filled with the mighty bellow of twelve race Hemis running at full bore. The outside world was aware of its awesome power, because the exhausts were vented through the roof of the lab, and it resonated off all the surrounding buildings.

The air was filled with excitement and anticipation. Something big and very bold was taking place at Chrysler. For the first time in years, there was a true team spirit.

As the new racing blocks were being hustled to Highland Park, the original Hemi engine was being installed in Ray Nichols’ 1964 Plymouth, driven by Paul Goldsmith. Earlier, at a nondescript test track at San Angelo, Texas, the new Hemi had pushed the ’64 Plymouth to a recorded 180 miles an hour! The track was a bit rough, and put the car airborne, leaving acceleration tire marks when he came down!

A990 engineThat kind of power had never been seen on a NASCAR track. Now, the hope was that the original engines would last through practice and the qualifying races. Then, some sort of miracle had to occur for the new engines to get to the teams by the start of race day on February 23, 1964.

It was a secret of military proportions. Not one of the Mopar drivers revealed it to anyone. No one was to make a lap wide open. Not even Junior Johnson, who loved wide open racing and who had driven the 1963 Chevrolet “mystery engine” to a 163 miles an hour, talked about his Mopar's speed ability. He later told my cousin, still affiliated with Nichols engineering, that he had never felt a race car with that much power on tap at the touch of the accelerator.

For now they were keeping their mounts near the speed of the Fords at around 170 miles an hour. It wasn't all quiet, however. On February 7, 1964, Goldsmith qualified with a two lap time of 174.91. Richard Petty qualified with a two lap run of 174.42. On February 8, 1964, two 50 mile races were held for the qualifiers. Goldsmith won the first at 170.94. Petty won the second at 171.99. Goldsmith got the pole and Petty was right along side him on the right.

Two weeks later, two 100 mile races were held to determine the rest of the field. Junior Johnson put his Dodge into third starting position with a speed of 170.77. Bobby Issac in a Dodge won the second race at 169.81. Each of the speeds above set new track records.

Back in Detroit, the drama continued. The February 5 blocks were run, stressed, checked, rerun, and all the data analyzed and then rechecked. Finally, the go-ahead came on February 10, after five brutal straight days of flat out running, analysis, and tear down inspections. The first pouring was made for the engine block that would be shipped to Richard Petty for his number 43 car. This would be the block that eventually won the race.

Hemi engine layout

Between February 15 and February 22, 1964, all the Mopar teams had received the new “thick walled” Hemi V-8. The miracle had occurred after all. On February 22, 1964, all the teams were practicing with their new engines.

The start of the 1964 Daytona 500 saw Paul Goldsmith in a 1964 Nichols Plymouth on the pole. Next to him was Richard Petty, in a Petty-engineered 1964 Plymouth. In third place behind Goldsmith was Junior Johnson in a 1964 Dodge Coronet. Beside him was Bobby Issac in a 1964 Dodge Coronet. Behind Junior Johnson was Buck Baker in a 1964 Plymouth. Alongside him was Jim Pardue in a 1964 Plymouth. Behind Baker was David Pearson in 7th spot driving a 1964 Dodge Coronet. In tenth position was Jim Paschal driving a 1964 Dodge Coronet.

The green flag on the 1964 Daytona 500 dropped at 12:30 p.m. Three hours and 15 minutes later, Richard Petty sailed across the finish line, in a nearly faultless race. Jim Pardue was second, Paul Goldsmith was in the third spot. A Ford managed to slip into fourth spot, followed by Jim Paschal in 5th place. Junior Johnson came in 9th.

A new record had been set by Petty, with an average speed of 154.334 miles an hour. It was his first Daytona win. He went on to finish the NASCAR season as the 1964 NASCAR champion.

1964 NASCAR race

The following Monday morning, we found our showroom swamped with people who wanted to buy that "fast new Plymouth." Sales took off. Of course, the racing Hemi was not available to the buying public, at least not this year.

Lynn Townsend was absolutely jubilant. Lapel buttons quickly appeared throughout the company that mimicked Ford's pitch of “Total Performance.” The buttons in Highland Park were not kind: they said, “Total What?”

Townsend quickly authorized other projects for the powerful new Hemi — he aimed right at drag racing. He also went and scoped out Indianapolis, but his accountant’s heart went cold when he learned he might spend upwards of $10 million and still not build a winner at the Brickyard.

In July, a Dodge stock car running the ever popular National Hot Rod Association “Super Stock” class pulled a new national record with an 11.06 second pass that netted 132.62 miles an hour... in a 1/4 of a mile shot! In the meantime, 426 Hemi production sped up, settling down to a steady 50 to 60 engines and parts a week.

My brother had not been overlooked by Dad. A new 1964 Plymouth Savoy with the racing Hemi had been delivered and my brother was absolutely lambasting everything in the East with it in the Super Stock class. The only real competition came from another Mopar with the same engine.

The floor traffic this generated was beyond belief. Suddenly, Plymouth and Dodge had been discovered, and everyone wanted one.

Finish this series now! Final episode...

Other parts of this series

  1. 1946-1953: The story through 1950; Hemi engines and Virgil Exner.
  2. 1954 and Plymouth’s independence, and automatic transmissions.
  3. 1955 — hot cars, NASCAR’s roots, Daytona, and more
  4. 1956 and the Plymouth Belmont
  5. 1955-56 police packages and CHP testing
  6. 1956 Plymouth Fury and Daytona Speed Weeks
  7. The stunning and disastrous 1957 cars
  8. 1957 engineering, Daytona, and pursuit cars
  9. The much more reliable 1958s
  10. The Pettys and Bill France; creating the ’62s
  11. The 1959 Chrysler Corporation cars
  12. NASCAR and the Pettys; Engineering vs Marketing
  13. Losing DeSoto, 1957-1960
  14. Dodge and Valiant clobber Plymouth, 1957-1960
  15. 300 and 300X; personal notes
  1. The hot new 1960 Valiant
  2. The new unit-body 1960 cars
  3. 1960 Chrysler fleets and squads
  4. Chrysler racing, 1960
  5. The hot Chrysler 300F
  6. Corruption and incompetence
  7. The 1961 cars
  8. 1961 police cars and racing events
  9. The 1962 cars
  10. 1962 Police Pursuit cars
  11. 1962: Hot Performance
  12. The 1963 cars
  13. The 1964 cars
  14. NASCAR racing — 1964
  15. End of the series

More by Curtis Redgap:


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