The Mopar Missile Legacy (Part I)
A top-flight team of engineers and racing professionals created the Mopar Missile, a Chrysler-sponsored Pro Stock Plymouth Duster. The car came to life in 1972 and campaigned at major drag strips around the country, winning 11 out of 14 major NHRA events in 1973.
When Chrysler cut back on its racing program in 1974, the Mopar Missile was transferred to driver Don Carlton along with the test cars in progress and parts; Stewart Pomeroy of Tampa, Florida bought the car from Don Carlton, and later sold it. The Mopar Missile spent some years in Don Garlits’ museum before returning to active racing.
Stewart spoke with us in November 2008 about his association with the Missile development team and some of his experiences as owner of the car.
GY: I saw the piece on the "wire car" Duster, the car that I understand was to be Chrysler’s first generation small-block Pro Stock car. And also the images of the aerodynamics testing aerodynamics testing of the Missile Duster, with all the hundreds of cotton strands stuck to the body like a bad haircut! Let’s get right into our subject. Did the wire car go by the name “Motown Missile” or “Mopar Missile’?
Stewart: Okay, lets stop for a minute. The “wire car” was not technically a “Missile” car. There were three Missile cars sponsored by Chrysler. The first was a ’70 Challenger that Dick Oldfield drove. It was updated as a ’71. At that point, Don Carlton joined the crew as driver. The second car was a ’72 Barracuda. The third was a ’72 Duster. Carlton drove these last two cars.
The Duster was updated to a 1973 with the addition of a new grill and taillights. The wire car was a test car, the last of the test cars in Chrysler’s Pro Stock racing program. There were a few other test cars but none were Missile cars. In fact the wire car was never raced by the Missile team. The Challenger, that first Missile, was initially named and raced as the “Motown Missile.” That name got changed [after the Barracuda-based Motown Missile] to “Mopar Missile” because of confusion with another famous Detroit company using Motown in its name, Motown Records. From then on all the cars were Mopar Missiles.
As an aside, to avoid confusion about the Motown Missile name still in use, Mike Fons bought the ’72 Barracuda Missile (1970s photo above). The copyrighted Motown version of the name was transferred to Fons in that deal. (This car has not been restored and is believed to be inoperable.)
Mike later bought another car built by Kent Fuller and Dick Landy from racer Irv Beringhaus. Fons used the Motown Missile name on the former Beringhaus car. That car, with its black and gold paint scheme, is now owned by Kevin Christner in Columbus, Ohio.
GY: Among the several owners of the Missile Duster, you actually owned it at one time.
Stewart: Yes. When Chrysler quit Pro Stock racing for financial reasons, the company transferred the car to Don Carlton. I bought it from Don and owned it for about a year and a half. I sold to Kenny Hahn and it changed ownership a few more times. It is presently owned by Ben Donhoff, of Melbourne, Florida.
The Duster was the most successful of the three Missile cars. Ben raced it for several years and then offered it for display in the Garlits Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala. It was in the museum for 18 years. Recently he took it out of the museum and prepared it for racing again. It ran at the Night of Fire event at Orlando Speedworld Dragway on Nov. 22. In the first pass, the car turned in an ET of 7.83 at 179 mph. I had to leave after the first pass, but I understand mechanical problems cut short its run in both remaining passes.
GY: I saw your name as driver of the Missile Duster, in a long list of top NHRA recordholders through 2004. Your record run in the Mopar Missile, in 1973, was 9.010 seconds; top speed, 151.00 mph. How did you become involved with the Missile cars?
Stewart: That record should be attributed to Kenny Hahn. He did most of the driving of the Missile when I owned it. But to answer your question, I had bought a car from Sox & Martin. Donnie Carlton was working for them at the time and I became friendly with Donnie. Later, when Donnie joined the Missile crew, I would hear that they were coming down to Gainesville for testing. I was living in Florida and I’d show up at the drag strip at Gainesville. I’d watch and help and do whatever – like a groupie!
GY: Describe the division of labor among the Duster crew.
Stewart: Well, Chrysler owned the car. It was driven by Don Carlton. The chassis was built by Ron Butler and Dick Oldfield on the West Coast. In the Detroit shop, Teddy Spehar was in charge of building and maintaining the motors. Spehar was a contractor to Chrysler, or he may have actually worked for Chrysler. He had an assistant, Lenny Bartush, the only guy allowed in the engine room besides Spehar. Also Mike Koran worked for Spehar as a kind of shop foreman.
The other guys who worked on the Duster included Tom Hoover, project leader, and his assistant, Al Adams; Tom Coddington, chassis specialist; John Baumann, carburetor wizard. Baumann was paid by Holley, I think. Dick Oldfield and Joe Pappas were fabricators of a lot of stuff on the car. Oldfield for example did the exhaust system. Ron Killen did the computer analysis and maintained that equipment. A guy named Tom Tignanelli did the painting. I hope I haven’t left anyone out. I never visited the shop in Detroit, but that's how things supposedly ran up there.
GY: How about describing engine development?
Stewart: They were constantly building new motors, running them on the dyno cells at Chrysler, trucking the car down to Gainesville to test it, or someplace else. I don’t know how many motors the team had in the works. They were going constantly.
It was the same for everyone in drag racing. They didn’t just build a set of carburetors and put them on the car and say, “Okay, I’m done. I’m going on vacation.” They would immediately be working on another set of carburetors. Or another ignition system. Or this MSD stuff, the multi-strike distributors that, instead of firing one time, would fire ten times in a cycle. They would do stuff like the twin-plug heads, where instead of one spark plug per cylinder, there are two. You’d be out testing at strange times of the year. At least that was the routine when I was racing. Christmas Eve we’re at the drag strip testing the car!
GY: What would you expect from the car when you owned and raced it?
Stewart: It was very competitive in its day, but those cars never went as fast as Ben’s time of 7.83 at Orlando. Maybe 8.83 at 155. Never anywhere below that. In the early 70s the cars were just limited as far as motor sizes. Ben has a huge motor in it presently with a nitrous oxide power adder. When I owned it, the Duster had a 400 CID motor, normally aspirated, no turbo chargers, no nitrous, no power adders, and it weighed 2700 lbs.
GY: I understand the car rolled once at the drag strip in Bradenton. What happened?
Stewart: Kenny Hahn, who eventually bought the car from me, was driving. First, the car is going forward nearing the finish line. Next thing, the car is going backward! Uh, oh. He couldn’t throw the parachute. It would run right over the roof. The car is braking and slowing down and trying to stay on the strip. Suddenly it was beyond the retaining walls with sand on both sides of the strip. It’s going maybe 40 mph. What the car did then, it drifted off the side of the race track into the sand. It hooked a wheel or something, rolled over, came upright on its wheels in the sand.
There was sand everywhere and dents all over, with some panels crushed in. We had a body man on retainer and we called him up and took the car to his shop. That was on a Sunday. We got it back that Wednesday. Thankfully the damage was only superficial. But the weird thing is, we put it in the trailer and took it over to the front-end alignment shop to make sure it was straight. It broke loose in the trailer and that did more damage than the roll over! It went back and forth in the trailer like a peanut in a box.
GY: What about the engine, did it suffer in the accident?
Stewart: We had taken the car apart and power washed it in front of the body shop on Monday night. There were motor hoists in the trailer so it took only about 15 minutes to pull the motor and then clean it with the pressure washer. All these things are easy to do when you have the equipment and knowhow.
GY: How did the Missile look to you when you saw it at the Night of Fire in Orlando?
Stewart: There has been work done on the car over the years. Ben Donhoff bought it after a front-end crash and had to fix it up. Ben said the rack and pinion steering was broken causing the crash. At the Night of Fire, from the firewall back, except for a bar or two, the car seems to be real original. And except for missing its electronic data analysis components -- the computer that was in the trunk used by the development team to study the car’s performance.
From the firewall forward, that’s where the car has changed. Several years ago one of the guys in Detroit asked me if the Missile was still around and I went over to the Garlits museum to see it. I understand that, when the chassis was built, they positioned the wheels forward by four inches. This was to put more weight on the rear end for a harder launch. They also redid the front wheelwells. Assuming that, it looked to me like the car is short in the nose. The front wheels being 4 inches back from where they were originally.
GY: If that’s true, what would be the effect on the performance of the car?
Stewart: I don’t know if there is a performance hit on the car. But to me it’s a visual defect. My thing about the Mopar Missile is its historical authenticity.
GY: Do you think the car could be rebuilt as it was in 1973?
Stewart: I think the car could be restored to about 99% original. There are photographs and people still alive who designed and built the car.
GY: What was the data analysis system all about? Was the computer actually performing a real time service in the car’s operation?
Stewart: Well, sit down and hang on! It involved a recorder of some kind, wire or tape, whatever. It weighed about 100 lbs. It could monitor eight parameters of whatever was happening on the car and that was all it could do. They would run the car, bring it back, take the recording medium out and stick it in a reader, look at the data and see what was happening. That’s as far as it went. In the aerotesting photographs you can see the components sitting in the back seat and in the trunk.
Where that came from, about the time they started fooling with the car, they wanted to get data acquisition on it. Chysler had a group in Huntsville, Alabama, including guys involved in the NASA space program. The government was lightening up on the space program in 1971-72. So Chrysler asked some of the Huntsville employees if they wanted transfers to the race group. A couple of them did, and they are the guys who set up the data acquisition for the car. They produced all the sensors and everything else they needed -- all on a very low budget.
GY: What was the idea behind those cotton strands taped all over the body in the aero-testing pictures?
Stewart: The team didn’t have money to take the car to a wind tunnel for testing. So someone came up with the idea of taping hundreds of threads all over the car in a linear pattern. Then they would run the car down the strip and blow past a chase car at 150 mph.
In one of those aerotesting photos, you can see Dick Oldfield hanging out of the passenger side window of the chase car taking pictures over its roof. With these photographs, they checked the pattern of the cotton strands and tell how the air was moving over the body. They wanted to see the tufts smoothly pressed against body metal, especially near the hood scoop. Then if you block off certain areas of the car, like the grill area, or you mold the bumper slightly, you don’t get turbulance around its edges. You wanted as little turbulence as possible. Look at the stock cars today. They look like little eggs!
The Missile program had three or four brilliant engineers who would come up with ideas like that and it made a difference.
GY: Who was it in Detroit that wanted to know about the Missile?
Stewart: Joe Pappas, who now works for Johnson Controls. I keep in touch with a lot of the old crew and in fact I will be seeing them for a luncheon on Dec. 18th (2008), around the time of the Performance Racing Industry Conference coming up in Orlando. So that’ll be like old times when we used to send for take- out meals while we were working at the drag strip. Or head over to Sonny’s Barbecue near the track.
GY: It is well known that, in the early to mid 1970s, Chrysler began to cut back its involvement with NHRA Pro Stock racing. What is your view of that situation?
Stewart: That is a long story. There were two influences. Chrysler was dominating NHRA Pro Stock racing for some time. When Pro Stock started out you could run a car at 7 lbs. gross weight per cubic inch of engine displacement. In other words if you had a 400 CID motor your car had to weigh at least 2800 lbs. You did not want a 3000-pound car because you’re carrying 200 extra lbs.
Chrysler was beating up Ford and Chevrolet at the dragstrips. But then NHRA changed the rules to allow smaller cars like the Vega, Mustang, and Maverick to run in Pro Stock. The association rewrote the rules so that the smaller cars got a “weight break.” Physics will tell you you can accelerate a lighter vehicle faster and harder than a heavy vehicle. Chrysler cars might catch them at the other end of the racetrack, but the first part of the track — the little Vegas and Mavericks and Mustangs are gone. Eventually the smaller cars were even getting an additional break for running on a longer wheelbase. Those “breaks” began the end of Pro Stock for Chrysler.
GY: But Chrysler did try to develop a small block-car to race Pro Stock, didn’t it?
Stewart: That’s correct. That was the “wire car” and the “yellow 340 test car.” And they developed the “D-5 Hemi Colt.” Those were secret programs that ran into 1974.
But the oil crisis of 1973 was losing sales for Chrysler and the company faced economic hard times. Monies for racing projects were going away and they cut back on Pro Stock racing. That’s when the car was transferred to Carlton. Carlton was based in his hometown of Lenoir, North Carolina.
GY: Do you think racing paid off for Chrysler?
Stewart: Too bad the Mopar Missile Pro Stock program only got going around the time the company had to back out of racing. But they picked up a lot of practical knowledge from their race programs, which also gave them exposure and advertising. Despite the problems of the American car companies they are still sponsoring NASCAR. Even if the current economy is against them for the time being. Racing stokes brand loyalty and sells cars.
GY: Thank you, Stewart.
Stewart: You’re welcome. Keep in touch.