by Mike Buckel, Ramcharger • courtesy of the North Georgia Mopar Club
This story is well documented in the book We Were the Ramchargers, but some repeats and additions are justified.
The first 426 Hemi dragster is really the story of the late Dan Knapp. He was a true pioneer in drag racing, having built and raced dragsters in the ’50s. He built several twin-Chevy dragsters, one of which took a big bite out the calf of one leg when a driveshaft broke loose. He was on crutches for a long time and made a living doing valve jobs on six-cylinder Chevy heads. A number of auto parts stores on the downriver side of Detroit furnished him work. Those old Chevys would barely get 50,000 miles out of the valves.
Dan associated with a number of Detroit racers, most of who had very fast cars; Al Bugler, Phil Goulet, and Maynard Rupp come to mind. They did not travel, so they did not become nationally known. After the accident, Dan teamed with a local “shoe,” Don Westerdale, as a driver. Werterdale was a machine repairman at Ford, so his availability on weekends was always problematic. He was not a mechanic but a good driver and extremely good with a flagman and later on the tree.
I believe that Knapp hatched a good plan for getting into a 426 dragster shortly after the engine’s debut. He first applied and was hired as an entry-level mechanic at Chrysler Engineering, and believe me, the pay was very low. Dan went out of his way to meet and make friends with the guys in the race group, mostly Ramchargers. He approached Ramcharger Dan Mancini, the foreman at the Woodside garage, for a position, and was accepted. Whenever he got the chance he talked about a fuel dragster with the new engine. Unbeknown to us, he was fabricating a dragster chassis in his home garage. It was about mid-summer when Dan’s plan came to a conclusion as the Ramchargers decided that this was a worthwhile project, and Dan became a Ramcharger.
The work required to get a brand-new engine going as a blown fuel motor was extraordinary by any measure. Fabricating a blower manifold was probably the toughest. I don’t remember the wheelbase, but the car was short by today’s standards and long by 1964 standards. It was mid-August before the car was together and made some passes on methanol. The car ran well and showed a lot of power. Remember these were the days of swap feet and drive out of the tire smoke. It was then that we discovered how much tires grow at speed, as the rear pipes of the zoomy headers Dan had fabricated were torn off.
At its competitive debut, at Detroit Dragway, it ran in the 7s at 190 mph on 50%. Wow, were we pumped. It smoked the tires leaving black streaks to the finish line. We had talked to Frank Wylie, our sponsor at Dodge, about the dragster, and agreed to help out but insisted that the car have a highly visible Ramcharger identification at the upcoming Indy Nationals. Knapp went home and hammered out a nose in a week. It was two pieces: a belly pan that wrapped up the sides and fastened to the frame. The top piece was removable with Dzus fasteners for service.
At Indy, the car qualified for the eight-car field for Top Fuel Eliminator in only one run on 50%, and boy did that car make some tire smoke, turning 7.95 seconds at 194.38 mph. Broken valve springs and valve gear took us out of AA/FD class and prevented us from running on Monday for Top Fuel. After a lot of thought, we determined that the flexibility of the frame was negated by the rigid attachment of the belly. This prevented the car from hooking up, and the motor freewheeled most of the way down the track. All things considered, we felt that it was a good start and better things would be coming.
Dan Knapp was smart, determined, humorous, and stubborn. He died of lung cancer in 1984. He had been smoking Camels since he was a teenager.
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