Book Review by Gene Yetter: They Were the Ramchargers
A fascinating and timely book was released in July 2009 about a number of employees of the Chrysler Corporation involved in drag racing between 1957 and the mid Seventies. “Timely,” because the book, We Were the Ramchargers: Inside Drag Racing’s Legendary Team, looks back at a time when Chrysler was in better shape than it is today. Maybe better times can inspire recovery for Chrysler in the future. “Fascinating,” because those Chrysler employees put on a great show of applied science and athleticism in becoming the team to beat in sanctioned drag racing across the country.
We Were the Ramchargers begins with the coming together as a club of about twenty Chrysler Corp. engineers and technicians between 1955 and 1958. Some had been through the company’s graduate engineering program at the Chrysler Institute of Engineering. In 1959, they resolved to build a race car.
Although the corporation was not about to sanction drag racing, the members of the group felt they were acting in the best traditions of Walter P. Chrysler, and John and Horace Dodge, always innovators in automotive technology. The club project became all about beating GM’s Chevrolets and Pontiacs at the drags (Ford being out of racing at the time), and improving the market image of Chrysler cars to appeal to young car buyers. This impetus resulted in Chrysler becoming a major influence in drag racing through the Sixties and Seventies, after the club showed the company that it had a great racing engine on its hands in its Hemi V-8!
The club first called itself the “Ram Chargers,” based on the “Ram” symbol of the 1931 Dodge division; and on “ram tuning,” or “charging,” in the sense of cylinders filling with air and fuel; and, finally, on straight-ahead, all-out drag racing. Eventually the name became one word, emblazoned on the side of many recordholding race cars that were built and campaigned by the team over the years. “Ramchargers” also developed into a brand name and money-making enterprise known for performance engines and after-market parts. A final “Ramchargers Racing Engines” concern closed in 2006, the Rockwell book reports (p. 253).
In its first project, the Ramchargers club transformed a 1949 Plymouth business coupe into a winning race car. Tapping into their engineering brain trust, they created a formula using a database of Chrysler’s acceleration data to calculate power levels of potential competing vehicles. That took guesswork out of engineering the new car. Then the cohorts laid out tasks in four major areas of design and implementation:
- chassis and drive train;
- suspension, steering and traction; and,
- engine and accessories.
Individuals worked in their areas of occupational specialty. Of the many photos and illustrations in the book, one shows an original, neatly-organized and typed list setting down who was responsible for what (p. 39). The car’s appearance — chopped top, crude green paint job, missing rear fenders, eight unmuffled side exhausts, moon hubcaps replacing headlights, a towering intake — was unlike anything seen on dragstrips anywhere.
Running its first few races as The Ram Rod, the car was eventually renamed as The High & Mighty after a John Wayne movie. The name also evoked the nearly 6-foot-high reach of the car’s dual 4-barrel carburetors — above the level of the roof on an elongated “ram” tubes.
The car first raced at the National Hot Rod Association Nationals on Labor Day, 1959, where it clocked an E.T. of 14.41 at 103.24 mph in its best run of four passes for the day. It campaigned to the satisfaction of its builders for the remainder of 1959. Through 1960, it was a great crowd pleaser at dragstrips. Specifics on the debut race and many other events in Ramchargers history are cited throughout the book.
Over 13 chapters, the book summarizes Chrysler history and often focuses to a degree on former Chrysler engineer Tom Hoover. Mr. Hoover is often credited in the automotive press with establishing the Hemi engine in drag racing. He is always quick to cite the participation of all members of the Ramchargers and his colleagues in the Chrysler Racing Division in making that happen.
One of the front pages in the book lists 48 Ramcharger members throughout the period of 1958-2004; it lists another ten names of racers who were active with the group at one time or another. However, Hoover’s importance is attested to in the fact that not many pages in the Rockwell book lack a quote by him or a reference to his contributions, or to his exploits owning and driving race cars that he built. Today, at 80 years of age, Tom Hoover speaks with authority and insight on many aspects of Ramchargers history, drag racing and Hemi engine technology. He retired from Chrysler in 1978.
Stories are told in anecdotes by members of the group who were in the thick of its activities: besides Hoover, Hartford “Mike” Buckel, Tom Coddington, Dick Jones, Dan Mancini, Dick Maxwell, Pete McNicholl, Jim “B.B.” Thornton, and many others. Their comments are always interesting or illuminating or both, and sometimes downright astounding. The tales, often leaving us cheering a Ramcharger success or bemoaning a failure, trace the development of many cars the group built and campaigned in C/Altered, Super Stock, Top Fuel and Funny Car classes from 1958 to 1974; and on their relationship to, and support by, the mother company.
Also recalled are many landmark dates at NHRA and AHRA race events around the country. Competitors are named with respect and awe, or wry humor! While Don Garlits often raced Mopar-powered vehicles that he built, he also competed against the Ramchargers. Garlits commented in a handwritten note (reproduced on p. 237):
The Ramchargers were one of the most awesome teams ever assembled at that time, mid ’60s. However a little known fact is, their dragster, which set many E.T. records, never beat mine! This caused quite a “ruckus” during lunch in the corporate dining room on Mondays following a race. My boss, Frank Wylie [in charge of Dodge public relations], would really get a kick out of rubbing salt into the wounds of the Ramchargers. They were engineers for Chrysler. I might add, however, my Dodge SS/A never beat their Dodge SS/A.
So the various Ramchargers testify throughout the book to their shared anticipation, excitement, exhaustion, exhilaration over their successes, and sometimes regrets over mistakes made or races lost. Next-to-last chapter 12 provides biographical updates on several individuals. Chapter 13 lists the team’s major technical innovations and performance distinctions. End pages include a bibliography for references made throughout the book.
The language of the quotes is occasionally obscure: engineers talking to other engineers, racers and mechanics talking to other racers and mechanics; Chrysler insiders talking to Chrysler insiders. And their jargon is not always clear to readers outside the fold — like your author! There is no footnoting or glossary to explain lingo and some historical or technical references. But that problem did little to spoil my enjoyment of the book. My enthusiasm to get through the pages never flagged.
Dave Rockwell became associated with the Ramchargers as a teenage hanger-on in 1963. He was accepted in the circle and eventually become a working member of the team. He also continued with his schooling and is today an adjunct professor of clinical psychology at Michigan State University.
A dedication opening the book entitled “Tech Inspection,” explains Rockwell’s research: “Supported by an unprecedented level of disclosure of corporate and personal files in tandem with extensive interviews, [the book] takes you behind the curtain of factory secrecy, which, until now, has shrouded one of motorsports’ best stories.” That research was accomplished at Chrysler’s official archives and at the National Automotive archive at the Detroit Public Library. The author also credits editors at Drag Racing Monthly, Super Stock, National Dragster, and Hot Rod for providing access to their historical resources.
The Ramchargers’ last-sponsored car was a 1970 Hemi ’Cuda built by member Dean Nicopolis and campaigned by him until 1997. The ’Cuda and Ramchargers name were later purchased by Michigan attorney David Clabuesch. A search around the Internet reveals that the Nicopolis car was auctioned at a Barrett-Jackson event in Palm Beach, Florida, in January 2007. After Mr. Clabuesch went public with dissatisfaction over the $300,000 sale price accepted by the auctioneer, Barrett-Jackson sued claiming defamation. The case was reported settled by early 2008.
Those involved in drag racing in the era of the Ramchargers look back to the period with much nostalgia. Today, auto companies are on the spot to market hybrid, electric, diesel, and “fuel-efficient” vehicles. Twice this year, front-page covers on “The New Yorker” satirized 20th Century standards of automotive technology. One cover showed a designer working at drawings of a conventional sedan while outside his upper-story window a man flies by strapped into a flying contraption. The cover of the Sept. 28th (2009) issue of the magazine shows all manner of familiar vehicles streaming Noah’s ark-like into a “Museum Parking” garage.
But not so fast! Car culture is alive and well. Stock car and drag racing is alive and well on cable and satellite TV. Just try to keep up with the local and regional shows, auctions, racing, cruises featuring vehicles of the Sixties, Seventies, and earlier. The more the industry moves away from the technology of the era, the more interesting the Sixties and Seventies become. Some of the stories are well told in We Were the Ramchargers.
The book is available for purchase from SAE International and at Amazon.com. There is no Amazon discount at this time but they do provide free shipping.