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A squirrely dragster and a NASCAR-Hemi wagon: Ramchargers #22

by Mike Buckel, Ramcharger • courtesy of the North Georgia Mopar Club

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The reinforced rear axle housing with the leaf springs did not completely cure the car of its squirrely ways. It did have its good runs although not as many as we expected. The finest weekend for the '66 car was at the New York Nationals on the far eastern tip of Long Island. The event is well described in the book We Were the Ramchargers and some is worth repeating.

Funny cars were running in three classes: 2,000 lb., 2,400 lb., and unlimited (blown and the slowest class of the three). We lost on Saturday in the 2,000-lb. class with a big wheelie. Adding ballast to both the front and rear, we ran the 2,400-lb. class on Sunday beating Sox and Martin with an 8.50 at 163 mph. The car did a nice wheelie each run and went straight.

The 2,400-lb. winner was supposed to get a handicap start in the eliminator against the 2,000-lb. car (Nicholson). In the staging lane the event director announced, to us only, no handicap. Jim Thornton took the heavy tire out of the truck but did not have time to take the weight off the front end. During the burnout the car was loose, and he had the tire put back in. We lost with an 8.56 against an 8.42. The deletion of the handicap was the most corrupt experience of our racing days.

The car also swept the AHRA World Championships at Detroit Dragway in late August. The last race for the car was at Connecticut Dragway against the Tasca Ford Mustang. It took five races to put him away, and during the fourth run I got the car sideways at the top end. Thornton thought that I had bailed the car on its last pass, but I saved it.

The dragster was again setting records everywhere it went and still breaking parts, now mostly connecting rods. Connie Kalitta got an overhead-cam engine deal from Ford and found out, like we had earlier, that a new engine requires considerable development.

The biggest problem we had with the dragster was the semi-retirement of Don Westerdale as the driver. We tried several other drivers who could either not leave on time when it really counted or got a light right foot at speed. Westerdale came back for the Nationals where the Ramchargers were top qualifier, top speed, low ET of the meet, and NHRA record holder. The '66 Nationals numbers were 7.31 at 215.82 mph. And still the other racers had not caught on to the fact that the 426-based Hemi was the way to go.

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During the summer, I was feeling prosperous and bought a '65 Dodge station wagon. It was a 361 Torqueflite car. The street Hemi program was just getting under way, and I determined that a Hemi was right for the wagon. I began to accumulate parts. The block was out of scrap with a cylinder gouged out from a wrist pin I sleeved. The pistons came out of the endurance tests, and I had the skirts knurled to get a decent fit in the bores. A set of aluminum heads from a catastrophic failure were remanufactured.

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By the spring of '66 I had an engine going in the car. The intake was the NASCAR single four-barrel. The initial build had way too much cam and A-990 headers that were noisy and required periodic weld repair. Ramcharger Gary Congdon did his magic on the carburetor to eliminate the stumbles and drivability issues. This was before good tires, so the rears were 8.5" x 14" Goodyear two-ply Power Cushion bias ply.

To improve drivability I did an overhaul to make the car nicer. Racer Brown gave me a 286-degree hydraulic lifter cam, and I replaced the headers with cast-iron street Hemi manifolds. The left-side manifold was one of two C-body units cast when the street Hemi was originally scheduled for the big cars. After a little more carburetor work the car drove perfect, except for the first five miles when it was very cold - carburetor icing.

The car went undefeated on Woodward Avenue for two years. On our overnight road trips to St. Louis the car attained 16.5 miles per gallon at 95 mph. Carole would come back from church with Brenda grinning that she got another 396 Chevelle. The Racer Brown cam revved to 6,500 rpm. Demonstration rides began at a 50-mph cruise, close the throttle to get the passenger leaning forward, then wood it. It would downshift to first and a second later upshift to second and yaw about 10 degrees to the left. Nobody was unimpressed! Through the 2 ¼-inch exhaust system and Goodyear tires, it ran 13.20 at 106 mph.

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