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Mopar Missile at the Night of Fire

by Gene Yetter

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Towards the end of the Summer of 2008, a recordholding Pro Stock race car burst out of Ocala's Garlits Museum of Drag Racing, after 18 long years, to fly down the track at nearly 180 mph. On November 22, 2008, the striking 1973 Plymouth Duster known as the "Mopar Missile" woke from its long sleep and made its first competitive run at the Orlando Speedworld Dragway. Owner Ben Donhoff of Melbourne, Florida, took the wheel for the annual Night of fire event and ran the heavily modified Missile through the quarter mile in 7.839 seconds, topping at 179.64 miles per hour. It was the 26th fastest performance among more than 300 cars registered to race that day, and a gratifying run for its owner.

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Unfortunately, mechanical problems took the Missile out of competition in two remaining passes. It spilled oil from a damaged filter canister as it was smoking tires prior to the second run. In its third run, transmission problems arose, trashing its ET and top speed.

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Before the Garlits Museum took it in on loan in 1989, the car was raced at state tracks including Bradenton, Gainesville, Orlando, and West Palm Beach, for about 15 years. It even made an appearance in the 1989 Ron Howard film, Parenthood, in a scene filmed at Orlando Speed World Dragway just before the car went into the Museum.

Donhoff had raced it for ten of those years and he said it could consistently clocked 8.9 to 9.15 seconds in the quarter mile. How did the car come to be parked among the strangely motionless and quiet cars arrayed across the exhibit space at the Garlits Museum?

In 1988, at a time when 500 cid motors were going into cars, Donhoff said, "I wanted to go faster. I needed something lighter and more up to date. I figured I should get a new car."

Don Garlits accepted the Mopar Missile for the Museum in a short handwritten note, and Donhoff came up with a 1986 Daytona Turbo Z sports coupe, the hottest of Dodge's late-1980s G-24 front-drive vehicles. He still has the Dodge, still races it; and in fact, he raced it on the 22nd, at the Night of Fire event, following his run in the Missile Duster. The Daytona was top eliminator in its first pass running an ET of 6.807 seconds at 208.84 mph.

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After the first pass of the day, it seemed the Daytona and Missile would race against each other in Quick 32 Eliminations, but the Missile was disqualified, and the trials in the large field of cars and Pro Cycles took time. The delay was made longer by the evening's entertainment: a spectacular show after nightfall by wheelstanders, vehicles that run the entire quarter-mile track on rear wheels only; and runs by jet dragsters and funny cars and a jet-powered freightliner -- those vehicles lighting up the night with plenty of fire as they exploded down the strip in a blur of heat.

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Further delay was caused when a race car went wild in the staging lanes, damaging a few other vehicles. With the temperature having dropped to the low 40s and dew settling, Donhoff decided not to risk running the Daytona on the damp track, and he and friend and partner Larry Mayes, of Haines City, Florida, went home; Mayes had been at the wheel of the Missile in its second and third run.

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The Missile is presently powered by a 542 cid Mopar Performance engine taken from a car that Mayes owns and races; Donhoff is building a supercharged motor for Mayes's car to replace it. Mayes will drive the Mopar Missile on a regular basis, especially at events where Donhoff is also racing the Daytona; he plans to run the Missile in Top Sportsman class beginning in February, 2009.

The Night of Fire was a long day. Donhoff and Mayes were encamped in two vehicle transport trailers in the pit area. Race dates mean family outings for the teams, with wives, friends, and crew sharing behind-the-scenes responsibilities, from serving food to reading tire pressure in the staging lanes. A third trailer in the Donhoff-Mayes circle belonged to another member of the Donhoff family, a nephew, Rod Donhoff, who raced a '70 Challenger with a 440 Mopar engine.

Story of the Mopar Missile

This story is based on the recollections of both Stewart Pomeroy, Ben Donhoff, and others.

The Mopar Missile is a historic car. It was built by a team of hand-picked engineers and drag race professionals and sponsored by Chrysler Corp. at a time when 426 Hemi engines were dominating Pro Stock drag racing; NHRA's response, new rules on "weight breaks," were taking a toll on Mopar's ability to compete with smaller and lighter Fords and Chevvies. The Missile development team was supposed to come up with a car that would accommodate the rule changes while maintaining Chrysler's domination.

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The team was reasonably successful. They designed and built the Mopar Missile for maximum efficiency, even studying its performance with new data analysis techniques using a computer. Among its special features are a variety of lightweight titanium, magnesium and aluminum parts. The team was able to get the engine displacement down to 399 cubic inches from 426 cid, achieving a mathematical advantage with respect to the weight breaks. One of the participants in the car's construction, Joe Pappas, recalled the car won 11 of 14 national NHRA events that it entered in 1973.

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The glory was short lived, because rising fuel prices were hurting Chrysler's revenues and the company saw it had to abandon sponsorship of Pro Stock racing. According to Stewart Pomeroy of Tampa, Florida, who was active with the development team, the Missile Duster and other relics of the program like parts and cars under construction were transferred to principle driver Don Carlton. Ultimately Carlton sold the Missile to Pomeroy, who owned it for about a year and a half and then sold it himself.

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Donhoff bought the Missile from Pat Williams in West Palm Beach, who bought it from "Juno Joe" Christodora, who bought it from a partnership of two individuals, Kenny Hahn and Jon Zorian, who bought it from Pomeroy, who bought it from Don Carlton. Each of these individuals except Carlton lived and raced the car in Florida, although it was originally put together in Detroit on a chassis built on the West Coast by Ron Butler and one of the crew from Detroit, Dick Oldfield.

Donhoff explains he took the car over in damaged condition from Williams, after it crashed due to a cracked rack and pinion assembly. He had heard about the crash, and knew the history of the car, but Williams did not want to sell until about a year after the wreck and after the car had sat in storage in West Palm. "Pat said, well, you want to come down and look at it first? I said, no, I'll be down. I think I went down to pick it up a week later because I knew what the car was."

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He got it without an engine. "I did end up with an old short block that Juno Joe used to run in the late 70s. It's got some cracks in the main webbing. I just mainly hang onto it. Everything that was in the car, everything that was damaged from the wreck . . . I still have it all. I save every bit of it. It is a piece of history and I'm not going to just throw that stuff away."

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Donhoff did the repairs and reconstruction himself. He has been in the business of fixing cars since he worked for his father at a garage the father opened in 1963. He recalls the law handed down by his father when he was in the 6th grade: "I had 30 minutes from the time school got out to get to the shop. That was mandatory. And we used to work 6 days a week. He said we need you here at the family business. I've worked at the shop, in the same location, all my life. I had my first child when I was 19 so I was obligated to family too."

He started racing when he was 17. His first car "that I considered a racecar was an old Dodge Matador 2-door coupe. The front end was off a Chrysler 300. It bolted right on. That was a 12-second car the first time out. And then I got hold of a '63 Barracuda and put a 440 in it. I ran it for a long time."

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What did the father think of his racing?

"I was the only one in the family that was into drag racing. My dad didn't know what to think when I told him I was going to race. He thought it was like NASCAR, and that would be too dangerous. But drag racing he was okay with."

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The Mopar Missile is back, with a modern drivetrain, and it will be racing at Florida drag strips through the season. Plenty of fans and racers who remember the car from its prior campaigns, as well as younger fans and competitors who weren't around in those golden days, will be looking forward to its latest exploits.

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