Dodge: Then & Now

Engineering A Big Part Of What Makes Dodge Different MARTINSVILLE, Va., April 4, 2001 - Ask people in motorsports what makes Dodge "different" - then and now - and many will answer with a single word - engineering. "They were the best," says...

Engineering A Big Part Of What Makes Dodge Different

MARTINSVILLE, Va., April 4, 2001 - Ask people in motorsports what makes Dodge "different" - then and now - and many will answer with a single word - engineering.

"They were the best," says Buddy Baker, who drove race cars prepared by several manufacturers throughout his racing career and supplemented his winnings by driving test cars. "The Chrysler people went at racing like engineers, not mechanics," says Baker. "They were great people to work with and we had some of the best race cars on the planet."

Baker added that the engineers supporting the Dodge and Plymouth factory teams could build a racing engine as well as any shop in the business.

Dick Maxwell, head of the racing program for Chrysler from 1964 through 1991, says there is a lot of truth to Baker's assessment.

"The mechanics had a good handle on what worked, but they didn't always understand why," explains Maxwell. "The engineers understood the laws of physics and could sort out and explain why things worked or didn't work." Maxwell says engineers eventually earned the respect of mechanics and drivers by being able to predict race car performance.

As an example of the different perspective engineering can bring to racing, Maxwell cites the performance of a 1949 Plymouth "C" Altered Coupe competing in drag races in the early 1960s. Named "High and Mighty," the coupe startled drag racing enthusiasts when it first showed up at the track. The reason? Drag racers in those days were trying to get their vehicles as low as possible to reduce wind resistance. In striking contrast with conventional wisdom, the body of High and Mighty was so far off the ground it looked like it was on stilts.

"The idea was to capitalize on dynamic weight transfer," says Maxwell. "We wanted to load up the rear wheels to maximize traction, and a taller car loads more weight on the back as it accelerates."

Maxwell says the car was built and raced by an in-house engineering club named the Ramchargers, a moniker they picked up from another counter-intuitive development. While "in-the-box" thinking at the time held that reducing the distance between the carburetor and the combustion chamber would optimize performance, the drag racing engineers at Chrysler figured out how they could improve performance by extending it.

"The engine guys tuned the intake manifold system to create a standing pressure wave that would cram more air into the combustion chamber," says Maxwell.

The same principle is used in passenger cars and trucks today to improve engine performance and fuel economy. The group's Ramcharger name was also appropriated by the company for a line of trucks.

Larry Rathgeb, another engineer in the Special Vehicles Group at Chrysler during the 1960s and 1970s, says the role of engineering in race car development increased during the early 1960s after a senior motorsports executive came to engineering with a collection of racing parts he had gathered. The executive wanted drawings and parts that performed like the ones he had collected.

Not being in a position to argue with a senior executive, the young engineers did as they were told. When the parts were finally assembled into a race car, it didn't perform as well as the cars with the original parts. The executive was disappointed with the results of his "me-too" approach and complained to the engineers, who proceeded to explain the shortcomings of the parts they had assembled.

Impressed, the executive decided to do something different. He invited the engineers to come to the race track, talk with mechanics and experience the racing environment first hand. He gave them a free hand in designing cars for racing. The first result was a design concept dubbed "one, one, one-and-a-half." The car had its wheelbase extended one inch more than production vehicles, its engine was moved once inch back from production placement, and the body height was 1-1/2 inches lower than production. The car was a great success, which Rathgeb says they improved annually until the big breakthrough of the winged cars.

"Thinking about the whole car concept from the beginning was the important thing," says Rathgeb. "The cars were designed," he continues. "They were drawn on paper, they were not just made."

The dominance of engineering probably reached a pinnacle in the late 1960s when the styling department's objections to the appearance of the winged cars were overruled. "Engineering was primary in the development of the winged cars," says Rathgeb. "Management took our side and held the design people off."

When it came time to develop the new Dodge Intrepid R/T for stock car racing, engineering came to the forefront once again. Only this time, engineers started with a blank computer screen instead of a clean sheet of paper. And behind the computer screen were all the resources developed and tested at the state-of-the-art DaimlerChrysler Technical Center in Auburn Hills, Mich. The race teams worked closely with Dodge platform engineers and technicians and had their knowledge, experience, advanced software and world-class engineering tools at their disposal.

Dodge approached the development of the Intrepid R/T race car in much the same way it designs and builds passenger cars and trucks - using a platform team that combined many different disciplines and skills in a collaborative effort.

Dodge engineers today still earn respect by predicting race car performance, but now they have more than slide rules to work with. High-tech tools like computational fluid dynamics help them predict how cars will perform individually, as well as in groups.

"Dodge engineers and all the other resources at the DaimlerChrysler Technical Center are a service organization for the race teams using Dodge vehicles in NASCAR events," says Tim Culbertson, Program Manager, Dodge NASCAR Winston Cup Program, Dodge Engineering.

"Our work supports their development and on-track testing efforts, but it doesn't replace them. Our facilities supplement what they have, providing an additional resource," said Culbertson. "But working as one team and sharing all of our knowledge and expertise will hopefully give us the competitive advantage we can ride to the winner's circle."

This week in Dodge racing history:

* 4/7/66 - The Ford Motor Co. pulled their factory-backed drivers out of NASCAR Grand National racing and Dodge's David Pearson led the final 99 laps to win the 100-miler at Columbia Speedway. Pearson averaged 65.574 mph for his second straight win. * 4/9/66 - David Pearson won his third straight Grand National race at Greenville-Pickens Speedway. Pearson passed Tiny Lund in the 85th lap and led the rest of the way in 100-miler on the half-mile dirt track. Richard Petty finished in second place. Pearson's 17th career victory came at an average speed of 65.850 mph.

* 4/6/69 - Bobby Isaac started on the pole and led the entire distance to win the Hickory 250 at Hickory Speedway in North Carolina. It was the second straight Grand National win for the 36-year-old Dodge driver. Richard Petty finished second, two laps behind the K&K Insurance Dodge. Third place went to David Pearson. Dave Marcis notched his first top-five finish with a strong fourth-place effort in a Milt Lunda 1969 Dodge.

* 4/8/69 - Bobby Isaac was spun from the lead during the second lap but came back to score an overwhelming victory in the Greenville 200 at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in South Carolina. The triumph was Isaac's third straight on the Grand National tour. A crowd of 8000 watched Isaac capture his eighth career win at an average speed of 64.389 mph.

* 4/10/71 - Bobby Isaac took the lead from David Pearson on the 20th lap and sped to victory in the Greenville 200 at Greenville-Pickens Speedway. The 100-mile event was televised live from start to finish by ABC Sports. The starting time was pushed up to 5 p.m. to accommodate live TV coverage. A record 62 entries, 47 of which attempted qualifications, tried to get in the 26-car field. Isaac earned $1,430 from a record $20,000 purse -- the richest 100-miler in NASCAR history. A record trackside gallery of 15,000 jammed the grandstands and infield to watch the race. Richard Petty struggled to finish seventh, four laps behind. It was the worst effort of the year for the current Winston Cup points leader.

* 4/8/73 - Richard Petty ran away from the field on a chilly afternoon and scored a four-lap victory in the Gwyn Staley Memorial at North Wilkesboro Speedway. It was the second win of the season for the popular veteran. Petty took the lead for good on the 91st lap and was four laps in front of Benny Parsons when the checkered flag fell. Most of the 16,000 spectators were long gone when the race ended. Petty averaged 97.224 mph for his 151st win.

* 4/6/75 - Richard Petty powered his Dodge past Cale Yarborough in the 179th lap and hustled to another easy victory in the Gwyn Staley Memorial at North Wilkesboro Speedway. Petty led 311 of the 400 laps and finished three full laps ahead of Yarborough. "In head-to-head racing on ovals he knows like the back of his hand, he's fantastic," said Yarborough. "If he's running good, no one can lay a hand on him." Petty's fourth win in seven 1975 starts enabled him to build a 235-point lead under NASCAR's new point system that gave every event equal point value.

-Dodge Motorsports

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Series History , NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dave Marcis , Richard Petty , Benny Parsons , Buddy Baker , David Pearson , Tiny Lund