THIS ENGINEER TURNED A PASSION FOR RACING INTO A LEGENDARY CAREER OF SHAPING MOPAR® SMALL BLOCK RACING TECHNOLOGY.
In Mopar® racing lore, the 426 HEMI® engine is widely recognized as the king of the hill. Guys like Tom Hoover earned fame (perhaps without the fortune) as early pioneers of that wildly successful engine. Today’s history lesson is about the Chrysler Corporation small block, its successes, and the lesser known guy behind much of it. His name is John Wehrly.
John Wehrly was one of the lead engineers and a driving force behind the development of the early Chrysler Corporation small block that went on to win in NASCAR and so many other platforms.
Wehrly describes his career at Chrysler Corporation in three stages: The early race program years, the production engine design years and the modern day racing/NASCAR years. Those three eras house a whole mountain of race experience.
Wehrly came from the small town of Portland, Indiana, located 20 miles west of Eldora Speedway and 30 miles east of Muncie, Indiana. Racing would quickly infl uence his life.
He got an early taste for engine work on the farm where he grew up. “We made plenty of go-karts and hopped-up motor bikes,” Wehrly said. “I’m not sure anything I worked on got any faster; I wouldn’t say I had great skills back then.”
His father was a local Dodge and Plymouth dealer, so his dedication to the Pentastar® was his destiny. After finishing his undergraduate at Ball State and Tri-State in Indiana, he earned a master’s degree at the University of Michigan.
He started his employment at Chrysler Corporation in March of 1962. “I rolled up in my ’61 Lancer with its aluminum 225, in which I had put a 2-bbl, a cam and a phony exhaust,” Wehrly said. “It made a lot of noise but it sure wasn’t fast.”
Wehrly had met Jim Thornton of Ramchargers fame at Muncie Dragway in 1961, and Thornton invited him into the now-famous racing club when he arrived in ’62. “I was a gofer in the Ramchargers,” said Wehrly. “I did odds and ends like tires and gapped spark plugs. I didn’t have their confidence yet to be a major player.”
But keeping company with the likes of Thornton, Tom Hoover, Dick Maxwell and the rest of the Ramchargers, Wehrly was on the right path. He started in engine cooling, moved to engine development in a few years, and joined the Chrysler Race Group by 1968.
“I did development work in the early days,” says Wehrly. “When NASCAR restricted the 426 HEMI engine (for its dominance), we developed a system that made using the restrictor much more effi cient.” Until NASCAR decided that was to be outlawed as well.
Wehrly’s engine work helped the 426 HEMI engine regain much of the power that had been restricted, and that confused the officials at NASCAR. How could they still be running so fast? “Every time they made a new rule, we tried to make the best use of that rule,” he said. “Eventually, we were restricted from the 426 cubic inches down to 366, then down to a 305. We made various engines to make the best package and we just couldn’t compete anymore. So we started looking at the small block.”
Chrysler (Corporation) was racing in Trans Am at that time. The power output wasn’t too bad, but it was based on a small displacement. “All our Cup teams were running a HEMI engine,” says Wehrly. “But we thought about what would happen with no restrictions on a B engine and the bigger block.” The engineering group took the heads from the motorhome engine, which were more robust for durability, and tried something new.
“It wasn’t too bad,” says Wehrly. “We started making pretty good power. We won a few races with that engine, then that engine got restricted too.” That’s when work on the small block got serious.
Wehrly was in charge of the development group that led to a small block engine program that ended up, of all places, under the hood of Bob Glidden’s 1979 Plymouth Arrow Pro Stocker. The one year Glidden did not race a Ford, he won seven of nine races and a Pro Stock championship in the Arrow.
“Bob was an exceptional racer and very private,” recalled Wehrly. “We would do development work for him, send him everything, then we would never hear back. We’d like to think he used some of our stuff. He didn’t know us engineering folks, so he was very secretive in what he did.”
By 1980, Wehrly left the race arena and went into production engineering work, first in program management, then back into engine design. He spent significant time and energy developing 4-cylinder engines like the bulletproof 2.2L, 2.5L and 2.4L engines. He also spent time working on a rotary engine.
As the saying goes, you can take the man out of racing, but you can never take racing out of the man. By 1996, Chrysler Corporation showed interest in getting back into NASCAR with the Truck Series.
“I gave up a good production job as manager of engine design and said I would do the (NASCAR) truck series,” says Wehrly. “I did a lot of dumb things in my career and that was one of them,” he joked.
The truck engine program “team” included Wehrly, a part-time chief engineer who had no race experience and a part-time engineer, also with no race experience. “We only had engine parts from the ’70s, like leftover blocks and other parts rotting away at the warehouse, mostly left over because they had issues with them and couldn’t be used earlier,” he recalled.
Believe it or not, that’s where the truck engine program started, eventually becoming very successful, and leading to the NASCAR Cup engine that ran successfully until 2013. Wehrly was the lead engine developer at the very start, with Arrington Race Engines playing a pivotal role with the ongoing program. Both Bobby Hamilton and Ted Musgrave won championships in the Truck Series to go along with a couple of Manufacturer’s titles.
With a renewed interest in Cup Racing in the late ’90s, internally a new Cup program was formed. Wehrly joined that program while still acting as program manager for NASCAR trucks. By 2002, he was the Motorsports engineering manager, handling programs like drag racing, Cup, NASCAR Trucks, boats, Vipers and “the whole shebang,” as Wehrly described it.
“I stayed with Truck a couple more years then moved in as engineering manager for Cup,” says Wehrly. “I’m proud of the engineering organization we put together. We gained the respect of our competitors and many of the people who worked in that group are now with other teams.”
Wehrly himself is racing with a different team now. He retired in 2005, and has never been able to shed the racing bug.
“I’m retired from paying jobs,” Wehrly says with a laugh. “I spend most of my free time managing or being involved in foot races, triathlons and bicycle races. I still go to Eldora, I’ll go to a few drag races, car shows and a few old Ramchargers have visited Carlisle to tell stories and lies. When you’re this old, no one knows whether you’re telling the truth or not.”
Well, the truth is, John Wehrly played a major role in Chrysler Corporation and Mopar® racing history, from HEMI® engines to small blocks. He was sort of born into it by a confluence of events, circumstances and location. But racing was always a passion.
“My whole career was more like love than work,” he says. “I loved my job, beginning to end. Racing is a passion and a love I still have. Like I say, racing is racing. Whether it’s cars, horses, NASCAR or whatever. The passion of competition is what drives it.”