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Racing Through the Decades
The mighty roar of the throaty Mopar® street racers of the 1960s solidified the reputation of Mopar power and prowess. Since that time, Mopar Performance has become synonymous with passionate race enthusiasts around the globe.
While it’s true that Mopar® was founded in 1937, Mopar performance was “born” in 1962. The year that would change drag racing forever, ‘62 was the birth of the high-performance 413 and 426 cubic-inch, game-changing Wedge motors. As a result, ‘62 and ‘63 was the era when any high-performance Dodge or Plymouth became known as “a Mopar.”
Playing up the Mopar momentum, Chrysler Corporation tasked its engineers, including “the Ramchargers,” to develop an engine that would win consistently on the track — a Sunday winner that could be sold at the dealership Monday through Friday.
The mission evolved into the development of what would become a dominant, feared and outlawed engine in racing history: the 426 HEMI®. It was a hybrid of the ’50s design with new power, new technology, tuning and specifications from Chrysler engineers including “father of the HEMI” Tom Hoover and greats like Dick Maxwell, Wayne Erickson, Don Moore, Bill Koger, Herm Mozer, Jim Thornton and many more.
With the 426 came wins from what may be the most significant name in Mopar racing history, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits. The three-time NHRA Champion drag racer — with a combined 17 World Championships — was an innovator in the sport. Garlits powered most of his early “Swamp Rat” dragsters in the late ’50s with 331 or 392 cubic-inch Chrysler HEMI engines. But, in 1962, Garlits raced a supercharged 413 Wedge-powered Swamp Rat 4 dragster with historical success.
When the 426 race HEMI engine made its 1964 NASCAR debut, the engine castings were barely cured before the Daytona 500 green flag flew. Richard Petty won his first Daytona 500 in record fashion, and 426 HEMI engine-powered vehicles finished 1-2-3. Petty, the “King” of stock car racing, went on to win the ’64 championship and dominate with Mopar power for years to come.
As intended, performance enthusiasts raced to local dealers to get a glimpse of this new engine, but it wouldn’t be until 1966 that a street version of the 426 HEMI engine was available. Meanwhile, the 426 HEMI engine, a.ka. “the Elephant,” was taking drag strips by storm.
While the Ramchargers were developing special racing parts to make their project cars go faster in the early ’60s, the engineers began channeling some of those experimental parts to other racers “out the back door.” Customers who were “connected,” may have been lucky enough to get parts that would help them dominate at the track.
The demand for the go-fast parts became so great that the corporation decided to get into the business of performance parts. This led to the founding of Chrysler’s Special Parts Services, an effort that further intertwined the Mopar name with performance parts and fast racecars. They were in the business of making every Mopar at the track a winner. And they had plenty of success.
By the early ’70s, the Mopar Direct Connection line of performance parts was labelled and marketed to the performance enthusiast masses. The brand eventually changed its name to Mopar Performance to capitalize on the reputation of the Mopar brand.
The Mopar® name could not have shone so brightly over the years without a roster of racing royalty carrying the banner. Racers like Don Garlits, Ronnie Sox & Buddy Martin, Dick Landy, Don Prudhomme, Roland Leong, Shirley Muldowney, Gene Snow, Darrell Gwynn, Bill “Maverick” Golden and The Golden Commandos, every member and driver for the Ramchargers, every Mopar sportsman racer in history and every engine builder who helped make Mopar even more powerful.
This year, the Don Schumacher Racing team of Dodge Charger R/T funny cars driven by current NHRA Champ Ron Capps, Matt Hagan, Tommy Johnson Jr. and “Fast” Jack Beckman is dominating the class. Teammates in Top Fuel, Tony Schumacher and Leah Pritchett are setting records and winning races.
Without question, Mopar-powered vehicles are still winning on every level, every weekend at the track. Racing and performance are major parts of the brand’s DNA, as the American fandom for racing grows significantly every year, the Mopar brand has become one of the most recognized names in parts, service and customer care.