Racing's Unsung Hero - Part 1

Unbelievable is the first word that comes to mind. A Dodge Challenger standing itself up on the rear bumper during a quarter mile launch conjures up numerous adjectives, but, yes, unbelievable seems most appropriate. Couple that with the fact that this beast weighs 3500 pounds and is powered not by a Hemi, but by a mere “wedge” motor. There has to be more to it, and there is, for this rule-restricted, but extensively developed, Super Stocker is the real deal. The Factory Deal. The name on the door reads “Paul Rossi,” a racing figure barely recognized by the fans outside of his home base of California – that is until the construction of this particular car with the cartoonishly large “Dodge” logos prominently displayed on its sides. 

“Huntington Beach” is painted on the rear spoiler, but Rossi is not the surfer/racer dude you might expect. Rather he appears to be straight out of Hollywood, with his slick black hair and Pepsodent smile. So how did this “unknown” get a “factory deal?” I guess it helps if the driver is pretty – you know, Judy Lilly, Ronnie Sox, Darrell Alderman, Arlen Vanke… No, wait. Never mind. No matter - we’re about to take a multi-part journey into the life and times of a professional Sportsman racer.

First, however, back to the issue at hand - this bad ass, white 1970 Challenger R/T powered by an NHRA legal 440 Six Pack in Super Stock/G Automatic trim. It was the late seventies and true muscle cars were beginning to disappear from the street and the drag strip. For fans of the original Challenger body style there were three on-track flag bearers of the time; Dave Boertman’s candy blue Rod Shop car, Ray Cook’s soon-to-be World Champion hemi convertible Stocker, and Rossi’s orange, yellow and white anomaly. There were others, sure, like Matt Rover’s Wild Wild Wedge, and of course there were the familial Plymouth ‘Cudas of Dave Wren and the Ramchargers team. The trend in Stock and Super Stock at the time was moving towards the current factory offerings, such as Jack McCormack’s Volares and the Oldsmobile luxo barges of Michigan’s Go Shop. You have to admit, a brand new Delta 88 that could pull the front wheels is awesome, but who cares about that car now? Who cares about Rossi’s. Who doesn’t? The car has achieved cult-like status on the internet among Mopar fans and is still being raced today, but we’ll get to that later.

Paul Rossi achieved the Sportsman racer’s dream, a full time factory sponsorship with unlimited engineering data at his disposal. The fact is, though, there wasn’t much engineering data on Chrysler’s “B/RB” big block engine program to begin with. Chrysler had pumped millions of dollars into the development of the Maximum Performance wedges and the 426 Hemi, while the 440 existed merely as an over bored 413 cubic inch truck engine. In return for “the deal” Rossi had to make the 440 fly, and fly it did. In late 1975, Pro Stock chassis builder Ron Butler was commissioned to nip and tuck a Challenger body, while making it fit within the strict confines of NHRA Super Stock racing – no acid dipping, no altered wheelbases, no sectioning; just frame ties, a roll bar, and stock leaf springs. Well, maybe if you didn’t ask, you could get away with moving some weight around. After all, the tech inspector isn’t going to remove the seats, dash, door panels or fuel tank. He probably won’t measure the height of the front fenders, the location of the wheel openings, and he sure wasn’t going to look under the rear package shelf and notice a 150 pound lead plate. Let’s see…a high center of gravity without compromising aerodynamics plus gobs of torque = rotational mass = massive wheelstands. Sounds like a plan - theoretically, of course. No, Rossi was just building a stock Challenger – just a little more super than the rest. 

Rossi and his Super Challenger became quite popular during the 1977 season, winning numerous class outings and setting the Super Stock/G Automatic record at 10.85 seconds in the quarter mile. Unknown to many folks at the time, 1977 would be the final year for major Chrysler Corporation support for Sportsman drag racers. Chrysler’s first major withdrawal from professional drag racing occurred in 1974, both as a boycott of NHRA’s constant penalizing of the Hemi engine in Pro Stock, and as the result of no longer benefitting from new muscle car sales. While funny car racers switched to Firebirds, Monzas and Mustang IIs, Mopar door slammers were relegated to Super Stock, Modified or Competition eliminator categories. Little guy weekend racers did not take kindly to racing against big buck former Pro drivers. Rossi avoided much of the drama, having never officially been on Chrysler’s professional payroll. When 1978 rolls around the Rod Shop is gone, Sox and Martin is a memory, the Ramchargers are castrated and Mopar becomes the walking dead of drag racing.

Suddenly there’s Paul Rossi, leading the surviving Mopar contingent along with Butch Leal in a Pro Stock (just kidding, it’s a B/Altered) Hemi Plymouth Arrow. Resplendent in the new team colors of white, orange and yellow, it’s almost as if they’re thumbing their nose at the legacy of corporate red, white and blue. In the ensuing years, just for fun, Rossi throws together both a Dodge Mirada and Aspen Stocker, as well as another Mirada for Super Gas eliminator, all the while hosting clinics and seminars telling anyone who’ll listen how to build one for themselves. To round out the program, eventually a front wheel drive Shelby Charger is also outfitted for drag racing, giving clues to the future of Rossi’s involvement with Chrysler.

Think you know Paul Rossi? 

Stay tuned next issue as we continue our multi part series on one of racing’s unsung heros.