Secret Agent Man - Part 5

Indianapolis, Indiana, September 1980. You’re undoubtedly familiar with the phrase “it’s lonely at the top.” Lonely it was for Paul Rossi. Here he is, sitting in the staging lanes of the biggest drag race in the world and he has nobody to race. Lined up for Super Stock/F Automatic class run offs and he’s all alone. No Max Wedge wagons or Polaras and no herd of Mustang Cobra Jets – the car he was tasked with making obsolete, by the way. Mission accomplished, but now what? A racer needs someone to race, so afterwards he tells Race Group boss Dave Koffel “I’m not here for an attendance award.”

Rossi still had his successful service center in Southern California to fall back on, so the Challenger gets put up for sale and is quickly snatched up by an English magazine publisher who wants a Swede, Sylvia Hauser, to campaign the famous Dodge overseas, for the whopping price of $20,000. “That’s nothing” you say? Let’s put that in perspective – in 1980 you could buy a mint Challenger T/A for $5000 or a beautiful Hemi R/T for well under ten grand. So off to Great Britain it goes; Six Pack, cartoon paint and all.

Of course, with all the time and money Chrysler had invested in Rossi, they were not about to let him walk. There was a new sheriff in town, Lee Iacocca, and he wanted to sell new cars, such as the sporty, all new, V8, rear wheel drive, Dodge Mirada. So Rossi was offered a bigger and better deal, one that would not only give him his own entire team, but would allow him into the inner sanctum where he would advise not only engineers, but Iacocca himself.

Coincidently, there was an exciting new class of drag racing spreading across the country – Pro Gas. Devised by former Thompson Dragway manager Aaron Polburn of Ohio, it would pit racers against each other, heads up, on a 9.90 second index. It would be the perfect category where Rossi could utilize his proven, short stack, 440 Six Pack. A brand new Mirada body in white is soon shipped to chassis builder Chris Alston for construction. Since this was a class with limited rules, several liberties could be, and were, taken. Fiberglass components, a stripped aluminum Willie Rells interior, an A-Body front subframe to fit the big wedge, and cartoonishly radiused rear wheel wells to match the cartoon paint, were part of the package. In keeping with Rossi’s cook book assignment, a three part build up appeared in the spring 1981 issues of Hot Rod magazine.

Unfortunately, Rossi quickly discovered that Pro Gas, or the west coast’s “Super Gas,” was boring, and this was well before the throttle-stop snooze fests that clear the grandstands today. Never much of a socialite, Rossi nevertheless enjoyed learning about new tricks and engineering ideas from the competition. However, as a Super Gas driver, there was nothing to talk about, much less learn from, in the staging lanes. A typical conversation might go like this: Rossi – “So what have you guys been working on since the last race?” Racer X – “ Well we threw a rod, so we went down to the local junk yard, picked up another big block Chevy, bolted on a set of mail order aluminum heads, and slapped on my brother’s 1050 Dominator. She drives out real good.”

As disappointed as the Pro Stock racers of the mid-seventies were at being relegated to the Sportsman ranks, so was Rossi, as having to slow down a car was a big, hard concept to accept. “Hoover, you gotta get me back into class racing!” was the plea, “Uncle Lee wants to sell cars. Let me sell cars!” So another spanking new Mirada shows up at Rossi’s to be converted into a 360 powered Stock Eliminator car. Just for fun, he was also given a left over 1979 Dodge Aspen, also for use in Stock, and told to keep spreading the word via the magazines. First up was an article on how-to update the 1976-79 F-body into a sleek 1980 version with the help of your local Mopar parts counter.

Division 7 driver Larry Harrell was assigned the driving chores of the Aspen, a regular finalist in M/SA class eliminations, while Vick Hobbs was tapped to handle the Mirada (Randy Parker continues to campaign this very car as an NHRA Division 1 Stocker today.) Rossi’s marketing experience and engine building prowess found him more and more in the role of team manager, rather than driver. That was a good thing, because he would soon be introducing front wheel drive to drag racing.

Looking back, while growing up in Taylor, Michigan, Rossi had become friends with a fellow Italian and motorcycle shop owner named Tony Carlini, who’s uncle Hank was a big cheese at Ford. After Lee Iacocca got the boot and moved to Chrysler he brought his best friend Hank along with him, eventually assigning him to the Pacifica Design Center in Carlsbad, California. This is where Rossi became reacquainted with his buddy’s uncle. Impressed by his racing and PR accomplishments, Carlini insisted that Rossi be introduced to the Chairman of the Board. After learning more about the young racer, Iacocca was surprised to discover that the Direct Connection program had not been cancelled after all, as he was led to believe. “Thump” was the sound as Rossi dropped the 1450 page DC manual on Iacocca’s desk. “Cancelled my ass!” And so began another long lasting friendship.

With the corporate focus on 2.2 liter, front wheel drive platforms, Dodge’s halo offering was the marginally exciting new 1981 Charger 2.2, a rebranded version of the Omni O24 DeTomaso. At the time, Jim “GTO” Wangers was running his own marketing company and pitched a concept to Chrysler ad agency BBD&O. Rather than tout the traditional 0-60 performance times, Wangers felt the lighter, higher reving four cylinder would have an advantage over contemporary performance cars in 0-50 competition. And it did, besting the Z/28 and Trans Am with an advertised time of 6.6 seconds in 1982. For the 1983 ad campaign Wangers upped the ante, staging an NHRA sanctioned show down with a professional driver. The driver was Paul Rossi, who bested the time with a 5.8 second 0-50, now out-performing the Datsun 300ZX. Before the advent of GPS, traditional testing equipment called for the use of a fifth wheel or optical sensor, a bicycle wheel type device that attached to the side of the vehicle and recorded data unaffected by road imperfections or loss of adhesion. It seems for this particular NHRA test session, no such device was available, so Rossi plunks down $700 for his own wheel and creates another lucrative side business for himself.

Afterwards Wangers insists that Rossi turn one of these models into a drag racer. “I dunno…I don’t think Chrysler will give me another car.” “Don’t worry” Wangers countered, “I’ll give you a car!” And so he did. A candy blue machine was rolled out, equipped with a manual transmission for X/Stock and piloted by Texan Rob Roth. After an impressive semi-final finish at its first outing, the U.S.Nationals, it appeared as a cover feature in the November 12, 1982 issue of National Dragster. Afterwards, it was only logical to include all the Mopar factory offerings in NHRA drag racing. First up, enter the unlikely subject of a 1983 X/SA Dodge 600 convertible, piloted by Ohio’s Tom Cash. Putt down the track on Sunday, sell on Monday. Other than in SCCA Road Rally, Rossi’s cars were the only racing incarnations of FWD Mopars.

Moving on, the next Ford defector was none other than Carroll Shelby himself, and in mid-1983 a higher output version of the Charger 2.2, the Shelby Charger, was introduced. With the Shelby name on board, it was time to up the marketing game, so Carlini sends Rossi to meet ‘Ol Shel and find out what he needs. With a fresh assignment in hand, agent Rossi dons his aviators and slips off into the night.

Photos from the Paul Rossi collection