Santa Fe Springs, California, November 1982. Paul Rossi has now successfully introduced Front Wheel Drive to NHRA’s Stock Eliminator racing program, capped off with a late round finish at the US Nationals in a new Charger 2.2. Meanwhile, after some serious convincing, on the part of Lee Iacocca, Carroll Shelby has reunited with his ‘ol chum and was back to the business of making cars. Originally, Shelby was brought in only as a consultant, helping to introduce performance versions of the 1983 Charger, but the decision was made to capitalize on his legacy. At the behest of West Coast Chrysler boss Hank Carlini, Rossi is now tasked with introducing Carroll Shelby into the Dodge drag racing fold.
The first step is to outfit the soon-to-be-released Shelby Charger for the drag strip. Rossi realizes that in order to sell what they race, we need to race what they sell. That leaves only NHRA Stock Eliminator as a viable option, since dropping in a V8 or converting a car to rear wheel drive, for Super Stock or Modified Eliminator would not achieve the desired corporate goal. His proposal included campaigning two candy blue Shelby Chargers – one with a professional driver and one piloted by a celebrity – a nationwide tour to highlight Carroll’s return to racing. Before that happens, however, Bob Roth’s ’82 U/SA Charger 2.2 is outfitted with the all-new Shelby front fascia in time for the upcoming Winternationals.
Capitalizing on Shelby’s name recognition, Rossi uses his marketing prowess and spreads the word to his contacts - “Guess what? We got Carroll Shelby! Does your company want to be a part of it?” Why yes, yes they do. Before you know it, aftermarket parts start flowing in and Ma Mopar provides Rossi with two brand new Shelby Chargers. Even with free cars and parts, the prize money for a Stocker – even three or four winning Stockers – is not enough to cover the nut, so there has to be additional funding for the costs of the build. After running the numbers, Rossi outlines the final plan to Carroll for his approval. “We can put this program together for $30,000.” “Each car?” quizzes ‘Shel. “No sir, for both.” “Hot Damn, son! Let’s do it!” replies the chili master, ready to take to the drag strip.
A February debut in Pomona, California was met with resounding success, as Little House on the Prairie star Tim Gibbs’ Shelby stocker won Best Appearing Car, while Rob Roth’s national record holding Charger 2.2 was the number one qualifier. As we’ve learned in a previous installment, qualifying order in the Sportsman classes is determined by running furthest under your assigned index (quarter mile elapsed time.) In a 32 car field, the number one qualifier races the number sixteen, while the number seventeen races number thirty two, and on down, until they meet in the middle (double these numbers for a 64 car field at a major event like the U.S. Nationals.)
By now the face of Chrysler Corporation has made a full-on commitment to four cylinders and front wheel drive for the future. As we have since learned, engine management system technology has trumped this minimalistic approach, but with the engineering knowledge at the time, it seemed like a logical direction. Impending safety and emissions regulations, which became noticeable in the mid-sixties, became outright infringing by the mid-seventies, nearly bankrupting Chrysler Corporation. A leader in the motorhome and industrial market, Dodge Division also had a somewhat noticeable presence with their medium and heavy duty trucks as well. In 1979 the government would require all light duty trucks to meet some form of emissions compliance, including catalytic converters, but what most people don’t realize is that ABS braking systems would soon be required on all medium duty trucks as well. The impending oil crisis was warranting big block V8s unnecessary in basic passenger cars, but worse yet, there was a resource problem as the engine labs were too busy certifying all engines for the new government standards. Even with their dominance in the RV industry, Chrysler simply didn’t have enough market share with the rest of their truck line to warrant the development costs of the big block emissions, let alone spending tens of millions to outfit ABS systems. There was just not enough money to go around.
So they did what any business would do with their back to the wall; they bailed, literally. All of their B/RB offerings were cancelled for the 1979 model year, which effectively killed off Chrysler’s police and taxi business as well. What dinosaured tooling couldn’t be sold for scrap was hauled off and dumped at the bottom of the ocean. Dodge Truck ceased to exist as its own division and nothing would ever be offered larger than a D350 one-ton pickup truck. Oh, and the ABS requirement? After Chrysler pulled the plug, they found out too late that Uncle Sam was just kidding – the regulation never happened. Think about that for a while.
So where did that leave Paul Rossi? Standing there, first in line with open arms, ready to pick up the pieces. Financial shortcomings saw 1978 as not just only the last of the big blocks, but the last of Mopar’s major drag racing sponsorships. The majority of those fancy D600 and D800 Oleynik haulers that the teams had were still owned by Chrysler and were returned to them at the conclusion of the sponsorships. “Hey fellas?” Rossi inquired, “Whatcha gonna do with all those trucks?” Have spent years traversing the country with his Challenger on an open trailer, Rossi made a sweet deal on several of those rigs. Of the dozen or so 1968-1971 haulers and the six 1975 haulers, Rossi has probably owned half of them over the years. “What about all those left-over 440 blocks and heads? Yeah, I’ll take them too.”
By now, Paul Rossi was pretty much the last man standing, in terms of being a factory backed Chrysler racer. Sure, Garlits, Shirley and the Chi-Town team represented the fuel classes with corporate funding, but Rossi was it as far as Sportsman, let alone Pro Stock, was concerned. That said, he was the factory insider and had full access to the marketing and engineering teams. During a particularly eventful product planning meeting, attended by Lee Iaccoca himself, Uncle Lee lamented that they were losing market share by not having a V6 engine, and wanted an answer on how to develop one. “You already have a V6.” Rossi piped up. It seems management was unaware of a near fully developed engine package, pigeon holed deep in the bowels of the engineering department. Having successfully lopped off the two rear cylinders of a 318 V8, a bevy of engineers were chastised because the project wasn’t approved. So Hank Carlini was immediately sent on a fact finding mission – Advantage: Rossi.
Now back to those big block cylinder heads that Rossi was sitting on. Along with skids of 1976-78 #452 400-440 heads, there were 1973 high performance #213 Motor Home heads which featured additional cooling holes, allowing higher compression, along with the use of 2.140 intake and 1.810 exhaust valves. After some minor valve pocket reshaping, which improved flow by 25%, Rossi offered these brand new, ready-for-valves heads, dubbed the Street Fighter, for the low price of $400 per pair. Even though he was racing small cars, Rossi was still providing big block horsepower to the masses. Pick up any hot rodding magazine from the eighties with a Mopar build-up, and you’ll probably see, or hear about Paul Rossi.
By 1984, Team Dodge consisted of three Shelby Chargers, a 600 convertible, a Shelby Daytona, and what Rossi calls “drag racing first Super Truck.” A precursor to NHRA’s Pro Stock Truck, Willie Rells cut up a brand new Rampage, while Rossi gave it the Shelby treatment and stuffed in a race-proven 360 V8, creating the first “truck” for Super Gas racing. In addition to Roth, team drivers now included Larry Harrell, Vic Hobbs, Tom Kasch, Gary Chancy and a host of others over the years.
Paul Rossi has helped put – and keep – Chrysler products at the forefront in drag racing during the ‘60s and ‘70s, and has now pioneered the New Chrysler Corporation’s products in the same, but previously unheard of, arena. At the time, Dick Maxwell, Chrysler’s Manager of Dodge Motorsports said “Today the emphasis has changed completely on our racing group… We are still trying to establish that four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive cars are viable performance cars.” Mission accomplished again, but now what?
In a period interview with journalist C. Van Tune, Rossi summed it up this way: “We just came through the worst period in the automobile business, in terms of what the factories were building, that I could remember. The price of gas was high, cars were getting smaller, and V8s looked to be on their way out. I knew I had to move with the times, and I even tried drag racing the downsized cars, but it just wasn’t the same.” It was time to move on again.
By the way, Carroll Shelby never paid Rossi the $30,000 for his two cars, but instead gave him this financial advice, “You can sell them for a lot of money after I die.” (One of those cars recently sold at an RM auction in Florida for $9900 dollars.) Screwed by the Man, Part VIII.
Photos from the Paul Rossi collection
Dodge Shelbys through the years:
· 1983–1984 Dodge Shelby Charger
· 1985–1987 Dodge Charger Shelby
· 1984–1986 Dodge Omni GLH
· 1986 Dodge Daytona Turbo Z C/S
· 1986 Shelby GLHS Omni *
· 1987 Shelby GLHS Charger *
· 1987 Shelby Lancer *
· 1987 Shelby CSX *
· 1987–1988 Dodge Daytona Shelby Z
· 1988 Shelby CSX-T *
· 1988–1989 Dodge Lancer Shelby
· 1988–1991 Dodge Daytona C/S
· 1989 Shelby Dakota *
· 1989 Shelby CSX-VNT *
· 1989–1991 Dodge Daytona Shelby
· 1989–1990 Dodge Shadow Competition
· 1991–1992 Dodge Spirit R/T
· 1992–1993 Dodge Daytona IROC R/T
· 1999–2000 Dodge Durango S.P. 360
* Limited production vehicles modified at Shelby's Whittier, California, facility.
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