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It was a simple phone call from a noted member of the Mopar community - Tom Hoover, Chrysler engineer and man most responsible for directing the 426 Hemi into the record books, had passed away. Unlike the often-refined work of this man's career, this unsettling announcement culminated a week of rumors where Mr. Hoover, 85, was first noted as having died, which were subsequently quelled by other verifications that this wasn't so and that the illness he had been combatting recently was subsiding. However, the situation had again turned to the worse by April 30, and Thomas Merideth Hoover was indeed residing in more immortal locales.
I would have to be very honest and say I was numbed by the reality; it mentally didn't fit this moment and his passing will take some time to adjust to. In over two decades of occasional interaction until recently, the well-educated Mr. Hoover (and yes, it was often a friendly Mr. Hoover even to most associates) and myself (as the uneducated historian) had found we did have a lot in common. For one, horsepower. On two rails. We were both train nuts, and once we had discovered that, it was often common to talk about railroading and our mutual affection for Pennsylvania's East Broad Top narrow gauge line and the Huntingdon & Broad Top Mountain operation he remembered from his youth. We also shared scale model railroading as a hobby. Of course, when you are the guy who was best known for the development of the 426 Hemi, it is hard not to broach that as well. I would ask him about some nuance or another regarding the racecars he once was associated with, but never anything truly in-depth. However, once I had contracted with CarTech books for my upcoming volume 'HEMI: A History of Chrysler's Iconic V8 in Competition' in 2013, Mr. Hoover was among the first I contacted. He readily agreed to help me 'get this story right,' which was a trust I took very, very seriously.
After receiving his masters degree in Physics at Penn State in 1955, Mr. Hoover had gone to the Chrysler Institute's post-grad program and emerged as a promising young lab engineer at the smallest of Detroit's Big Three. Like many men his age, his interest in cars had already led to some street projects. That in turn created relationships with other Chrysler engineers who shared a passion for power. Always analytical, these gentlemen decided to form a car club â€“ the Ramchargers. This name was based on a special and highly-guarded Chrysler formula that created 'free horsepower' by sonic tuning an engine's intake design. Moving from the gas and altered ranks into stockers, the Rams became legendary in 1960s drag racing.
Tom, however, was far more than a hot rodder; when President Lynn Townsend at Chrysler determined it was time to go racing, Tom ended up as the coordinator for that effort. The company's Highland Park development facility would never be the same, as it is well-known that soon afterward, he played a pivotal role in the development of a new hemispherical cylinder head for the 426 RB block. Still, rarely taking credit for this personally, many of Tom's conversations with me were spiced with 'so we did this,' or 'we had to change that.' Considering the pedestal that he could have deservedly perched upon, Mr. Hoover almost always gave credit to other factors when relating his successes as an engineer.
That said, it would be remiss to state he would let inaccuracies go by. As he read my manuscript in chapter sections, the phone would ring after a couple of days. "Stunkard, it's Tom Hoover. I don't think that this is the way that happened…" He would then address the point in question, peppering the reply with development background and oft-forgotten names from the past. For my part, I simply listened, made corrections as needed, and was frankly in wonderment that he was giving me so much of his time. I had no idea how precious that time would prove to be, nor that Mr. Hoover would not get a chance to view the finished volume.
It is said you can only leave memories and your reputation behind when you leave. In my career, born in 1963 just as Mr. Hoover was sciencing that head design out, I have been privileged to have known Ronnie Sox, Dick Landy, Bill Flynn, Bill Jenkins and many others who helped make Mopar racing history. It is with honored reverence that I was able to add Tom Hoover to my list of friends as well; after all, they made their history BECAUSE of Mr. Hoover's groundwork.
So, sir, I can only hope that the effort 'we produced' will tell the story as you wanted it to be told. Godspeed, my friend…
Link to official obituary for Thomas M. Hoover -