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For the past several months Hot Rod magazine has been promoting the “Return of The Hot Rod Drags. ” For you youngsters it should be explained that the original drag races sponsored by Hot Rod were from 1964 to 1970. The first one in 1964 was somewhat noteworthy for those of the Hemi persuasion and deserves a little explanation and some comments.
Hot Rod decided to sponsor their first drag race on the weekend of June 12-14, 1964, at nearby Riverside Raceway. Because of Wally Parks, Hot Rod and the NHRA had ties going way back so it was the NHRA that was selected to sanction and run the races. As it turned out, the event was somewhat of a milestone in that it featured a new kid on the block, the 426 Hemi. On that June weekend the NHRA and Riverside ranked in stature with NASCAR and Daytona.
Lions, June 13 & 14, 1964
How cozy were Hot Rod Magazine and the NHRA? Famed Lions Drag Strip was an NHRA-sanctioned track for some time. For the weekend of June 13 and 14, 1964, the NHRA told C. J. Hart to close his Lions track so as not to conflict with the Hot Rod race at Riverside. Pappy Hart polled the United Drag Racers Association, UDRA, who decided to back Hart if he opened the track on June 13 and 14. Lions then conducted a UDRA meet and switched affiliation to become an AHRA track. It’s hard to imagine that the NHRA would forsake what was arguably the premier track in the country for just one race, but that is apparently what happened.
A little history refresher is needed. The first 426 Hemi ran under its own power in December 1963 and was intended to replace Chrysler’s wedge engines at the upcoming NASCAR Daytona 500. As we know Richard Petty won that race in February 1964 with a single four-barrel Hemi that Chrysler called the “Track Version”. Mission accomplished. It was 426 Hemi victory Number One.
Late in December of 1963 Chrysler’s drag racing contingent started their own development program. They cast up some aluminum crossrams and built Hemi engines for four test cars. Two Plymouth and two Dodge Max Wedge cars (one 4-speed and one automatic for each car line) were pulled off the assembly line to have the Hemis installed.
Optimistically, they selected the weekend before Daytona to make their Hemi debut. This was the weekend of the NHRA’s Winternationals. However, all the bugs could not be worked out of the drag cars before Pomona. The first win ever for the 426 Hemi would therefore go to the roundy-round guys.
The first win for a drag version of the 426 Hemi wouldn’t come until April 1964. The Ramchargers took their test car (one of the four above-mentioned re-powered Max Wedge cars) to Detroit Dragway and won in the A/FX class.
Remember that the Hemi was initially a trial balloon. The engine’s continued existence depended on its ability to win. Richard Petty proved that the Hemi was the real deal. The Ramchargers showed that the drag Hemi was also an improvement over past equipment.