Too Fast Too Soon
ENGINEERING THE FIRST 200 MPH LAP
Larry Rathgeb, the engineer in charge of Dodge race car development, was on his way to Chief Engineer Bob Rodger's office at Chrysler Corporation headquarters in early fall 1969. Waiting there were Rodger and an angry Ronney Householder, Manager of Chrysler circle track racing. Rathgeb thought this would be his last walk on Chrysler grounds. He expected to be fired.
It was all about a Dodge Charger that went too fast, too soon.
This particular Charger started out life as a 1969 Dodge Charger 500, built by Nichels Engineering in Griffith, Ind., under Chrysler race engineering supervision—Rathgeb was the lead engineer under paul Bruns. Chrysler race technician Larry Knowlton picked up the car in late November, 1968, and took it to Daytona Beach for testing. The engineering test car's mission was to get track information for the teams that were running Dodge vehicles in NASCAR, USAC and other stock car racing series.
Dodge built the Charger 500 to improve body aerodynamics for more speed. Ford went Dodge one better by lengthening and streamlining the nose of the midsize Torino fastback. Ford named it the Torino Talladega. Early in the 1969 season it was the fastest car on the circuit and none other than Richard petty was driving one—and beating the Dodge Charger 500s. Something had to be done.
Race engineering contacted Chrysler aerodynamicists John pointer and Bob Marcel and asked for ideas to make the Charger go faster than the Torino Talladega. "Both came up with the same idea," said Rathgeb, "Streamline the nose and add a wing in the rear. One had a double wing, but they were otherwise the same," he said. The wing was high, not primarily for aerodynamic reasons, but to allow the trunk lid to be opened.
More important were the vertical panels that held the high wing. Rathgeb said these gave the car stability in yaw—when the rear end wanted to slide out. The panels created more drag as the car turned sideways, pulling the rear of the car back in line.
Engineering modified the test car to add the new nose and wing, and Dale Rieker was assigned to develop the street version of the car and get 500 copies built by September 1, 1969. This would qualify the Daytona to race at the Talladega 500, which was scheduled for September 14, 1969. The race was not only the debut of the Charger Daytona, but also the debut of the new Talladega track. Creative Industries would build the production cars in East Detroit, Mich. Creative had also produced the Charger 500.
Meanwhile, the engineering car went to the super speedways for testing and development. Drivers included Charlie Glotzbach and Buddy Baker. They also tested at the Chrysler proving Ground in Chelsea, Michigan. Ray Nichels engineering got busy converting the existing Dodge Charger 500 race cars to Daytonas for Talladega.
Rathgeb wanted to enter the Charger Daytona engineering test car for the Talladega 500, not to actually compete, but to "take laps and show customers the setup," he said. The car had made steady progress to the point that it would be fast at Talladega, so Rathgeb wanted to show it to the Dodge teams.
Householder was reluctant. He didn't want to run the car at its full potential, but he aproved the entry as long as the speed would be held to no faster than 185 mph. Rathgeb got Charlie Glotzbach to run the engineering car. He was slated to drive the Ray Nichels No. 99 Charger Daytona, but Nichels sent him over to the engineering test car, along with permission to use the number 88. Nichels got Richard Brickhouse to drive the 99 car.
The race was a mess for NASCAR. The new track was not ready to race. The track surface was doing strange things to the drivers. "There was talk of a 'pogo Effect,' a low frequency, high amplitude vibration," said Rathgeb. "The Ford drivers got sick, and the track was affecting Glotzbach, too. He was taking his foot off the gas in Turn One according to the recorder Wallace had in the car. "Charlie said, 'The car vibrates in Turn One and I have to close my eyes, and I must be taking my foot off the throttle.' I told him to hold his throttle foot flat on the floor when he closes his eyes."
Rathgeb ordered Glotzbach not to exceed 185 mph. "He said, 'Sure Lar,' and rolled his eyes," recalled Rathgeb, who watched as Glotzbach ran a lap of 199.987 mph in practice and then qualify the car on the pole at 199.446 mph. It was a world record, but Rathgeb knew there would be trouble. "House blew up." he said. "He thought I had lied to him."
Meanwhile, there was a driver revolt. Many of the regulars were members of a new Professional Drivers Association (PDA), led by Richard Petty. The PDA boycotted the race, thinking the new track was unsafe and the available tires were not up to the task. Glotzbach left with them. The No.88 engineering car was withdrawn and Richard Brickhouse won with the No. 99 Dodge Charger Daytona. Second through fourth were also Dodges.
Back in Highland Park, Rathgeb was on his "last walk." This was not good. "I was grateful and privileged to work for Chrysler," he said. It would be a disaster to lose his job. His boss, Dean Engle saw him on his way out of the race engineering office and said he would go along. When they arrived at Rodger's office, Engle spoke up, as Rathgeb remembers. "He said, 'I want to make a comment. The purpose of racing is to, number one, get the pole, and, number two, get the win.' Bob Rodger looked at House and said, 'Well?' There was no response. Then Rodger said, 'I think that in the future we should communicate better.'" The meeting was over. Rathgeb got his reprieve. Life could go on for a while longer—and it would get a lot better for both Rathgeb and Dodge.
A few months later, in February 1970, Rathgeb's phone rang. It was Frank Wylie, Dodge public relations director for racing. He asked straight out. "Can we go 200 mph at Talladega?" He already knew the answer, and Rathgeb confirmed it. "Wylie had already called NASCAR. Or was it the other way around," said Rathgeb. NASCAR would let Chrysler have the track at no cost. "He said he wanted Buddy Baker to drive, and he asked what it would cost. I thought a while and told him $3,500 to $3,700."
Rathgeb was scheduled to be at Atlanta for a race near the end of March, but it was rained out, opening up some time to go to Talladega. George Wallace would fly in. The car was in Huntsville, Ala., already, with mechanics Fred Schrandt and Larry Knowlton. Gary Congdon of Holley would also come along to support the effort. "He went to all the tests," said Rathgeb.
They all met at Talladega with the engineering test car: Buddy Baker, NASCAR officials, including chief timer Joe Epton and President Bill France Sr. and representatives from the Goodyear Tire company were there. On March 24, 1970, Baker climbed into the car and began lapping the high-banked oval. He was immediately over 190 mph with a lap of 194; then 198, stopping every few laps for adjustments by the engineering team. Finally on the 30th lap he became the first driver to lap a closed course at over 200 mph, with a speed of 200.096 mph. He stopped at the pits to enjoy the celebration, then went back out and ran off laps of 200.330 mph and, on his 34th lap, 200.447 mph.
There is only one "first" in many aspects of human achievement. Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile in 1954 and Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon. Buddy Baker was the first to lap at over 200 mph, and he did it in a Dodge.
The historic engineering test car still exists. Chrysler technician Greg Kwiatkowski found it after something of a quest for the "holy grail" a few years ago. USAC Stock Car Champion Don White had acquired it and raced it on short tracks for a few seasons before unceremoniously retiring it to the weeds behind his shop. The car is now in Kwiatkowski's garage undergoing a very deliberate restoration.
Rathgeb, Pointer, Wallace, Bill Wright, manager of the Dodge race car garage and John Vaughan, the instrumentation specialist at the time of the record runs, have all visited the famous racing artifact. Rathgeb has been back to see it as recently as 2009.
This Dodge Charger Daytona—the race engineering test car—is truly the holy grail, not just for Dodge and NASCAR, but for the whole world of racing, because it is the first car to surmount the most recognizable racing barrier of all. The 200-mph lap.