Inside a legendary drag racing team as seen by Dave Rockwell

A Book Review
By Al Vinikour

Every area of interest has its “must read” books and the popular sport of drag racing is no exception. When I was growing up in Indiana it was my luck to be in the right place at the right time. While drag racing always had a following, it eventually become a vehicular phenomenon and then a big business — one that even drew the attention and participation of the top floors of U.S. automakers.

There’s long been individual names that stood out as crowd favorites and success stories in the sport; names like “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, “Dyno” Don Nicholson and the “Bounty Hunter” Connie Kalitta. But if there were ever a hallowed team name that struck fear into its competitors and created thrills among its fans it was the legendary team known as “The Ramchargers.”

In his book entitled "We Were The RAMCHARGERS," the author, Dave Rockwell, had a front row seat to motorsports history through his dedication to a team made up primarily of Chrysler Corporation engineers as they literally sped their way through drag racing history. Rockwell initially befriended the team from his utter dedication to them and although never a driver, he eventually became an integral member of the group.

Long considered an “also-ran,” Chrysler fielded a variety of powerplants through the years but never hit on the right combination to pit itself against the big three of the time — Ford, Chevrolet and Pontiac. A group of Chrysler employees, each of whom had a particular strength to bring to the table, started racing a hot rod in the 1950s and through innovation and skills began to draw attention at race tracks throughout the Midwest.

They also started drawing attention internally and thanks to the invaluable assistance of then-Director of Public Relations for the Dodge Division, Frank Wylie, and the full support of Chrysler’s CEO, Lynn Townsend, the ragtag group was given the tools to develop a successful racing team for Chrysler through its Dodge and eventually its Plymouth divisions.

Each chapter is devoted to a particular year and within that year the engineering development that eventually turned The Ramchargers into the most winning team in the sport.

Author Dave Rockwell at left

And it wasn’t all one-sided, either. Innovations team members made to the body structure, suspension, engine, transmission and every other facet of the vehicle were often made part of future products and aftermarket offerings by Chrysler. Some of Chrysler’s high-performance offerings looked awesome (long-Rams, short-Rams, etc.) but it wasn’t until the 413 engine with cross-Ram manifolds that the Dodge’s of the Ramchargers began to yell out for attention.

Race-after-race and record-after-record were shattered weekly by the muscle turned out by these enthusiasts. They were divorces waiting to happen because of the massive amounts of time spent away from home from race travel and even the nightly disappearance of the team members from their families and homes to get together to talk and “do” shop.

Over the years the team held their own against the big block Chevys, the big-motored Pontiacs and the side-oiler Fords. The book is filled with racing legends of the sport and anyone who grew up in that era will instantly recognize the widely-known and regionally-known drivers like Arnie “The Farmer” Beswick, Dick Brannan (and his “12-second Ford”), Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins and a host of colorful characters that built up drag racing to the behemoth it is today. 

There’s a fair amount of technical data included in the book and for those who understand that kind of thing it’s a plus. For me…not so much. I tended to skip over those aspects until the verbiage got back on track with names and personalities, not gap-tolerances and stats like that.

There’s a lot of historical trivia in the book as well. For instance, the name “Funny Car” was a derisive term used by competitive racing teams to basically poke fun (pardon the pun) at the altered-wheelbase vehicles coming out of the Ramchargers garage. Snideness actually gave NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) a catchy name for a major segment of its racing programs.     
As with any recollected work there will always be some errors, either of spellings, names, whathaveyou. However, unless you were part of that magical era you wouldn’t notice it at all. I was and even though I personally was close to some of the principals mentioned in the book I didn’t find anything that turned me off from enthusiastically picking up where I left off. It was 270 pages of a good time and a look back on one of the most fascinating group of individuals the sport has ever known.

For those misinformed people who think that since the Ramchargers were assumed to be a factory-led team that all these guys did all day was sit around the campfire, eat donuts and read dog-eared copies of Drag News while the latest and greatest racing parts would flow in daily like Maine lobster airfreighted from New England, the book is an eye-opener. Even if you can’t read there are hundreds of pictures from that golden age that will get your juices flowing. The author doesn’t shy away from dangers of drag racing, either, citing several instances of loss of life from speed-related crashes.

The bottom line is, one can’t call himself or herself a drag race aficionado and not read this book anymore than one wanting to become a doctor, but hasn’t read Grey’s Anatomy. In the case of the former that’s easily corrected. "We Were the RAMCHARGERS" can be ordered by contacting SAE International at 400 Commonwealth Drive, Warrendale, Pa. 15096-0001. SAE’s e-mail is The book can also be purchased on at the SAE store or at