In the annals of drag racing, few can match Herb McCandless’ accomplishments, dating from an era before man walked on the moon and when The Beatles ruled the AM radio airwaves. While many of his fellow competitors and teammates have left this earth for that drag strip in the sky or are spending their twilight years going through scrapbooks filled with black-and-white pictures and time slips, Herb soldiers on day after day in his garage located in the rolling hills of Burlington, North Carolina. At 77, this Memphis native has made the Tar Heel State his home for over a half century. He rarely finds time to sit back in an easy chair and stare at his trophy wall. Most days, Herb can be found under one of his many project cars, slinging wrenches and doing GEN III HEMI® engine installs on vintage Mopar® vehicles that were built before JFK was president. To fully grasp what Herb has contributed to the Mopar hobby, we need to go back to his humble beginnings, when he was in his early 20s and just an unknown racer trying to make a name for himself. Whether he knows it or not, Herb is living history – a historical link to an era that we’ll never see again. He’s almost the last man standing who can give us insight into the realities of racing brand-new Super Stock Package Cars that carried the Dodge and Plymouth banners to thousands of loyal fans over six decades.
“In 1963, I ran a 1962 Chevy 409. I’m a 20-year-old kid just wanting to go fast. I bought an engine from Don Nicholson and sent my carbs to Bill Jenkins. I never imagined years later I’d be racing these guys every weekend all around the country,” exclaimed Herb. “John Moore was the man – he brought me to Mopar. He was the assistant regional manager for Chrysler. John was running a 1957 Plymouth and I was running a ’57 Chevy Wagon with a Z-11 in it. I outran John quite a bit. Finally, he came over to me one day and asked me if I could drive a four-speed HEMI car. Bashful me, I said I can drive a four-speed anything! He tells me ‘Plymouth is going to be building 10 four-speed HEMI Plymouth Super Stockers and I think you should have one.’ I went to his office that week and next thing I knew I was a Mopar man.” But it wasn’t a free ride for Herb, he had to purchase this brand-new Plymouth Super Stocker, and for a 21-year-old kid in 1965 who was still living at home, $3,500 was a ton of money. “Since I didn’t have all the cash to purchase the Plymouth outright, I asked John (Moore) if I could make payments on the car. John said he’d take care of it and it wouldn’t be an issue and then made a call to Chrysler Commercial Credit. I’ll never forget the guy came out to my mom’s house, he walked around the car, looked at me and said, ‘You must know somebody, we don’t finance race cars’,” laughed Herb.
Once Herb got acclimated to his HEMI enigne-powered Plymouth Super Stocker, he only made minor modifications to make it more consistent. Since it was a four-speed machine, it could be a handful to drive, but Herb applied his mechanical skills and fixed the flimsy factory shifter unit. “I was 22 and knew how to drive a four-speed,” said Herb. “One thing I did change was the shifter. I got ahold of Jimmy Kerr, the Hurst Shifty Doctor. Told him I wanted a shifter where the handle was back beside me not in front of me. He and I made the first Hurst hockey stick shifter. It was 5/8” thick aluminum and made all the difference in the world. Now I was able to put the shifter mechanism back beside me, so I was over top of the shifter, not under it.”
Once Herb got the car sorted out, he headed west for the NHRA Winternationals. “We won the A-Stock Four-Speed class, which was quite a feat considering the maximum width allowed on the slicks for this car back then was only seven inches.” During an early event at Phoenix City, Alabama, the Chrysler engineers wanted Herb to just run the seven-inch slicks, but it proved to an expensive fiasco. “I destroyed three sets of tires that day, as I basically left two black marks all the way down the track. I also hurt the transmission and broke a synchronizer. Dick Maxwell, who was one of the Chrysler Race Group Managers, told me to take my Super Stock Plymouth to the dealer downtown and I could pull the transmission out to fix it. I quickly explained I could do the repair quicker on my back in the pits and have it done in an hour. I really think that made an impression on Dick Maxwell, because he knew I’d do what it took to win,” declared Herb. When Sunday rolled around, Herb bolted on some ten-inch wide slicks and decided to run against A/FX cars. Unlike the Super Stockers, the A/FX cars are allowed an adjusted wheelbase of 2%, fuel injection and ten-inch wide slicks. Herb, with his NHRA legal Super Stock HEMI engine-powered vehicle using the factory Holley carbs, outran them all.
Again, Herb’s driving prowess and mechanical abilities really impressed the Chrysler Race Group as they began to provide him product and technical support for the next three years. By the time 1967 rolled around, Herb momentarily dabbled in Funny Cars, but their unpredictable handling and performance combined with the volatile nitro mix further reinforced his decision to go back to door slammers and race Super Stockers. It was more profitable and safer; and plus, there was factory support as these cars were current production models. Herb went out and purchased a new 1967 Plymouth “RO” Street HEMI Belvedere II to race regionally. Like his 1965 Plymouth A900 Super Stocker, Herb’s new ride had a four-speed and he quickly began his dominance throughout the south.
“My 1965 Plymouth A990 Super Stocker ran in the 3,000-pound, heads-up class because that was what was around my part of the country. When I took delivery of the 1967 RO Belvedere II, it was about class racing and that wasn’t nearly as much fun and not nearly as profitable. I made most of my money match racing throughout the south,” commented Herb. “The 1967 Plymouth was like racing a tank. Sometime in 1968, I went to St. Louis to race my 1967 Plymouth in a heads-up, 3,000-pound class. It was first man to the finish line wins the whole deal, no break out. The HEMI Barracuda and Dart were already getting in the hands of some racers, but I hadn’t gotten mine yet. My 1967 Belvedere II was 400 pounds too heavy. I was the only non ’68 HEMI car there, but still took home all the money,” grinned Herb.
While not as fun or profitable as Herb’s 1965 Plymouth A990 HEMI Super Stocker, his 1967 RO Plymouth Belvedere II did offer some advantages. “The ’67 car used a cast iron transmission case while the ’65 was aluminum. Other than needing your Superman cape to change transmissions, the cars were similar. Everything was just heavier on the ’67 Belvedere II. The ’67 car did have an indestructible Dana 60 rear axle, while the ’65 Plymouth had the 8.75 style axles which were prone to breakage. That 8.75 axle cost me $10,000 in prize money in 1965 because of breakage,” chuckled Herb. “I left with spare parts that only lasted for 3 days. If I made it through the weekend without breaking one, I’d take it apart and throw away the spider gears because they were going to break. Motor-wise, I’d check bearings every Monday, but other than that, I never broke stuff, including transmissions and engines.”
By the late 1960s, Herb’s driving and tuning skills were getting noticed and were in demand. “Dick Maxwell (Chrysler’s Race Group Manager at the time) asked if I was going to Pomona for the 1968 NHRA Winternationals. I wasn’t, because I couldn’t make any money traveling out that far. Maxwell informed me that Sox & Martin would have a second car out there competing and asked if I’d be interested in driving it. I, of course, said yes. Buddy Martin called me 30 minutes later and offered me the opportunity to drive for them. Work wouldn’t give me time off to race, so I quit and off to Pomona I went,” said Herb. It was at this moment that McCandless became a full-time racer.
Being a hired gun for Sox & Martin may have just been for one race that season, but that didn’t stop Herb from doing his own thing. Besides, he needed to make money since he quit his job and drag racing was a means to pay the bills and put food on the table. The next ride Herb purchased was a new Super Stock HEMI Dart in the back half of 1968. This lightweight, high-horsepower machine was the perfect car for Herb to continue his lucrative match racing schedule throughout the Southeast and Midwest where track promoters guaranteed big payouts. Though he was traditionally a “Plymouth” guy, Herb switched to Dodge due to his friendship with fellow racer Vaughn Currie who just happened to work for Chuck Hutton Dodge.
Wasting no time, Herb drove to the Motor City to pick up his HEMI Dart Super Stocker. “I went right to Detroit to get the car, as I was ready to race! I was tired of racing the tank (his 1967 Plymouth RO Belvedere II). Right away, we changed over to an ISKY camshaft, but that was about it. Didn’t really do a lot to it, other than taking those stupid mufflers off of it. We ran heads-up stuff, not class racing, so the non-functioning mufflers that NHRA rules stated for the class were not required for the racing I did. I went where the money was and the big money was in heads-up racing, not class racing,” reminisced Herb.
When asked how the three cars drove since they were different in many ways due to weight, wheelbase, slicks and horsepower output, Herb gave us some insight. “Honestly, not any different. The cars just worked. My car wasn’t tied together, didn’t have a roll cage, it just worked. I’m not sure if that’s because of how I drove and took care of my stuff, but it really was a problem-free car for me.”
With Herb’s success powershifting and going rounds in the Sox & Martin 440-powered Plymouth GTX Super Stocker at the 1968 Winternationals, Dodge came calling in 1969 and recruited him to drive and dial-in Dick Landy’s Charger at the season-opening race in Pomona. Landy’s HEMI engine-powered B-body was competing in B/MP within the highly competitive Street Eliminator class. Since the NHRA Winternationals was the kickoff to the drag racing season, it was an important race to all the auto manufacturer participating sponsors. Dodge, Plymouth and other brands wanted to make sure their products ran hard and fast in front of thousands of young enthusiasts who were also performance car buyers.
It was these two instances, working directly with the factory-backed race teams, that would have a profound effect on Herb’s future and solidify his relationship with the Mopar brand for the next 50 years. In Part Two, we’ll discuss Pro Stock, Direct Connection, and even GEN III HEMI Swaps with Mopar Living Legend Herb McCandless! In the meantime, check out these awesome images provided by the McCandless Collection.