Eyewitness to Drag Racing History!

Imagine if you will, you become a member of the greatest teams in all of drag racing and you’re only a teenager. You’re thrown in the mix of swapping supercharged HEMI® V8 engines between intense rounds of eliminations, or the less glamorous duties of being recruited as a “gopher” to chase down parts, cleaning the car or doing a cheeseburger run for the hungry crew during an all-night racecar thrash in some dimly lit motel parking lot. That was the life of Dave Rockwell when he became part of the iconic Ramchargers team before he was even old enough to vote or drink legally. Regardless of his status within the team, Rockwall was there when the red candy-striped HEMI engine-powered machines blazed a trail of record runs and championships during the 1960s and into the early 1970s. How he got hooked up with this legendary team is a story unto itself that stems from his love of fast cars while growing up as a teenager in a Detroit suburb in the early 1960s. It was the perfect mix of a young man’s coming of age during the dawn of the Motor City’s quest of developing and releasing massive V8 engines with colossal horsepower numbers, and simply being in the right place at the right time.  

Born in Flint, Michigan, to a father who was an engineer at General Motors, Dave’s earliest memories of car racing came at the age of three when his dad took him to a Soap Box Derby event. Eventually, a change in employers would take the Rockwells to Dearborn, Michigan, as Dave’s father accepted a job at Ford Motor Company. Within a few years, Chrysler made Mr. Rockwell an offer to come work at their Highland Park Engineering facility that eventually made him the plant manager at the enormous Dodge Main Assembly Plant. For Dave, his dad’s engineering profession fueled his interest and passion for all things mechanical. “I was always interested in machines and what made them tick. When I was young, I had go-karts,” said Dave. Living in what many consider “Ford Country,” Dave attended Dearborn High School in which many students were “Ford Brats”, being the offspring of parents that worked for the big Blue Oval. “All the guys in my high school were car crazy and there was a lot of brand rivalries but the majority of guys I knew in school were Ford and Mercury fans for the obvious reasons, but my love was always for Chrysler products and specifically for Dodge cars,” noted Dave. By the time he was 14, Dave went to Detroit Dragway with his dad, and it was there he saw the latest performance cars doing battle down this legendary drag strip. It was a race in 1962 where the Ramchargers in their 413 Max Wedge Dart had a match race with “Dyno Don” Nicholson in his 409 Chevy. At this time, Dave was only 15 years old but he’s never forgotten what an impression it made on him. “I was just blown away and excited by what I saw. Up to that time, this match race was the biggest event ever held at Detroit Dragway, but more important, it was the first time I ever saw the Ramchargers compete,” commented Dave. “It was probably the first time a Dodge could defeat a highly tuned Chevy on the strip, and I was ecstatic.”

Dave was so impressed with the Ramchargers and for Christmas in 1962, Dave asked his father for an official Ramchargers T-shirt. “Since my dad was an engineer working at Chrysler, he knew Jim Thornton who was also an engineer and part of the Ramchargers team. My dad got me that a shirt and I was so happy,” smiled Dave. But that was not enough for this young gearhead that was into fast cars and what made them tick. “I didn’t want to just be a spectator hanging on the fence along Detroit Dragway, I really wanted to be part of the Ramchargers. Al Eckstrand had just won the 1963 NHRA Winternationals driving the Ramchargers Max Wedge Dodge. I remember making a long-distance phone call to the drag strip in Pomona that Sunday afternoon to find out who won Super Stock and when the guy on the other end said it was the Ramchargers Dodge, I was so elated!”

Now Dave was more determined to not only meet the Ramchargers, but to somehow be a member of team. “I was 15 years old, worked up enough guts to blindly call Al Ekstrand. I had more nerve than a sore tooth. Al’s number was listed so when he answered the phone, I said ‘Hi, my name is Dave Rockwell and I’m a big fan of the Ramchargers and would like to meet the team.’ I spoke to Al about his recent win at the NHRA Winternationals without trying to be too intrusive. I finished up the conversation with asking if he’d and the team be okay if I showed up at Detroit Dragway the next time the team was racing there and Al said, ‘Sure, come on by, we’d be glad to meet you.’ The call was more than I expected but the week before a match race at Detroit Dragway, Al called me and said he was no longer with the team.” Undaunted by the recent personnel change within the Ramchargers, Dave’s father dropped him off at Detroit Dragway for the big match race. Finding the red Candy Stripe Dodge in the gravel pits, Dave walked up to Jim Thornton and told him who he was, and he said he’d be okay if Dave hung around. The fact Dave was wearing his Ramchargers shirt probably helped and Thornton and the rest of team were very welcoming to Dave. Eventually, Dave was a regular in the pits at Detroit Dragway and would show up before the Ramchrgers’ tow rig even rolled through the gates and ready to assist the team in any unglamorous chores they needed during race day.

Over time and gaining their trust and confidence as a good crew member, the Ramchargers invited Dave to attend out-of-town races with team. Still being 15 years old, Dave would arrange with the Ramchargers to meet him at a designated spot to be dropped off by his dad. “My parents were okay with me spending time with the Ramchargers as they had a clean-cut image and my dad sort of knew some of them. My dad would either drop me off at the Ramchargers’ shop or somewhere off the freeway,” noted Dave. “One time, the Ramchargers were heading to a race in Canada, so my dad and I met up with the team at the Detroit/Windsor tunnel.” Throughout the 1963 race season, Dave traveled all over the United States with the Ramchargers, helping out with numerous tasks. Some critical and important, some not so glamorous. But Dave was at one of the most iconic races the Ramchargers competed at, the 1963 NHRA Nationals at Indianapolis Raceway. It was at this historic race that Dodge claimed not only a Super Stock win and runner-up, but also a Top Stock Eliminator win and runner-up. “I was 16 years old at that time but I had a feeling I was witnessing drag racing history,” declared Dave.

By 1964, Chrysler dropped a bomb on Ford and GM with the introduction of the 426 HEMI engine. It cleaned house at NASCAR’s premier race early that year, the Daytona 500. But it would take a couple more months for the engine to hit the drag strip and pound the competition into submission. “I was with the Ramchargers when we rolled into Detroit Dragway on April 26, 1964, with the first 426 HEMI Dodge 330 sedan. It was an NHRA Division Meet, and the car got classified into Modified Eliminator as the wheelbase was moved by two percent. Lindamood drove the car while Thornton ran the Ramchargers Max Wedge powered Dodge to claim Super Stock victory. I, along with the team that day, knew the HEMI would forever change drag racing and history has proven our point. As the late Tom Hoover said, it was the first time the HEMI was drag raced in anger,” recalled Dave. Another significant race for Dave would come later in that year as he and the Ramchargers headed to Indy for the 1964 NHRA Nationals. The HEMI engine-powered Dodge vehicles dominated the Super Stock ranks and in the finals, it was Jim Thornton in the Ramchrgers’ Dodge and Roger Lindamood in the Color-Me-Gone Dodge. It was Lindamood winning by a very small margin due to the Ramchargers spinning the tires off the line. The Ramchargers licked their wounds, evaluated what worked and what didn’t, and headed back to Detroit. “I’ve always looked at things in a historical context and even though we did not win Indy that year, the team was pleased it was an all-Dodge final in Super Stock. The Ramchargers were results orientated, they did not let their emotions get too high or get too low. They were sort of like an NFL coach and it was always a high level of focus and professionalism among the team members.”

By 1965, drag racing was changing by leaps and bounds. Competitors were stretching the rules in search of higher speeds, lower ETs, less weight and better traction. It was almost like Chuck Yeager chasing the sound barrier, but with production-based cars. Leading the charge with these innovations was the Ramchargers and their new A/FX Dodge Coronet. “By this time, I was a senior in high school and spending a lot of time at the Ramchargers shop over in Ferndale (Michigan). I would hang at Tom Hoover’s elbow learning everything I could about engine prep and help out on the construction on the new A/FX Dodge,” said Dave. “We started out with carburetors, but eventually got into fuel injection and nitromethane. It was a whole new world and the match races we got booked into was intense. The Ramchargers had a target painted on their Candy-Striped Dodge and everyone wanted a piece of us.”

Dave was so dedicated to the Ramcharger cause of drag strip domination, he blew off a milestone date of his teenage years. “On the night of my high school senior prom, I decided not to attend and instead headed to Detroit Dragway for this big match race between the Ramchargers and Roger Lindamood. The was major and had been promoted heavily. The Ramchargers defeated Lindamood’s Color-Me-Gone A/FX Dodge three out of four times and to this day, I have no regrets missing that milestone in my teenage years,” smiled Dave. Later that year, Dave and Jim Thornton headed east with the Ramchargers’ A/FX Dodge for some intense Match Racing. “One of my favorite weekends in 1965 was when Jim (Thornton) and I did a four-day match race adventure that took us to Sharon, Pennsylvania; Capitol Dragway in Maryland; and Lebanon Valley in New York. We raced Ronnie Sox, Arnie Beswick, Bud Faubel, Eddie Shartman and many others. Since it was only Jim and I on this trip, I mixed the nitro, packed the chutes, laid down the rosin, maintained the car and even guided Jim into the fresh rubber on the starting line. We won a lot of cash and on the drive back to Detroit on that Sunday, it really hit me.

Dave’s time with the Ramchargers would continue during his college years and beyond. He was part of the team when they raced Funny Cars and Dragsters, and in 1970s, created a drag team to promote the Ramchargers speed shops that were popping up all over the Detroit area. In retrospect, Dave was living the dream and knew it. Lucky for us, he captured his memories and those of other Ramchargers members in an awesome book, WE WERE THE RAMCHARGERS!



My brother was doing some HO slotcartributes awhile back. Here’s one


I have that book and it’s sign by some of the Ramchargers team at Chrylers at Carlisle a few years back. great read and photos.