Growing Up With the Godfather

We all know who Mr. Tom Hoover was, the celebrated Godfather behind the 426 HEMI® engine. It was his drive, passion and engineering skills that brought this iconic engine to life in early 1964. A few years earlier, it was also Mr. Hoover and his merry band of engineers who were part of the iconic Ramchargers group that led to the creation of the mighty Max Wedge engine that made the 409 Chevys, 421 Pontiacs and 406 Fords obsolete overnight. Mr. Hoover also knew his way around Chrysler’s vast Highland Park complex and how to get things done quickly and efficiently. Mr. Hoover was well-versed in navigating the choppy waters of corporate politics and intrigue. He knew one wrong word or misstep could send you down that whirlpool that could wash out one’s career. So, when Chrysler’s big bosses approved the development of the 426 HEMI engine in late 1963 and made Mr. Hoover one of the chief engineers on the project, he knew it had to get done before the deadline, under budget and exceed horsepower expectations. 

Decades later, volumes of books have been written about the 426 HEMI and 426 Max Wedge and the impact these engines had on both drag racing and NASCAR. This impressive engine has even earned (rightfully so) a “cult-like” status among the Mopar® faithful and has become the scourge of the GM and Ford camps. The 426 HEMI engine remains well perched in its legendary status, along with Mr. Tom Hoover, and it’s still that way today. But it was Mr. Hoover and his fellow Chrysler Race Group engineers and product planners who spearheaded the muscle car movement within the Dodge and Plymouth brands, oversaw the construction of HEMI Super Stock Package Cars, provided technical data for Mopar’s Pro Stock drag race projects and eventually created the ground-breaking Direct Connection High-Performance Parts program. 

But what was it like growing up with this man who was considered an “engineer’s engineer”? How much of his job duties and responsibilities did he take home at night? What was the topic of dinner conversations? What kind of father was he? How was home life like when your dad had the weight of Chrysler’s mighty HEMI engine along with its on-track drag racing performance responsibilities on his shoulders? Well, we sat down with Tom Hoover Jr., the son of the late Tom Hoover to see what it was like growing up in the Hoover household. “My dad was my best friend when I was growing up, he and I did everything together when I was kid. Even though I sort of look like my mom, I have all my dad’s traits,” said Tom Jr. “My parents had a traditional and somewhat old-school relationship. My parents met while they both worked at Chrysler in the 1950s, but when I was born in 1965, she stayed home and raised us while Dad worked. I remember being very young and going with my mom to pick my dad up at the airport when he’d returned from a business trip for Chrysler. I thought he was a traveling salesman,” laughed Tom Jr. “My dad would always wear a hat, a nice suit and have a briefcase when we picked him up so that’s probably why I thought that’s what he did. It wasn’t until later around the time I turned five that I began to like the things he liked. He began to take me to the race tracks for family outings. There were also times when I was a little kid I’d go through his tools and files and forget to put things back. That would drive him nuts as he couldn’t find what he was looking for when he was working on his cars in our garage.” 

The more Tom Jr. was around cars and drag racing, the more he loved it, and his father knew that about his son. During the summer months when young Tom Jr. was not in school, the pair would attend major races like the NHRA U.S. Nationals, NHRA Springnationals and many others. On some occasions, Tom Jr. would hitch a ride with one of the race teams based in Detroit like the Motown Missile Pro Stock group if they were heading east. “My strongest memories were hanging out with my dad while he spent time with the Motown Missile Pro Stock crew. Ted Spehar and Dick Oldfield of the team respected my dad immensely and sometimes I would ride in the transporter with the team out to the east coast and would get dropped off with my dad’s relatives somewhere off the highway in Pennsylvania to meet up with my grandparents. Looking back now, it was very cool for a kid to be doing this,” smiled Tom Jr. 

Another memory growing up in the Hoover household was the friendship and influence Tom’s father had on some neighbors who lived down the street who happened to be Mopar gearheads and grassroots racers. “I remember my neighbors Bobby and Jack Karakashian got me the Sox & Martin “Shutdown” slot car set as a Christmas gift one year. I played it all the time with my dad and grandfather. Bobby and Jack did this out of respect for my dad and for the help and tuning advice, he gave the Karakashian boys their fast cars. I’m still friends today with both Bobby and Jack (Karakashian) and they’ve both been a tremendous help getting me into the Pure Stock drags with my 1964 Plymouth Max Wedge Plymouth. 

There were also the many cool cars his dad would bring home from Chrysler that were burned into Tom Jr.’s memories, including his dad’s infamous 1966 HEMI Dodge Coronet that had many stoplight encounters on Woodward Avenue back in the day. In the early 1970s, Tom Jr’s mother had Road Runners and Chargers that took both him and his younger sister on many family vacations. 

Around the dinner table, Tom Jr. never heard his dad complain about his stressful job within Chrysler’s Race Group. “He got a lot of satisfaction doing what he did, and he cared immensely about and got a lot of satisfaction for what he did for Chrysler. When I got older and was getting into becoming an engineer for my career path, he became even more confident, we shared even more interests whether it was cars, trucks and even trains, we’d look at things from an analytical standpoint,” said Tom Jr. That’s probably why Tom Jr. has worked for GE Locomotive Division since the mid-1980s. Tom Jr. has been married for many years and is a dad himself. His daughter Anna, who’s 19 years old, is going to Virginia Tech studying engineering. “She got to know my dad really well before he passed away in 2015. My dad would be so happy knowing his granddaughter decided on her own to take up engineering,” commented a proud Tom Jr. 

Luckily for Tom Jr. and his father, they got to build the 1964 426 Max Wedge Plymouth Belvedere project car together. “It was a bonding experience, he knew what to do to make the car fast and took joy in explaining the scientific method of building this Plymouth in very a meticulous way. I think he and I both understood what needed to be done to make this car faster and how to dial in the suspension for better traction. This Plymouth began life as the 318 car which was better for our intentions to make it into a Pure Stock racecar. If it was a real Max Wedge car, we’d hurt the value,” noted Tom Jr. 

Now 59, Tom Jr. often reflects on his late father’s legacy not just in the Mopar community, but in the world of motorsports. “My dad always worked hard and pursued things that mattered to him, even at the expense of things that didn’t matter. When he helped design the HEMI back in the early 1960s, you have to be at the right place at the right time and if you don’t have the passion for doing these things and it doesn’t mean anything to you, then maybe you don’t do it. All that stuff mattered to my dad, it was much more than just a paycheck,” reminisced Tom Jr. “Even 50 years after the release of the 426 HEMI, my dad would talk about the excitement of being involved in this project and being able to do something this cool! He always told me how special the HEMI project was as you don’t get the opportunity to make the maximum race engine very often and my dad knew that. The lessons from my dad’s life that stuck with me were to find something you like, find something that means something to you, and pursue that. The rest of your life will fall into order.” 



One of my greatest honors was interviewing Mr. Hoover for a story on the birth of the 426 Hemi, and later photographing him when he was reunited with his green 1966 Dodge Coronet Hemi in 1993. Such an opportunity is so rare!


Very Cool Story ! Thanks for Taking the Time to Share !!!


Great article!
Tom Hoover is one of my heros.


With me being the advanced age that I am and with the lifelong intense love of Chrysler Corporation Vehicles that I have always had, this article brought tears to my eyes. Thanks for writing it.


A very nice story. I really liked reading it. very informing