When the street Hemi became available in 1966, the average American had something tangible under their hood that could make them feel a little bit like the Ramchargers, Sox & Martin or even Don Garlits. That common thread led to a 50-year public love affair that has established the 426 Hemi as the greatest race engine ever built.
Sometimes a name can represent more than just what first comes to mind. Hemi, for instance, might bring to mind a pricey classic muscle car at Barrett-Jackson, a new Dodge off the showroom floor or maybe even a Sox & Martin Super Stocker.
Those are all correct, of course, but the Hemi name actually represents three different engine families from different eras. At the top is the 426 race Hemi, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, but behind all of the hoopla is an even greater story, much of what can be seen in the pictures presented here.
The list of car companies that used a hemispherical combustion chamber design at one time or another is actually an impressive one, and goes beyond the scope of this article. When Chrysler was gearing back up to make cars after World War II, it developed what became known as the A239 Hemi-headed engine, which displaced 331 ci. The Dodge and DeSoto divisions of Chrysler followed with their own versions of this engine as well. In 1957, Chrysler introduced the 392 Hemi, which featured 4.00 bore and 3.91 stroke and a 2.000/1.750 intake and exhaust valves. With a 10:1 compression ratio and dual quad carbs, the engine made a healthy 380 hp and gained notice from more than a few hot rodders. However, the AMA’s 1957 ban on racing and the wedge head design (which was less expensive to produce) meant the end of the Gen 1 Hemi engines. After 1958, they were gone.
The winds of change began blowing in the early ’60s. The 426 Max Wedge was doing well in drag racing, but the marketing types had convinced Chrysler’s brass that more was to be gained by dominating in NASCAR. The ultimate goal was the season-opening Daytona 500. Chrysler put things together in a hurry and pulled off a huge PR victory when its Hemi-powered entries finished first, second and third, and placed four cars in the top five. They went on to overpower all of the other makes that year and Richard Petty won the season championship handily. The other car manufacturers howled about the 426 race Hemi not being an engine that was publicly available. NASCAR listened and the 426 Hemi was banned from competition in stock cars.
Drag racers didn’t get the engine until midyear. “Gas” Ronda won the NHRA Super Stock championship with the 427 FE engine in a Thunderbolt, which was a car that was considerably smaller than the larger Dodges and Plymouths that were running at the time. When 1965 rolled around, Chrysler countered with its NHRA-legal A990 Super Stockers, and also with an extreme altered-wheelbase version that was seen on the AHRA circuit and in match racing. While the AWB Hemi cars did find their way into Comp Eliminator, the factory-sponsored Ford and Mercury teams were told to avoid head-to-head confrontations with the Mopars. The money, however, was too great to pass up. They would eventually go to altered-wheelbase cars and 427 SOHC engines. Future NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and David Pearson also switched to match racing Hemi-powered drag cars for a short while.
In 1966, Chrysler got around the NASCAR ban by making what was essentially a detuned 426 Hemi available to the public. The Hemi was back on the super speedways and short tracks. On the drag racing side, the Chrysler brass became alarmed at the rapid escalation from Super Stock to A/FX and to Funny Cars. Sensing that these cars had gotten too far away from what the public was buying, the emphasis switched back to SS/B with Sox & Martin, Dick Landy and others getting lightweight Barracudas to run. Both factions continued to morph and grow into what is known as Funny Car and Pro Stock today.
By 1971, the 426 Hemi had fallen out of favor in NASCAR primarily because of carburetor restrictor plate rules that gave the 426 wedge a ¼-inch larger opening. Other than special reinforcement around the main bearings and cross-bolted mains, both the Hemi and wedge short-block were essentially similar. All of the front parts of the Hemi would fit the wedge block, including the oil pump, distributor, flywheel, clutch, housing and even the crankshaft. With its breathing ability essentially negated because of the rules, the 426 Hemi was supplanted the 90-pound lighter wedge head 426. It was essentially the end of the 426 Hemi in stock car racing, and later on in new car production as well.
In nitro racing, the Hemi engine was quickly morphing into something different. Many teams were continuing to use the Gen 1 392 Hemi engine, but by 1971, it had reached its limits due to cylinder wall failure. Engine builders began to compensate for this with lighter race-specific engines designed just for nitro racing. Ed Donovan made an aluminum version with a new displacement of 417 ci that was 100 pounds lighter and featured removable steel cylinder wall liners. Known as the Donovan 417, this engine was low qualifier at its first ever race by more than a tenth, and eventually went as quick as a 5.77 with a top speed of 248.61 mph. During this time, teams began to learn the right tune-up for the 426, which led to Milodon developing an all-aluminum version 426 in 1973. Keith Black followed not long afterwards with an even more successful version of his own, which dominated nitro racing for many years despite continuing competition from Donovan, Milodon, Joe Pisano’s JP-1 and the McGee quad cam engines. In fact, there is still a Keith Black Stage 15 Hemi fuel block on the market today. By and large, the engines used today in Top Fuel, Funny Car and even Pro Mod can all trace a direct lineage back to the 426 race Hemi of 1964.
The Hemi name has many rich layers of muscle car and racing history, and there are more chapters yet to be written. It’s more than just a name.
While wild altered-wheelbase Mopars were all the rage in the press, Chrysler was still interested in the legal Super Stock classes as seen with Butch Leal’s A990 Plymouth. Chrysler built specially modified lightweight A990s specifically for NHRA Super Stock and they would go on to win in the class for decades. Leal, who was one of the few to drive a four-speed, won the 1965 U.S. Nationals with this car over Dave Strickler with an 11.56 at 124.82 mph.
After winning the NASCAR championship in 1964 with the 426 Hemi, a number of drivers, including Richard Petty and David Pearson, suddenly found themselves with nowhere to race. Petty match raced this Barracuda for a short time and actually won class at the 1965 Spring Nationals at Bristol, but an accident in Georgia that killed a young boy ended Petty’s drag racing career.
When Ford won the championship in 1964 with Gas Ronda and the intermediate-sized Thunderbolt, the 426 Hemi was facing a serious challenge. Despite more power, the Ford 427 was lighter and the smaller T-Bolt had an aerodynamic advantage. Chrysler’s response was its 426 Hemi altered-wheelbase cars in 1965. NHRA didn’t accept them, but they were a hit with the public and ran roughshod over anything the other factory teams could offer.
When the altered-wheelbase cars arrived, the gloves soon came off between Mopar, Ford and Mercury. It was a perfect storm as the car manufacturers, racers, tracks and fans were all turned on to the same thing. Carburetors soon gave way to injectors and then blowers as race technology began to grow by leaps and bounds. Through it all, the 426 Hemi design continued to find success.
The Ramchargers were already household names among race fans with the 413 Max Wedge, but they went to new heights beginning in 1964 when they runner-up’d to Roger Lindamood at the U.S. Nationals with the 426 Hemi. This loose knit group would eventually go on to field cars in many different classes from Stock all the way to Top Fuel.
In Top Fuel, Don Garlits was one of the first to run the 426 Hemi with success after discovering that the secret to running this engine was fuel volume and spark advance. With stock heads, he ran as quick as 6.77 at 222 mph and would eventually go as quick as a 6.15 at 243 mph with a stock block, rocker arms and shafts.
The unofficial master of the 426 Hemi today could arguably be Charlie Westcott Jr., who has won five Mopar Hemi Challenge titles at the U.S. Nationals, 221 at 162.72. The event, which debuted at the 2001 U.S. Nationals, pays homage to the legendary 426 Hemi Super Stock A-body cars. Westcott has run as quick as an 8.2221 with this car at nearly 162.72 mph. Steve Houser won the most recent event in 2013 at Indy.
As Funny Cars got became more dangerous and moved further away from what was being sold on the showroom floor, Sox & Martin retired from nitro racing after 1966 and returned to Stock and Super Stock. Their success led to the 426 Hemi-powered Barracuda factory lightweight becoming one of the most popular cars in drag racing.
Competition is often the mother of invention, which is what happened with the Hemi Under Glass Barracuda. In an effort to find better traction, Hurst Performance relocated the 426 Hemi to the rear of the car and, somewhat accidentally, created the first exhibition wheelstander.
While the NASCAR race Hemi got a single carb, the A990 Super Stockers got the dual-quad Holley aluminum head version rated at 425 hp in 1965. Air cleaners on the A990 Super Stock 426 Hemi cars were almost always discarded in favor of screen-covered velocity stacks that fit cleanly to the underside of the hood. Air was drawn in through a huge hood scoop to feed the twin Holley carbs.
Big John Mazmanian campaigned this pristine Barracuda in the early days of Funny Car racing. He switched from a 392 to a Keith Black 426 in 1969. In later years, he would go to a larger 484 Hemi running in the 6.70s at nearly 220 mph before getting out of the sport in 1972.
One of the strangest adaptations of the 426 Hemi to drag racing was this sidewinder engine-mounted design on Don Garlits’s Swamp Rat 27. Garlits attempted this in 1981 with a 454-cid Hemi and 8-71 blower, which was mounted sideways to take advantage of engine torque for better traction. It ran a best of 6.20 at 230 mph before being parked.
When Pro Stock debuted in 1970, the engine technology wasn’t far from what is seen today in bracket cars. A Weiand cast aluminum intake, dual carburetors, cast-iron heads, wet sump oil system and a four-speed manual transmission were state-of-the art in their day. With a weight break of 7-pounds per cubic inch, the Hemi-powered Chrysler products weighed in at just under 3,000 pounds, ran in the low nines and achieved near total domination, winning 12 out of 15 events during the first two years of the class.
What makes the Hemi head design work so well? The combination of the semi-oval chamber shape, central placement of the spark plug and location of the large valves on either side accelerated airflow along with both volumetric and thermal efficiency during the combustion event while minimizing the possibility of detonation. Fifty years after the introduction of the original 426 race Hemi, its influence is still strongly seen.
Built by John Buttera, the Pisano & Matsubara Vega Funny Car was a strong runner in the early ’70s, running in the 6.20s with a 484-ci Keith Black Hemi. Pisano eventually used lessons learned from running this combination to develop the JP-1 block, which competed against the KB Hemi design along with Donovan amd Milodon.
Text and Photos by Rod Short