Hemiology: I’m so used to seeing Hemis in dragsters it’s kind of weird when you see one sitting inside the engine compartment of a stock Chrysler

Drag Racer

With all of this excitement regarding the 426 Hemi’s 50th anniversary, it’s easy to overlook the Gen II Hemi’s predecessors, the original Type I 1951-58 hemispherical-headed OHV Chrysler Fire Power, 1952-58 Type II De Soto Fire Dome and 1953-57 Type III Dodge Red Ram hemispherical V-8 engines. Upon revisiting the subject, celebrating the Gen II’s half century milestone seems to have a bit more relevance after taking into consideration both generations of Hemis (aftermarket variants included), and the overall contribution these remarkable engines have made to drag racing in the last 64 years. This is an engine family legacy well worth celebrating.

Early Hemi History

The original Chrysler Corporation had been experimenting with two-valve hemispherical combustion chamber cylinder head technology, meaning that the intake and exhaust valves oppose each other or are splayed in a hemispherical, or bowl-shaped combustion chamber with spark plug located between the two, since the late ’30s. Chrysler’s XIV-2200 inverted V-16 hemispherical-head engine was designed as an upgrade for World War II’s Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, although it was seldom used. Chrysler’s war machine also worked in conjunction with Continental Motors to develop the phenomenally successful air-cooled V-12 Hemi (the AVV-1790-SB) that powered the lethal Patton M47 tank.

1951-53 Chrysler 331-cid Hemi

The first publicly released Chrysler Fire Power passenger car V-8 engine was the cam-in-block, 90-degree 331-cid OHV-8 designed in 1950 (Project Engineer James Zeder, VP Chrysler Engineering), which debuted in the 1951 model cars. The 331 Hemi’s cast-iron block featured a bore size of 3.8125 inches and a stroke of 3.625 inches, which by today’s standards is considered a relatively normal small-block V-8, but back in 1951, it was huge and visually quite impressive, especially with a set of cross flow hemispherical combustion chamber cylinder heads bolted on.

The Type I Hemi featured a cast-iron crank, 2.50-inch mains, 6.625-inch I-beam connecting rods and forged-aluminum pistons. Type 1’s cylinder heads were equipped with 1.806-inch diameter intake and 1.50-inch diameter exhaust valves set at 53 degrees, with massive intake and exhaust ports and some fairly complex 3.370-inch length intake and 4.6250-inch length exhaust double rocker arm shafts. Due to this sophisticated valvetrain, the new Hemi head featured less quench than competing wedge-head designs. It’s superior volumetric efficiency made it extremely sensitive to compression and fuel octane ratings, and it performed like gangbusters at higher rpm levels, delivering a hefty 330 lb-ft torque at 2,600 rpm. Most Hemi cars built in 1951, 87,000 out of a total production run of 165,000 vehicles, featured a Carter two-barrel carburetor which produced 180 bhp. Toward the end of the 331’s production run in 1955, Chrysler released the high-performance Chrysler 300-C, which sold in relatively small numbers but was the most powerful 331 of them all producing 235 bhp at 4,400 rpm with the aid of dual Carter WCFB four-barrel carburetors.

[PULL QUOTE] “You might say that the defining moment came when the 331-inch Hemi engine I had installed in my ’39 Ford coupe ran a faster mph than the flathead dragster I was running. I knew that it was time to switch.” “Big Daddy” Don Garlits.

1956-59 CHRYSLER 354-cid Hemi

The 2×4 Carter WCFB-equipped 354-cid Chrysler Hemi from 1956 was the first engine of its type to be power rated at 1 horsepower per cubic inch with an actual SAE rating at 355 hp. Bore size that year went up to 3.9375 inches with a stroke increase of 3.625 inches. Valve size also increased to 1.94-inch diameter intake and 1.75-inch diameter on the exhaust. The remainder of the 354’s valvetrain geometry remained the same as the 331. Chrysler also offered a single carbureted 280-hp version of the 354 Hemi which saw duty in the New Yorker, Imperial Custom and Crown models.

During this period the 354 Hemi was also adapted for heavy-duty truck use, labeled the Power Giant V-8. Chrysler’s Marine Division also marketed the 354 Hemi from 1956-58 for use in small power boat applications using varying compression ratios and a hydraulic valvetrain.

[PULL QUOTE] “The first Hemi engine car I ever raced against was the Dawson-Hadley dragster out of the Pomona Chopper’s Car Club. It was a full-bodied car. I have a picture up on the wall of my shop of me racing it. I barely beat him with my flathead, and I could see the handwriting on the wall. I figured we’ve got to have a Chrysler. We had a 354 Chrysler in a crate for setting Top Speed of the Meet at Great Bend, Kansas, so I installed it in my 25 car in 1954, and ran one from there on.” Art Chrisman

1957-58 Chrysler 392-cid Hemi

Known as the granddaddy of the Top Fuel motors, a new raised deck 392 Chrysler Hemi block debuted in 1957. At 10.87 inches, this new block was 0.5-inch taller than the 331 and 354 Hemis and featured a 4.00-inch bore and 3.906-inch stroke, using 3.69-inch-diameter main cast-iron crank and 6.956-inch I-beam connecting rods. Because of its taller deck height, the 392’s cylinder heads were cast a bit wider so that earlier Hemi intake manifolds (primarily the 2×4 Carter WCFB intakes) could be used with these new Hemi heads along with the new tall deck block. Valve size on the 392’s was 2.00-inch-diameter intake and 1.750-inch-diameter exhaust, again using its tried and true double shaft rocker arm system.

By 1958, the final year of the series, the 392 Hemi was available in three power packages. Advertised as “America’s Most Powerful Car,” Motor Life Magazine tested a top-of-the-line Chrysler 300-C convertible equipped with a 10:0:1 compression 392 Hemi with twin Carter WCFB’s in its August 1958 issue. Power-rated at 375-380 hp and boasting a power-to-weight ratio of 12.52:1, the ragtop produced 0-60 terminal speeds (using the Daytona Beach Acceleration Contest as a basis), in 9.1 seconds; now that’s hauling butt, especially for a 4,908-pound luxury car. Chrysler also offered a 9.25:1 compression 392 Hemi power rated 325 hp and a 10.0:1 compression model 392 Hemi power rated at 345 hp, both in single four-barrel versions. Briefly available was the Bendix Corporation-designed Electro-jector fuel-injection system on the 10.0:1 compression ’58 Chrysler 300-D, power rated at 390 hp. Unfortunately, the primitive onboard fuel-injection control system proved unreliable, and 15 of the 16 cars outfitted with this system were recalled and retrofitted with carburetors.

[PULL QUOTE] “The main thing with the Hemi was of course the heads. Those round combustion chambers with the intake and exhaust valve on both sides and the spark plug located in the middle? I mean the breathing was so good on those engines. From the very beginning, the Chrysler Hemi was pretty much the king.” Tom “The Mongoo$e” McEwen

1952-57 DeSoto V-8s

DeSoto Division’s lineup of Hemi V-8s was known as the Type II Fire Dome V-8. Introduced in 1952, it featured a 3.625-inch bore and a 3.344-inch stroke with a total displacement of 276.1 cid. Power output was 160 bhp.

In late 1954, the Fire Dome was upgraded 290.8 ci (corporately advertised for the ’55 model cars at 291 cid) by increasing the bore size to 3.72-inches. In 1956, the Fire Dome grew to 330 ci (actual size 329.9), using the same bore size with an increased stroke of 3.80 inches and a new tall deck block.

[PULL QUOTE] “Lions Drag Strip was home to the Junior Fuelers. The class limit there was 310 inches, so I built an injected 291-inch DeSoto. Don Enriquez and I ran real good with that engine, and we set both ends of the track record at 7.14/201.00.” Gene Adams

In 1956 displacement on the upscale DeSoto Adventurer was increased to 341.1 cid using a larger 3.78-inch bore with the existing 3.80-inch stroke. The hydraulic cam and twin WCFB Carter-equipped 9.5:1 compression Adventurer mimicked its bigger brother the 1956 354 Chrysler by producing just a tad over 1-hp per cubic inch.

The largest and last Hemi engine to be used in the DeSoto line was the 344.6-cubc-inch 9.5:1 compression DeSoto Fire Dome Adventurer V-8, which featured a square bore/stroke of 3.80 inches. Once again, a Carter WCFB 2×4 intake bumped the horsepower quotient up to 1-hp per cubic-inch registering 345 bhp.

1953 Dodge Red Ram

Other than overall conceptual design, the downsized 241-cid Type III Dodge Red Ram Hemi introduced in 1953 didn’t share any major engine components with the Chrysler or DeSoto hemispherical head engines. Bore size on the original 140-bhp rated 241-cid Red Ram Hemi was 3.4375 x 3.25 inches and featured an unbelievably low compression ratio of 7.1:1. In 1955, the 270-cid Red Ram made its debut featuring a bore of 3.625 inches and a stroke of 3.25 inches. There were two models, the 7.1:1 compression Red Ram 2V which featured a baseline 140 bhp, and a 7.5:1-compression 4V model available in the upscale Dodge Meadowbrook, producing 140 bhp. In 1956, displacement increased to 315-cid using a 3.80-inch longer stroke inside a new tall deck block, the latter of which was also incorporated with a polyspherical wedge-head application. However, the Carter four-barrel carbureted 325-cid KD-500 and twin Carter-carbureted KD-500-1 hydraulic cam versions of this engine from 1957 were purebred Hemi through and through and enjoyed great success on the NASCAR circuit, particularly in the hands of the late Lee Petty.

[PULL QUOTE] “We ran a 243-inch Dodge Red Ram Hemi for the B Class in our little Bonneville coupe. Then we went to the DeSoto Fire Dome Hemi which was 276-cid and that was for the C Class. Then we went to the Chrysler Fire Power Hemi which was 331-cid and that was for the D Class. We broke our own records, which we had previously held with both a flathead and an Ardun, by 20 mph, injected on alcohol.” Art Chrisman

The often asked question is: Why did Chrysler Corporation stop manufacturing the 1951-59 Gen I Hemi engine series? Cost was one factor. From foundry to final machining and assembly, these were very expensive engines to produce. Size was another reason. Those massive Hemi heads required a huge engine compartment and as the ’60s were quickly approaching, fuel economy and passenger car downsizing seemed to be the up and coming trends. Practicality was a third reason. The introduction in 1955 of General Motors’ compact, lightweight, high-revving 265-cid Chevrolet small-block V-8 engine changed everything in the street car marketplace. When we say everything we’re talking about size, performance, economy and affordability. King Hemi is dead. Long live the king.

A Drag Racing Love Affair With Horsepower

The Gen I Chrysler Hemi became one of the most popular drag racing engines and it set the most records. It was also given several affectionate nicknames like Chizler and Whale motor. When it came to the 1957-59 392 Hemi, drag racers simply dropped the first digit, and began referring to them as 92s.

“I paid a whopping $450 for my first Hemi out of a wrecked 1954 Chrysler New Yorker. I used Jahn’s pistons, an Isky cam, Weiand log manifold, Stromberg carburetors, Champion spark plugs, a Vertex mag and Schiefer clutch. What acceleration. It just kept pulling.” Don Garlits

“McEwen and I were back at Indy in 1961 with my Olds, and Jack Engle and I were doing about as much to an Olds as you could do to keep it competitive. We had offset the valve guides, moving them farther apart so that you could install bigger valves in the thing. We did a hell of a lot of port work and were running better than anybody else with an Olds at the time. Everybody was there at Indy: Kalitta, Collett, Schubeck and Pete Robinson; everybody in the world was at this race. We were staying at the same motel as Schubeck and we were both pulling maintenance in the parking lot. He had the head off his Chrysler, and I had the pan down on the Olds checking the bearings. Now, we had raced each other that same day, and I think Tom beat him by maybe a foot. So here he’s got this Hemi head lying in the grass. I’m looking at the damned thing and notice its bone stock. He hadn’t even touched the S.O.B. and here I am pulling all this maintance on this Oldsmobile, and he was running just as good. A couple of weeks later, we ran Connie Kalitta at Half Moon Bay. Both cars left the line even, but about half track Tom says, ‘He just started pulling away.’ So when things like that began to happen, we knew that it was time to switch over to a Chrysler.” Gene Adams

“Flaming Frank” Pedregon used to go to the junkyard and pull a complete engine out of an early Chrysler, then he would cut the back of the bell housing off, install a clutch, not even take it apart and install a supercharger on it, take it out to Lions, San Gabriel or wherever, put some nitro in it, and run it until it blew up. Then he would go back to the junkyard and get another one. That’s how it all started.” Tom McEwen

“Back in those days, there were plenty of Chrysler engines in the junkyards. We used to buy ’em for fifty bucks apiece. Lester’s Gear was more of a transmission shop than a junkyard. Lester knew that me, Bob Crietz and all these other people from around the Tulsa area raced Chryslers, so whenever he went around gathering up transmissions he would gather up 392 Chryslers. Whenever I needed a Hemi block or crank, I had my pick of whatever engine I wanted. Around here when a Chrysler had a lot of miles on it and was getting kind of old, you could buy the entire car for one hundred dollars. I would pull the engine out and then call Lester and have him come drag the car off.” Bennie “Wizard” Osborn

“Once the NHRA lifted its fuel ban that was the end of the Buicks. The Hemi was the only thing to have. However, they had quite a volatile reputation for blowing up. I figured that the learning curve would be steep when it came to building one of my own, so I partnered with Dave Zeuschel who had a good running Hemi. We installed that engine in my new Rod Peppmuller-built Barnstormer Top Fuel car, and the rest is history.” “TV Tommy” Ivo

“I’m not sure who it was who ran the very first blower on an early Chrysler. Chuck Potvin came out with a front-mounted blower, which a lot of guys ran. You could run the Potvin 1:1, but you couldn’t overdrive it. Then Phil Weiand made a manifold for the top of the engine but he didn’t have it machined. We went to his shop and picked it up and machined it ourselves. That’s when we went to Riverside Raceway and ran 181.81 mph in February 1959.” Art Chrisman

“’Big John’ Mazmanian and I ran a blown small-block Chevy in BB/GS and we had pretty much done all we wanted to do. John kept watching Doug Cook and a few other big names and said, ‘Bones, Let’s go after those guys.” I said ‘John, I don’t know anything about building no damned Oldsmobile motor.’ He said, ‘Nah, let’s put a Chrysler in there.’ I said ‘Hell, John, you’re paying the bills, let’s do it. Having run Isky’s dyno for so many years I knew what it took to build one, so we started building a Chrysler with some help from Isky and good friends like Ed Donovan. Don Long gave us some help installing the motor mounts, and the first time we took it to the track, I said, ‘Jesus!’ That thing had so much bottom end power. When it came to the big race at the ’64 Pomona Winternationals, we were already running faster than the Oldsmobiles in spite of the fact that Doug was still dominating the class. That was the first time a Gasser had run in the nines. Of course, everyone knows Doug got a holeshot on me, as I was smoking the tires 300 feet down the track before I got it to hook up. Doug went home and told Tim Woods. We got to get rid of that Oldsmobile and build a Chrysler. I could hear that thing coming, and we were dead even in the lights.” Robert “Bones” Balough

However, as awesome as the early Chrysler Hemi was, it did have its weak areas.

“Over the years we were running mostly stock Chrysler everything. We started running just stock crankshafts. As we progressed, we started putting too much cylinder pressure on them, and they would crack and break. Then when we started going to strokers, it would change the displacement and we had to run different rods and pistons. Delta Machine began boxing the rods to make them stronger, and we would resize them every weekend. Then Mickey Thompson came out with his aluminum connecting rods and pistons. About the same time Ed Donovan started selling stainless-steel intake and exhaust valves for them. For years we were running the stock Chrysler rocker arms and rocker shafts. When it got to the point where you dug farther down with the spring pressure, guys like Ed Donovan and Al Sharp began making better rocker arms for them.

“Years ago when we bought a Hemi block, we would take it to Keith Black and he had this electronic thing called magnafluxing, that they would run down the sides of the cylinder walls and show you how thick the walls were; then if you found one with a thin wall, you would install a sleeve in it.

“Another important thing was the oil. When we started running nitro we started getting into trouble using just the stock oil. Then we started working with guys like ‘Pennzoil Bob’ Smith. He used to take oil samples out of our Yeakel Plymouth fueler, and Pennzoil formulated the first oil that worked with nitromethane. Every advancement we made working with the early Chrysler Hemi we learned by doing it the hard way.” Tom McEwen

We couldn’t help but wonder how much horsepower you could actually get out of a blown 392.

“I once spoke to Bob Crietz about that very subject and he told me that nobody really knows for sure. He said that Howard’s Cams tried but their dyno would only go up to 800 horsepower. When the dyno blew up, they slung cast-iron all over that end of town.” Bennie Osborn

Gen II 426 Hemi

In 1962, Chrysler Corporation began to challenge Ford, Chevrolet, Pontiac and Oldsmobile for supremacy in two of the premiere organized motorsports: NASCAR Grand National and NHRA Stock Eliminator drag racing. Within two years, Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge (CPD) had become dominant with its 426 wedge engine. Dodge and Plymouth were racking up wins no matter if it was Petty, Isaac or Goldsmith in NASCAR or Jim Thornton, Bud Faubel or Hayden Proffitt in NHRA/AHRA drag racing. But Chrysler wasn’t satisfied. In 1964, at the New York World’s Fair, CPD introduced “C” the second generation Hemi, a name which Chrysler officially trademarked. At 426 ci and SAE rated 425 hp and 490 lb-ft the cast-iron 426 was known as the biggest racing engine of its time. Dimensionally it used the same B series 426 Stage III Max Wedge block, deck height of 10.72 inches and center-to-center bore spacing at 4.25×3.75 inches, and featured heavy-duty four-bolt mains, solid lifter cam, drop-forged steel crankshaft, drop-forged-steel connecting rods and 12.5:1 compression forged-aluminum pistons. The 67-pound weight disparity between Max Wedge and Hemi was attributed to those massive Hemi cylinder heads featuring 168cc combustion chambers with 2.25-inch-diameter intake, 1.94-inch-diameter exhaust valves and double shaft rocker arm system quite similar to its Type 1-3 predecessors. The new Hemi also featured a 2×4 cross ram intake with twin Holleys, a Chrysler Presto-lite vacuum-type dual-point ignition system and 2.5-inch-diameter cast-iron exhaust manifolds.

The Track Version of the 426 Hemi was banned by NASCAR after its 1, 2, 3, 5 finish at the Daytona 500. It wasn’t until Chrysler reverse-engineered the race-bred Gen II, transforming into the more docile street Hemi production car of 1966, that Florida’s good old boys allowed the 426 Hemi to return to the super speedways.

The drag version of the 426 Hemi fared very well in NHRA competition. Notably it was installed in lightweight Hemi Plymouth and Dodge Super Stock and A/FX sedans featuring a 2% altered wheelbase, aluminum front bumper and brackets, hood doors, door hinges Plexiglas side windows, mag wheels, radio delete and Dodge A100 van bucket seats. Hayden Proffitt’s Hemi Plymouth and Bud Faubel’s Hemi Dodge would respectively set class records in S/S and S/SA. At Indy 1964, “Dodge Boy” Dave Strickler won the A/FX class, and Roger “Color Me Gone” Lindamood’s Dodge won Top Stock Eliminator. To everyone’s surprise, Chrysler’s Gen II also showed up between the frame rails of the Knapp-Westerdale-Ramchargers AA/FD which ran a jaw-dropping 7.60-205.00 at Indy, establishing it as the first late-model Top Fuel Hemi AA/FD in the sport.

The “Year of Hemi” was 1965. Chrysler’s release of its fleet of 110-inch altered wheelbase Dodge and Plymouth 2,800-pound lightweights pretty much turned everything upside down. Immediately outlawed by the NHRA, team drivers Bob Harrop, Bud Faubel, Dave Strickler, Dick Landy, the Ramchargers, Roger Lindamood, Al Eckstrand, Butch Leal, Lee Smith, Sox & Martin and Tommy Grove dominated the AHRA Grand American Racing Series and were a hugely successful on the match race trail where gasoline and carburetors ultimately gave way to fuel injectors and nitromethane and the term “Funny Car” was born. It was also the year Top Fuel racers, including Don Garlits’ Swamp Rat X and Roland Leong’s Keith Black-powered Hawaiian III driven by the late Mike Sorokin, began experimenting with late-model Hemi power, as did Tony “Loner” Nancy in Top Gas.

“To this day, I regard it as a pivotal point in my career when Mr. Cahill hired me to drive for Chrysler. After the 409 Chevys and the 427 Fords racing that Hemi was pretty incredible. I really liked working on those engines. It would be almost like they were talking to me and telling me what they wanted. That’s probably why guys like Ronnie Sox and I were so darned successful with those altered-wheelbase Hemi cars. With injectors and four speeds, they were just hard to keep up with. I just loved the 426 Hemi.” Butch “California Flash” Leal

From the mid-’60s, drag racers were stuffing Hemis into everything from Top Fuel and Top Gas dragsters to Exhibition Stockers and blown Gassers and blown Altereds. In this era, the Gen II Hemi firmly established itself as King of the Super Stockers with Chrysler Racing’s February 1968 release of its 12.5:1-compression, Hurst-assembled Hemi ’Cuda and Dodge Dart Super Stock cars. Weighing a scant 3,000 pounds, these cars wreaked havoc in the upper echelon of the eliminator, and also made terrific match race cars.

In 1970, Chrysler began selling an improved version of the 426 Hemi block (which had changed little since 1964), featuring added thickness in the main bearing web areas that had proved to be the Achilles Heel of the original Gen IIs. Chrysler also released several D-1 through D-4 variants of its cast-iron hemispherical cylinder head. However, it’s most radical, up to that date, was the 16-spark plug Hemi. These hybrid aluminum cylinder heads, based on the D-5 casting were extensively field tested for Chrysler by “Dandy Dick” Landy on his ’70 Dodge Challenger Pro Stocker. They provided superior combustion, delivering between 5-10 extra horsepower on the top end. Of course, with 16 spark plugs, two distributors were necessary. Dick and his brother Mike came up with a Prestolite dual igniter using a single-drive adaptor that seemed to work just fine. With this system you could vary the degree of spark and lead off each plug, which is where the real power increase came from. Ultimately, the Chrysler twin-plug Hemi head became a staple for most of the frontline Chrysler Pro Stock teams. As far as fuel racing is concerned, you can directly attribute the twin-spark plug Hemi cylinder head and twin-magneto drive ignition system technology used today on virtually every big name Top Fuel and nitro Funny Car to the Ramchargers, who simultaneously experimented with the twin-plug Hemi concept using the team’s ’70 Dodge Challenger AA/FC as a test bed, driven by the late Leroy Goldstein.

“At first, I didn’t like the new 426 Hemi engine with all the extra head bolts. Four were inside the lifter valley; I hated that. It was Dodge Division’s Frank Wylie [Garlits’ sponsor] who made me switch. Looking back now, it was a very smart move.” Don Garlits

“Garlits was the one who convinced me to switch to the 426. He said the new Hemi was the way to go. The engine required less maintance, which was a big plus when you’re a touring professional. Parts were readily available, and it made tons of power.” Tommy Ivo

Powering the Hemi Aftermarket

The Donovan 417

Drag Racing Hall of Fame member, the late Ed Donovan, was one of the leading proponents of the early model Chrysler Hemi. Ed’s company, Donovan Engineering, was the first to provide racers with stainless-steel intake and exhaust valves, rocker arms, gear drives, aluminum clutch cans, dual disc clutches and couplers. But Ed could see that the Chrysler Hemi’s days were numbered. In 1969, Donovan and employees Bob Mullen, Dick Crawford, Leo Doossen and pattern maker Arnold Birner began building the first fully serviceable, all-aluminum Chrysler 392-type Hemi racing engine. With a project of this magnitude, Donovan had to up his game and invest heavily in some fairly serious shop machinery.

“The basic block was beefier and thicker, not to mention the fact that since it was cast out of aluminum, much, much lighter. Ed knew where all the 392s weak areas were. The main bearing webs were made a lot thicker on the 417. He strengthened the sidewalls of the block, which was another problem area with the 392. The lifter valley area was strengthened through a series of braces running across the top. When the main bearings would fail in a 92, it could mean dropping the entire crankshaft out of the bottom of the engine. A Hemi crankshaft measures about 8-9 inches counterweight, while most dragsters sat only a few inches off the ground. When you ran over something like that, it got ugly real fast; so, Ed designed a 38-stud girdle to strengthen up the bottom end. One of the Donovan 417’s most progressive features was its O-ring-equipped ductile steel liners, which harkened back to the days when Donovan used to work in the engine shop at Meyer Drake building the famed Offenhauser Indy 500 engines.” Donovan Engineering’s Fred Shay

By 1971, things were really starting to get serious. Ed asked “Kansas John” Wiebe if he would be interested in field-testing the Donovan 417 in his front-engine Top Fuel dragster, and Wiebe said yes. November 1972 marked the debut of the Donovan 417 at the NHRA/Mattel Hot Wheels Super Nationals at Ontario Motor Speedway. Ed’s new Donovan 417 performed flawlessly all weekend and set Low E.T. of the meet at 6.53, and Wiebe was runner-up to Hank Johnson on the final.

“Looking back, I’m not quite sure what the exact reason was why Ed Donovan selected me to run the very first Donovan 417, but I was very flattered by the vote of confidence he had in me. What an honor and a privilege it was to be the first to ever race one of those engines. I felt strongly about the responsibility. Of course, with the 392, we were having so many issues, especially when we started closing up the lobe centers and creating a lot of cylinder pressure and splitting cylinder walls. The problem was you could sleeve a 392 block, but you couldn’t sleeve two cylinders adjacent, so this one-piece cylinder wall idea was I think the motivating force, plus we had an additional 1/8-inch bore. We were able to go from a 4.00-inch bore to a 4 1/8-inch bore, which took the displacement out to 417 inches. I also liked the idea of the one-piece girdle instead of conventional mains, and on, and on, and on.” John Wiebe

On January 1, 1972, Donovan and Wiebe and Don Prudhomme and his late Hemi-engined, Kent Fuller-chassis Mattel Hot Wheels AA/FD battled at the AHRA-Lions Grand Premiere. This was one event where Prudhomme really earned his money. He had to dive under his Ed Pink late-model Hemi every round, changing everything from blower to pan. Wiebe was basically running hot laps with his bulletproof Donovan. Wiebe later admitted that he should have “bumped it up just a tad” as Prudhomme had just a bit more oomph on the final, recording a 6.174-235.60 to Wiebe’s 6.175-236.22 in what is considered to be one of the last classic front engine vs. rear engine Top Fuel battles from that transitional period in drag racing history.

“Ed’s main objective was to build a motor that was not only strong but safe. He wanted it so that if it blew all the parts out of it, that girdle kept everything contained and away from the driver. With the sleeve design, the problem of cracking cylinder walls was also gone. Main bearing failure also became a thing of the past. Early on, the guys were just hot lapping them. Of course, the next weak link in the chain was the cylinder heads, that’s when I became directly involved in 1973 with the Donovan 417 engine program.” Fred Shay

Donovan Engineering still sells the 417. Known as the Heritage Series, the only difference is instead of a bulky one-piece girdle, the Heritage Series engine features a multipiece steel billet girdle, which allows the racer to pull down individual main caps instead of having to drop the entire crankshaft and girdle assembly.

“The whole thing about the Donovan 417 was, I saw right off the bat, you could run that motor a lot harder than a 392 and not have to worry about cracking crankshafts and splitting cylinder walls which was a big problem with the 392 blocks. The girdle on the bottom end kept the crankshaft in containment. From a racing engine perspective, the Donovan made a lot more sense. The one-piece girdle was a pain in the butt to service, but it contained everything. I took that thing [Engine #003] on tour, and we used to run that thing three or four times a week and it was basically indestructible.” Mike Kuhl

“I built Marvin’s Donovan 417 motor and took it to him in Oklahoma on the way to Indy in 1974. When I dropped it off, he said he was too sick and was not going. I told him he better show up after I worked day and night to get it to him or death would occur at my own hands. He showed up, and won the race.” Mike Kuhl

“The Donovan 417 was a really stout motor, but it had some issues with the cylinder heads. When you ran a big bore with them, they were hard to seal up. The first heads he built for them had a really humongous exhaust port and valve, but kind of a mediocre intake that he later corrected. I mean it was better than a 392 intake, but not nearly as good as a 426. Of course, Garlits ran really good for one year with a Donovan. He won some big meets with it, but Donovan wasn’t able to keep up with supplying the parts. Professional racers always need to get parts on time whenever they break stuff.” Gene Adams

“I ran the Donovan 417 in Swamp Rat 23. The engine breathed better, and I was able to run a best of 5.77, but it was just not strong enough. The cylinders were too close together, and I eventually had to go back to the KB.” Don Garlits

Milodon VII Liter Aluminum Hemi

The late Don Alderson, the “Dooner” as he was known to his friends, was a dry lakes racer, drag racer, fabricator, master machinist and aerospace engineer who partnered with Milo Franklin, to found Milodon Engineering in the early ’60s. Milodon specialized in the manufacture of small hard parts for serious racing applications, including main caps, gear drives, oil pans and fasteners. However, Milodon Engineering’s greatest accomplishment was undoubtedly its Milodon VII Liter Hemi (7L is roughly the metric equivalent of 426-cid). It debuted in 1971. This engine was the brainchild of Alderson and Chief Engineer, the late Joe Anahory, who was originally part of the famed New York Top Fuel team of Anahory, Lang & Razon. Known as “The Dead End Kids,” in 1966 they were the number one Top Fuel team in NHRA Division 1. Milodon’s 7L aluminum alloy Hemi was fully serviceable with its removable 4.125-inch bore ductile liners at 440 cid, with fortified side walls and lifter valleys and bulletproof bottom end.

While serious testing on the Keith Black aluminum Hemi was going on across town, nearby Ed Pink Racing Engines formed an alliance with Milodon Engineering and built the first race-ready 7L-based Pink Elephant.

“Dooner and I were really good friends. At the time, his shop was probably five minutes from mine. I helped him get the block introduced and get guys interested in running them. The first engine we built was for Ed ‘Ace’ McCullouch’s Revelloution AA/Fuel Funny Car, which was sort of the test mule for the program. Ed and I would tell Alderson what changes he needed to make. Basically Milodon wanted to build a block that you could buy, take out of the box, wash it, measure it, put it together, and go out and run—and run it did.” Ed Pink

The Milodon VII-L Hemi proved one of the most reliable and winningest engines in drag racing history powering Shirley Muldowney, Barry Setzer/Pat Foster, Don Schumacher, Raymond-Beadle/Harry “Blue Max” Schmidt, Don Prudhomme and countless others to victory. In 1986, Milodon Engineering ceased production of the Milodon VII-L Hemi, but not before the engine had won numerous NHRA/AHRA/IHRA world championships in both Top Fuel and Funny Car Eliminator.

Keith Black Aluminum Hemi

The story of Keith Black Racing Engine’s aluminum Hemi is an interesting one. In 1965, Bob Tarozzi received his undergraduate degree from Western New England College in Springfield, Massachusetts. After looking at GM, Ford and Chrysler, he picked the latter, participating in the work-study program at the Chrysler Institute of Engineering, and ended up being assigned to the Chrysler Racing Group. Pete Hutchinson, Tom Hoover and Jim Thornton were key figures.

“At the time, Bob Cahill, Dick Maxwell and Tom Hoover were plotting the Hemi A-Body Super Stock program, and I was assigned to Tom Hoover. I remember he just threw me into the fire, saying ‘Here, kid, take this job.” Bob Tarozzi

Chrysler’s A-Body Hemi Super Stock R&D program was based out of CPD’s famed Woodward Garage in Highland Park. Originally scheduled as a 50-car production run, per marquee, it was expanded to 75. The first A-Body test took place at Irwindale Raceway on January 1968 with Tarozzi as test driver of the automatic car, while the late Ronnie Sox tested the manual car. That job lasted until November 1968 when Bob was assigned to NASCAR great Ray Nichols, where he built the first Dodge Charger 500 Grand National stock car, and from there he was assigned to Dan Gurney’s All American Racers where he worked on the Trans Am Dodge Challenger program.

“In 1971, I got a call from Tom Hoover to take a look at the new Harry Westlake-designed D-5 aluminum cylinder head and worked on that project for about a year and a half making manifolds, rocker arms, etcetera. Toward the end of 1971 or the start of 1972, I got a call from Holly Hedrich to come into Keith Black’s office. They asked, ‘After all the work you’ve done on the D-5 project do you think that you could build an aluminum block?’ Again, I didn’t have any formal engineering experience per se, but I said, ‘Hell yeah, we can do that.’” Bob Tarozzi

Some background, in 1971 Chrysler announced that its dwindling stockpile of cast-iron Hemi blocks were not going to be replaced because they’d lost the tooling. This news sent racers into a panic wondering where they were going to get new Hemi blocks. At the time, former Chrysler engineer Bob Mullen was working on the Donovan 417 and Black was well aware of it. What he wanted was to basically replicate the 426 in aluminum, albeit with all of the tricks: light weight, serviceability using ductile steel liners, max bore sizes of 4.340 or 550-cid, a beefier top and bottom end and more.

“Keith had it in his head that he had to sell 100 blocks to make this project profitable and he was really worried. However, Holly Hendrich was not. Holly went out and talked to the racers. He had good vision, and he knew that he could sell them. In retrospect he was right.

“Now this was the age before CAD computers. What I did was get the original paper drawings from Chrysler, just simple blueprints, and marked all these specific points up with red and redesigned the block on Chrysler’s original drawings. I didn’t even make a separate set. Because of that approach, once it got to the point that we were going to make tooling, I had to spend a lot of time at the pattern shop walking the guys through the drawings. I might have made a few line drawings, but most of the stuff we had was marked up in red from the original blueprints from Chrysler.” Bob Tarozzi

The first block to arrive at KB’s shop was final machined using a standard milling machine. According to Tarozzi, it sat on the bench in the engine shop for a number of weeks while Black decided what he would do next.

“I think Black was a bit concerned because he realized that now it would require a huge financial commitment to gear up for mass production. He had to outsource cranks, rods, pistons and everything else needed to make this project a reality, and that’s where Paul Candies came in.” Bob Tarozzi

The late Paul Candies was used to doing things on a grand scale. When Candies teamed up with Houma, Louisiana racer Leonard Hughes, he brought a brand of professionalism and aggressive thinking to drag racing that had seldom been seen. Candies & Hughes was one of the first two-car teams to face each other in a national event final (Funny Car Eliminator, 1970 NHRA Gatornationals), as well as being one of the first teams to appear in the final round of both Top Fuel and Funny Car (IHRA Longhorn Nationals).

“One afternoon, Paul and Leonard walked into Black’s office and said, OK, we’ve got to get off the pot. We’ve got to have this block. We’re tired of seeing that thing sitting out there in the engine room, and we’re prepared to do whatever it takes. We will give you our car. We will give you all the internal parts you need, and we will give you our driver, KB employee, the late Mike Snively and we’ll go testing. KB agreed, and Snively and Stan Shiroma were assigned to be my assistants. We scheduled a test day at Irwindale Raceway. I’ll never forget this for as long as I live. Leonard Hughes walked up and in his is deep southern drawl he said, ‘See that ambulance over there? That’s not for you, you know, pointing to Mike Snively, that’s for KB when he keels over from a heart attack!’” Bob Tarozzi

Six test runs were made and were a resounding success. Keith Black sold a lot of engines, and the Keith Black aluminum Hemi, in its numerous stages of refinement, set a ton of records.

So there you have it, Hemiology from the start to, well, certainly not the finish, but at least to the point where the NHRA began to require forged-aluminum pure race billet Hemi blocks and related Hemi components, which are currently used by every top team in Funny Car, Top Fuel, Top Alcohol and Pro Mod.

Next time you walk through the pits, especially the nitro, alcohol and Pro Stock neighborhoods, ask yourself, “Where would drag racing be without the Hemi?”

Drag Racer - HEMI
Chuck Potvin developed the front-mounted, crank-driven blower. Unfortunately, they could only run 1:1.

Drag Racer - HEMI
One of the hottest dragsters in its day was the Chassis Research, Inc. slingshot of Cook and Bedwell. Emery Cook ran a blistering 9.28/166.97 February 3, 1957 on fuel, a performance that in part prompted the infamous fuel ban of April 1, 1957. Their ultimate nitro number was an 8.89/166.97.

Drag Racer - HEMI
In 1958, Phil Weiand created the first top-mounted manifold for the GMC 6.71 blower which Art Chrisman and Frank Cannon ran on their Hustler-1 AA/FD. They set the Drag News Standard 1320 record, 8.54/181.81, in February 1959 at Riverside, California. They also won the first U.S. Fuel & Gas Championships in March 1959. Photo courtesy of the NHRA Motorsports Museum.

Drag Racer - HEMI
By the early ’60s, Hemis were in all of the hot classes. Mooneyham & Sharp’s 390 Hemi powered their 554 Fuel Coupe. It was based on a 331 Hemi block and featured a set of trick billet Hemi cylinder heads and Sharp rocker arms. The car ran a career best of 8.98-170.00.

Drag Racer
“Wild Willy” Borsch piloted Jim’s Auto Parts AA/HR, soon to be the Winged Express in 1960. Note the Howard’s Chain drive and cover. If one of these chains broke, they could cut the car, and anyone nearby, to pieces.

Drag Racer - HEMI
Prudhomme scored an incredible win-loss record of 236-7 running as quick as 7.77/191.48 in the Greer, Black & Prudhomme AA/FD racing Safford, Guaide and Ratican’s blown Oldsmobile.

Drag Racer - HEMI
Don Garlits’s Wynn’s Jammer AA/FD at Bakersfield in 1964 was runner-up to Connie Kalitta. The following year Garlits and his drivers Marvin Schwartz and Connie Swingle swept the meet.

Drag Racer - HEMI
With the NHRA fuel ban lifted, Tommy Ivo left Buick for Chrysler power. His Kent Fuller-chassis Hemi AA/FD ran 7.84 seconds at San Gabriel and 202.70 at Half Moon Bay. Jim Kelly photo courtesy Tom Ivo.

Drag Racer - HEMI
Stone, Woods & Cook vs. “Big John” Mazmanian at the AA/GS final at the 1964 NHRA Winternationals. To remain competitive, most Gassers soon switched to Hemi power. Jim Kelly photo courtesy Match Race Madness.

Drag Racer - HEMI
If one Hemi was good, two would be even better. That was the thinking behind Frakes & Funk’s Kentucky Moonshiner AA/GD seen here at Indy 1970.

Drag Racer - HEMI
Gene Adams’ favorite and winningest racer was this Don Long-chassis front-engine A/Fueler driven by Don Enriquez. They ran two Hemis in this car, a 291-inch DeSoto for Jr. Fuel and an injected Chrysler for NHRA Pro Comp, both set records.

Drag Racer - HEMI
The Hemis of Gary Burgin and K.S. Pitman face off.

Drag Racer - HEMI
When bad things happen to early Hemis. The Toler & Tolbert AA/FD catches fire at Irwindale Raceway in the late ’60s. Tom Toler escaped with minor burns. Photo by Steve Reyes

Drag Racer - HEMI
In January 1965, Chrysler turned the drag racing world on its collective ear with its new altered-wheelbase Mopars. Outlawed by the NHRA, they were a hit with the “run what ya brung” crowd.

Drag Racer - HEMI
The Knapp-Westerdale-Ramchargers AA/FD was the first to use a Gen II Hemi. It ran a creditable 7.60-205.00 at Indy 1964. This is a photo of Leroy Goldstein racing their second car.

Drag Racer - HEMI
The Hemi ’Cuda was conceived by Lou Baney, Ronnie Scrima and Dave Zeuschel and driven initially by Tom McEwen. The back seat Hemi ran in the low nines at 178-plus mph.

Drag Racer - HEMI
In 1968, Chrysler Racing and Hurst Performance built a fleet of 426 Hemi Dodge Dart and Plymouth Barracuda Super Stockers. Here’s Division 7 racer Wiley Cossey and his Casler Racing Tires Hemi ’Cuda.

Drag Racer - Hemi
Late-model Hemis found their way into everything, including Ernie Nicholson’s Keith Black-powered ’Cuda AA/GS.

Drag Racer - HEMI
Hemis dominated Pro Stock Eliminator for several years, debuting at the 1970 NHRA Winternationals. Here’s Don Grotheer’s ’70 Hemi ’Cuda. The Gen 3 is now flexing its muscles in current P/S competition.

Drag Racer - HEMI
The Gen 2 Hemi dominated fuel Funny Car competition. The late Kenny Safford pilots the Mr. Norm’s Super Charger Dodge AA/FC at Indy in 1970.

Drag Racer - HEMI
Don Garlits’s Swamp Rat 14 shocked the troops by sweeping the NHRA and IHRA winter races, plus the March Meet. Garlits’s right-hand man, the late Tommy “T.C.” Lemons assists with a fire burnout.

Drag Racer - HEMI
Kansas John Wiebe debuts the new Donovan 417 engine #001 at the 1971 NHRA Mattel Hot Wheels Super Nationals. The revolutionary new engine set of Low E.T. at 6.53 and was runner up in Top Fuel.

Drag Racer - HEMI
Chrysler engineer Bob Tarozzi with what is rumored to be the second Keith Black aluminum engine. He was chief engineer on this project, working closely with Candies and Hughes, who tested the engine.

Drag Racer - HEMI
Dale Armstrong wheels the Donovan engine Foust, Menzies & Armstrong Indy-winning AA/Altered, which ran high sixes.

Text and Photos by Bob McClurg

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