HEMI Heritage

The Heart of the Matter - Early 1964

Geoff Stunkard - May 18, 2014 10:27 AM


An X-ray of the 1964 engine shows the technology that went into making a winning motor for Daytona.

Courtesy of Geoff Stunkard

Driving for Ray Fox at Darlington, Buck Baker took a Hemi win. Dodge was in its 50th Anniversary in 1964, and the Hemi helped put it on the racing map at the dawn of the musclecar age. Goodyear helped promote the victory. 

Courtesy of Geoff Stunkard

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      When the early castings of the 426 Hemi block began showing issues due to load-related stress on the cylinder walls, Assistant Chief Engineer Willem Weertman and a race engine development engineer named Larry Adams came up with a template to put some additional metal onto the cylinder walls during the coring process before the block was poured. It didn’t work. Weertman personally flew down to the engine foundry in Indiana and hand-modified some fresh block casting cores with foundry liaisons Louie Taylor and Earl Pinches. It was three weeks before the Daytona 500.
      These fixes also had problems, but the trio worked around the clock to carefully adapt and finalize a casting process that included adding solid strength in the walls and structural continuity throughout the block. Without these changes, there would have likely been no Hemi engines still running at the end of the fabled NASCAR event. A furnace stress-relieving process was done by re-baking and then slow-cooling the fresh castings prior to machining. It added time to the process. This was because Chrysler’s stress laboratory had taken one of those first engines for endurance ‘strain-gauge’ measurement testing in the Highland Park dyno room; this was instrument-checked by using ‘read wires’ coming up through the crankcase to get readings sonically from the metal.  They had run the engine continuously for days to understand the metallurgic configuration and heat-treating was part of their solution to weakness found in the bulkheads of the block.
      In early February, Bill France’s speedway had begun to come alive for the 1964 year. Noted driver Paul Goldsmith had already seen what the engine would do, test driving a Ray Nichols’ Plymouth at 180 mph on Goodyear’s test track in San Angelo, Texas. By the time Weertman and his team had gotten a good casting out from the oven, the track was almost open and pre-race inspection began in days.
      Following testing using some early engines in California, the company had already passed on an attempt to get an A/Factory Experimental 426 Hemi drag package into action at the NHRA Winternationals. Development work on a drag version of the engine had been ongoing at the same time as the circle track configuration, but everything was now focused on Daytona. The NASCAR race teams selected for Hemi power received some of the earlier engines with the hope that they could hold up in qualifying.
      A promise from Chrysler that the Hemi would be available as a production engine that spring (which it was, batch-released in a group of 110 or so drag racing specials) gave Bill France a willingness to make it legal for his race. Chrysler instructed their drivers not to run the engine flat out, for the sake of longevity, but also not to give anybody an undue reason to complain before the big show. GM was now out of racing and Chrysler had not been a real threat at Daytona in previous seasons. Ford figured they would have little trouble dominating with the “Total Performance” wedge engine, even if the big Marauders and Galaxies were giving up some size to the unibody Belvederes and Dodges. Despite not pushing the envelope, the eight Chrysler Hemi cars managed to qualify in the seven top spots and all in the top 10. Goldsmith had run a record 174.91 mph to take the pole.
      The Hemi teams included two Plymouths from Petty Enterprises (Richard Petty and Buck Baker), two cars, one Dodge and one Plymouth, from Nichols Engineering (Paul Goldsmith and Bobby Isaac), two Dodges from Cotton Owens (David Pearson and Jim Paschal), one Dodge from Ray Fox (Junior Johnson) and one Plymouth from Burton & Robinson (Jimmy Pardue). There were a handful of other Chrysler campaigners, but only these teams had the new power. Two days before the 500, Johnson won a qualifying race, but split the block bulkhead along the oil galley from the cam down to the main bearing; there was little hope for the original block configuration.
      According to assembly engineer Steve Baker, to blueprint and assemble a fresh Hemi engine took approximately 80 man-hours, not including the machine work. There were approximately a dozen of the better motors built in that short time period, with somebody for each team coming from Daytona to pick up fresh versions. The company decided not to fly them down en mass for fear of an aircraft accident. Four more came down in a truck with engineer Bob Lechner and an associate just in case, but the clock was already running out.
      By race day, the gloves came off. Richard Petty and Paul Goldsmith were using blocks that had been cast, stress-relieved, machined and built into race motors, then trucked down to Florida during the past 13 days. Petty won the event, Pardue was second, and Goldy was third to give Plymouth the top slots. The only Hemi DNF was David Pearson, who wrecked on the 57th lap.
      It was 1964, and more, much more was to come. The Chrysler Hemi, along with all of its accolades, angst and controversy, had arrived…
(Geoff Stunkard, former editor of Mopar magazines, is presently writing an overview history of Chrysler’s Race Hemi engine for Cartech books to released in 2015. He will be highlighting Hemi heritage on this 50th Anniversary for Cars & Parts throughout 2014.)