THE CHRYSLER HEMI

In 1962 Chrysler Motor Company consulted Cotton Owens, Ray Nichels, Ray Fox, and Maurice Petty about its future in stock car racing. Owens mentioned to Gail Porter that Chrysler had a powerplant in the old Hemi engines of the 1950's and suggested that they convert them for modern racing. "I was more than a little surprised when he told me that if I was willing to come with Chrysler, they would build a completely new Hemi," recalls Cotton.

Chrysler released the hemispherical combustion chamber engine in 1964 and took stock car racing to a new level. At Daytona the dominant drivers on the circuit -- Fireball Roberts, Fred Lorenzen, Marvin Panch, and Joe Weatherly - were shocked to see Plymouths and Dodges setting new records that were inconceivable a year before. Paul Goldsmith qualified for the pole at 174.910, and Richard Petty sat on the outside at 174.418 (up from 154.785 in 1963).

While the Hemis were running in the 170's, the Fords favored by racing's elite were running in the mid-to-high 160's. Such racing legends as Marvin Panch, Jim Paschal, Ned Jarrett, Fireball Roberts, and Fred Lorenzen, all driving Fords, were scattered throughout the rest of the field. At the end of the race, Chrysler held four of the top five positions. They went on to win 26 of the 62 races in the 1964 season.

The Hemi was like taking a round ball and cutting it into two pieces. The intake valve was on top with the exhaust valve on the bottom. The piston came up between the valves for efficient fire and release. The design allowed for large intake and exhaust valves and made room for improved breathing and complete combustion. "It was a production engine, and any ordinary mechanic could have it producing 550 horsepower in short order," said Cotton Owens. "Of course, when you line up and enlarge the ports, grind under the valves or any of the little things racers do in fine tuning, then you have an engine capable of 6,500 to 7,800 horsepower, depending on how high you want to turn it."

But the cars were too fast for the short tracks, and Ford won 11 of the next 15 races. The cars were also too fast for the tires, and some of the drivers were getting nervous after crashes that claimed the lives of Fireball Roberts, Jimmy Pardue, and Joe Weatherly, and the Hemi disappeared as NASCAR began looking for a middle ground in horsepower.