Rockwell was 15 years old the first time he saw one of the Ramchargers
cars race at Detroit Dragway. Within a year, the teenager had talked himself
into riding along with the team for a match racing weekend at Martin Dragway
on the other side of Michigan's Lower Peninsula.
It wasn't long after
that that Rockwell had become one of the Ramchargers, working on the now
legendary drag racing cars built by a group of young Chrysler engineers,
who turned lunch-table conversations at Chrysler's in-house engineering
grad school into one of the most formidable teams in drag racing history.
That history is revealed
in depth by Rockwell, who wasn't a Chrysler engineer but instead would
become a PhD with a practice in psychoanalytic psychotherapy and an adjunct
professor of clinical psychology at Michigan State University.
But even as he practiced,
Rockwell would continue his relationship with racetracks, working with
Paul Gentilozzi's various racing teams before founding Kart Kinetics to
design and develop parts for go-kart racing.
In 1996, the Ramchargers
were inducted into the Michigan Motorsports Hall of Fame. On their way
home, Rockwell and his wife continued a discussion that began at the induction
about it being time for someone to write the definitive team history.
Mary's encouragement started Rockwell on a mission that would span 40
interviews, lots of additional research and writing and would result in
We Were the Ramchargers: Inside Drag Racing's Legendary Team.
So who were the Ramchargers?
Well, with only a few exceptions such as Rockwell, they were young Chrysler
engineers who worked full-time for the automaker in the 1960s and beyond,
but whose passion for motorsports had them working long into the nights
as part-time racers who eventually rented a succession of garages in which
to build and maintain their cars.
They also eventually
gained some support from Chrysler and its Dodge division, but they were
far from being a "factory" team as we have come to know that
So far, in fact,
that Ramchargers Mike Buckel notes that after speeds exceeded 200 miles
per hour, "we knew
that [maintaining ever faster speeds] would
require becoming full-time racers." And these guys were career engineers
who loved racing, but had important day jobs at Chrysler and families
In fact, Buckel adds,
"Frank Wiley [head of public relations for Dodge] had
for us to become a NASCAR team, and that most certainly would require
becoming full-time racers. So we all sat around and discussed it,"
which was typical of how the team made decisions.
After that discussion,
where travel schedules, a likely move to the Carolinas and the impact
full-time racing would have on family life were among the subjects, "we
never gave the NASCAR offer a third thought.
"We put a lot
of time and effort into becoming engineers, and there's still a lot of
good work we can accomplish within the company," Buckel explained.
"The racing was fun, but we didn't want to be professional racers."
Many people, however,
still consider the Ramchargers among the most professional of racing teams
And yet they were
far from the typical racing team because, as Rockwell quotes Ramchargers
Dick Maxell, "What's really unique about the Ramchargers is probably
having about the only successful race car whose team is better known than
For most of their
history, team members themselves, not big-name, hired-gun drag racers,
drove the Ramchargers cars-cars with such skilled engineering and mechanical
preparation that for many years they repeatedly set national speed records
in multiple categories.
At the same time,
they helped make Chrysler vehicles more attractive to younger - much younger
-buyers and helped Dodge emerge as a performance division and competitor
for Chevrolet, Pontiac and Ford.
I'll leave all the
details to Rockwell and his book, a book packed with wonderful stories,
a succession of photographs and engineering drawings that will be cherished
by those who have fond memories of the candy-striped Ramchargers cars,
and by those who may have heard of the team but are too young to seen
it in action at the drag strip.