By Jim Hill
Motorsports and in particular, drag racing, lost one of its most iconic figures when Tom Hoover, the man called “Father of the 426 Hemi”, died April 30, 2015. A native of Huntingdon, PA, Hoover’s passing came following a lengthy illness.
Hugely admired and respected by his peers and even those loyal to non-Chrysler makes, Hoover was inducted as a member of the East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame in 2011.
Nancy Wilson, Executive Director (title?) of ECDTHOF noted that: “We were greatly pleased to include such an influential person in the world of motorsports into our Hall of Fame. Tom Hoover’s legendary career in designing racing engines influenced the outcome of national and local drag racing events for decades. Even today, 50 years after its introduction, the Chrysler 426 Hemi remains as the standard by which drag racing engines are judged, and Mr. Hoover had a major role in its creation. Even the word “Hemi” has become mainstream in denoting serious, race winning horsepower. His legendary career as an engineer included his involvement in the formation of The Ramchargers, which may be the most famous drag racing club in the history of the sport. Our sympathies go out to his family and many friends”, reflected Ms. Wilson.
Hoover’s career as an engineer at Chrysler began in 1955, but his early enthusiasm for racing was stymied by a Chrysler corporate policy that supported only the Karl Kiekhaefer Mercury Outboard Chrysler 300’s that dominated mid-50’s NASCAR racing. Hoover and other like-minded engineers persevered, and in 1958 they formed the original Ramchargers. Originally formed as an after-work-hours club, The Ramchargers was made up of racing enthusiasts who were also employed by Chrysler as engineers and technicians.
It should be pointed out that the recently deceased Tom Hoover – legendary Chrysler racing engineer, was not the famous Top Fuel (“Ma & Pa Hoover’s Hoover Wheel Alignment Special”) and Funny Car (“Showtime”) driver Tom Hoover. “Minneapolis Tom Hoover”, an NHRA standout racer, remains retired and in good health.
The “Father of the 426 Hemi” was equally famed for his involvement in the hyper development of the highly successful Chrysler (Dodge-Plymouth) series of wedge head 413-426 “B” engines. These engines powered Chrysler makes to countless NASCAR and drag racing victories in the early to mid-1960’s and beyond. The wedge engines featured such innovations as a cross-ram 2x4 barrel induction. It was at the 1961 Nationals that the Ramchargers’ club project, a ’61 Dodge Dart driven by Chrysler attorney Al Eckstrand, defeated several of the favored Chevy, Ford and Pontiac in Top Stock Eliminator. This seemingly impossible task gained considerable press coverage and the attention of Chrysler President Lynn Townsend. Seeing the positive publicity generated by the Ramchargers Indy effort, Townsend authorized funding for further development of Chrysler engines and vehicles for drag racing.
The wedge engines were quickly improved for racing in full-bodied competition as well as in the 1962 Winternationals Top Eliminator winning Dragmaster Dart of Jim Nelson and Dode Martin. Wedge engines reached their high-water mark with the 426 Max-Wedge, which dominated until the 1964 release of Hoover’s most famous project, the 426 Hemi for which he is identified with.
Tom Hoover’s imprint was also heavily seen in the Ramchargers early club project, an ungainly 1950 Plymouth business coupe dubbed “The High & Mighty”, after the popular movie and title song. The C/Altered Plymouth was loaded with clever, engineer-inspired tricks and was powered by an early Chrysler 354 Hemi V-8. At the 1959 NHRA Nationals, held at Detroit Dragway that year, the car won C/A and set official class records. Many of the innovative items used on this car would later be adapted to the wedge and later 426 Hemi projects overseen by Hoover.
Displaying his noted ability to adapt his considerable skills, Hoover developed the not widely known but remarkable performance project based Hyper-Pak for the pedestrian Slant Six. Hoover’s Hyper-Pak included a uniquely designed four-barrel intake, revised and improved cross-flow cylinder head and exhaust system that produced an impressive 200 hp from the tiny Slant Six engines!
Hoover and the engine development group used much of the knowledge gained during the early 1951-58 Hemi engine program in creating the 426 Race Hemi. While the 426 Race Hemi (released in late 1963) was inspired by basic shared design elements – the cylinder head’s hemispherical combustion chambers, dual-shaft overhead-valve valve gear and valve angles. The 426 Hemi was a vastly improved engine that relied heavily on Hoover’s experiences in making the 426 wedge engines powerful and durable.
In its introduction, the new 426 Race Hemi blew away the field at the February 1964 Daytona 500. Richard Petty won going-away and Hemi powered cars swept second and third. That and the near total domination of the ’64 season prompted NASCAR to impose 1965 restrictions that drove the Dodge and Plymouth teams to boycott NASCAR events. Once the rules flap was settled Hemi power again stormed the high-banked, superspeedways.
The ’64 drag racing introduction of the 426 Race Hemi was equally successful. The engine was an immediate headlining success through the ’64 season. A ’64 Dodge painted in the distinctive Ramchargers red and white, candy-stripe design won the hotly contested Super Stock/Automatic class at NHRA’s Labor Day ’64 Nationals. That set the stage for many years of Hemi dominance in NHRA, AHRA and later, IHRA drag racing.
While full-bodied, Stock and Super Stock success was the primary target of Chrysler marketing, the Ramchargers club also assembled a successful series of Top Fuel dragsters, and later Funny Cars, all powered by thundering, nitro-fed, 426 Hemi’s. Fuel drag racing had been dominated by the “early” 392 Hemi for many years, but the 426 Hemi proved so well suited that 50 years later it’s the only one used for Top Fuel, Funny Car, Nostalgia TF and AA/FC as well as the alcohol FC and TAD fields. Current Hemi’s in drag racing have long since favored aftermarket aluminum blocks and heads purpose-designed for nitro racing, but the indelible stamp of Tom Hoover and his 426 Race Hemi design remain a constant.
Tom Hoover attended Juniata College, in Huntingdon, PA. He was a Pennsylvania National Guard member when he was deployed to the Korean War and served 19 months before returning home. Once back stateside he earned an undergraduate physics and later a master’s degree in engineering from Penn State University. He joined Chrysler Corporation in 1955, where he earned another master’s degree in automotive engineering from the Chrysler Institute.
Record breaking attendance at 2014 East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame! 2014 attraced the largest number of cars and people to the 14th Annual East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame. Make plans to attend the 15th annual event, October 16, 17 & 18, 2015.
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