The first Dodge automobile was produced on Nov. 14, 1914, which means Dodge will celebrate its 100th birthday this year. Trucks came after 1914 and most Dodge racing cars came along even later. That may surprise some folks, since John and Horace Dodge got started in 1900 making engines under contract for Ford. Since Ford was an early racing buff, you would think some of his competitive spirit would have rubbed off on the close-knit machinist brothers.
In the early years of the company, the Dodge brothers favored dependability over going fast. The Dodge Model 30 was a fancier rival to the Model T and made it into the number two auto sales niche based on its being a more reliable car. Trouble was, the Dodge brothers both died in 1920 and the bankers who took over weren’t new product guys or racing guys. Then Chrysler bought the company in 1928, but the Great Depression and World War II slowed down any racing involvements. Surely, there were a few attempts by dealers or enthusiasts to hot rod the Dodge six, but it was flathead Ford and Mercury V-8s and big-car motors pirated from Duesenbergs and Buicks that won checkered flags then.
The 1949 Bell Auto Parts Catalog—one of the earliest of its type for racers and hot rodders—did offer a Tattersfield dual manifold for Mopar sixes, plus 8.0:1 compression heads and special equal-distribution intake manifolds of the same brand for Dodges and Plymouths. A few pages later you could get a Harman & Collins three-quarter or full-race cam for a Dodge six or a Douglas straight-thru muffler for any ’36-’49 Dodge, but beyond that it was mostly Ford/Mercury stuff.
Probably the main reason for any interest in Mopar speed goodies then was a NASCAR driver named Lee Petty, who was “King Richard’s” dad and who became the first Daytona 500 winner in 1959. Petty drove a little “box-on-two-boxes” Plymouth six in the early ‘50s and he actually won races on the basis of fuel economy. When other drivers stopped for fuel, he scooted by them.
Chrysler’s Hemi engine was introduced in 1951 and by the fall of 1952 Chrysler dealer Roger Walcotts was preparing a Hemi-powered Kurtis-Kraft roadster for the Indianapolis 500. Chrysler engineers tweaked its specially developed FirePower V-8 to 400 hp so it could compete in the 1953 Indy 500. The AAA Contest Board changed its rules to allow up to 335-cid stock-block engines to be used. Chrysler’s 331-cid Hemi was perfect.
Chrysler had already developed racing Hemis for Briggs Cunningham’s sports cars, which ruled American road racing and got noticed at LeMans. When Chrysler opened its Proving Grounds in Chelsea, Mich., in June 1954, a new interest in racing was evident. The automaker paid drivers like Bill Vukovich $5,000 to attend the opening ceremonies. Drivers Sam Hanks and Ray Nichels brought a Kurtis-Hemi built for Firestone Tires. And top three Indy drivers Troy Ruttman, Jimmy Bryan and Jack McGrath came in their Offys. Female driver Betty Skelton set a new world speed record for a woman on a closed course of 143.44 mph driving the Hemi-powered 1954 Dodge Firearrow show car. To top off all of this, a Dodge convertible paced the Indy 500 that year.
In 1956, Dodge introduced its D-500 engine package, which was sort of a version of the Chrysler 300 Letter Car marketed as a Dodge option. This really hot machine immediately caught the attention of people like Mercury Outboard Race Team owner Carl Kiekhaefer and Lee Petty, who both entered D-500 equipped Dodges in NASCAR events. It was pretty clear from that point on that Dodge was going to be a force in all forms of automobile racing from then on.
Next, Mopar started making a name for itself in the La Carrera Pan Americana (Mexican Road Races) where Hemi-powered Chryslers beefed up with export parts kits started winning checkered flags.
Dodge, along with its Chrysler and Plymouth siblings, has been a major force in professional racing of all types. Dragsters powered by its Hemi engines have been some of the fastest in the history of the sport, and NASCAR stock cars based on the company’s models have been driven by some the most successful drivers. Through both sponsorship and technology, Dodge has been an important sponsor of racing in nearly all its forms. The American Automobile Manufacturers ban on racing tie-ins that took effect in 1957 reduced direct factory involvement for a while, but under-the-counter support was still provided.
Then came the growth of drag racing with drivers such as “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and his Dodge-powered Swamp Rat dragster gaining national notoriety. Garlitz’s rear-engine car would go on to become an iconic Top Fuel dragster design and his use of the Dodge engine was perfectly timed to give the automaker a foothold in the muscle car market, which was heavily influenced by drag racing interest. Many muscle car fans became weekend warriors.
From Lee Petty’s D-500 to the wild-winged 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona, the company has developed a long-lasting involvement in NASCAR racing, too. In fact, if you use 1954 as your starting point, Dodge’s NASCAR history takes up 60 of its 100 years. The Winston Racing Series that started in 1982 became the Dodge Weekly Series in 2002. That sponsorship lasted five years.
Dodge also entered LeMans racing with the V-10-powered Viper. First developed with Carroll Shelby as kind of a Mopar Shelby Cobra, the Viper was pricey, but very fast. By its 10th birthday in 2000, the Dodge supercar had copped a first in class finish at LeMans, a quartet of FIA championships and the American LeMans championship. In 2000, a GTS-R won the 24 Hours of LeMans.
Over the past few years, Dodge’s Motorsports Division has backed a variety of racing activities including the Dodge Motorsports/Hart and Huntington AMA Supercross Team, The Dodge Viper Cup, Formula DRIFT series, and competition and the TORC off-road truck racing series.