We Were the Ramchargers

Let’s have a book review.

I was recently given a copy of We Were the Ramchargers , a history of, well, the Ramchargers, the usually factory-backed Dodge drag racing team during perhaps the most exciting years (thus far) of the sport.  The book has recently come out, and garnered some attention; I’ve seen at least two articles in magazines giving an overview of the book.  We may take this as an indication of the influence of the team on the world of motorsports (he said, burnishing his ficticious pipe and adjusting his equally ficticious tweed cap).

Beginning in 1959, a group of young Chrysler employees pooled their money to build a drag car as the embodiment of their ideas on performance, and incidentally to beat up on the recently ascendant small-block Chevrolets that were ruling much of drag racing.  By 1969, they had won innumerable races, helped reestablish Chrysler performance as a very credible street threat, and worked on gas, nitro, hydrazine, alcohol, supercharging, fuel injection, suspension development, tuned ram and exhaust development, and raced super stock, dragsters, and funny cars.  Interestingly, most of these technologies were coming of age at the time, often pioneered by the Ramchargers and their competition.

The book is a broken up by year, with paragraphs of narration interspersed with frequent paragraphs of  explanation, anecdote, and reflection, taken from numerous interviews with the surviving group members.  This format keeps things moving along, and the author has happily chosen to allow the interview segments to cover a bit of the technical side of things.  Numerous pictures are provided.

Historically, Ramchargers is inspirational.  These fellows started a team with no factory backing, and won.  They got some factory backing, and won a lot more.  There is little personal conflict mentioned in the book, and one gets the sense that this is because there was little, rather than that the story has been airbrushed.  It is a testament to what skilled, organized individuals can do when they work together and decide to produce a whole lot of awesome.

The technical side of the book is interesting because much of the team’s success was due to engineering prowess in an era during which simulation was used much less than it is now, and the theoretical knowledge available was advancing rapidly.  Adjusting the engine in a particular way might have resulted in more speed, and it might have simply burnt a piston or tossed a rod.  More hydrazine might have helped smooth out power delivery, or it might have blown the engine.  In a field that is advancing rapidly, you need to field test new ideas commensurately rapidly.  More spark lead on the Hemi?  More dynamic weight transfer on the High and Mighty car?  Try it out.  While the Ramchargers were largely very skilled engineers and technicians, they were not at all recalcitrant about “going for it” with a new idea, putting it onto the track as soon as possible.  After all, the competition might have figured the same thing out yesterday.  Reading about the rapid evolution of the technology and its deployment in anger is the heart of the book, and it is fortunately presented in a way that allows the reader to understand (much) of what is being discussed.

I have a few quibbles with the book; it sort of tapers off as the group members went their different ways, which is understandable, but lacks punch.  There are also a few repeated spelling errors that grated – most notably, “bonsai” rather than “banzai”.  (You can see the problem with this one.)

When a book has a chapter entitled “dropping the atom bomb” about the arrival of the 426 Hemi, though, I’m willing to forgive the minor editorial quibbles in deference to the larger successful choices.

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