Racecar Rewind


Story and photos by Paul Stenquist

Forty-one years ago, Larry traveled to Detroit to pick up the factory Hemi Dart race car at left. He campaigned it successfully on the Super Stock match-race circuit and won three UDRA championships. The car is now owned by retired Mopar hero Joe Hilger. Larry hoped to experience similar success with the new Challenger factory racer.

Larry Griffith has made it a habit to elbow his way to the front of the line at the new race-car counter. Larry, who was a major player in the golden age of 1960s Super Stock racing, cut his teeth with a rare 1963 Max-Wedge Dodge race car. Later, he was one of the first to run a ’65 Plymouth R01 Hemi. And in late 1967, when rumors of a limited-production ’68 Hemi Dart began to leak out of Detroit, Larry made sure he was at the front of the line that soon formed for those fabulous factory racecars.

The American Muscle Racing Team, left to right: Denny Guest, George Young, Jack Thomas, Bill Sans, Joe Geraci, Larry Griffith, Jerry Goddard, Jim Guzzo, and Larry Pontnack. Race Director Pontnack owns Mopar City in Oregon, IL

Former Super Stock hot shoe Larry Griffith returned to the quarter-mile wars in one of the new Challenger factory race cars. Griffith’s Challenger was the second car delivered to a customer. Number one went to old number one, Don Garlits.
Larry Griffith’s new Stock Eliminator Challenger looked a bit spiffier by the time it hit the dragstrip. The Dodge factory racers are sold as a part and do not carry a VIN number. All are delivered in white or black with unpainted hoods, no drivetrain, and wheels that are just sufficient to roll the car out the door.

Forty-one years later, Larry Griffith and his new American Muscle Racing Team made another trip to Detroit. This time Larry and his pals were second in line for a new 2009 Dodge Challenger Stock Eliminator race car. The first car, which was built for an automatic trans drivetrain, went to Don Garlits. It was prepared by John Donato, a former Dodge engineer who was instrumental in the development of the Challenger racecar. According to John, Garlits planned to race the car.

The American Muscle car that Larry campaigned in NHRA competition was the first manual-trans Challenger race car to leave the Dodge parts depot, The Garlits car bears the part number 2009-001, while Larry’s Challenger is 2009-002. Because Larry was the first driver to pick up a car in Detroit, the event was well attended by Dodge and Mopar employees. Some of Larry’s old racing buddies made the trip to Motown as well. And we do mean old. Most of you weren’t even born when these guys were racing. So while the event didn’t consist of much more than pushing the car out of the shop and loading it into a truck, the atmosphere was upbeat, and a lot of good bench racing preceded the Challenger’s trip back to Coal Valley, Illinois, where high-performance parts manufacturer American Muscle Llc and its racing team are based.

Larry Griffith back in the day

But back to that Challenger. Like the 1968 car, Larry had to order it through a dealership. This time, his buddy Denny Guest, owner of South Oak Dodge in Matteson Illinois and an avid drag fan, did the honors. Denny’s dealership was a primary sponsor of the car. Thanks to John Donato’s foresight, the Challenger is legal for numerous NHRA classes. When equipped with the 6.1L Hemi, the car could run in B Stock, A Stock, AA Stock or Super Stock. Larry planned drive the car in competition and expected to contend at numerous NHRA national events. He hadn’t quite settled on a manual trans for his car at the time, but it would probably be either a four-speed or five-speed box. The Moser 8 3/4” third member and MP aluminum carrier would be mounted on a four-link rear suspension as described in our April 2009 coverage of the Challenger prototype drag rest.

The Challenger makes its way into the South Oak Dodge transporter for the trip to Coal Valley, Illinois. South Oak is the Dodge dealership of Denny Guest sponsored both of the American Muscle Challengers. Denny is Chicagoland’s number one Dodge dealer and a longtime supporter of Mopar performance and drag racing.

The American Muscle team was on its way back to Detroit shortly to pick up another Challenger race car. This one was purchased by Assistant Race Director Jerry Goddard and was equipped with an automatic transmission. A full-time professional driver, who had yet to be named, would steer the car in competition, but the team hoped to have guest drivers take the seat for match races and nostalgia events. They would love to see some of the old Super Stock gang take a turn in the car. Rumor had it that Pat Minick, who shoed SS cars before taking the wheel of the Chi-Town Hustler, was seen giving the car a long lookover when the team returned to Illinois. Former racer, and American Muscle team race director, Larry Potnack would undoubtedly want to put in some shoe time, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see former Hemi-Dart handler and current UDRA president Jack Thomas strapped into the Challenger as well. The team also hopes that Chris Karamesines, who is a good friend of Denny Guest, can be persuaded to take the seat for a match race with Garlits and Challenger number one. Now that would be a show.

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