Quiet. The air is filled with the smell of racetrack; it is the smell of fuel, the smell of new tires. A flick of a toggle switch breaks the silence, and then a fuel pump runs for a second, nervously: Eeeeeeeeee. A moment later, a starter spins: Rrr-rrr-rrr-rrr-rrr! No dice. A head leans into the cockpit, asks a question. Notes are made, glances exchanged.
Another stab: Rrr-rrr-rrr-rrr-thph-thph - a catch, a spit. I kneel next to the exhaust tentatively, waiting to have my face blown off. Suddenly, the car lives: Whomp! Whompawhompacrackwhompacrackcrack Whomp! On a nearby pit wall, a lone bottle of water vibrates, concentric circles appearing in the liquid's surface. The throttle is blipped again: Whomp whomp! The sheer volume of it makes my ears crackle, and from five feet away - I am not making this up - the exhaust pulses are strong enough to ruffle my hair. The All-American Racers Trans-Am Plymouth 'Cuda, all 304 cubes and 3200 pounds of it, is awake.
Vintage Trans-Am racing cars make this sort of noise all the time, but this one - this huge and impossibly good-looking beast of a car - is ever so slightly different. To hear the sound of a championship-winning, born-in-the-golden-era Trans-Am race car is to hear the sound of greenbacks flooding out of corporate coffers, the sound of bulldozed competition.
Try as it might, this car doesn't sing that song. No: To hear an ex-Dan Gurney, ex-Swede Savage Plymouth Barracuda race car is to hear the glorious, bellowing roar of a success that almost was.
From the beginning, Chrysler's involvement in the Trans-Am was halfhearted at best. The company gave factory support to a Barracuda and a Dodge Dart in the series' inaugural (1966) season and then promptly pulled the plug at the end of the year.
In retrospect, the timing couldn't have been worse. In the Trans-Am's next season, the arrival of extremely well-funded Ford and Chevrolet factory teams marked the beginning of what would become a three-year-long, no-holds-barred, multimillion-dollar Detroit war. By the time Chrysler finally announced its return to the Trans-Am in late 1969, things had been too good for too long - the racing was fantastic to watch, but investment by the front-running teams had reached unsustainable levels, and everyone knew it. In an era of thinning muscle car sales and rising safety consciousness, Chrysler's renewed efforts were a case of too little, too late.
The first year of the Me Decade was pivotal for the Trans-Am series. In a move that greatly altered the character of the series, the Sports Car Club of America split each race weekend into two separate events based on engine class, liberating the bigger-bore cars from the handicap of running with much slower traffic. It also effectively set the Detroit iron free to race with complete abandon. Capping things off, further rule changes aimed at promoting parity and reducing costs actually backfired, prompting ever more ingenious cheating and higher spending. For a less-than-wholly-committed, semirookie manufacturer, the waters looked awfully deep.
Nevertheless, Chrysler plunged headfirst into the fray. In October of 1969 - just six months before the next season's first event - Chrysler made public its upcoming return to Trans-Am racing. Dan Gurney's All-American Racers shop was tasked with running a two-car team of 'Cudas, with Gurney and Savage tapped to do the driving. Ray Caldwell's Autodynamics team was hired to field a Dodge Challenger driven by Sam Posey.
In order to compete in the series, Chrysler had to abide by the SCCA's homologation procedures, producing and selling a set number of street vehicles similar to the car that the company planned to race. The models that ensued - the Dodge Challenger T/A and the Plymouth AAR 'Cuda, the latter named after Gurney's team - were, like the Chevrolet Camaro Z28 and the Ford Boss 302 Mustang before them, road-racing specials for the showroom. Stiffer springs and shocks, quickened steering, fiberglass hoods, larger brakes, and relatively small, high-winding V-8s were par for the course. Unique trim packages, consisting largely of spoilers, stickers, and hood pins, came along for the ride.
Most important, however, was that Chrysler engineers gifted the AAR 'Cuda and the Challenger T/A with a powerplant aimed specifically at road racing. The Trans-Am's over-2.0-liter class had long had a 305-cubic-inch (5.0-liter) displacement cap, but one of the new rules for 1970 allowed manufacturers to downsize larger engines to fall under the limit. Chrysler seized the opportunity, destroking its venerable 340-cubic-inch V-8 to 303.8 cubic inches for competition. (Street cars still used the full 340-cubic-inch displacement.) Added material in the engine's lower end allowed for four-bolt main-bearing caps (up from the ordinary 340's two), and the cylinder heads sported relocated pushrods and revised port shapes for improved breathing at high engine speeds. The end result was a V-8 that produced 290 hp at 5000 rpm in street trim - 15 hp more than the ordinary 340 - and was capable of 8500 rpm and nearly 500 hp when race-prepped.