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 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 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.
Putting a pair of seemingly detuned racing cars in Chrysler showrooms did wonders for the company’s enthusiast credibility, but in the eyes of the cars’ creators, the AAR ‘Cuda and the Challenger T/A were little more than a nuisance. “They didn’t do the production version of these cars because of the marketplace,” Tom Gale, a former vice president of design at Chrysler, once said. “They did them because they had to for homologation. [Those cars were] a huge pain in the ass in the eyes of most people in the corporation.” It was a telling approach, and one that echoed the mentality behind the entire program.
Following the October announcement, Gurney’s team got to work. Thanks to minimal help from Chrysler, it wasn’t the most rapid of undertakings. Former Chrysler engineer Bob Tarozzi was hired as team manager and race engineer by AAR in December of ’69, and he vividly recalls his first day: “I moved out to California for the job, and after I got off the flight from Detroit, they showed me a surface plate [for the chassis] and said, ‘This is what we’ve got so far. Whaddaya think?’ “
In spite of the relatively late start, AAR produced a testable racing car in a matter of months. Former Weslake powerplant man Dick Lyndhurst, a veteran of the Gurney/Weslake Formula 1 V-12 program, was charged with sorting the control-arm-and-live-axle suspension. Crankshafts and other key engine components were sourced from famed drag-racer Keith Black (who at the time was building en-gines for Posey’s Challenger), and engines were built in-house by AAR mechanic Johnny Miller.
Like most first-season race cars, the ‘Cudas experienced their share of teething problems. Converting any street car for racing duty tends to require complete and total reengineering, and the Plymouths were no exception. Chrysler’s arrogance compounded problems. “We had all kinds of issues,” says Tarozzi. “In the beginning, it was transmission failures; Chrysler sent us an aluminum NASCAR transmission – which we then painted with ferrous paint so it’d pass the SCCA’s magnet test and look like the cast-iron one – and they kept telling us over and over that it was bulletproof. Then we had synchro trouble, and they barely believed us. Also, the brakes never held up. The front knuckles and bearings weren’t heavy enough. Hell, even the oil pan was a nightmare from day one.”
As if that laundry list weren’t enough, engine durability became a problem, too. Even after Gurney left the series two races into the season – ostensibly to focus on his Can-Am efforts but largely because Chrysler’s budget cuts required that AAR eliminate one driver – giving the team one fewer car to focus on, DNFs remained an issue. Of the eleven races that Savage started in 1970, he finished only five. The car’s log is a litany of engine failures, dead differentials, and dying gearboxes – in other words, much of what befalls many first-year racing cars. The clincher lay in the fact that, unlike most factory Trans-Am teams, AAR didn’t have the money or the time to properly fix problems when they arose.
Still, when the ‘Cudas held together they did well, in spite of a noticeable lack of power compared with the front-running cars. Savage nabbed three pole positions over the course of the season and even finished as high as second at Road America – a notoriously high-horsepower track. It seemed like the potential was there, but sadly, the ‘Cuda would never get a chance to truly prove itself: Just before the last race of the season at Riverside, Chrysler canceled its Trans-Am program altogether. The following spring, the series was a wasteland; almost every top-level team and manufacturer had skipped town in the middle of winter on cost grounds. The glory days had ended.
The air is quiet again, but this time, I’m not kneeling by the ‘Cuda’s exhaust. This time, I’m sitting behind the wheel, finger on a toggle switch, being instructed in the fine art of making Savage’s old car spit out hellacious noise. Starting: Ignition on, fan on, no throttle. Reaching to my right, I push the heavy button on the transmission tunnel, and boom! the engine lights off, already warm. I dip the surprisingly light, long-travel clutch and head onto the track. Even though I’m wearing earplugs, I can hear every crack and roar punching out the exhaust. I can also barely hear myself think. Fantastic.
My mind briefly flashes back to the words of the car’s current owner, Texas-based vintage racer Andy Boone: “It’s a gas to drive. You just sort of have to have your captain’s hat on, you know?” He’s right. The ‘Cuda at first feels a block long and more seaworthy than the Queen Mary, but throttle response is instantaneous, and the car quickly shrinks around you. The nose leaps skyward with every stab of the throttle – gearing may be deep-into-triple-digits long, but the ‘Cuda is still thunderously quick – and the foam-covered steering wheel, a mere three inches from the dash, changes the car’s direction with little effort but huge strokes of arm motion. You crank into corners all elbows and steering lock, sweat pouring off your brow.
I pull back into the pits after a couple of laps, wait a moment, and then shut off the car. Quiet. After five minutes on the track, the sheer lack of noise is almost stupefying. The ‘Cuda is asleep, and echoing through my head is the glorious, bellowing, fantastic roar of a success that almost was.
What are the essentials that make a Trans-Am racer?
In 1970, SCCA engine rules permitted four-barrel carburetor induction, a 5.0-liter displacement limit, and a minimum production volume of 500 units. The hottest V-8s revved to 8500 rpm and produced 450-500 hp.
A roll cage enhanced safety and structural rigidity. Acid dipping was the common approach to meeting the minimum curb weight, set initially at 2800 pounds and later raised to 3200 pounds.
Manufacturers developed four-wheel disc brake packages to withstand the rigors of three-hour races. Suspension modifications were permitted as long as spring and control-arm anchor points weren’t altered.
The domestic pony cars that raced in the Trans-Am’s over-2.0-liter category all used live rear axles supported by semielliptic leaf springs. Locked or ratcheting differentials were common practice.
Teams raced underweight, with oversize or repositioned engines and with illegal suspension tuning, to gain an advantage. Unsuspecting SCCA officials didn’t always catch their shenanigans.