Remembering the Rod Shop
Team Concepts are Nothing New
By Steve Reasbeck
Long before today’s team concept of drag racing, before the days when it would be conceivable that one owner would own vehicles that fill nearly half the field, a different type of team was assembled in the heartland of the United States.
Much like today, when DaimlerChrysler is using a team concept to promote the different aspects of their drag racing vehicles, a very similar program existed as far back as 1970. Already sponsoring such heavy hitters as Sox & Martin, Dick Landy, Arlen Vanke and others, Chrysler desired a single team to promote its products throughout a variety of drag race venues. As Chrysler was not actively involved in fuel racing, this team would encompass Pro Stock, Super Stock, Stock, Gas Coupe/Sedan and even a couple of NHRA-legal altereds.
The Rod Shop was a well-known speed shop located in a storefront at a suburban Columbus, Ohio shopping center, and was renowned for the number of race cars that ran from its stable. They included many of Ohio’s specialty, the Gas/Coupe/Sedan, as well as another Midwest staple, the Detroit-produced Super Stock-type vehicle. The Columbus area, an absolute hot bed of drag racing, was rife with Rod Shop-prepared race cars, and they were well known and highly respected. The history of Ohio drag racing was written with the Gassers that built it, and for years the state was acknowledged as a leader in that category, rivaling California in sheer numbers. The state also led, year in and year out, in the number of entries at each year’s Nationals at Indy.
Throughout the mid-sixties the Rod Shop was home to a variety of different cars, with differing powerplants. Many were Chevrolet powered, as was the norm, but there were a couple of Chrysler-powered entries as well. Bruce Miehls, the head machinist at the Rod Shop during that time, remembers the period well. "The Chrysler powered cars included Bob Riffle’s A/Gasser, the Blackwood-Eckard-Kirk B/Altered, and Jim Thompson’s Barracuda," Meihls remembered. "Thompson’s Cuda was real, real trick. It was a flip-up deal that ran as a gasser, and was extremely successful."
Seeing the absolute fanatical following that doorslammer racing was developing with the aid of Detroit’s involvement, Gil Kirk and Jim Thompson, the owners of the Rod Shop, had gotten together with Chrysler Corporation in mid-1970. Together, they worked out a deal to park all of the Chevrolets and develop an all-Dodge team. This team concept was new to the sport of drag racing, and started a trend that is the norm today.
This new team would be outfitted in slick, All-American paint schemes of red, white and blue. Initially, it would consist of eight cars, the flagship being a trick new Dodge Challenger to be driven by Detroit’s Mike Fons. "Fons was a well known Detroit area racer who had built his reputation with big block Chevrolets," recalled Miehls. "He won the NHRA Street eliminator championship in 1969."
Bob Riffle, already a Chrysler racer and Ohio gasser favorite, would be provided with a Dodge Demon to run NHRA’s B/Gas class. This car would have the ability to double as a Pro Stocker at selected events. "There was a SS/DA Hemi Challenger to be driven by Dave Conner, and a Charger for Bill McGraw." McGraw had made quite a reputation, locally, with the "Batcar" Camaro convertibles, and was known to be a very good racer. There would also be a couple of 383 cars, a Charger for well-known Michigan racer Dave Boertman, and a Coronet wagon for his wife, Judy. These cars would go on to great success in Stock Eliminator, even meeting each other for Stock Eliminator at the 1971 NHRA Summernationals in Englishtown. "Dave, wisely, red lit to give his wife the win," remembers Meihls. "In addition, Thompson’s flip top Cuda was converted to a Challenger for B/A and run by Eckard and Kirk."
By far the most unique Rod Shop entry, though, was the Stickel and Noltemeyer Dodge Colt station wagon that competed in C/A. On top of being a wagon, the unique part of the car was the powerplant. "It was a spin-off of the short-lived Chrysler Indianapolis Champ car effort," Meihls recalled. "It had Guerney Weslake overhead cam cylinder heads designed in England for that purpose. They were mounted on a small block Chrysler, and ran good." The high winding Indy motor in that little Colt wagon was a crowd pleaser, and the unique combination resulted in several NHRA class wins. However, parts availability and the sheer complexity of the design took its toll, and the trick stuff was eventually shelved. Later on, the car was fitted with a tunnel ram small block, but was not nearly as competitive. It just was barely competitive in D/Altered."
This was the opening lineup for the Rod Shop, and it would turn out to be extremely successful. Mike Fons would win the Pro Stock World Championship in 1971 with his immaculately prepared Challenger. NHRA Professional racing, at that time, was not decided by cumulative points totals, but by the person that would win the NHRA World Finals in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This would mark the first of many, many successes the Rod Shop would enjoy. It would become one of the most recognizable teams in the history of the sport, and would be responsible for launching the careers of some of drag racing’s most recognizable stars.
Over the years the Rod Shop would go on to acquire many unique cars and sponsor many of the big names of the time. TV Tommy Ivo ran a fuel funny Charger, and the late, legendary Don Carlton had a series of Pro and sportsman cars. Carlton, who became famous driving the old "MoTown Missile" cars, was an early Pro Stock innovator and a dominant force in sportsman racing. Miehls remembers his friend very well, "He was known to be close to a genius and his stretch-nosed Dodge Colt was virtually unbeatable, and could run well under the record and index at will." Unfortunately, Carlton would be fatally injured in that same Colt while testing for Chrysler in 1977.
"Later that year, Clyde Hodges (Carlton’s crew chief) and I put together a more conventional Colt, which Ronnie Sox drove as an Altered at Indy," said Miehls. "It was a fund raiser for Carlton’s family." At the time of his tragic accident, Carlton was far in the lead for the Grace Cup, the points program that would decide NHRA’s Sportsman Champion. His lead was such that it would take a couple of months before he was overtaken.
Current NHRA Pro Stock star Larry Morgan also got one of his early starts with the Rod Shop, with a four speed small block Challenger. "Larry and I owned that car together, and it just flat flew," describes Miehls. "No one knew who Larry was, but every Monday he would walk into the shop with some money he had won over the weekend. He won a bunch of races in a row at old Mt. Vernon Dragway, and just ran everyone off. He made quite a name for himself." This author can attest to that, as he blew me off at the 1983 Super Stock Nationals, and although I knew Bruce, I had no clue who the driver of the car was. However, like everyone else, I would soon become familiar with his talent.
The amazing part, today, is how many of the actual Rod Shop team cars still survive and race today. The Demon that was driven by Bob Riffle is an Indy cylinder head wedge powered bracket /SG in the Pittsburgh area, and the Challenger of Dave Conner is also still around. Owned and raced until recently by Bob George, and driven by his late son, Curt, the car now sees street duty in the western Pennsylvania area, still with the nine-second Bob George Racing Enterprises Hemi that powered it to its last racing successes.
Some of the original casts of players are still around as well. Bruce Miehls continued his success with Super Stock Hemi engines, still doing motors for Bob Marshall as well as other Midwest racers. His list of customers included, over the years, such well-known Ohio racers as Phil Roar and Bill Weakley. He now has his own shop, Fast Racing, in Groveport, Ohio.
When asked about the others, Bruce goes on, "Mike Fons owns a construction company in Michigan somewhere, and is very successful. Jim Thompson is a chassis and engine adjuster for an independent insurance agency, and Bob Riffle lives in North Carolina. He does R&D work at an engine shop specializing in Ford NASCAR engines. As far as some of the other players, Butch Leal lived in Columbus for some years, but is now back in California. I understand he hangs out at Dick Landy’s some, keeping his hand in. As far as Larry Morgan, well, we all know what he is doing".
In many ways, one could argue that the formation of the Rod Shop team
and its successes was the impetus of what the sport has become. Don
Schumacher, Don Prudhomme, and many others have built upon this concept to
become what is accepted practice in the sport today. However, few realize
that the concept of team racing was perfected in the Buckeye State over
thirty years ago. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
© Competitionplus 2005