"The best. The best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be." Long before Robert Redford mouthed those words in the great film, "The Natural," all areas of sports have had that discussion. Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, or Barry Bonds? Or was it Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr, Joe Namath, Joe Montana or Tom Brady? Could it have been Gordie Howe or Mario Lemieux?
However, there is one legendary figure with whom amazingly, almost thirty years after having competed seriously in NHRA competition, many still refer to as the "best ever."
Building the Reputation
Arguably the best four-speed driver of all time, he made his reputation by dominating in a time when winning relied on knowing how to tune a chassis and engine by feel, not by running a computer program. Sox has noticed the way things have changed.
"The performance of NHRA racing today is awesome, but they seem
to have taken much of the driving out of it,” said Sox. “That
is not good for the sport."
"I started racing my daddy’s ‘49 Olds Rocket 88 at the
airport, and did really well," recalled Sox. "There was a local
boy whose dad owned a TV shop in town, and he had a good-running ‘50
Olds. He was the only one who I could not beat regularly, but other than
that we won many more than we lost."
"We ran that car at Piedmont [Greensboro, NC], and Sanford [Sanford, NC.]."
The venerable 312-cubic-inch in his Ford powered the car to many victories, but the next year found Sox in a Chevrolet, specifically, a ‘58 ragtop.
"I had a thing for convertibles back then," Sox said, "and I won 37 races in a row at Piedmont and other area tracks. The motor in that car had the ‘315’ kit, with the Duntov cam and all that. It had three two barrel carburetors, and was the car to beat in the area."
In 1959, Sox took the year off to go boating, but the lure of the drag strip was overwhelming. He returned to the sport in 1960, this time hooking up with Jack Ashley to run the "Untouchable" 1960 Pontiac.
"That was a good, good car," Sox said, "and 1960 was a very good year. We went to Daytona for the Speed Weeks. There were fifty plus cars in the field, and while I was in the staging lanes, they came up to me and asked if I wanted to race the national champion."
Sox took out the champ and was set to meet Arnie Beswick in the final when an infraction squelched the drive to the winner’s circle.
"We were getting ready to run the final, but the tech guys noticed I had an extra rod on the carburetor linkage which opened the secondaries real quick,” Sox said. “As a result, we were disqualified. But, from that point on, they started to pay attention to who we were. It sort of put us on the map."
Sox partnered with Dave Holifield to run a 409-equipped ‘62 Chevy bubble top the very next season. This would set up a partnership of historic proportions. One of his competitors was a guy named Buddy Martin, who also ran a nearly identical car that had been provided to him by NASCAR great Ned Jarrett. After competing against each other for a couple of seasons, the two teamed up for 1963 with a Z-11 Chevrolet and would eventually become instrumental in creating a new, exciting class of drag racing.
The Politics of Racing
“Being the number one guy, Nicholson had the choice and chose the station wagon. We wound up with the coupe, and I am glad we did," said Sox.
FoMoCo ordered the boys to head west to Pomona for the Winternationals, but that proved to be a challenge for Sox and martin.
“We just didn’t have enough money,” Sox said. “Ford gave us an ultimatum, so we borrowed some cash and headed west."
In the days when air conditioned rigs and enclosed trailers seemed like an excerpt from a futuristic science fiction movie, and an old Ford wagon pulled their Comet A/FX machine on an open trailer. The wagon was jammed full of stuff, and there were a pair of slicks tied onto the roof.
“Somewhere in Arizona, I looked back and noticed one of the slicks was gone,” Sox said. “We stopped, and found that it had flown off the wagon’s roof and gone through the windshield on the Comet." The slick was found a few miles back, and after latching it back on the wagon’s roof, the trip west went on.
"We got to Lions, unloaded, and waded through the field which included Gas Ronda, Butch Leal, and all the big names. We raced the Melrose Plymouth in the final, and beat him, too."
One just had to know there was going to be a catch to the Sox happy ending. A bit later, they were told they were disqualified due to the broken windshield.
"We raised a stink, and they relented and told us they would let us keep the win if we would rerun and beat him again. So, we did." That evening, the car was taken to Bill Stroppe’s shop and the windshield was replaced.
But, fate would intervene again, and this time Sox and Martin would form an alliance which would become so dominant that it would change the sport forever.
Sox pointed out that he and Martin drove to Washington, DC, the Ford Zone headquarters, with a deal worked out, or so they thought.
"We had worked out a deal where we would get personal cars, too, but when we went to sign, the personal cars were not in the contract." After discussing it, Sox told Martin, "I ain’t signing." The two left the meeting and that move would forever rewrite the history of doorslammer racing.
"We went right out and called Chrysler and told them they had a deal. The next day Mercury called us and told us they had it all worked out, but it was too late".
A Date with Destiny
Sox knew what he was getting into with Chrysler. The Mopar brand had been hot on his trail throughout 1964, and he was aware of the development of the altered wheelbase cars and admitted, "I was really anxious to drive one."
In 1965 he dominated the NHRA’s Super Stock class with a “legal” Hemi car, but the star of the show that season was the Gate City Motor Company-sponsored altered wheelbase car known as the "Paper Tiger," which was named after a popular song of the period. The NHRA had thrown out the altered wheelbase cars the year before, but Sox and Martin logged many laps at AHRA and match race events the move didn’t affect them at all.
"Although it is hard to believe, those AWB [altered wheelbase cars] cars handled really well, real smooth,” Sox said. “Of course, with the safety regulations of that time, they were a death trap if you wrecked one. But they drove really well. Those were the first of the Funny Cars, and that car was incredibly successful. We started playing with fuel later in the year, and the car was really a winner".
It continued to be a winner in 1966 for Sox and Martin.
"We sold it to Buckeye Phillips of Baltimore at the end of the season, and he continued to ring up a big record with it. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in an accident later on."
"We started off with a stock wheelbase, a fuel Hemi and a regular four speed, ,” said Sox. “It was quick, but it was hard to handle and simply had too much power for the combination. The fuel Hemi with a four speed tore stuff up. Later, we stretched the wheelbase and went to an automatic, and the car wound up being one of our most successful." That car, too, was sold to Buckeye Phillips, who continued to be successful with it. "I drove the car for him at the 1967 NASCAR Winternationals at Deland Dragway during the Daytona Speed Weeks, and won with it."
"At first, I did not like it, but once we got going I was glad to be back racing with carbs and gasoline. We had the Clinic deals going, and it worked well."
The Dealership Clinic program was established where Sox and Martin with their Plymouths and Dick Landy with his Dodge would show up at local dealerships, set up shop, and host a clinic for the locals to improve the performance of their Mopar muscle cars. By this time the 440 and Hemi-powered Plymouth GTX was on the street, and having Sox and Martin running a Hemi car in Super Stock was a natural fit.
"The Hemi car was a winner, and we won the Springnationals with it that year, beating Ron Mancini in the final. It also went on to be tremendously successful."
"I went a 10.14 on a 10.40 record, with two different back tires, one Goodyear and one Firestone. I knew everyone would copy me, and they did! It was unbelievable."
"We really did our homework," said Sox. "We spent a lot of time on linkage, and transmission ratios. We tested a lot, and a lot of guys did not do that. I drove Don Grotheer’s car once in testing, and the way his linkage was set I don’t know how he even drove it."
A True Team Effort
Sox made all the calls regarding engine and chassis tuning. "I would make a pass, come back and tell them what I felt the car needed and we would make the changes. We didn’t have computers then, so you did it by feel and experience."
"What a lot of folks don’t know is that Jake was a very good driver in his own right. He drove Fords for Atwood Ford before he came with us, and won a lot." He was a perfectionist, recalled Sox. "He was very laid back, very quiet. He would not put a motor together unless it was the absolute best he could do, and he would take his time." Coupled with Ronnie’s driving, the meticulous preparation of Jake King made the Sox and Martin team the dominant force for close to ten years.
"That was Buddy," recalled Ronnie. "He knew how to obtain sponsors and keep them. He knew that on top of winning, they wanted to be associated with a professional looking operation."
The win streak was stopped in 1971, when a tire went flat during a semifinal burnout at the NHRA Summernationals in Englishtown, New Jersey.
"Our competition, Mike Fons in the Rod Shop Challenger, offered to wait until we changed it, but we told him to go ahead."
After that event, though, Sox picked up where he left off, winning virtually everything the red, white, and blue Plymouth entered. What he didn’t win, his teammate, Herb McClandless, won in the team’s Duster.
The Beginning of the End
It was also during 1971 that NHRA’s relationship with Chrysler began to sour.
"They started to add a hundred pounds to us with each race we won."
The next year, the NHRA began awarding weight break incentives to the Fords and Chevrolets. It didn’t take long before Jenkins took advantage of the situation and brought out a tube-chassis prepared, small block Vega. Things were becoming testy between Chrysler and NHRA and when one of the Mopar teams inquired about a tube-chassis in a Duster, the NHRA reportedly balked at the notion before Jenkins debuted his. Those sour feelings between some of the higher brass at Chrysler toward NHRA would linger for years.
Sox and Martin continued to press forward, though, building a trick Duster that continued to be competitive. It would be the last one built in the Sox and Martin shop. One other new Duster came out but it was apparent that Mopar had their fill of drag racing. Chrysler decided to throw in the towel.
"They actually put us out of business," said Sox.
Time heals all wounds and for Sox that came to fruition a few years ago in Indianapolis to witness the traditional Hemi SS/AA Shootout.
"The first several Colts crashed, which made us kind of nervous. But, I think the reason for the ill-handling is that guys tried to make adjustments in the increments you would in a longer wheelbase car like a Duster or a Barracuda. I started to make adjustments in smaller increments, and the car worked and handled just fine."
It wouldn’t be a crash that did the Colt in, but thieves instead.
"I had parked the rig inside a chain link fence that surrounded our shop. The power went out one night, and someone broke into the place, stole a lot of stuff, including all our good engines, and set fire to the shop, destroying it. An arrest was never made, and although we have an idea of who was responsible, nothing was ever proven."
"The engines were done by Jack Roush, and my only crewman was my son Dean. Rickie Smith and Warren Johnson spent all year dog-fighting for the IHRA championship, but we sort of came out of nowhere, won the last three races and the title. It was very gratifying".
"In 1989 I built another 1968 Barracuda to mess with, and also built the Comet Pro Mod. It was quite a ride, fast, breathtaking. But, to this day nothing matches that ‘68 Hemi A body."
"It had a six-stage oiling system on it, and one of the oil lines came off during a pass,” said Sox. “The car barrel rolled 14 times, and busted me up pretty good. I had a bruised eye, broken ribs, broken sternum, and a whole lot of other injuries. It was a bad scene."
That crash nearly put Sox out of the sport but he was later lured back for short stint behind the wheel of a small block Dodge Dakota Pro Stock Truck.
"He had put together another Barracuda, a Sox and Martin clone ‘68, and we made appearances at drag strips, dealerships, and car shows. I am still rowing a four speed, and it has been very good."
"I went an 8.81 at 152 miles per hour, which was a good pass that last time. But, my health problems started to surface, and I have had to reel it in. Hopefully, we will get all this straightened out, and get back in the game."
A New Outlook
But for Sox, he’s seen the transformation of the sport go from emphasis on driving to being a focus on the latest mechanical gadgets.
"Those cars are far from what they were when we ran them."
Sox remains pumped and excited about Reed’s plans to get involved in the Hemi Shootout series now that stick Hemis are included.
Sox smiled and said, "Bob is building a real trick ‘68, in fact it’s ready now, and he’ll be testing it soon.
Sox still attends car shows, and is surprised at the high esteem he is still held in. The York show, at which he was highlighted, featured the most Sox and Martin cars gathered in one place. That tribute, as was the reception at Beaver Springs’ Nostalgia Nationals event held in conjunction with that same program, left Sox feeling emotional.
"The reception I still receive is humbling," Said Sox.
“He helped us a lot when we first started, and we remained close throughout the years. Jenkins and I still get along real well. You just had to be as grumpy with him as he is with you when you first met him, then you found out he was a great guy."
Ristagno added, "Someone on eBay just paid fifty bucks for a Sox Sinclair ice scraper from his dad’s gas station. His following is still absolutely tremendous. It is amazing."
The result of a card drive for Sox netted over 700 emails, and thousands of cards and letters. His wife, Diane wrote his loyal fans an open thank you letter pointing out, "If you could see his face light up when he receives these, it is incredible. He honestly does not realize how many fans he has."
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