Still Mr. Four Speed
Ronnie Sox shares his memories of an incredible career

By Steve Reasbeck; Photos courtesy www.prostockhemi.com, www.ronniesox.com

"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?

Drag Racing is no exception. "Big Daddy" Don Garlits or Shirley Muldowney? John Force or Don Prudhomme? However, no class has had more dominant characters since its inception than Pro Stock. Bob Glidden, Warren Johnson, Darrell Alderman, and now Greg Anderson all have a valid claim to be referred to by the above phrase.

Ronnie Sox and wife Diane love attending nostalgia races and shows these days. Fans still flock around this pioneer of the sport wherever he goes.

 

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."

He was one of the major players in the inception of the class itself, and the standard of professionalism displayed by his Plymouth team set the standard for years to come. His dominance of the class’ early years caused NHRA to make rule changes to stop it, and even after all these years his name commands awe and respect. His win record includes over 50 event victories in Super Stock and Pro Stock in an era when the national event schedule consisted of less than half the number of yearly events on today’s schedule. NHRA has him listed as number 15 in their list of all time drivers, although a valid argument can be made that he should be listed higher. Fans young and old still flock to see him, and after all these years, to many, Ronnie Sox is still the Boss.


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Building the Reputation

The Sox family owned a Sinclair service station near Burlington, North Carolina. It was during those years that Sox cut his teeth in drag racing, running his dad’s ‘49 Olds Rocket 88 at the local airport.

 

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."

Sox got his start in drag racing in the mid-fifties, when the Police Club of Burlington, NC, decided to host drag races at the local airport. His family ran an Esso service station near Burlington, which later became a Sinclair station (remember Dino the Dinosaur?).

"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."

Sox then switched over to a ‘57 Ford convertible, in which he continued his success.

"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."

After running against Buddy Martin for several seasons, Sox teamed up with his former rival in 1963 to campaign a Z-11 Chevrolet. One of the most famous and successful partnerships in drag racing was born.

 

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 had unfinished business with the Pontiac brand and did battle in 1961 with a factory unit direct from Ray Nichels’ shop.

“We had a lot of transmission breakage with it. Looking back on it, I know now we were just running too much clutch."  

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


Just one season after the infamous 1963 Super Stock craze, Sox and Martin found themselves at a crossroad. Their success had resulted in them being contracted to race a Mercury, along with another heavy hitter of the time, “Dyno” Don Nicholson. Mercury built a Comet coupe and a Comet station wagon.

What was considered a top- drawer operation in the early days – the Sox and Martin team’s race rig.

 

“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.

Sox was fascinated by the early altered wheelbase cars, and drove the “Paper Tiger” at AHRA and match-race meets after the type was outlawed by NHRA.

 

"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.

"The next event was the Winternationals at Pomona, and I screwed up and lost to Bill Shrewsberry in class. We were quicker and faster, but I simply got treed. However, once the eliminator was run, we went on to win Top Stock Eliminator. One of our prizes was a new Hemi Dodge, which we had to sell to get money to get home. We went on to win the NHRA championship that year with the Mercury. It was a good year, and we were all set to sign with Ford for 1965."


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Sox and Martin built a state-of-the-art ‘66 Cuda Funny Car known as the "Baccaruda." The car was very competitive and won a lot of races against the heavy hitters of the day, including “Dyno Don” Nicholson and “Grumpy” Jenkins.

 

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.

Chrysler-Plymouth wanted Sox and Martin and to get the duo offered a deal they shouldn’t have refused but in those days loyalty was top priority.

"Their offer was really good, but we had decided to remain with Ford,” said Sox. “There was some loyalty there, and we were doing so good with the Mercury that it was hard to switch."

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.

By 1967, Chrysler was concerned that Funny Car racing was becoming completely out of touch with what they were trying to sell. So, the decision was made to go back to Super Stock Racing.

 

"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."

Funny Car racing continued to get wild, and Sox and Martin were ready to turn up the wick. They built a state-of-the-art 1966 Barracuda for the next year. Although the Mercury machines, with the flip-top Comets of Nicholson and “Fast Eddie” Schartman were a step ahead, the Sox "Barracuda" was very competitive and won a lot of races.  

"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."

It didn’t take long for Chrysler to realize that the Funny Car movement was becoming completely out of touch with the cars they were trying to sell. By 1967, Sox was back in Super Stock Racing.

"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.

In 1967, Chrysler set up the Dealership Clinic program 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.

 

"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."

In 1968 Sox received one of the first of the Hurst-assembled ‘68 Hemi Cudas, arguably the most famous "package" race car in the history of motorsports. That car won everything in sight in 1968, in NHRA and AHRA, and is still is one of the most famous race cars in drag racing history.  

"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."

His mastery with the four-speed was incredible, as anyone who witnessed his racing in that area can attest to.

"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."

There was another reason for the success of Sox and Martin, and that was head engine man Jake King.

"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.

One of the hallmarks of Sox and Martin is that they, and their equipment, were always first class. The cars were flawless in appearance and preparation, as were their tow vehicles. They wore sharp, classy uniforms while everyone else was in jeans and t-shirts.

"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."

Even though the team was incredibly successful within the NHRA class structure, the desire to race heads-up was alluring. Sox ran competitively in NHRA Super Stock, but also found time for several independent events in the “outlaw” Experimental Super Stock (X/SS) class, racing heads-up against the Chevrolet of Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins and the Ford of “Dyno Don” Nicholson. The crowd response was incredible, and the three lobbied NHRA to form Pro Stock, where heads-up racing could be carried out on a championship level. This wish was granted in 1970, and Sox was again the dominant force. After losing an upset final to Jenkins’ Camaro at the Winternationals in Pomona at the beginning of the year, the Sox and Martin Pro Stock Barracuda went undefeated the rest of the year. They continued to dominate into the 1971 season, and the team’s notoriety and recognition continued to flourish. They were rewarded by being invited to the White House to meet President Richard Nixon at the end of the year.

In 1968 Sox received one of the first of the Hurst-assembled ‘68 Hemi Cudas, arguably the most famous "package" race car in the history of motorsports. That car won everything in sight in 1968, in NHRA and AHRA, and is still is one of the most famous race cars in drag racing history.  

 

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.


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Pro Stock became an official class in 1970, and Sox was again the dominant force. After losing an upset final to Jenkins’ Camaro at the Winternationals in Pomona at the beginning of the year, the Sox and Martin Pro Stock ’70 Cuda went undefeated the rest of the year. They continued to dominate into the 1971 season

 

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.

"Wally Parks came to me in the tower and told me that they had 86’d us with the rules back in the old Pro Stock days, and that he was sorry,” Sox said. “He said that he regretted it now, and realized they had made a big mistake. I wonder how many races Bob Glidden and Warren Johnson would have won if they had made them add a hundred pounds with each win. Chrysler, and us, did an awful lot for this sport, and their organization. We did not deserve to be treated in that manner."

Sox and Martin eventually parted ways, but “The Boss” kept on racing with a Dodge Colt and found a successful following on the match race scene.

"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.

The Sox and Martin shop was a busy place to be during the team’s heyday. Years later it was robbed and destroyed by fire as the results of a still-unsolved crime.

 

"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."

Drag racing was hit and miss for Sox until 1981 when a Louisiana oil man, Dean Thompson teamed with him to campaign a Ford Mustang IHRA Pro Stocker.

"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 the mid-to-late eighties, there were a variety of programs and efforts that Sox dabbled in.

"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."

In 1995, Sox crossed paths with Martin to field an IHRA Pro Stock Thunderbird. That made way for a real trick Probe with a Jon Kaase-built 815 inch Shotgun Ford engine, which held a lot of promise. The car was short lived and nearly cost Sox his life.

In the early 70s the team’s notoriety and recognition continued to flourish. They were rewarded by being invited to the White House to meet President Richard Nixon at the end of the year.

 

"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.

Sox has not been silent, though, since that time. He has teamed with old pal "Bullet" Bob Reed, famous for his four speed SS/A Hemi Barracuda.

"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."

The last time Sox drove was at a Mopar event at Rockingham a couple of years ago, with the 1968 Barracuda.

"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."


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A New Outlook

This trick ’72 Duster was a competitive piece, but it would be the last one built in the Sox and Martin shop.

 

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.

"They have taken the driver out of it; they don’t even shift the cars anymore. They ought to take the computers away from everybody and make them learn how to race again.

"The performance they get out of the cars now is amazing," He says when talking about today’s SS Hemi cars, and is delighted that Chrysler sees the importance of these cars to the company, and to its heritage.

"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.

"Nostalgia racing is great," Sox said. "I love it. It is like the old days, no electronics, there are no air shifters, nothing like that. Just get what you got out there and race it. It is affordable, and its popularity just shows how much people love those cars and that type of racing."

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.

Sox also finds time and the energy to attend car shows and Nostalgia events, and is in high demand. He signs autographs, shakes hands, and relives memories. He is delighted that so many remember. He fields hundreds of questions from the old-timers and those old enough to remember his name. The one question he regularly fields asks who was the toughest racer he faced back in the day? "Dyno Don” Nicholson is always the answer.

“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."

Fred Ristagno, who owns and races the first Sox and Martin Pro Stock Duster, is a close friend of and one of the his biggest supporters. His web site, www.ProStockHemi.com features a lot of Sox and Martin memorabilia, and his other web site, www.ronniesox.com is getting off the ground, and will feature even more S&M memorabilia, including some interesting surprises in the near future.

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."

Amazing, too, is the amount of emails and cards Ronnie Sox received this past Christmas. Ristagno continued, "I thought that getting some cards and letters might perk him up a bit. He has had some back surgery, and has had some tough times recently."

After Sox and Martin split up, Sox built this Dodge Colt and continued on the match race circuit. Later he campaigned a Mustang in IHRA Pro Stock and took the 1981 championship. He went on to race in Pro Mod before teaming up once again with Martin to field first a Mustang and then a Probe in IHRA Pro Stock. A serious crash in the Probe in 1995 basically brought his career to an end.  

 

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."

Although having had success with different makes of race cars, Sox remains a hardcore, dyed-in-the-wool Mopar man.

"Chrysler fans are the best, most rabid,” Sox said. “They have everything. They come to me for autographs, show me model cars, it is unbelievable. They are fanatics, which is OK. I am a Chrysler fanatic, myself."

It is impossible to write the history of this sport without including a chapter on Sox and Martin. With the exception of Garlits, it is this writer’s opinion that the impact of Sox and Martin on this sport has been the greatest. The professionalism and marketing they brought to the sport set the standard as drag racing began its transition from an activity featuring slick-haired kids in hot rods to the high-profile form of motorsports it is today.

"I have given my life to this sport, I love it." Sox said "It is nice folks still remember".

They do, my friend. They remember, and the sport still loves you. More than you know.

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