On the dragstrip, however, the Hemi was much less successful, with ET’s roughly half a second behind Chrysler’s older and supposedly technically inferior wedge head design—until Don Garlits, probably the best-known dragger of all-time, discovered the key to unlocking its potential completely on accident. Garlits, frustrated with the Thunderfist and its apparent underperformance, set out to speed its demise, and advanced ignition timing far past what he thought would be enough to blow it to shreds—but to Big Daddy’s surprise and delight, not only did the big-eared beast survive, it absolutely thrived on what he had planned to be its tortuous death, with more horses and lower elapsed times immediately available. Within a year, Hemi-powered top fuel dragsters were running low six second quarter miles, a whole one and a half seconds quicker than the old-wedge headers were capable of. To this day, aluminum engines based on the old 426 continue to dominate top fuel—the idea of these 21st century rocket sleds being propelled to 300 MPH, sub 5 second quarter miles half a century after its conception is shocking.
Original Hemi-equipped Mopars now command some seriously big dollars, and excluding Ford’s near-mythical 426 OHC “Cammer”, remain the undisputed kings of the Muscle era, powering some of the most insane road cars the world has ever seen. 426s typically dyno very near 500 bone-stock horsepower—now picture that kind of twist channeled through skinny, bias-ply tires, reined in by shoddy drum brakes, and approximately steered by over-boosted racks attached to a gigantic, thin-rimmed yacht mast. Oh yeah, during a time when 90 HP or so was considered completely adequate to power a rather large, base model family sedan. It was pure insanity; glamorous, dangerous, and within the reach of almost any 20-something with a good job—tragedy and triumph hand-in-hand through a thick cloud of acrid tire smoke and rich-running carbs, and it was the stuff legends are made of.
Image Sources: Flickr.com, wildaboutcarsonline.com, moparstyle.com, enginelabs.com, speeddoctor.net