For the 16th time – the Mopar brand presented one of drag racing’s most favourite annual specialty events……
The 2016 rendition of the highly anticipated Mopar HEMI® Challenge, contested during the 62nd annual U.S. Nationals, was a thrilling competition marked by extreme highs and lows for the head-to-head battle of Mopar-powered Super Stock/A HEMI (SS/AH) Sportsman racers. When all was said and done, Jimmy Daniels and his 1968 Dodge Dart nabbed his first Mopar HEMI Challenge trophy in a fight for glory with second-time finalist Stephen Hebert.
After a full day of exciting HEMI competition, Mopar fans packed the stands at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis on Friday to watch the showdown just past sundown. The two classic HEMI-powered race cars came to the starting line with equal opportunity to nab the title, but when Hebert fouled out by leaving the starting line .038-second too soon, the victory was handed to Daniels, who raced to a very quick 8.443-second pass at 154.90 mph in his Ray Barton-built Dart. Hebert’s final time was a slowing 9.352 at 110.51 as he lifted from the throttle after noting his too-quick reaction time.
No. 2 qualifier Daniels, whose father, Jim Daniels, won the Mopar HEMI Challenge in 2010 driving the same car with the very same Ray and David Barton engine under the hood, was racing for the very special trophy for the first time in his career. On the way to the final round and with a very consistent race car that simply could not be beat, Daniels drove his sharply tuned Dart to round wins over 1968 Dodge Dart driver Doug Fazzolare, Matt Welker in his 1968 Plymouth Barracuda, and fellow Dodge Dart campaigner Jim Pancake. Every round, Daniels clocked a 8.4-second pass.
“This is just unbelievable,” said 20-year-old Daniels, a biology student aiming to follow his father’s footsteps into the world of dentistry. “I’ve only had about three passes in the car before this. We struggled at the beginning of the year, going back to an automatic, and it just turned around this weekend. We did some work on it before the race, and everything just came together. It’s an unbelievable experience. If it wasn’t for my dad, and Ray and David for the awesome horsepower, and just the whole team effort, I couldn’t imagine leaving our home in Bristol, Pennsylvania, and saying, ‘I’m going to be in the winner’s circle Friday night.’ It’s unreal.
“Other than the two full passes I made at the Maple Grove points race [earlier this year], these were my only full passes in this car. This feels great. It’s such an accomplishment. I just could have never imagined this happening.”
For Hebert, the red-light start was a painful ending to his second final-round attempt at the Mopar HEMI Challenge title. Throughout eliminations, the Westlake, Louisiana, resident and his 1968 Plymouth Barracuda generated excellent passes that began with a first-round defeat of Barracuda driver Dan Zrust followed by victory over national record holder Gary Wolkwitz. Hebert got around Steve Kent in the third round and then turned on the win light unopposed in the semifinals when challenger and No. 1 qualifier Bucky Hess suffered a very unfortunate circumstance that sent his Barracuda spinning.
“It’s a classic coulda, shoulda, woulda,” said Hebert, following the final round. “I was hoping this would finally be it, but I just can’t race at night. It’s a different game. I change my whole reaction time and how I operate the vehicle. We had the lowest e.t. and fastest mph – I think in the history of Indy – so I’m tickled. We beat the world record holder. I just lost this one. But if I was going to lose, this is a fine young man. It’s no problem.”
When Daniels raced to the Mopar HEMI Challenge victory, his father was on the starting line.
“This is incredible. What a feeling,” said the senior Daniels. “I can’t say that I wasn’t real nervous today, but the car just performed real well all weekend. It responded to every change that we made. Ray and David just worked tirelessly, and I can’t thank them enough.”
When asked if he would be getting back in his winning Mopar any time soon, Jim Sr. would not commit.
“I don’t know; I might get that bug again,” he said. “But right now, it’s just all about him. I’m so proud of that young man. I knew he had it in him.”
Bucky Hess unscathed in on-track mishap — the Kandy Kuda 1968 Plymouth Barracuda driven by veteran Mopar driver Bucky Hess was blazing through eliminations after Hess put his Mopar in the No. 1 qualifying position for the Mopar HEMI Challenge at the U.S. Nationals. In the opening round, Hess knocked out Jim Keyes and his Barracuda then edged Eldon Baum Jr.’s ’68 Dodge Dart to earn a bye run into the semifinals, but that was where his day came to an abrupt end.
Hess was a cool .005 at the starting line to Hebert’s .047, but things went wrong quickly as smoke began to pour from the bright Kandy Kuda, a car painted by hand by Hess’s son, Travis.
“It started out great because I knew I drilled him,” said Hess. “I looked over to the right and could see that he was way behind. As I came out of the wheelie, still pulling, I looked over again and all of a sudden it started fluttering. When it did, I felt the ‘death rattles’ and the back end washed out on me. Once it did that, I knew I was done.”
Hess crossed the center line and made contact with the wall, ricocheted, and then made contact with the opposite wall before coming to a stop on the racetrack. He was uninjured, but the same could not be said for his previously pristine Barracuda – a car coveted by Mopar fans and classic car lovers.
“I’m fine; I didn’t get hurt at all,” said Hess. “I’ll be building the car over again, or I’ll have a new car for the next year. I think I’m more upset over the paint than wrecking it, but I’m good. I’m more determined. Indy just kills me every year, and I don’t know why, but it was nice knowing I had a shot of being in the final. He wasn’t going to make up four-hundredths. We had her on kill. We were going for it.”
About Mopar Motorsports
The Mopar brand’s commitment to professional motorsports competition was established in the 1950s when a partnership ignited with drag racing pioneer Don Garlits, resulting in the breaking of numerous speed and performance barriers in HEMI®-powered vehicles over the next several decades. In 2016, Mopar will look to once again vie for a NHRA World Championship title in both Pro Stock and Funny Car categories. While Mopar remains involved in a various professional motorsports series, it continues to honor its roots by being a proud supporter of Sportsman racing within the NHRA with its sponsorship of the HEMI Challenge and Mopar’s Tom Hoover Sportsman Challenge.
About Mopar Brand
Mopar (a simple contraction of the words MOtor and PARts) was trademarked in 1937 with the launch of an antifreeze product, but it truly made its mark in the 1960s during the muscle-car era. From Mopar Performance Parts to enhance speed and handling for both road and racing use, the brand soon expanded to include technical service and customer support.
Today, Mopar is the service, parts and customer-care brand of FCA US and distributes more than 500,000 parts and accessories in over 150 markets around the world. With more than 50 parts distribution centers and 25 customer contact centers globally, Mopar integrates service, parts and customer-care operations in order to enhance dealer and customer support worldwide. Mopar is the source for genuine parts and accessories for FCA brands.
Mopar parts are engineered together with the same teams that create factory-authorized specifications for FCA vehicles. This offers a direct connection that no other aftermarket parts company can provide. A complete list of Mopar accessories and performance parts is available at www.mopar.com.
Posted with files from Kelly Topolinski
Photos by Bruce Biegler & Brennan Shortall