Cars We Remember: AMC high performance recollections

Greg Zyla More Content Now
One of the most famous final rounds in NHRA Pro Stock history was the 1976 World Finals, when two AMC Hornets met for the title. Wally Booth, near side, defeated number one qualifier Maskin & Kanners, far side, on a quicker reaction time holeshot win. Richard Maskin played a major role in bringing the AMC brand along in the professional class of NHRA Pro Stock drag racing. (Photo compliments of NHRA).

Q: Greg I really enjoy your old car and muscle car articles in the newspaper and Internet. I noticed in one of your columns a while back you mentioned AMC racing.

My questions is who do you feel were the main people behind AMC’s racing success on the drag strip, road courses and NASCAR tracks? Thanks.

— Bill H., Franklin, New Hampshire

A: Bill thanks much for your letter. American Motors Corporation (AMC) was noted for cars from the 1950s through the 1980s that were usually smaller and more affordable. However, when it came to racing, AMC never had the budgets of the American Big Three (GM, Ford, Chrysler) although they actually did very well competing in the nation’s top professional race series. This all came thanks to some important individuals.

By the mid-1960s, mid-size muscle cars and then pony cars were the “in” thing. AMC responded as best as its budget allowed, as the new Gremlins, Hornets, Javelins, AMXs, Americans and Matadors seemed to have something for everyone. If you still wanted a 258-inch six cylinder wrapped in a Gremlin X or Hornet X package, no problem. If muscle car performance was more your cup of tea, there were 343 V8, 360 V8 and 390 V8 “Go Pack” and “SC” versions to quench your thirst. (A 401 V8 would later join the fray but was held back horsepower wise due to emission mandates).

As for professional racing, the two people I personally give most credit to are Roger Penske in road racing and NASCAR and Richard Maskin in pro drag racing, with honorable mention to drag racers Wally Booth and Dick Arons, the later duo who worked with Maskin.

To be more specific, Penske receives my nod for his winning NASCAR Matador efforts and also his Trans Am road racing AMC Javelin championship with Mark Donohue driving. Maskin, current owner and operator of aftermarket giant Dart Machinery, is responsible for getting the drag race AMC engines to withstand the rigors of Pro Stock racing as he got the cylinder heads to flow better than ever. It was Maskin, along with Smokey Yunick and Dick Arons, who did some serious head and engine research and development in the early to mid-1970s.

While Penske and Donohue were winning the SCCA Trans Am Championship in 1971 with a factory AMC Javelin, American Motors competed in NHRA Pro Stock Drag Racing from 1972 to 1978, most notable with two AMC Hornets after a failed Gremlin try. One Hornet was driven by Wally Booth with Dick Arons turning wrenches, while the second was the Maskin & Kanners Hornet X with the late Dave Kanners driving.

The Hornets, running real AMC “Kelvinator” engines, won a total of six NHRA Pro Stock National events with Wally Booth up, while Maskin’s Hornet went to several final rounds, including the famous all-AMC final at the NHRA 1976 World Finals. Booth won that final over number one qualifier Maskin & Kanners on a holeshot, 8.78 to 8.76.

Although not a household name like Penske, Maskin deserves special note as his deal with AMC was what he termed in a recent telephone chat “much smaller” compared to Penske and the “Number One” Hornet team car of Booth & Arons.

Still, Maskin went on to build his racing block, cylinder head and intake manifold aftermarket empire, and as owner/CEO/founder of Dart Machinery, Troy, Michigan, he has just added an 82,000 square-foot industrial complex addition in Warren., Michigan, to complement his Troy operation. Maskin also became an even bigger name in Pro Stock after the AMC days, wrenching drivers like Jim Yates and Jeg Coughlin to NHRA Championships along the way.

Penske, meanwhile, needs no introduction to race fans regardless of class. He personally took AMC to new heights in two major series, winning the aforementioned Trans Am driver and manufacturer titles in his factory-backed, Donohue driven AMC Javelin in 1971, scoring seven wins. Penske then brought AMC to top tier NASCAR, scoring five Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) victories in his factory-backed AMC Matadors. Donohue won one and Bobby Allison won four times from 1973 to 1975.

Thanks for your question Bill and it’s always good keeping those AMC racing memories alive. Today, you’ll see many AMC race cars competing at the drags and at road racing nostalgia Trans Am events, where Javelins compete against Mustangs, Challengers, Camaros and ‘Cudas on the nation’s best road courses. Look for a Historic Trans Am event at a road course near you.

— Greg Zyla writes weekly for More Content Now, BestRide.com and other Gatehouse Media publications. He welcomes reader questions on old cars, auto nostalgia and old-time motorsports at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, Pennsylvania 18840 or at greg@gregzyla.com.