At the Finish Line: Tom Hoover

Tom Hoover, whose work at Chrysler included development of the legendary Max Wedge and 426 Hemi V-8 engines, the 1970 Plymouth AAR ’Cuda, and the 1978 Dodge Li’l Red Express truck, passed away on April 30, 2015, after a long illness. He was 85.

Often credited as the “Father of the Hemi,” Hoover trained as a physicist at Juniata College in his hometown of Huntingdon, Pa. He received his master’s degree from Penn State and later earned a master’s degree in automotive engineering from the University of Michigan while working for Chrysler.

Hoover joined Chrysler in 1955 and spent 25 years working there, leaving in 1979.

While Chrysler was reluctant to go racing, a group of young engineers within the company was eager to hit the track. Hoover became one of the leaders of this group of about eight drag-racing-fanatic engineers that, by 1958, had formed itself into the Ramchargers team. That led to “High and Mighty,” a 1949 Plymouth Business Coupe, which the team campaigned into 1960.

Hoover (fourth from left) with some of the original Ramchargers at the Indy Cylinder Heads Show in Indianapolis this March.  (Jeff Burk photo)

The Ramchargers success with “High and Mighty,” including several national speed records, led in 1961 to the team receiving direct support from Dodge. And by the spring of 1962 that led to the development of a drag-racing performance package for 1962-model Dodges: the Maximum Performance Wedge 413-cubic-inch engine, which was soon shortened down to Max Wedge. By 1963, that engine grew to 426 cubic inches.

Before he left Chrysler, Tom Hoover helped create the Lil’ Red Express, a high-performance Dodge pickup released in 1978. The Lil’ Red Express is easily identified by its vertical exhaust pipes mounted behind the cab.

He helped develop the Hyper Pak, a group of performance parts for Chrysler’s renowned Slant-6 engine. The Hyper Pak helped make the Plymouth Valiant a winner on NASCAR tracks in the early 1960s. Customers could buy the Hyper Pak at a dealer’s parts counter.

As racing program coordinator, he helped lead the small team that developed the 426 HEMI racing engine. The 426 HEMI debuted at the 1964 Daytona 500, where driver Richard Petty lapped the field in taking the win. And when NASCAR blocked the 426 HEMI’s use in 1965, Hoover’s team took it drag racing, where it soon dominated the Super Stock classes.  Supercharged versions running on nitromethane became so overwhelmingly successful that today virtually all Top Fuel and Funny Car engines are based on the 426 Hemi design.

“Tom was the true technical engineer driving the details of the original 426 HEMI design, preparing it for the success on the street and in racing to this day,” says Bob Lee, who heads powertrain development for FCA in North America and is global coordinator for powertrains. “He was one of the best ever.”

“Tom Hoover was an exceptional human being and an engineering genius that always wanted to go faster. Today, at Mopar, we continue to live and honor Tom’s vision. He’ll be missed,” says Pietro Gorlier, President and CEO of Mopar Brand Service, Parts and Customer Care.