Dick Harrell the other Mr. Chevrolet
Submitted by Mark DeSantis
Dick Harrell was a professional drag racer in the 60’s and early 70’s, who was enjoying a lot of success as a mechanic, crew chief, and driver of Chevrolet race cars. His success as a driver in both NHRA & AHRA drag racing events, his devotion to Chevrolet, even without factory backing, continued winning a large majority of the races he participated in, earned him the nickname as “MR CHEVROLET.”
Dick Harrell was born in Phoenix, Arizona and lived there until he was 5 years old. He and his family then moved to Carlsbad, New Mexico, where he resided until 1965.
Cars were very much a part of Dick Harrell’s life. Dick first gained racing acclaim in the Carlsbad, NM area at the tender age of 14 where he became deeply involved with sprint cars. He began tuning and later proved to be a capable driver, racing throughout the Southwest. At age 17, Dick started driving stock cars on a dirt track near Carlsbad.
At age 18, he signed up for 3 years in the U.S. Army, where he worked on aircraft engines and airframes for light single-engine aircraft used in Korea. He was issued a certificate by the U.S. Army, which stated that "SGT Richard M. Harrell, USAR was Honorably Discharged from the Army of the United States on the 31st day of October 1961. This certificate was awarded as a testimonial of Honest and Faithful Service." After his stint in Korea, Dick was transferred to a large helicopter base in Lawton, Oklahoma and did flight testing of large troop helicopters. In his spare time, he toyed with car engines. Racing still had its appeal. This would be the starting point of his drag racing career. His first attempt would be on a non-paved, oil strip near Lawton.
After his duty was served with the Army, Dick would return to the Carlsbad area where his family owned a dairy farm. He continued to run a ‘56 Chevy while earning money working in the local potash mines and as a garage mechanic to keep his love for the competitive sport of drag racing, alive. On weekends, he would drive his car 165 miles to El Paso, Texas or 280 miles to Amarillo to compete. He came out of this area in 1960 as a virtual unknown outside the Southwest area surrounding Carlsbad.
In 1961, Dick began to travel across the Southwest, racing a factory-backed 409 Chevrolet. He won about 90% of the events he ran. This was his final amateur year, as he won every regional race in a three-state area of the Southwest. At this point, Dick Harrell would begin searching for new worlds to conquer.
In 1962, Dick began to range out farther from the Carlsbad area to begin competing against some of the big nationally known names in the field of drag racing. These were not only some of the best drivers, but many had backing of the Detroit automobile manufacturers. In 1962, Dick Harrell became NHRA Point Champion in the Super Stock Class, driving his 409 Impala Chevrolet. After winning this, he began getting appearance money, match-racing a chosen opponent at various tracks, as an incentive to draw racing fans.
In 1963, Dick was driving a 409-Zll (427) Super Stock Chevrolet against some of the stiffest competition ever assembled, as drivers came in from every corner of the United States to compete for Super Stock Eliminator at the AHRA Winter Nationals. At this event, Dick used his tuning abilities and driving skills to take out his competition one by one, until he was declared the winner. This immediately cast the country boy from Carlsbad into national fame and from here it was onward and upward for Harrell.
On May 19, 1963, the team of Dick Harrell & Charles Thurwhanger set the AHRA National speed record at San Angelo, Texas in A/SM “Sportsman” Class with a clocking of 118.57 mph. This would only be one of the many records he would set in both NHRA and AHRA events.
This year would see some of the exotic, factory race cars start to surface, such as the aluminum light weight Pontiac’s, the Z-11 427 Chevrolet’s, light-weight 427 Fords, and the Max-Wedge Chryslers. From this point on, a battle would be waged at drag strips across the nation by the big 3 automobile builders.
Dick Harrell was destined to become heavily involved in all this, while competing with his favorite Chevrolet. Dick won Top Stock Eliminator at the Winter Nationals Championship with a 427 Z-11 Chevrolet.
In 1964, Ford was really bearing down on competition with the 427 Ford Fairlane “Thunderbolt.” Since Chevrolet was at a disadvantage with only the full size car to accommodate a Z-11 427, Dick would install a 427 into the newly introduced middle sized Chevelle. Harrell’s engineering of this combination proved to be an obstacle for the folks at Ford. Chrysler was also starting to get serious at this point with the introduction of the 426 Hemi in the light weight Savoy.
In 1965, the war was really starting to heat up among the big three. Dick Harrell was right in the thick of all this with different Chevrolets, battling the best Ford & Chrysler had to offer. Chevrolet had withdrawn all factory backing at this point and with it took all its speed parts and high performance engines. Racers with Chevrolets, abandoned ship across the nation and soon the only major driver left with a Chevrolet, was Dick Harrell. His complete faith in Chevrolet kept him from giving in. His Z11 64 Nova proved to be too much even for the great Richard Petty who was now running the 43Jr. Plymouth on drag circuits.
With full factory backing of Ford & Chrysler, who thought they had the very best of drivers and crews, it was the feeling only those had a chance of winning. Someone forgot to explain this to Dick Harrell, as he took his Chevrolet on a one man vendetta against the odds and the factories, and having success. With this success, Dick quickly became a crowd favorite winning his fair share of races.
In 1966, Dick Harrell was now hailed as one of the sport’s top attractions, and considered to be among the top stock car drivers to ever shift gears on a drag strip. His lightning reflexes earned him many nicknames such as “Quick Dick,” “Mr. Reflexes,” but above all the name that he was most widely known, was “Mr. Chevrolet.” He was a top attraction in every car he drove. In this year, he would travel about 50,000 miles for special appearances and still find time to make a trip back to Carlsbad, where he was the home-town hero.
Besides all the racing, he would enter into a field of building high performance cars for Nickey Chevrolet. They would use his services to engineer and build high performance cars for their dealership in Chicago, Illinois. The start of the funny car era was beginning to escalate with large engines being installed in small, but heavily modified cars. These cars often had altered wheel bases to get better weight transfer, the use of injection and nitro-methane for more power, and eventually the addition of superchargers. Since Dick Harrell had a lot of experience in doing his own work on these cars and being successful in doing so, Nickey Chevrolet got the idea Harrell could benefit their dealership by building cars for customers with some of this research & engineering. The Semi-Hemi mystery Motor style) 396 was introduced the previous year and the new 427 with the same design, but more cubic inches would be the basis for the cars he would engineer, although he did do some with the small block.
In 1967, Harrell continued racing in a winning way. Chevrolet had just introduced the Camaro. It is believed Harrell was the first to install a 427 into a Camaro for a dealer, “Nickey Chevrolet,” to be sold to the public as a dealer installed, new car.
Dick Harrell than made another move to East St. Louis, Illinois, where he would engineer and build cars for another well known dealer, Yenko Chevrolet in Canonsburg, PA. Here Dick engineered 350 and 427 conversions that were sold through Span, Inc. These cars were advertised as street or strip engineered.
Herb Fox, an employee of Fred Gibb Chevrolet in LaHarpe, Illinois, and also the driver of a 1967 Z-28 Camaro Fred owned and sponsored, met Dick Harrell at his business in East St. Louis. From this meeting, a business association was destined to evolve with Fred Gibb Chevrolet.
In 1968, Harrell moved his shop to Kansas City, Missouri. In this shop, Harrell would convert and modify Camaros, Chevelles, and the newly introduced Big Block Nova. All of these could be purchased through an authorized Chevrolet dealer with a 427 cubic inch engine with modifications up to 500 horsepower. Another first for Harrell was, building and converting some 427 powered Novas with a special competition 3 speed automatic transmission. These Novas were from the Fred Gibb order of COPO cars that were specially built for setting up an automatic class for Chevrolet in NHRA drag racing. These cars would get Chevrolet involved in competition against Ford & Chrysler in the automatic classes. Dick also did extensive research on the design, engineering, and development of the ZL-1 all aluminum 427 engine, later to be placed in what is now known as the ZL-1 Camaro.
While his business was taking a lot of his, and his family’s time, Dick Harrell continued to do what he loved best - competing at the race track. He continued his winning ways as he was named the AHRA Driver of the Year in 1969 tuning and driving a fuel funny car and was named Driver of the Decade in 1970. Sadly during the early 1970's, Dick, unable to recover from a front tire explosion, lost his life in a fuel funny car crash in Toronto, Canada on September 12, 1971.
The memories of Dick Harrell still looms big in many of us who were fortunate enough to know him and for those who are interested in the infancy of motor sports and the upward spiral they have evolved into at present. Dick Harrell was a very pleasant person who would help his fellow man, take time out from his busy schedule to talk to those who had a question or wanted an autograph, and he had an interest in the little guy, remembering at one time he was one, too. Dick Harrell shall be remembered for not only his devotion to Chevrolet’s, with his knowledge of building, tuning, and driving, but being a well-mannered, well-liked person, who had a huge following of fans from coast to coast including this writer who met Mr. Harrell in 1969.
GMMG owner Matt Murphy has also made available a late model Camaro with the famed Dick Harrell splashed across the rear quarters just like yesteryear. These 427 powerhouses bring back the Dick Harrell performance days. More info at gmmginc.net.
During the fall of every year, Tim Lopata hosts his famous Forge Muscle Car show which has Dick Harrell cars on display. See www.forgemusclecarshow.com.
Although, not inducted into the NHRA Hall of Fame, a signature petition "book" was started in 2004 by this author at Phil Reeds 348-409 Convention in Kansas City to support Mr. Chevrolet. The book is available to add signatures at events even today. For all that Dick Harrell stood for in automotive sports, there is no doubt he should be recognized in the Don Garlits' Hall of Fame. If you wish to become more active to help Mr. Harrell voted into the Garlits' Hall of Fame, please go to the Dick Harrell website.