1968 Hemi Dart Throwback: How Herb McCandless Got His Start!

Written by Geoff Stunkard on June 29, 2016Contributors: TEN ArchivesHerb McCandless’ Hemi Dart is for sale after a long journey, giving us the chance to hear the whole story!
1968 Hemi Dart Throwback: How Herb McCandless Got His Start!

The afternoon light cast long shadows as Randy Hopkins fired up his BO23 Dodge Dart to turn the corner and head towards the stage. The weekend on the Indianapolis Fairgrounds was still finding cars moving across the Mecum Auctions block at the 29th annual Indy Spring Classic, and as lot S195, this Dart was significant for a number of reasons, the biggest one being that it was part of the select group of Hemi Super Stocks created under contract by Hurst in 1968. Hopkins, whose former racing efforts had once been in Hemi-only SS/AA (now current SS/AH) territory, had campaigned this car a number of years, but had chosen to restore it back its circa-1970 livery and reverse its mechanicals to a simpler time, a time when a young man from Memphis named Herb McCandless had bought and driven the car.

“That Mr. Four-Speed nickname was not my idea,” McCandless recounts now with a laugh. “John Moore, from Chrysler’s zone office in Memphis, wanted it painted on the car. They only built ten factory four-speed Super Stock cars in 1965, and after three or four weeks, there were only a handful of those still racing around the country, so Mr. Moore wanted it painted on there on my ’65 car, and it just stuck.”

Perhaps some would think the name was being presumptuous, but McCandless quickly lived up to the moniker in the south and mid-Atlantic region where he did most of his racing at that time. Formerly running Chevrolets in Modified Production, McCandless got both his new Plymouth and a trip to Detroit to learn about his new car at the Chrysler racing clinic put on by the factory engineering group led by Tom Hoover. He never looked back; the 1965 Plymouth bore its name well and soon joined the growing crowd of modified match-race stockers during the course of that season and the next. NHRA’s big show held no candle to the backwoods weekend action, where it was “run whatcha brung and bring all you got!” as the late Hubert Platt liked to say.

The Dart being offered through Mecum was actually the first factory Dodge that McCandless actively raced, following the 1965 A990 and 1967 Super Stock Plymouths and a very brief stint tuning the ex-Ramchargers ’66 Dart (which was totaled at Union Hill Dragway near Nashville by John Livingston, his racing partner). Herb then used his factory association to secure a pair of ’67 Super Stock Belvederes for the team. In 1968, he had intended to modify the Plymouth to meet the ever-growing demand on the part of regional race promotors for “ultra-stock” type cars. A local acquaintance named Chuck Hutton had other ideas.

“There was a Dodge dealer in Memphis who I knew and liked, Chuck Hutton, and he was the reason I went with the Dart for 1968. He called me up and said, ‘they are getting ready to build these new Hemi Dodges. Would you like to drive one for us?’’’

Herb agreed but neither he nor Hutton wanted this car as a dealer-owned or loaned project. Thanks to friends at Chrysler, financing came through and Hutton agreed to let Herb pay a princely 500.00 per month to buy the Dart below the list price to help promote the Dodge brand. This expensive purchase meant other big changes for the young husband and father. With several years of sportsman-level driving behind him, McCandless left his then current job at a printing facility and began to race full time after getting the car in May of ’68. He did well enough in competition that he had it paid off by October.

Of course, you may be thinking, “yeah, well, I do not remember his winning any big NHRA titles in that car.” Truth be told, the NHRA was never the focus for Herb in those days, though he would drive in NHRA events for other noted teams like Sox & Martin and Dick Landy due to his factory connections. Where this car shined was on the AHRA circuit, which had a more liberal rules package and also ran their top Super Stocks heads-up as opposed to the legal index style racing NHRA then featured. In fact, before getting the Dart, Herb had even modified his big 1967 Plymouth for this reason, and had already begun winning regional AHRA races early in 1968; the Dart just made Mr. 4-Speed better.

“Once the Dart got here, we set that up for the heads-up circuit. I don’t think we ever ran it as a legal Super Stocker. We didn’t have to do much—take off that bogus exhaust system NHRA required, get lighter stuff on it where we could, like lighter-front brakes. Then we toured all over the Midwest—Kansas City, Wichita, Denver, all over that part of the country. I won that points championship. In fact, I ran 52 races in 1968, and won money at over 40 of them.” He adds: “The ’65 car was what got me started, but that ’68 car was the first car I really traveled with and we won just about everywhere with it. I didn’t have any bad days with that car.”

Repainted for 1970, Herb went west for the winter tour but ran just one event after getting into fluid on the racing surface of Beeline Raceway during the AHRA Winternationals (looping the car at speed and hitting the guardrail). Since Billy Stepp had just blown an engine in his Barracuda, Herb agreed to install his motor in Stepp’s car as well as drive it, and he went on to win Modified Eliminator at the first-ever NHRA Gatornationals a month later. Notwithstanding, it was a call from Buddy Martin in May that changed things forever. Martin wanted to run a second Sox & Martin car so the team could book two vehicles into match races, and offered Herb a full-time paid position as a driver. Within 72 hours, Herb had moved to Burlington, N.C. and the rest would be history. As for the Dart, which needed cosmetic repair, it sat for a short time in his mom’s Missouri garage before its legacy continued.

“Right after I went to work for Sox & Martin, my friend and crew guy, Danny Bird, called and told me there were a bunch of local tracks running a weekly heads-up 3,000-pound race series. If he fixed the car back up, could he drive it and split the win money? I said, ‘sure’ and he went out and won four or five thousand dollars in six weeks. I was very busy with Sox & Martin and Plymouth by then, so I sold the car. The secretary joked whenever my ‘welfare check’ showed up from that deal.”

As far as restored racecars go, the Mr. 4-Speed Dart is one of the more notable restorations in existence. After Herb had sold the car, though, it eventually became just another Super Stocker in the shadow of Pro Stock and the evolving face of drag racing. Nonetheless, the trademark paint had left some clues behind, which is what happened when new owner Randy Hopkins began sanding the car down for his own repaint. He made a few phone calls, got ahold of Herb and began asking questions. Herb verified it was his old car, but at that time, in the early 1990s, Hopkins was more interested in putting the nose in the air and tripping the lights someplace in the low-to-mid nine-second zone. He went racing and became a fixture in the SS/AA class for over a decade.

That said, with prices moving upward and the reality of major adaptations now required to go faster, Hopkins chose to park and restore the car in 2005, giving it to Phil Rasmussen for rebuilding and contacting Herb on how the paint should look. McCandless did it one better. He had the original painter from 1970 get together with Hopkins and the car was redone by the same guy.

“Randy called and asked if I remembered who had painted the old car,” Herb says. “I told him, ‘yes, Eddie Wilbanks did that, and I just talked to him last week. I will see if he would be willing to redo it.’ Eddie did a lot of the cars around Memphis in those days. He was really good and was retired by then. He and Randy figured it out. So Eddie Wilbanks and Eddie Van Story, who helped him back then, agreed to redo the custom paint on the car just like they had for me originally.”

Car auctions are dynamic in the sense that timing plays a role in both the overall market and the day of the sale. At present, vintage drag racing cars are not in the same extreme demand they had shown previously but it was hoped that somebody would recognize exactly what this car represented. A factory four-speed example, both the original MSO and bill of sale documents (which Herb had found while cleaning out his mother’s house) were included. Herb was one of the few remaining ‘big name’ drivers still alive, and the car had been redone properly and was complete. The Hemi engine was one Hopkins had campaigned with and was race-ready, as the original mill had long since disappeared into the ether of time. On stage, Herb joked briefly with Frank Mecum as the bidding got underway and stood by the car, which quickly jumped to $100,000 and began climbing. $125, $150, $175, and then at $200,000, things calmed down.

This price was in line with what other lesser-known BO23 Darts and RO29 Plymouths have brought, and Hopkins understandably knew that another chance to own a car of this caliber was unlikely. Therefore, he chose to not take off the reserve at that price. The car then moved into Mecum’s Bid Goes On where the Mecum staff is still entertaining offers after the auction to try to put a deal together. For now, the Mr. 4-Speed Dart is going back home with its current owner.

For McCandless, one of the most notable people in both the drag racing world and the Mopar hobby, the event offered the chance to reminisce with friends old and new about the glory days of the sport and what made his old Dart unique. We do not know when Mr. Hopkins may offer it for sale again, but whoever eventually ends up with this special racecar will join a rare group of owners who can say that their cars actually made the history of Mopar in racing.

Some Brief Notes on Restored Racecars

Dana Mecum was able to get a number of very unique drag cars to the 2016 Indy Spring Classic. Among them was the 1971 Sox & Martin World Championship ’Cuda, Don Grotheer’s 1968 Barracuda (Mr. Grotheer was also on hand for its offering), and several other Mopars, Chevrolets, and Fords. Alas, while bidding was strong on literally all of them, only a handful changed hands as owners chose to hold at their pre-determined values. In fact, the Mecum Presentation team printed descriptions of these in their three-volume event catalog as well as in special auction-only literature. Nevertheless, our personal reflection would be that the prices generated on these cars ($750,000 on the Sox ’Cuda, $200,000 on the Mr. 4-Speed Dart, and $185,000 on the Grotheer ’Cuda) were in line with current market values. Should things in the economy turn poor, this pricing may have even been the top of the market for these special cars. What is pushing prices hardest right now in musclecar circles is originality, something that most restored racecars could not possibly or logically attain…–Geoff Stunkard

Herb Mccandless 1968 Bo23 Hemi Dart Mecum Indy 2016
Herb McCandless’ restored Dart on display in the main building at the Mecum Indy Spring Classic, which generated approximately 50 million dollars in collector car sales.
Herb Mccandless Randy Hopkins 1968 Bo23 Hemi Dart Mecum 2016
Herb (right) and car owner Randy Hopkins, himself a seasoned drag racer, talk in the staging area on Saturday afternoon, just before the car went toward the auction stage.
Herb Mccandless 1968 Bo23 Hemi Dart Mecum 2016 200000Hopkins paces nervously as the price on the Dart climbed toward its eventual $200,000. He decided not to sell it this weekend, though Mecum representatives continued to entertain potential buyers through “The Bid Goes On” process.
Herb Mccandless 1968 Bo23 Hemi Dart Mecum 2016 EngineThe Hemi engine in the car as-built is long gone; Randy has left one of his legal Super Stock engines intact under the hood, which features some of the changes that were done to push it into the eight-second zone.
Herb Mccandless 1968 Bo23 1969Here is the car back in the day, from an old publicity photo. This was the first paint scheme on it.
Herb Mccandless 1968 Bo23 Randy Hopkins Hemi Challenge 2004Randy Hopkins launches the Dart at the 2004 U.S. Nationals during the Hemi Challenge, just prior to retiring it.
Herb Mccandless 1968 Bo23 Hemi Dart All Hemi Reunion 2008Here it is at its formal restored debut during the legendary All Hemi Reunion in August 2008, a one-time-only gathering. Herb was also on hand for this event.
Herb Mccandless 1968 Bo23 Hemi Dart Legal SSAA EngineLike all 1968 Race Hemis, the car used a pair of Holley carbs offset on a cross-ram intake, an innovation that Chrysler engineers developed and used to great success. Milling off the top of the OEM intake allowed for reworking of the unit, and original manifolds are few and far between as a result.
Herb Mccandless 1968 Bo23 Hemi Dart Four Speed InteriorThe four-speed shifter coming from the floor is one of the things that help make this car special, as a majority of them were constructed using the Torqueflite automatic. The interior still features some of the more updated components that keep the driver safe in the event of a problem.
Randy Hopkins 1968 Bo23 Hemi Dart 2008 Drag Pak John Donato
At the Reunion in 2008, Mopar’s John Donato and Randy Hopkins jokingly argued about which is better, the ’68 Hemi Dart or the just-announced 2009 Drag Pak Challenger. Both are winners in our book!
Herb Mccandless 1968 Bo23 Hemi Dart Frank Mecum 2016Herb McCandless talks with Frank Mecum as bidding gets underway on Saturday
Herb Mccandless 1968 Bo23 Hemi Dart Mecum 2016 Bid Goes OnRandy Hopkins looks through the windshield as a $200,000 “The Bid Goes On” decal is placed on the windshield.
Herb Mccandless 1968 Bo2 Hemi Dart Mecum 2016With his trademark smile and an effervescent memory, Herb talks about the Dart that helped launch what became a professional driving career when he went to work for Sox & Martin.
Ronnie Sox 1971 Pro Stock Cuda Mecum Indy 2016The Sox & Martin ’71 ’Cuda was bid to an incredible $750,000 yet still failed to sell.
Source: hotrod.com

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