Tuesday marked the fifty-year-anniversary of a historic feat in NASCAR history: on 24 March 1970 at Talladega Superspeedway, 2020 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Buddy Baker pushed his Dodge Daytona beyond 200 miles per hour at 200.447 mph, something that had never been accomplished on a closed circuit. Behind the effort was Larry Rathgeb, an engineer for Dodge parent Chrysler and the mastermind of Dodge’s NASCAR successes during the 1960s and 70s. Sadly, he was unable to relish the anniversary as had had died two days prior on Sunday after a battle with the COVID-19 virus, Allpar.com reported. He was 90.
In the 1960s, Rathgeb was promoted from engineer to lead Chrysler’s “Special Vehicles Group”, putting him in charge of preparing vehicles for the company’s racing business. Under Rathgeb, Chrysler fielded the Daytona and Plymouth Superbird, both vehicles of choice by many of NASCAR’s early stars. During Richard Petty‘s championship runs over the two decades, Rathgeb stayed in close contact as the famed #43 won races and titles with the Dodge and Plymouth badges. In 1989, he joined Petty’s team as Research & Development director.
Petty was not the only seven-time Cup Series champion to work with Rathgeb. In 1974, shortly after Chrysler shuttered its NASCAR operations, he approached a young dirt racer named Dale Earnhardt to test the prototype Chrysler Kit Car (Petty Enterprises driver Pete Hamilton helped design the vehicle but had no dirt experience).
After running some laps at Concord Speedway, Earnhardt expressed his reluctance with pursuing a stock car career; Rathgeb assured him, “Well, based on what I saw here today, I think you ought to keep doing what you’re doing.”
During Rathgeb’s time in NASCAR, he oversaw a growth period for the sport as the top level became the Cup Series. For Dodge, they enjoyed the era of the giant rear wing as aerodynamics became king. In the decades since, aero and speeds have grown in importance as Rathgeb and Baker’s milestone run gradually became commonplace in NASCAR.
According to Mopar mechanic Bill Adams, Rathgeb contracted COVID-19, which has forced the motorsports world to a standstill, at the Seasons of Bloomfield Hills senior living community in Michigan. Rathgeb’s family intends to conduct memorial service once the pandemic has subsided.