Driving The Hotchkis ’68 Road Runner at Goodguys Del Mar Meet
It’s always a dangerous thing to hand over the keys of your daily driver to a friend in need. While this is typical of the one friend in a group who owns a pickup truck, the stakes swing drastically upward when those keys belong to your prized project car. The stress levels really begin to skyrocket when the guy sitting behind the wheel isn’t a friend at all, but the editor of some car magazine who couldn’t give two sneezes whether he plows your machine into a barrier or not.
It was a big media gimmick self-inflicted by three manufacturers, Optima Batteries, Hotchkis Sport Suspension and RideTech and the event gurus behind the Goodguys Del Mar Nationals. By inviting a pack of bloodthirsty desk jockeys to climb (or lumber in many cases) behind the wheels of some of the coolest examples of classic autocross muscle, the press boon would be unmatched.
What they didn’t figure on was how brutally these guys would hammer on the cars in question. I could see the sweat beading on Dan Weishaar’s forehead when looking out on a field of 16 magazine editors, all champing at the bit to drive his B5 Blue ’68 Plymouth Road Runner. Unlike RideTech’s meticulously-restomodded ’69 fastback Mustang or the internationally-recognized Optima/One Lap ’67 Camaro, Weishaar’s ‘Runner was his car, not Hotchkis’ official car.
Actually, Hotchkis’ car, a ’70 340 Six-Pack Challenger was still getting reassembled in time for the following weekend’s Mopars At The Strip event in Las Vegas, Nevada after some last minute body work. Weishaar, a member of Hotchkis’ H-Team, stepped up and offered his ‘bird as the sacrificial lamb.
“I’ve got about the same amount of money in this car as [RideTech’s] Bret Voelkel has in that Mustang’s clutch and transmission,” Weishaar joked. “I drove this here, and I’m hoping I can drive it home.”
A Staff Sergeant in the Marines, Weishaar spends his rare and precious time off hammering on this ’68 B-Body. An original 383-powered Road Runner, Weishaar has done very little to modify this stout Plymouth.
The factory iron block still sits on a stock K-frame, only rebuilt with a .030-over bore, pump gas pistons, and a rev-happier top end. Backing the B-Block is a Tremec TKO-600 and backed by an 8 3/4 rear with some freeway flier gears (3.55’s).
Not wasting any time or money on anything unnecessary, Weishaar has kept his Plymouth looking strictly business. A big set of battleship gray Crager D Window 17×9.5s sit at all four corners wrapped in BFGoodrich rubber.
What makes this ‘bird stand out from other reworked Mopars is its suspension set up. Again, nothing extravagant, the big Road Runner employs Hotchkis’ TVS (Total Vehicle Suspension) system.
If you’re thinking John Hotchkis’ secret is tossing the Chrysler’s front torsion bar suspension and rear leaves with coil-overs at the corners, you’ll be sorely mistaken. Rather, Hotchkis wisely works with what engineers originally designed the car to do and merely improves upon it.
Tubular upper A-Arms, adjustable strut and steering rods, front and rear sway bars, and geometry-corrected leaf springs quickly convert a heavily rolling B-Body into a sport-tuned autocrossing dynamo.
Doesn’t sound possible, right? Believe it. Weishaar’s Road Runner has been on the autocrossing circuit for well over a year in its current form and has only required minimal upkeep. I first ran into this road-hugging ‘bird at last year’s Fall Fling, only to cross paths with him at the Run To The Coast event and finally here at the Del Mar Goodguys Nationals.
Without further ado, I waited my turn at the helm. As was the modus operandi for the day, the cars would be “hot lapped” one after another, giving each machine only a short reprieve. Weishaar, who had ridden along with a couple of the magazine editors, grew ill at watching them beat on his ride first hand and handed over the co-pilot duties to John Hotchkis himself.
Always amicable and nether without a cocked grin on his face, Hotchkis welcomed me with a handshake and helped me strap into the Sparco racing seat. The ‘Runner’s interior is Spartan at best. Gone is the factory backseat and split bench, replaced by a pair of body-hugging buckets. The shifter – unlike the original dog leg – was ramrod straight and tightly syncro’ed. A thick Grant wheel replaced the pinky-thin factory wheel and aftermarket gauges red off the vitals from an aftermarket cluster on the dash.
“Put ‘er in first and leave ‘er there,” John directed. “She’ll the do the rest.”
Backing up the Plymouth and pulling up to the starting line, the 383 ran smoothly, almost docile, which I suppose was all part of the appeal. Stomping on the skinny pedal, the B-Block didn’t overpower the clutch, but bit nicely, causing the ‘bird to leap out of the gate.
Responding smoothly and predictably, the Road Runner behaved like driving a sporty late-model coupe around the course. Looking out over the plateau-like hood, the Plymouth scantly rolled, rather, planting itself firmly with each hairpin. The rear wheels only broke free when prodded to do so with the accelerator. It was so predictable, it was almost boring – which is great.
The combination of a mildly reworked powerplant with a stout manual 5-speed gearbox, some wide tires and some seriously smart suspension made this ’68 Plymouth the “Most Reliable” ride of the weekend.
RideTech’s Mustang was a wild ride, and while cranking out mad amounts of horsepower, it’s driver-friendless was borderline absent, proving too much to handle for most of the competing editors. Optima’s Camaro obliterated its clutch, requiring Detroit Speed to charitably offer up a ’66 Nova (which later snapped a tie rod) and a ’70 Camaro for the remainder of the event.
Without a hiccup, the ‘Runner ran flawlessly. Lap after lap, the Mopar proved a true contender, particularly as the smaller pony cars had so much more money and engineering poured into them. I suppose when it comes to making a Mopar run like this, less is apparently far more.