Tinkering, tweaking, and competing are three of the things that most attract people to drag racing — it gives them a thrill to use an automobile to its outer limits. Racers will toil in their shop for hours, days, and weeks on end to coax more power out of an engine or find a way to make it more consistent. If someone grew up around performance cars or racing that appetite for horsepower is ravenous and they always need to find a way to satisfy their craving.
Rich Locker is one of those guys that is fascinated by all things mechanical and working with his own two hands to build something. It doesn’t matter if its projects rolling out of his machine shop or parts for his flawless SS/AH 1968 Plymouth Barracuda, he’s all about creating something special. Rich’s infatuation with muscle cars stems from growing up in the magical era when high-performance classics from Detroit roamed the streets.
“My dad bought a gas station when I was eight years old, so that’s where all of this started for me. All of the muscle cars from the 1960s came in to get worked on and I was fascinated by them. I knew I wanted to be part of that whole scene when I was old enough to drive. It made me really appreciate a good looking car that’s tastefully built and is fast, too,” Rich says.
Like countless other young gearheads, as soon as Rich got his license he hit the streets looking for some action. Street racing became a way of life, a way to get his fix of horsepower and speed — but eventually, he decided the track was a better place to go fast. The people who participated in organized drag racing also drew Rich into the legitimate side of the sport.
“I was inspired to get into drag racing by the innovative racers that were always trying to improve their program. It was their ability to find ways to increase their performance at the track or being able to stay relevant in the sport that I found so fascinating. They all seemed to be the race winners and record-setters, so I wanted to follow in their footsteps,” Rich explains.
Rich’s car is a true blueblood when it comes to NHRA Super Stock/A Hemi (SS/AH) cars because of its long racing history. The Barracuda was originally built by Georgia native Steve Bagwell and was raced as a HEMI car in the SS/AH class. During that time, Bagwell drove the car, along with Richard Griffin, and Pro Stock legend Larry Morgan even wheeled the car at one time.
The car was then sold to Jim DeFrank and was driven by Rick Houser to many victories before John Troxel purchased it. Eventually, the car was purchased by the Smith family in West Virginia and they cosmetically restored it and had it painted by Gary McDonald.
“I purchased the Barracuda back in 1991 from the Smith family at the Mopar Nationals in Columbus, Ohio. The car interested me because it had a good history as a race car, plus it had been perfectly restored. This was the first real race car I ever owned, so that was pretty exciting for me. When I purchased the car it was just a rolling chassis so I needed to add the engine, transmission, interior, plumbing, and wiring,” Rich says.
At the time he purchased the car, Rich called Phoenix, Arizona home, so he transported it out west and began the process of getting it race-ready. When the car was finished, he partnered with a local Plymouth dealership to offset some of the costs. When Rich began racing the car he was working for a local shop owned by Kip Martin, who bestowed his racing and engine building knowledge on Rich. Martin had earned his stripes in drag racing by setting records in Stock, Super Stock, and even Competition Eliminator, so Rich soaked up all the knowledge he could.
Eventually, Rich decided he wanted to go into business for himself, so he moved to Ohio to found his machine shop that manufactures landing gear and brake components for airplanes. That meant racing needed to take a back seat for a while so he could focus all of his time into building the new business. When things calmed down and he had some free time, Rich pulled the Barracuda out of the corner of his shop and drew up plans to bring it back to the track.
“I finally decided it was time to make a serious effort to get back into racing and had the chassis updated at John Holt Race Cars in Columbus, Ohio. I built a new engine myself and it was the first one I have ever built from scratch. I purchased the cylinder heads and intake manifold so I could use what Kip taught me about building an engine. I’ve learned a lot about what areas need to be addressed when it comes to building a SS/AH HEMI engine,” Rich explains.
The world of SS/AH racing is very competitive, so any advantages racers can gain has a huge value to it. Rich is fairly tight-lipped about what’s inside his HEMI but he did divulge it uses all NHRA-legal parts from Lunati, Manley, Jesel, and Crane. Ignition duties are handled by MSD products, while the exhaust gases are expelled by a custom set of John Holt Race Cars-fabricated headers.
Rich debuted the Barracuda after its facelift in 2018 and set the SS/AH 1/4-mile class record with an 8.48-second pass (the outright but unofficial record is 8.22). To say that Rich was happy about the car’s performance is an understatement, but he also understood that running those big numbers took ideal conditions and would require a date with the NHRA tech department.
“The weather has to be conducive to making power — it has to be at an event that is accepting record runs, and you have to survive teardown. I wanted the experience of going through teardown…I know, why ask for that? It’s good to have teardown to try and keep everybody on the same playing field. You play by the same rules as everybody else in your class and do the best with what you have. There’s no satisfaction in winning if you had to cheat to get there, so teardown is a good thing,” Rich says.
ForSS/AH racers, the event that separates the biggest elephants from the pack is the annual Dodge Hemi Challenge, part of the NHRA’s prestigious U.S. Nationals. This special race is designed just for these HEMI-powered beasts and draws racers from all over the United States who want to prove they are the baddest in the land. The racers who participate in the Hemi Challenge spend the entire year preparing for this one event. Rich decided at the last minute to make the trip to Indy and it turned out to be a great decision.
“The engine was tired and I had it apart for rebuild a couple of weeks before Indy; I was actually waiting on custom pistons so I almost didn’t go. The pistons weren’t done in time so I put the engine back together with all the old stuff and left for Indy on Tuesday night, because we were scheduled to run Wednesday morning. I didn’t expect to go rounds and never expected to get to the final round, but I was consistent when others weren’t. My car wasn’t as fast as it should have been for the Hemi Challenge, but luck trumps skill every time and I nearly won the whole thing,” Rich says.
Campaigning a SS/AH car isn’t easy or cheap by any stretch of the imagination…you have to really love the class and cars to do it. Rich enjoys it, and even moreso when he gets to race his Barracuda heads-up against other SS/AH cars. The intense effort these cars require keep Rich interested, from building the engine to the skill needed to pilot it.
“These are the cars that started Pro Stock in 1970…it was all the fast Super Stock cars from 1968 to 1971 that got together and wanted a heads-up class for themselves, since they were the fastest cars to come out of Detroit. Cars like the 427 Camaro, 426 HEMI Barracuda and Dart, along with the Boss 429 Mustang’s are what started it all. We can’t do everything we want to make more power now because we still have to adhere to Super Stock rules, but they’re still the fastest cars to ever come out of the factory with original carburetors as they were in 1968. These new COPOs, Cobra Jets, and Drag Pak cars are fast, but they use a blower belt to achieve the performance. I appreciate what NHRA and Chrysler have done to help keep these cars around and continue to build their legend,” Rich says.
The fascination with constantly trying to make something better or faster is what keeps Rich Locker involved with HEMI Super Stock racing. Finding all of those little ways to extract horsepower from a big HEMI engine within the rules of the class are the type of challenge he enjoys. Rich’s Barracuda, combined with his mechanical curiosity, are a match made in drag racing heaven.