By John Gunnell
La Harpe, Ill., was the place where some of the top Super Stock drag racing cars in the nation came from in 1969. Fred Gibb Chevrolet of La Harpe entered this highly competitive class of racing in January, when it received a shipment of 50 Camaros with all-aluminum ZL-1 engines. These cars were ultimately distributed to racers throughout the United States.
Gibb’s dealership kept one car that was finished in Candy Apple Red with a Gold lace overlay. That Camaro went to the American Hot Rod Assoc. (AHRA) Winternationals in Phoenix, Ariz., and outran the factory-sponsored cars of Sox & Martin and Don Groether. The car traveled nationwide on a white Chevroklet truck with a specially-built ramp body made in Lubbock, Texas.
Early in the season, this car was campaigned by Herb Fox. An employee of Fred Gibbs Chevy. While he was driving Gibbs’ ‘67 Z-28 Camaro, Fox ran into car builder and racer Dick Harrell at his business in East St. Louis. A business association between the two men resulted from this meeting. Fox had a very successful year driving in 1968, but as the Gibbs racing team began to travel further from its home base, Fox quit driving and Ray Sullins took over. Sullins, who also worked for Fred Gibbs Chevy, had previously been employed as the high-performance technician for Steakley Chevrolet in Dallas, Texas. In 1967-1968, he had toured with “Flying Professor” Kelly Chadwick’s Super Stock Camaro team. He brought a lot of knowledge and talent to the Fred Gibbs team.
The car that Sullins drove was identical to a second car that came from Fred Gibbs Chevy — the Unlimited Fuel car that Dick Harrell drove. During 1968, Harrell had driven a ’68 Camaro for Fred Gibb and then he relocated his car building shop to Kansas City, Mo. In 1969, he ran the new Camaro under Fred Gibbs and Quaker State sponsorship. Harrell’s car burned nitro and registered speeds as high as 209 mph in a 7:35-sec. run down the quarter mile.
Harrell won the AHRA Winternationals in Phoenix and the National Hot Rod Assoc. (NHRA) Winternationals in Miami, Fla. He also took the World Championship in Ft. Worth, Texas. Harrell was considered the nation’s Top Funny Car Driver at the time and was nicknamed “Mr Chevrolet” and “Mr Reflexes.” A plastic model kit of his racing car made him even more famous.
Even though car building business was eating up a lot of his time, Harrell continued to drag race. He was named AHRA “Driver of the Year” in 1969 and was “Driver of the Decade” in 1970. On Sept. 12, 1971, Harrell lost his life in funny car crash in Toronto, Canada caused by a front tire exploding.
Harrell’s legacy is known to everyone interested in Chevrolet muscle cars and one of those enthusiasts is Jeff Leonard, the CEO of Classic Industries, a company that makes reproduction muscle car parts. When a Camaro with links to Dick Harrell crossed the block at a Barrett-Jackson auction, Leonard bid on the car and was able to win this extraordinary piece of muscle car history.
The 1969 Camaro has a unique history that begins with John Penso, a member of the “Flying Dutchman” funny car crew and close friend of Dick Harrell. When Penso wanted a fast car for the street, but couldn’t find one that was quite fast enough, he knew Harrell could help him. Penso made arrangements to fly to the Dick Harrell Performance Center in Kansas City and drive a 427-powered 1969 Camaro back to his home in California.
In addition to Harrell’s signature tweaks, the Camaro came with a handful of parts, stored in the trunk, for Penso to install at home. They included a set of 4.56:1 gears, slapper bars and a cam from the legendary ZL-1 that Harrell had a hand in co-developing with GM. The car’s “Dick Harrell” badges were placed in the glove box to prevent other racers from figuring out what was under the hood.
After it changed hands a few times, including a brief stay in Hawaii, the Camaro’s documentation was lost and its pedigree came into question. Then, Dick Harrell’s daughter Valerie got involved. As the architect of the modern Dick Harrell Performance Center, Valerie Harrell had painstakingly organized her late father’s original records and was able to provide proof that this Camaro, VIN No. 124379N580930, was indeed the car that was built by her father for John Penso.
Old Cars Weekly also asked muscle car expert Stefano Binmbi of Nickey Chicago if the Camaro was a “real deal” Dick Harrell car. “Yes it is,” he said. “I researched this car when it was found in Hawaii and here’s an interesting story: Dick Harrell picked up the original owner at the airport in a 1969 ZL-1 Camaro. He got a ticket on the way back to the shop and couldn't talk his way out of it. How is that for Super Car history?” Bimbi was careful to add, “its not a COPO Camaro; it started out as a 396 Camaro and was converted to a 427.”
After buying the car, Leonard treated it to a complete restoration that included some Classic Industries reproduction parts. Leonard, who currently owns a variety of rare classic vehicles, usually isn’t one to be easily impressed. “When I first came across this rare 1-of-10 Dick Harrell 427 Camaro at Barrett Jackson, I knew I had a unique opportunity,” Leonard said. "This Camaro is one of the most recognizable and sought after vehicles from the golden era of muscle cars. Having been built by one of the foremost innovators of his day, this Dick Harrell supercar is surely one that any collector or hobbyist would want to see."
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