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Classics Man Searches Out a Challenger from His Past and makes it His Own

15:33  16 december  2019
15:33  16 december  2019 Source:   hotrod.com

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Images we develop in our minds during our youth can turn out to be the most vivid of our life, especially when they are captured in lustrous High Impact Technicolor. These undying memories can become the building blocks of our youthful dreams and wishes. Just ask Frank Cole and he'll tell you that the retina-burning hue of a certain topless Mopar was hard to forget, and even harder to leave behind.

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Frank grew up as a car-crazy kid, living life in the rustic suburbs of western New Jersey. The young car aficionado did his best to check out every cool hot rod and muscle car patrolling his area of the Garden State, and by his description, he was pretty good at it. But interestingly enough, Frank had an ace in the hole, so to speak, a way to hang with some topnotch racers and built-up track cars that ran on one of Jersey's famed dirt tracks.

You see, Frank's dad was a track official at Flemington Speedway. It was a place where Frank, his brother Jim, and his dad, Frank Sr., would make weekend jaunts a commonplace occurrence during his youth. He vividly remembers jumping into the back of his dad's pickup with his brother and taking the 20-mile ride to the raceway. It's at Flemington where Frank got a firsthand dose of wild 5/8-mile, down-and-dirty oval racing that soon fueled a fire for horsepower that has gone untamed for the last 50 years.

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a car driving on a road© Hot Rod Network Staff

There was also another great reason to go to the raceway. "As a kid, I remember this cool purple pace car, with two yellow flags attached to the rear, making its rounds during the races," says Frank. That pace car was a 1971 Dodge Challenger convertible, 340-powered, basted in High Impact Plum Crazy paint and emblazoned with Flemington Speedway's callouts on its flanks. This particular ride would light a spark in Frank, stoking a burning love for muscular Pentastar products that has grown exponentially over the years.

Pacing Ahead

In 1996 "a fellow motorhead friend suggested that we attend a NASCAR Super Truck race at the speedway," says Frank. By this time the famous Flemington dirt had been covered with asphalt in preparation for the series' big race. "At intermission I went down under the grandstands and paid my four bucks to visit the Flemington Speedway museum," says Frank.

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Inside, the space was packed with the track's memorabilia, along with several race cars that ran back in the 1940s. However, as Frank turned to leave, something more modern than the single-seaters caught his eye. "There, parkedin the corner next to the exit door, was the purple Challenger convertible pace car.It had two flat tires, was covered with dust, and looked like it hadn't moved in years."

a car engine© Hot Rod Network Staff

Frank inquired if the Challenger was for sale, as it had been a vibrant part of his youth. The word from management was a succinct "no." However, Frank took that as a "no, not right now," and kept the manager's number. He would call several times over the years to no avail, receiving the same answer he got before. Frank finally gave up and moved on to collecting other Mopars and unique muscle rides.

However, all that changed a few years later. "In summer of 1999, I was checking the classifieds on a Mopar site, and to my amazement, there it was for sale! I quickly called the owner, drove to a town outside Philly, and bought the car right on the spot from a guy named Tony."

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Tony had an inside track on the car, as he was an acquaintance of the Speedway owner's son. "He was more persuasive than me back then, but in the end I got the prize," Frank recounts with a smile. Turns out Tony wasn't much of a dirt track guy but knew the rarity and value of a 1971 Plum Crazy 340 drop-top Challenger. "I paid what it was worth," admits Frank.

a close up of a car© Hot Rod Network Staff

This particular Challenger was built as a steady performer straight from the factory: optional 340ci engine, Slapstick 727 transmission, power steering, quick-ratio T/A steering box, power front disc brakes, and 3.91-geared Sure Grip rear. Aesthetic upgrades included Rallye wheels, white bucket seats, and a center console. Frank also received the bumper-mounted flag holders with the car.

Frank used his Mopar knowledge to fix a few issues with the car, primarily in the engine bay. "I detailed the engine compartment and replaced some pieces with correct Mopar parts. It now looks pretty much bone stock."

After inspection, Frank deduced that the car was repainted its original FC7 Plum Crazy; some inquiries suggest it was done in the late 1970s. The callouts were redone at that time and are still in pretty good shape. "I also recently replaced the top and the white seat covers due to wear and tear," he says. Mechanically he hasn't touched the car. "I really don't think the valve covers have ever been off the 340."

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In 2011, Frank was lucky enough to meet Paul Kuhl, longtime promoter of the Speedway, at the Flemington Memorial Day parade. It was Paul who had ordered and purchased the Challenger new at Hampton Dodge right there in Flemington. "He looked just like a kid in a candy store, and we got to drive together in the Challenger," says Frank.

a car parked in a parking lot© Hot Rod Network Staff

There, Frank got to ask him a few questions about the car. "He told me that pace cars should be convertibles, and that the color scheme of Flemington Speedway was purple and white, and Dodge had this awesome color called Plum Crazy Purple.What better fit than to order a purple car, with white convertible top, in a performance oriented two-door sports car?" What you see today was Paul's vision for a cool pacer in 1971.

a car parked in a parking lot© Hot Rod Network Staff

Today the Challenger stands as a reminder of the great days of dirt track racing in New Jersey, something that is unfortunately being slowly eradicated in the ever-changing Garden State. "I'm going continue to drive it, enjoy it and show it off, especially at shows sponsored by the Flemington Speedway Historical Society," says Frank. The state's storied racing past is something we should not forget, and Frank is doing his part by bringing a little of the past to the new generations of hobbyists in New Jersey and beyond. You, too, can sample some of the track's past glory days by logging onto the Historical Society's webpage: flemingtonspeedwayhistoricalsociety.com.

a car parked on the side of a road© Hot Rod Network Staff

At a Glance

1971 Challenger R/T Convertible

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Owned by: Frank Cole

Restored by: Owner

Engine: 340ci/275hp V-8

Transmission: TorqueFlite 727 3-speed automatic

Rearend: 8-3/4-inch with 3.91 gears and Sure Grip

Exterior color: High Impact FC7 Plum Crazy

Interior: White vinyl bucket seat

Wheels: 15x7 Rallye

Tires: 245/60R15 Goodyear Eagle GT+4

Special parts: Pace car lettering and flags, console, power steering, power brakes (front disc), quick-ratio steering

The Other 1971 Challenger Pace Car
None of the factories stepped up to supply the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a pace car for the 1971 running of the Indy 500, so local dealers provided a fleet of 50 1971 Challenger convertibles for track and parade duty. One of those dealers, Eldon Palmer, paced the field at the start of the race, but lost control of the car exiting the track on pit lane and crashed into a photographer's stand. How did that happen? Palmer had practiced his pace laps and had set up a cone along pit lane as a braking point marker. But on race day someone removed the cone, as the story goes. Without his reference point, Palmer hit the brakes too late, lost control, and slewed into the stand, with track owner Tony Hulman, ABC newscaster Chris Schenkel, and astronaut John Glenn helplessly along for the ride. None of them was injured; fortunately no one in the stand was killed, but some 20 were hurt. And yes, there's video of the crash on YouTube. —Drew Hardin

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