Itâs likely that not even longtime, die-hard, trivia-obsessed NASCAR fans would immediately recognize the name Gary Romberg.
Indeed, the âOld Manâ (a second-generation nickname of which he was enormously proud) was among those wondrously creative souls who have always toiled quietly behind the scenes developing every major motorsports innovation in our lifetime.
In this case, it was the famous Plymouth Superbird that NASCAR legend Richard Petty and a handful of other Mopar loyalists raced with some notable distinction in the 1970 Grand National stock car season.
Romberg died two weeks ago at age 85 in his adopted hometown of Mooresville, North Carolina. He is survived by Bonny, his wife of 62 years; sons Kurt, Val and Leif; daughter Heidi; 12 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. A native of Buckley, Washington, and 1957 graduate of Cal State Poly-San Luis Obispo, the Old Man didnât miss much during his time on this good earth. We should all live as large and accomplish as much.
He spent his first three years after Cal Poly-SLO as an aerodynamic engineer and flight test engineer at Boeing aviation near Seattle. He worked at NASA throughout the 1960s, helping build Americaâs space program from postings in Huntsville, Alabama, and New Orleans.
Romberg was instrumental in developing the Saturn B-1 booster that sent astronauts into outer space, including the first visit to the moon. Of all his professional accomplishments, he considered his role in that historic project his finest moment.
In early 1969, several months before the July moon landing, Romberg moved from NASA to the motorsports division of Chrysler Corp. He had thrived and enjoyed his years as a Chrysler employee farmed out to NASA, but the Apollo project was winding down just as aerodynamics were becoming the next big thing in stock car racing. He worked in Detroit for 36 years, lured by the challenge of making race cars as aerodynamic as the rockets heâd helped develop at NASA.
Those who know Chryslerâs NASCAR history will recall it was Romberg and his teammates who designed, built and delivered the 1970 Superbird that lured Richard Petty back into the companyâs arms after his 1969 dalliance with Ford Torinos.
The backstory with Petty goes something like this:
Except for several Oldsmobile starts early on, the seven-time champion, 200-time winner and Hall of Fame driver raced street-based Plymouths almost exclusively from 1958 through 1968. Midway through that season, Chrysler unveiled plans for a radically different version of its popular Dodge Charger for the 1969 NASCAR season. (Being a Plymouth man, Romberg wasnât part of that project).
The new creation had a low, snout-like pointed nosepiece and a huge spoiler sticking almost 40 inches above the rear decklid. With its emphasis on aerodynamics, the Dodge Daytona was unlike anything ever seen on any of Americaâs stock car circuits.
At the time, Chryslerâs racing programs werenât united. Each brand went its own way, doing its own thing, competing not only with GM and Ford on the racetracks, but also with themselves.
So, while Dodge was presenting something new and forward-looking to its drivers and fans, Plymouth was staying with the same tried-and-true Belvedere model that had taken Petty to 43 (!) combined victories in 1967 and 1968. Angry that Plymouth wasnât keeping upâheâd repeatedly asked for a winged carâthe sportâs biggest name announced late in the 1968 season that he would race Fords in 1969. (His one-year deal with Ford was clear evidence he didnât expect to stay with them for long.)
Not surprisingly, that got Chryslerâs attention. A company executive high-tailed it to North Carolina in mid-1969 to ask one question.
âIt was just him alone, and he said to me, âWhat will it take to get you back in a Plymouth next year?âââ Petty recently recalled. (For the life of him, the 82-year-old Petty canât remember the manâs name; after all, it was 51 years ago). âSo, I told him to build me a Plymouth like the Dodge teams had. That was it âŠ just give me something new for next year.
“I think theyâd already decided to do that because it wasnât long before they had one for me to look at. They couldnât have done it that quick unless they were already planning to do it, anyway.â
Indeed, Romberg and his colleagues were already all-hands-on-deck designing, testing and building a winged Plymouth for 1970. They spent two months in a scaled-down wind tunnel at Wichita State University, struggling with the hood and front fender aerodynamics, and then with the size, shape and placement of the rear wing and struts.
After realizing the nose and wing wouldnât work with the Belvedere, they switched to the popular Road Runner body. Once satisfied they had it right, Chrysler named the car the Superbird in recognition of the popular Road Runner cartoon character.
The company quickly manufactured the 1,923 âshowroom unitsâ required for NASCAR competition. (That unusual number was based on one showroom-available car for every two dealerships within Chryslerâs marketing network.)
Petty remembers Romberg as âthe major guyâ while Petty Enterprises was building Superbirds during the fall and winter before the 1970 season. âWe worked close with him, and he knew what he was doing,â the racing icon said. âHe was very involved with everything: chassis, roll cage, aerodynamics, body shape, wing, struts, everything. He made sure everything was right. He was right there, all the time, making it go forward.
“He was really good with the aero end of the deal. I think they believed it might be easy because they already had the Dodge Daytona to go off âŠ but it wasnât that easy at all. The cars were pretty different.â
Plymouth teams quickly found success with their new toy, especially on the long, high-banked, high-speed superspeedways. (Most Plymouth teams used conventional, nonwinged cars on tracks shorter than a mile.) Pete Hamilton, part of the Petty stable, won the 1970 Daytona 500 and both 500-milers at Talladega in his No. 40 Superbird. Petty drove his No. 43 to victories at Rockingham, Trenton, Atlanta and Dover. In the meantime, Bobby Allison, Bobby Isaac, Charlie Glotzbach and Buddy Baker were winning in their winged Dodge Daytonas.
After watching Ford take seven consecutive NASCAR manufacturersâ championships between 1963 and 1969, Dodge won not only the 1970 manufacturersâ title but Isaac and crew chief Harry Hyde won the driversâ championship, as well.
But that success ruffled some feathers in Daytona Beach.
Going forward, NASCAR banned the 426-cid Hemi V8 engines from the winged Superbirds and Daytonas, and instead limited them to a 305-cid engine. Officially, the cars remained legal, but were effectively made obsolete by NASCARâs engine rule.
Publicly, the organization expressed concerns about dangerously high speeds at the long, high-banked tracks where horsepower trumped handling. And from a marketing standpoint, Superbirds and Daytonas never thrilled the consumers, thus putting a dent in NASCARâs âwin on Sunday, sell on Mondayâ mantra. Additionally, insurance rates were higher and fuel economy was lower for the âmuscle carâ market. The engine ban came just as Detroitâs Big Three was reducing its financial and technical support of NASCAR.
âWe were ready to go (with updated winged cars for 1971 and beyond) if theyâd let us,â Romberg told Hot Rod magazine in 2005. âBut NASCAR didn’t want any more âfunny carsâ in competition. We (the design team) were kind of cynical about NASCAR and knew they wanted to control their shows. We were disappointed because we had put together, in the 1969 Dodge Daytona and the 1970 Plymouth Superbird, cars that were more than a little bit competitive.
“When the factory-backed racing program went away in 1971, we (the aerodynamics team) reinvented ourselves and became the production car aerodynamics group. We lobbied and got two wind tunnels: a 3/8 scale in 1992 and a huge full-sized in the Auburn Hills complex in 2002.â
Romberg retired from Chrysler Corp. the day the full-scale tunnel went into production operation in 2002. He had spent the previous 35 years improving aerodynamics on race cars and production cars, and in working to get the wind tunnels.
Regrets? If any, they were too few to mention.
âBefore 1969, Chrysler was getting beat all the time in racing,â he once pointed out. âThe battle cry was âbeat Fordâ because they had David Pearson and even Petty there for a while âŠ until we got him back with the Superbird. We loved Ford. They were great enemies, great competitors. We worked our hearts out to beat them. They were great motivators for us. We were disappointed it couldnât go on.â
In the case of the Romberg clan, the apple didnât roll far from the tree. Kurt Romberg, now 61, drafted his father into aerodynamics, too, getting his bachelorâs and masterâs degrees in engineering in the late 1980s at Wichita State University. He spent countless hours in the schoolâs Beech Wind Tunnel, where his father had helped develop the Superbird that Petty raced in 1970. Romberg was hard at work there when a colleague called from Detroit late that season with news that NASCAR had effectively killed the next edition of the winged cars.
Kurt brieflyâand with some successâraced hydroplanes before studying engineering at WSU. He worked briefly for the March F1 team in England, came home to work with GMâs Production Car Division, spent five years tweaking aerodynamics at Petty Enterprises and 15 more doing the same at Hendrick Motorsports. He went to current employer Roush-Fenway Racing late in 2015 as its technical director of aerodynamics.
He has some memories of his own.
âIt was late in â69 when Dad came home from work driving a Plymouth Superbird prototype,â he said. âI wasâwhat? 10 years old at the time. He and my mom and my (two) brothers and (one) sister went riding around Garden City in that car. I mean, nobody had ever seen anything like it on the street. It drew so much attention it almost stopped traffic. It was like, âWow!â I have a picture of our whole family standing beside a winged Dodge Daytona on a dealerâs lot in Detroit.
âDad was proud of the Superbird, but after family and faith he was prouder of the Moon Shot than anything else. He felt that was a very big deal, and he had been part of it. And he was awfully proud of getting the wind tunnels at Chrysler. The Superbird? Not so much because the Dodge Daytona was already out there (when work began on the Superbird).
âRace cars were changing so frequently that it wasnât a big deal when they had to quit working on another version. He was a little upset, but it was like water off his back; he didnât dwell on it. You know, it was just another NASCAR rule change.â
At the time of his death, Romberg was generally acknowledged as one of the worldâs leading authorities on the black art of wind tunnels and vehicular aerodynamics. He had used his post-Chrysler retirement years to travel the world, examining and learning about wind tunnels of every size, shape and capacity. âWorldwide,â he said, âmy dad was in the top three of all wind tunnel experts.
âWhen he retired and moved to Mooresville (in 2006), he was too busy to just sit around. He worked at the Aerodyn Wind Tunnel (where many NASCAR teams take their cars) because he wanted to, and he worked there when he wanted to. If he wanted to take off somewhere to see another tunnel, he did. If he wanted to go to work every day, he did. If he wanted to stay home, he did. You know how it is: Why quit if you enjoy it?â
The Old Man was wise, indeed.