Ronnie Sox is one of the greatest Mopar drag racers. Like many who eventually became professional racers, "The Boss," grew up around cars, raised in the shadow of his family’s Sinclair service station. As soon as he was old enough to drive, Sox began competing in drag races, sponsored by the Police Club of Burlington, NC, at a local airport. In the early days, Sox didn’t even own a car and used his father’s 1949 Olds. From these humble beginnings, Sox would go on to become what many describe as the best 4-speed driver that ever lived. From the mid-1960s though the mid-1970s, the team of Sox and Martin were usually the ones to beat in Super Stock or Pro Stock. Sox was the winningest driver of all time in Pro Stock.
Buddy Martin first ran against Sox in the early 1960s, and was frustrated by his inability to beat him in a comparable 409-cu.in. powered Chevrolet. No matter what Martin did, Sox always seemed to have a better reaction time and a faster trip through the quarter mile, and it didn’t take long before Martin made Sox an offer he couldn’t refuse. With a 1963 Chevrolet Impala Sport Coupe on order, equipped with the 427-cu.in. Z-11 V-8, Martin asked Sox to step in as his full-time driver.
1963 Chevrolet Impala Super Sport
On their first outing, Sox took home the win in Martin’s car. Martin said that “Ronnie’s skills as a driver were a gift. He was very coordinated with the hand and foot. In addition to his shifting, his reaction times were outstanding. Everybody drove four-speed cars at that time, and other drivers would miss gears left and right. That never happened with Ronnie. Everybody had an excuse, but Ronnie could get into anyone else’s car and have no problems whatsoever.”
The science of power shifting, which is the act of changing gears with a manual transmission with the engine at wide-open throttle, requires the hand-foot coordination of a tap-dancing juggler because the timing of the hard yank of the shift lever must be carefully synchronized with the minimal application of the clutch pedal to prevent over-revving of the engine. During the 1960s and early 1970s, there were a number of excellent four-speed drivers on the scene, including Don Nicholson, Butch Leal, Herb McClandless, Arlen Vanke, Bill Jenkins, and many others, but none were better than Sox.
Just as Sox and Martin began building their reputation for dominance, in February of 1963, sponsor Chevrolet announced its withdrawal from all racing. Despite the absence of factory support, the team continued race. In 1964, they ran a Mercury Comet fitted with the -new A/FX 427-cu.in. They were able to win at the NHRA Winter Nationals and were selected to a U.S. Racing Team, organized by the NHRA, that barnstormed drag strips in England.
1964 Mercury Comet
In 1965, Sox and Martin switched to MOPAR with an altered-wheelbase Plymouth Belvedere. . With the front and rear axles moved forward and the wheelbase shortened, the car certainly didn’t look like an ordinary Belvedere. The altered racers soon gave rise to the term “funny car,” a name that would later go on to be associated with tube frame, fiberglass-bodied, nitromethane-burning dragsters. The modified Plymouth didn’t perform like a production Belvedere, either, and with the help of a new fuel-injection system and Chrysler backing, Sox recorded the 9-second pass in a normally aspirated, production-bodied car.
1965 Plymouth Belvedere
Sox and Martin switched to a Barracuda for the 1966 season, but the production-based car proved less than competitive against a new series of tube-framed, fiberglass-bodied cars. Tired of losing to rival Don Nicholson (driving a Mercury Comet), Sox tried a switch to an automatic transmission, which temporarily leveled the playing field. By season’s end, Nicholson was again consistently faster, forcing a change in strategy from Chrysler; instead of focusing on “funny cars,” the automaker would concentrate its drag racing efforts on the Super Stock class.
1966 Plymouth Barracuda
The news was a mixed bag for Sox. On the one hand, Super Stock cars were considerably slower than funny cars, but on the other hand, Super Stock cars (at the time) generally ran a 4-speed transmission. With the decision ultimately made for the team by Chrysler, Sox returned to his winning ways in 1967, capturing the Super Stock Eliminator class win at the 1967 NHRA Springnationals and at the 1967 U.S. Nationals.
From 1968 through 1971, the Sox and Martin team dominated the sport of Super Stock (and, from 1970 onwards, Pro Stock) drag racing, taking the NHRA World Championship in 1968, 1969, 1970 and 1971, and capturing the AHRA World Championship in 1969. Overall, he had nine victories in 23 Pro Stock events during the short-lived four-speed era (1970-72), and six additional Super Stock victories from 1967 to 1969. His favorite car was his 1968 Hemi Barracuda. By the 1972 season, Chrysler had become too dominant in Pro Stock competition, so the NHRA revised the rules to allow a lighter weight for Fords and Chevrolets run in the series. That left the Sox and Martin team struggling for victories, and Sox’s sole win for the season came at the IHRA U.S. Open in Rockingham, North Carolina.
1971 Plymouth 'Cuda
But perhaps the best measuring stick for Sox's shifting talents came in 1973, the year that everybody switched to the clutchless Lenco transmissions. Many teams cited the reduced breakage as the primary reason for the move, but just about every driver went quicker with a Lenco, some picking up as much as a tenth of a second. Sox, by contrast, was the only driver whose car slowed down with a Lenco, losing a very measurable .04-second.
In 1973, the Lenco planetary transmission leveled the playing field for other teams by allowing clutchless, full-throttle shifting. This reduced breakage and allowed every driver to pick up as much as a tenth of a second. The best measuring stick for Sox's shifting talents was that his car actually lost .04-second with the Lenco. No longer able to benefit from his near super-human ability to work the gears seamlessly on a conventional 4-speed transmission, Sox found himself without any major wins in the 1973 and 1974 seasons, and even a move from Pro Stock to Factory Experimental couldn’t right the ship. In 1975, Sox and Martin shuttered their racing operations, but Sox’s career was still a long way from over.
1973 Plymouth Duster
Now on his own, Sox took the runner-up spot in Pro Stock at the 1979 NHRA Gatornationals. In 1981, Sox took IHRA wins at the Winston World Nationals, the Northern Nationals, the Summer Nationals and the U.S. Open Nationals, giving him the IHRA World Championship in the Pro Stock class. He’d capture victories (but not championships) in 1982, 1985 and 1990 as well, and in 1995, Ronnie Sox once again partnered with Buddy Martin to run a Ford Probe in IHRA competition. A crash destroyed the car and nearly ended Sox’s driving career, but once recovered, Sox climbed right back in the cockpit, content to row the gears in vintage drag racing events.
1976 Dodge Colt
When the NHRA debuted the Pro Stock Truck class in 1998, Sox and Martin partnered once again to campaign a Dodge Dakota pickup, but the team was never competitive in the short-lived series. Sox was ranked 15th on the National Hot Rod Association Top 50 Drivers, 1951-2000. As late as 2005, Sox made appearances at key vintage drag racing events, but by that time the driver ranked number 15 on the NHRA’s all-time list of greats was battling prostate cancer. Sadly, he passed too soon on April 22, 2006, at the age of 67, and a MOPAR legend was gone.
1998 Ford Pro Stock truck