No. 15: Ronnie Sox
There are no absolutes in life, but the claim that Ronnie Sox was the greatest four-speed driver that ever lived comes pretty close. The longtime racing partner of Buddy Martin was the winningest Pro Stock driver (with nine victories in 23 events) during the short-lived four-speed era (1970-72), and he also claimed six additional Super Stock victories from 1967 to 1969. His skills as a four-speed driver in match races, ranging from his lumbering full-sized Chevys in the early 1960s to his injected, nitro-burning Barracuda Funny Car in 1966, are also part of drag racing lore.
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.
The science of power shifting, which is the act of changing gears with a manual transmission with the engine at wide-open throttle, is a lost art in today's world of air-shifted two-speed Powerglides. Power shifting 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 the 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 could boast that they were better than Sox.
Said Martin, "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."
Martin was one of the first to recognize Sox's talents when he saw him drive his 409-cid Chevys in the early 1960s. "I was driving my own 409 '61 Chevy, and every time he took first place, I'd ask him to drive my car for the second place consolation prize. At the end of 1962, I told him that I was planning on ordering a new '63 Chevy with the Z-11 427, and I asked him if he'd like to be the driver. He agreed, and we won our first time out in January."
Sox and Martin raced through the end of the 1963 season despite Chevrolet's formal withdrawal from racing in February, then secured a factory deal with Mercury to run one of their new A/FX 427 wedge Comets in 1964. Martin's assessment of Sox's driving skills paid off handsomely -- Sox picked up a holeshot victory against team rival Don Nicholson in the A/FX class final at the 1964 Winternationals -- and the duo established themselves on the match race circuit that summer; ace engine builder Jake King supplied the power, Martin swept the rosin at the starting line, and Sox picked up the front tires on each gear shift. The season was capped by their trip to England that fall as members of the select U.S. Racing Team organized by NHRA.
After switching to Plymouth that winter, Sox and Martin were pleasantly surprised by the new altered-wheelbase Dodge and Plymouth vehicles that Mopar had created for the 1965 campaign. The radical entries were disallowed in A/FX competition by NHRA, but that mattered little since the bulk of Sox and Martin's income was earned in match racing. Sox quickly made history that spring by recording the first nine-second clocking for a naturally aspirated doorslammer at York U.S. 30 with a new Hilborn fuel-injection system developed by Chrysler, and they were virtually unbeatable in match race competition.
In 1966, the team fell on hard times when their new Barracuda, still built from a production vehicle, was outperformed by the new tube-chassis, fiberglass, flip-top body-equipped Mercury Comet of Don Nicholson. A reluctant switch to an automatic transmission put the Barracuda in the eights, but Nicholson dipped into the sevens late that summer. Chrysler's racing manager, Bob Cahill, noted that Plymouth didn't sell that many Funny Cars in 1966, and that factory efforts would be directed back to Super Stock production models.
Initially, the thought of regressing from the eights back to the 11s appeared to be a bad career move for Sox, but he relished the idea of returning to the four-speed. Sox went on to win the NHRA Springnationals Super Stock title three times (1967-70), the 1969 Nationals, and the 1968 Nationals.
Sox drove a variety of cars in the newly created Super Stock ranks, but his favorite was the '68 Hemi Barracuda, which he also ran in match race trim against similar cars campaigned by Nicholson and Bill Jenkins in 1969. The popularity of the heads-up, nine-second four-speed cars prompted NHRA to create the Pro Stock category for the 1970 season, which set the stage for the high points of Sox's career.
Pro Stock gave Sox a chance to return to the glory days of the A/FX match races of the mid-1960s, and his four-speed wizardry was never better. He won three of the seven NHRA races in 1970 with victories at the Springnationals, World Finals, and SuperNationals. He then doubled his win total in 1971 by taking the Winternationals, Gatornationals, Springnationals (for his fifth straight year), Grandnational, Nationals, and the SuperNationals.
With three consecutive world championships, things had never looked better for Sox and Martin, but with other Mopar entries winning all but three of the remaining races for those two years, NHRA determined that the Chrysler cars were too dominant. They accordingly created lighter weight breaks for the Chevy and Ford entries in 1972, and the new rules enabled Jenkins to take six of the eight races, and Sox was shut out from the winner's circle.
The Lenco transmission came on the scene in 1973, and Sox was no longer able to utilize his competitive edge with the four-speed. Sox and Martin raced their Hemi Barracuda and Colt vehicles in Factory Experimental for a few seasons before shutting down their racing operation in 1975.
Sox continued to drive on his own in IHRA competition in the 1980s and early 1990s and made a brief return to NHRA in 1998, when he reunited with Martin to campaign a Dodge Dakota in Pro Stock Truck.
Sox currently drives Bob Reed's four-speed '68 Barracuda that is painted in traditional Sox and Martin colors. "We run it mostly in Chrysler nostalgia shows, and it has gone a best of 8.84, 153 mph. Sox also keeps active with his golf game and looks back on his career with great personal satisfaction. "I'm certainly glad that I was able to race at the time that I did. Today's racing technology has diminished the role of the driver way too much. Back in the days of the four-speeds, the driver had a lot more to do with the outcome of the race, and I couldn't imagine anything being more fun than that." - John Jodauga
Comments from the panel
"Proven winner in large variety of door cars. Together with partner Buddy Martin, brought new professionalism, promotion skills to drag racing." - Geoff Stunkard
"Sox & Martin became a literal household word as a result of their on-the-road and nationwide clinics." - Don Gillespie
"An artist with manually-shifted racing transmissions, Sox was easily the "class" of any field and more often than not, the winner as well. Sox continues to amaze, today wheeling a Super Stock "A" Hemi Barracuda with the four-speed manual transmission prowess with which he made his "bones" nearly 40 years ago." - Jim Hill