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The Reher-Morrison Era

The Rat That Roared

By Rick Voegelin, Photography by Rick Voegelin

What you see on these pages has been cloaked in secrecy for 30 years. We are unlocking a time capsule, lifting the lid on drag racing's version of King Tut's tomb.

This is the real deal—not a replica, not a re-creation, not a reasonable facsimile. It is the original Reher-Morrison big-block Chevrolet engine that won the NHRA Pro Stock championship in 1982 and 1983, the first two seasons contested with 500ci engines. These same cylinder heads were on the 615ci engine that won the IHRA Pro Stock championship in 1983.

This amazing motor has been perfectly preserved, unmodified and unmolested for 30 years. It is a messenger from the past, revealing secrets from the beginning of Pro Stock's modern era.

And the race cars? They are the genuine articles, as well. For students of drag racing history, these tri-colored Reher-Morrison Racing Engines Camaros are the crown jewels of door-slammer drag racing. The second-generation Camaro is the ‘82 NHRA championship-winning car. The third-generation RMRE Camaro is surely one of the most successful and significant race cars in Pro Stock history, with five championships on its racing résumé: back-to-back NHRA titles in 1983 and 1984, and three consecutive IHRA championships in 1983, 1984, and 1985.

The team of David Reher, Buddy Morrison, and Lee Shepherd—known collectively as RMS Racing—roared out of Texas like a Gulf Coast hurricane. This unlikely trio of longhaired Texans cut a swath through the quarter-mile sport like a twister ripping through a trailer park. Their creativity, intelligence, and ambition were the lightning bolts that rocked Pro Stock with the roar of Chevy thunder.

When driver Lee Shepherd was killed in a testing accident on March 11, 1985, in Ardmore, Oklahoma, Bruce Allen became the third partner in the re-christened RMA Racing. With Allen at the wheel, the team's tradition of winning continued. Then, on December 15, 1998, Buddy Morrison lost his long battle with cancer. Lee and Buddy are gone, but Reher-Morrison Racing Engines continues to thrive under the stewardship of David and Bruce.

That these two remarkable cars and this extraordinary Pro Stock engine still exist is the result of good fortune, random acts of kindness, and benign neglect. Most old race cars die a slow and lingering death, chopped and diced by a succession of owners, as they slide into obscurity before finally being abandoned as worthless junk. These were spared that cruel fate by the convergence of Chevrolet collector Delmer McAfee, NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick, and driving school entrepreneur Roy Hill—with a little help from A/Dragster driver Steve Green and legendary Top Fuel/Funny Car owner Paul Candies. It is a tale that begins and ends in Texas, with stops in Michigan, Louisiana, New Jersey, and North Carolina along the way.

"Race cars were just tools, and we really didn't care about old ones," said David Reher, as he surveyed the two immaculately restored Camaros. "Why would we keep an obsolete car? To us, it was just money sitting there that we could use to race with, use to work on a new set of heads, or to build something. We never envisioned any of that stuff gaining value. If somebody offered to buy it, you'd better sell it, because all it was going to do was go down."

Reher refers to the championship-winning, 500ci, big-block Chevy, now owned by auto mega-dealer Rick Hendrick, as simply the "Plate Motor." Indeed, the hallmarks of this thoroughbred motor are the aluminum plates bolted to the exhaust side of the cylinder heads. Port plates were commonplace on the Cleveland Fords campaigned by rivals, such as Bob Glidden and Don Nicholson, where they served to raise and streamline the Boss Ford's cavernous exhaust runners. But why port plates on a big-block Chevy?

And therein lies the closely guarded secret of Reher-Morrison's success. It's not the plates that are important, but rather what they conceal. These cylinder heads were cast in solid aluminum, without the water passages that compromised the critical intake and exhaust ports in conventional big-block heads. Lee Shepherd, who prepared the team's cylinder heads in addition to driving the race cars, had found the Holy Grail.

"Buddy, Lee, and I were driving home from the NHRA World Finals, just the three of us in the dualie, towing a Chaparral trailer," Reher remembered. "We spent long days together in that truck and we'd talk about all kinds of crazy ideas. Lee said, ‘We need to get some bigger ports in these things. I just can't do anything.' That's how it all started.

"Lee had been using an acetylene torch to heat up the port walls in big-block heads until they melted," Reher revealed. "Then, he'd tap the wall with a hammer, and it would just fall over—but there was still a limit on how much he could enlarge and straighten the runners. Those heads were the nastiest, softest aluminum; they were essentially street heads, because that's what you raced back then. They were so soft after we'd done all the heating and welding that you couldn't even torque the head bolts until they'd been heat-treated. I drove to Tulsa with those heads to have them heat-treated because I wasn't going to let them out of my sight. We didn't have Bow Tie heads or aftermarket castings back then. Everybody started with the same thing."

In 1980, Chevrolet issued a part number for solid big-block cylinder head castings, ostensibly for use in alcohol-burning engines. They were cataloged in the heavy-duty parts list as "14011004, Cylinder Head Asm., Aluminum Open Chamber Identical to 14011076 Except No Water Jackets (Solid)." The number of solid head castings that Chevrolet actually produced is unknown; almost certainly Reher-Morrison's solid heads were the only ones to race in Pro Stock.

"We got two pairs of solid heads," Reher said. "One set was so porous that they turned black on the outside when we ran them on the dyno, and we scrapped them. The other pair we raced for two straight years.

By Rick Voegelin
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