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The Reher-Morrison Era

The Rat That Roared

By Rick Voegelin, Photography by Rick Voegelin

1981 Reher-Morrison Camaro: The First 500ci Champion

This 1981 Camaro was the successor to the all-conquering, second-generation Camaro that the RMS team unleashed in 1978. In the late 1970s, the NHRA rules specified a bewildering assortment of weight breaks for various engines and body styles. Reher and Morrison read the regulations like Wall Street lawyers, and they found a loophole big enough to drive a Camaro through.

They commissioned chassis builder Don Ness to construct a lightweight Camaro Z28. The Camaro's 108-inch wheelbase dramatically improved its high-speed handling, while the NHRA rule book generously granted the Camaro an 85-pound advantage over short-wheelbase Monzas and Vegas. Reher-Morrison and Shepherd were virtually unbeatable in 1980 with their innovative Camaro. They notched six wins and three runner-up finishes in 10 NHRA national events. Only a broken transmission in the final race of the season denied the team its first NHRA championship.

They came roaring back the following year with their next breakthrough: an arsenal of small-displacement big-blocks. Another careful reading of the NHRA regulations had revealed an overlooked combination. By adapting a short-stroke crankshaft from a 348ci "W" engine to the Mark IV big-block, Reher-Morrison created a new breed of 365ci Rat motors. The three Texans won six more NHRA national events in 1981 and claimed their first Pro Stock championship.

Although Reher-Morrison had benefited from NHRA's byzantine Pro Stock rules, they knew that the system was fundamentally flawed. In late 1981, a group of Pro Stock racers proposed, and NHRA accepted, a new formula: 500 cubic inches and 2,350 pounds, regardless of body style and engine type.

The new rules debuted at the 1982 Winternationals, where RMS unveiled the team's second Don Ness–built Camaro. Shepherd ran a 7.84-second elapsed time in the season-opener at Pomona, the first 7-second Pro Stock run in NHRA history. The Reher-Morrison Camaro won six races that season, appeared in 11 of 12 final rounds, and propelled Shepherd to his second straight championship.

"The first Camaro that we built in 1978 was pretty revolutionary," Reher explained. "Chevy racers were all running Monzas and Vegas with small-blocks; we took that car out and the next thing you know, Bill Jenkins had one, Frank Iaconio had one, everyone had Camaros.

"We ran that car in 1978, 1979, and the first three races of 1980 with small-blocks. We started working with the big-block stuff in the fall of 1979 because we felt it had more potential. Then, Glidden brought out his Fairmont at the Cajun Nationals. He qualified No. 1, six or seven hundredths faster than we ran. Fortunately, he was real late when Lee ran him, and we won anyway. But we knew we weren't going to win another race unless we got the small big-block done.

"We had a good couple of years with the little big-blocks. We broke a transmission at the World Finals, and if we had won that round, we would have locked up the NHRA championship. That was a terribly deflating loss.

"Our second Camaro was built over the winter of 1981–82. The first time it went down the track was at Orange County a few days before the Winternationals. It incorporated everything we'd learned with the first Camaro, with more tubing and support for the four-link and rear shocks. That was a very lightweight car, and it carried a load of ballast. Ness acid-dipped all of the body panels, used thin-wall tubing, and installed ultra-light Lexan windows. The attitude was perfect. It was an awesome race car."

With the introduction of the third-generation Camaro in 1982, the 1981 Camaro had a limited shelf life. Allen was eager to move from Competition Eliminator to Pro Stock, and the Camaro became the vehicle for that transition.

"Dave and I had become friends, and he asked if I was interested in buying the 1981 Camaro after they got their new car sorted out," Allen said. "I thought that was a cool deal, so I bought the car and an engine from Reher-Morrison." When Bruce became the third member of the team in 1985, the 1981 Camaro returned to its former home, but it was now surplus. The car was sold to IHRA Pro Stock racer Carlton Phillips. Eventually, it ended up in New Jersey, where it was converted to Super Gas with a big-block and an automatic transmission.

"Bruce and I were racing at Englishtown one day when a guy walked up and said that he was racing our old car," Reher said. "We took a look at it, and sure enough, it was our Camaro. There were several distinguishing characteristics that identified it."

Rick Hendrick picked up the story: "I really wanted a Reher-Morrison car for my museum but couldn't find one that was for sale. Then, one day one of my guys said, ‘Did you know that the 1981 Reher-Morrison car is for sale on eBay?' When I realized it was really the car, I called the guy, bought it, and we brought it home.

"Lee, Buddy, David, and Bruce are real special to me, and that car is real special to me," Hendrick said. "Things just kind of work out sometimes."

THE RECORD 1982: Driver Lee Shepherd
Won NHRA Pro Stock championship
Won 6 of 12 NHRA national events
Runner-up in five NHRA national events
Won one IHRA event
No. 1 qualifier at eight NHRA events
No. 1 qualifier at one IHRA event

By Rick Voegelin
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