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Larry Rathgeb, head engineer behind the first 200-mph racecar, dies of coronavirus at 90

Larry Rathgeb, 90, with a Daytona racecar. Rathgeb headed engineering for racing development at Chrysler in the 1960s and ’70s and led the team that broke the 200-mph record. (Steve Lehto)
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This article is part of “Faces of the dead,” an ongoing series exploring the lives of Americans who have died from the novel coronavirus.

In the 1970s, during the heyday of stock-car racing, Larry Rathgeb, the lead engineer for racing development for the Dodge Daytona, took a risk that nearly cost him his job.

He told his bosses at Chrysler that by focusing on aerodynamics rather than horsepower, they could reach record-breaking speeds of 200 mph — though the car would look more like an airplane than an automobile.

With the executives’ blessing, Rathgeb, racecar driver Buddy Baker and a mechanical crew went to NASCAR’s Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama on March 24, 1970, with a Dodge Daytona stock car rigged with a nose cone and wing on the car.

The first time around the oval track, the car clocked 194 mph. Thirty laps later, the team led by Rathgeb took it to 200.447 mph, a world record for a closed course.

“NASCAR racing wouldn’t be what it is without Dad,” his son, Jeff Rathgeb, told The Washington Post.

On the 50th anniversary of the automotive achievement this year, car enthusiasts recalled Rathgeb, 90, who died two days before. He had contracted the coronavirus at a senior independent living community in West Bloomfield, Mich., and was hospitalized from March 17 until he died on March 22, his family confirmed.

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Car enthusiast website Hemmings called the day Rathgeb’s “crowning achievement,” and the automobile blog Allpar said Rathgeb “had many other cars to his credit.” Fox Sports shared a tribute on-air of Rathgeb during an e-sporting event on Sunday.

“He has a legacy,” Jeff Rathgeb said of his father. “It’s been kind of humbling just to see the stuff on the Internet. It certainly helps.”

Even though the family is waiting until after quarantine restrictions are lifted to hold a memorial, Rathgeb’s children, Sue, Jerry and Pam, are still appreciative of the automobile and racing community remembering their dad, Jeff Rathgeb said. Larry’s wife Phyllis also contracted coronavirus but is recovering at home.

Rathgeb was among the more than 700 coronavirus fatalities Michigan had reported as of Monday night. More than 17,000 people have tested positive for virus in the state, which had the fourth-most cases in the country as of Monday.

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Fifty years ago, it was a significant risk to change the design so drastically, and it could have cost Rathgeb his job.

“I was grateful and privileged to work for Chrysler,” Rathgeb said, according to Mopar, a sister company of Chrysler.

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But setting the 200-mile record proved he was right to suggest Chrysler focus on aerodynamics instead of horsepower, Doug Schellinger, the president of the Daytona-Superbird Auto Club in Milwaukee, told The Post.

“They built a car that was strange-looking,” Schellinger said. “It would not appeal to everyone. The biggest positive to the cars, was the appearance. And the biggest negative of the cars was their appearance.”

Rathgeb was also a friend to well-known racecar drivers, including Baker and Richard Petty. Before Dale Earnhardt was a household name, Rathgeb encouraged him to pursue racing, Schellinger said.

Steve Lehto, a Michigan lawyer who runs a YouTube channel about cars, said he is fascinated by the era of racing when Rathgeb reigned. He has interviewed Rathgeb, collected photos and written books about this time in stock-car racing.

Many other influential figures from that era have since died, and Lehto said that Rathgeb’s death was a blow to his efforts to preserve the history and knowledge of auto racing.

‘Anything good I could say about this would be a lie.’

Rathgeb told Lehto about his life outside of Chrysler, such as when he was in the motor pool for Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War. He previously was a general mechanic.

“I was talking to him and he was casually mentioning these things, and I was like, ‘That’s a whole story right there. No, no, wait. That’s a whole story right there,’” Lehto told his YouTube followers in a video about Rathgeb. “The guy had an amazing life.”

Lehto said he treasures the times he got to talk to Rathgeb, including once when Rathgeb invited him to his home and showed him the chalkboard that clocked the record-setting time that day 50 years ago.

“I interviewed him a couple of times, and I got a lot of great information from him,” Lehto told The Post. “But I assure you, I just scratched the surface of what he knew.”