Mike Mantel has been the driver of the Hemi Under Glass wheelstander since Bob Riggle’s highly publicized crash — with Jay Leno as a passenger — at Irwindale Speedway in June 2016. Over the past three years, Mantel has thrilled audiences with his wheels-up passes in the 1968 Barracuda Hemi Under Glass, but he believes the time is right to build a modern-era Hemi Under Glass from an LX-platform Dodge Challenger powered by a Hellephant supercharged HEMI crate engine.
The original Hemi Under Glass was envisioned by shifter magnate George Hurst, who simply wanted to promote his company’s products to drag racers. Mounting a Hemi engine amidships, Hurst believed, would give the car superior traction by transferring more weight to the rear wheels. It did indeed, but he hadn’t considered that repositioning the engine would also make the front end considerably lighter, making it impossible to run the car at speed with the front tires on the ground.
As a race car, the Hurst Barracuda was a failure, but as a promotional marketing tool, it was sheer genius. “Wild Bill” Shrewsberry was hired to drive the car on exhibition runs for the 1965 season, and the Hemi Under Glass helped to both establish and popularize the “wheelstander” category that later starred cars like the Little Red Wagon Dodge pickup, the L.A. Dart (another Shrewsberry effort), the Paddy Wagon Corvair Greenbriar van, and the Hell on Wheels “tank.” In 1966, after a successful first year, Riggle took over driving duties from Shrewsberry, and Riggle would remain the Hemi Under Glass’ driver through 1975, though the Hurst money went away after the 1969 season.
Circa 1991, Riggle was coaxed out of semi-retirement by Linda Vaughn, who convinced him that a new Hemi Under Glass would be immensely popular at nostalgia drag races. Riggle built a Hemi Under Glass from a ’68 Barracuda, and this is the car that Mantel — a former Hollywood stunt driver and Porsche Club of America racer — campaigns today. Though there have been many Hemi Under Glass Barracudas built and driven over the years, the ’68 now carries the distinction of being the longest-raced car of the series.
The idea of building a modern wheelstander first came to Mantel in 2009, after he purchased a new Dodge Challenger SRT-8. He bounced the idea off Riggle — then actively driving the Hemi Under Glass — but didn’t find the support he expected. Riggle believed that the original, vintage wheelstanders were the attraction, and that no modern equivalent could match their appeal, so the project got temporarily shelved. Three years ago, Mantel says he began thinking about it again, framed, perhaps, by his role as the driver (and owner/custodian) of the ’68 Hemi Under Glass Barracuda.
At the 2019 Spring Festival of LX, held at the Pomona Fairplex in Pomona, California, last month, Mantel witnessed crowds of young enthusiasts with their Chrysler 300s, Dodge Challengers, and Dodge Chargers. More than 2,000 cars showed up, and when he showed the concept rendering for an LX-based Hemi Under Glass, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Factor in Mopar’s announcement at last year’s SEMA show about the Hellephant crate engine — a 426-cu.in. supercharged HEMI V-8 rated at 1,000 hp and 950 lb-ft of torque — and the stars just seem to be aligning in favor of a modern Hemi Under Glass, to run with the ’68 car, not in place of it.
The Hellephant crate engine, in its 1,000 horsepower glory.
As of now, the build is being funded out of Mantel’s own pocket, without sponsorship from either FCA or Hurst, now owned by Holley. Once he procures the LX-platform Dodge Challenger for the build, the unibody will need to be back halved (cut away and fitted with custom frame assembly to accommodate wide rear wheels and tires and a narrow rear end) and tubbed, and a cradle to hold the Mopar crate engine and transmission fabricated. Since this will go behind the front seats — as with all Hemi Under Glass variants — there’s no room for a driveshaft. Instead, the transmission will be attached to a transfer case, located behind the differential, which will in turn be connected to the differential, rotated 180-degrees.
As with the original 1965 Hemi Under Glass, Mantel is considering installing an under-body radiator to keep things cool on hot days in the staging lanes. Like his ’68 Barracuda, it will almost certainly have a window in the firewall to see the track from its nose-high position during a run, and will likely use independent rear wheel brakes to steer. Details like that, however, are the easy part — getting the chassis built is what will take the most time.
Mantel already has a shop identified for the build, though he doesn’t want to give out the name just yet to avoid the inevitable flood of phone calls. If all goes as planned, the Hemi Under Glass Challenger will make its debut at the start of the 2020 season, which kicks off at Pomona in February. Until then, he’s plenty busy with the existing Hemi Under Glass, which will make its first return to Irwindale — the site of the Riggle and Leno crash (in a different Hemi Under Glass, built from a ’69 Barracuda and since parted out) — on May 18.
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