When you think of legendary figures in Chevrolet history, many people probably come to mind. But if the term “Mr. Chevrolet” was ever uttered in your direction, chances are you’d immediately think of Dick Harrell. Known as Mr. Chevrolet – thanks to the amazing mark he made in the drag racing world in the ’60s and ’70s, Harrell will forever be known for his prowess behind the wheel of a number of high-performance Chevys. But how did he get to the point of being known as Mr. Chevrolet? That’s exactly what we explore in this week’s round of The Greats of Chevrolet Before They Were Famous.
Although born in Phoenix, Arizona, Harrell grew up in Carlsbad, New Mexico, after he and his family moved there when he was just five years old. By his early teenage years, Harrell had already been bitten by the need for speed, and at the age of 14, he became immersed in sprint car racing.
He first showed his skill as a tuner, and later as a driver. By the time he was 17 years old, Harrell had moved up to racing stock cars on the dirt tracks around the state. By the age of 18, he had moved up to bigger and better things, enlisting in the Army. During his stint with Uncle Sam, he worked on engines and airframes for single-engine aircraft during the Korean War. After serving in Korea, Harrell returned to the States and was stationed in Lawton, Oklahoma, where he worked did flight testing on large military helicopters.
As soon as he returned stateside, Harrell once again began to dapple in automotive engine modification and tuning. This turned into a love for drag racing rather quickly, and by the time he had completed his military service and returned to Carlsbad, he was running a ’56 Chevy on the local tracks.
To keep money flowing for his speed-seeking hobby, Harrell worked in local potash (the nutrient form of water-soluble potassium found in salt) mines as well as an automotive mechanic. On the weekends, it was not uncommon for Harrell to drive to El Paso, Texas, or to Amarillo, to partake in a race.
By the time 1961 rolled around, Harrell had seemingly outgrown the competitiveness of local events. This prompted him to expand his racing to encompass the entire Southwest, where he competed behind the wheel of a factory-backed Impala with a 409 cubic-inch engine. That year, Harrell is said to have won nearly 90 percent of his races, including every regional race in a three-state area.
By 1962, Harrell was once again on to bigger and better things, branching into the world of professional drag racing. That year, he wracked up so many points racing against the big guns, that he became the NHRA Point Champion in Super Stock racing, something a lot of fellow competitors, race fans, and even Chevrolet moticed. By the end of the year, Harrell was drawing crowds wherever he raced, and was even getting perks like appearance money and the choice of opponents at tracks across the country.
In 1963, Harrell shot to national fame after winning the Super Stock Eliminator at the AHRA Winter Nationals. In May that year, he solidified his place as a top drag racer when he and teammate Charles Thurwhanger set the AHRA National Speed Record for the A/SM Sportsman Class at the San Angelo, Texas, event with a top speed of 118.57 mph. As the saying goes, the rest is history!