By Bill Hancock
Larry Rathgeb was not your quintessential 9 to 5 automotive engineer; he was a risk taker, outside the box thinker, and master of suspension engineering’s finer points. Born in New York, of German and Italian descent, the die was cast when at 13, he rebuilt a motorcycle in his parent’s basement, eventually leading to a job as a mechanic at a local garage. In 1949, Larry joined the Army and in a stroke of fate, was sent to Tokyo, Japan and assigned to the motor pool, then selected to maintain and occasionally chauffeur General Douglas McArthur in his staff car.
After his service, Larry used the GI bill to enroll in the Missouri School of Mines graduating with high honors in Mechanical Engineering. He was soon hired by Chrysler, where he earned a Master’s degree from the Chrysler Institute. Assigned to the suspension department, he was selected for Chrysler’s Mobil Economy Run team, where he and the team developed innovative solutions to enhance the fuel economy in preparation for their run against the Ford and GM teams.
Meanwhile, GM and Ford had quietly intensified their support of Stock car racing. Soon, Larry moved to the Special Vehicle Development group, and was directed to assess the capabilities of various racers and their vehicles and develop a more competitive vehicle utilizing Chrysler’s resources and capabilities. Viewed as a “Yankee engineer, who ain’t never won a race.” Larry’s biggest initial challenge became to earn the racers’ trust.
Larry wisely decided to create a clean sheet engineering test car by engaging the best thinkers in engineering. Faced with the test car’s undeniably superior performance, the K&K and Petty teams were the first to embrace Larry’s rigorous testing protocol and data driven solutions, eventually followed by the non-believers. Along the way, Larry and his team pioneered many of the landmark formulas and concepts that remain in effect today.
With competition intensifying, Larry constantly looked for hidden advantages. In 1968 a staff reduction Chrysler’s Huntsville Aerospace division brought three brilliant aerodynamicists to Detroit looking for an assignment. Larry interviewed each of them and asked, “given this car, what would you do to increase the speed?” They independently came up with essentially the same analysis: sharpen the nose and a rear wing for stability. The Daytona was born and soon set the 200 mph record at Talladega. NASCAR quickly responded to the overwhelming dominance by the Chrysler winged cars with a series of crippling rules changes. However, Larry and his group merely used these harsh rebukes as incentive to become more creative.
In 1973, Larry became the Manager of Stock Car Racing programs and soon created a short track kit car using production parts and distributed through the Direct Connection program. However, the 1979 bailout signaled the end, and Larry returned to production car engineering reporting directly to Iacocca as a troubleshooter. He formally retired from Chrysler in 1986, and soon thereafter, joined SVI to develop the PPG pace cars. Following that, Larry worked as a freelancer during a brief stint with GM.
In 1991, Larry returned to Chrysler to work on the Viper suspension where he and his group developed and were awarded a patent on a revolutionary suspension alignment system used in the plant.
Larry’s infectious laugh and legendary tales of various misadventures made him one of the most popular and well-known members of Team Viper. He was truly one of one, and in an ironic twist of fate on March 24, 2020, the fiftieth anniversary of the 200 mph record run, Larry unfortunately became one of Michigan’s first COVID deaths. He is survived by his wife Phyllis and their three children.