By: Elizabeth Sindelar-Loy
Sitting patiently in our St. Louis showroom is a vintage AHRA 1967 Chevrolet Camaro Drag Car just waiting to share its story with the world. Up until now, its racing history has been overshadowed by a famous fellow teammate. Even to this day the continued misidentification of AHRA Champions Kimball Bros. & Hill’s 1967 Camaros has been the catalyst to an incredibly fascinating tale. The facts may have been clouded by over 50 years of time but, the story is still just as intriguing.
(Disclaimer: Most of the story you are about to read cannot be found in books, or online articles. Nearly all this information has been woven together through accounts given by the people that lived it – NHRA & AHRA drivers, family friends of the Kimballs and Ruffs as well as the vehicle’s owner, Mr. Ronald Ruff.)
During the late 1960s/early 1970s, the Kimball brothers dominated the legendary American Hot Rod Association (AHRA)-the heart of Midwest drag racing. The Kimball Bros. and Hill racing team was driven to victory by Gary Kimball. His brother, Larry Kimball would race occasionally as did the teams financier, John Hill but Gary was the star. He had the charisma and driving ability to be a drag racing legend.
In fact, the Kimballs’ good friend and fellow competitor Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins had asked Gary to drive for his team. Gary turned the proposition down but honored their agreement to not compete against each other in the NHRA. Therefore, Gary solely raced in the AHRA. Had his tragic death in September 1973 never occurred, he would have transitioned from AHRA to NHRA legendary status like his friend, Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins.
The Camaro quietly sitting upon our showroom stage was the first ‘67 Camaro owned by the Kimball Bros. & Hill team. They dubbed the car “Just for Fun” even though Gary was on the cusp of becoming an AHRA Pro Stock star. Gary did succeed and was the biggest Super Stock winner in the AHRA for multiple years with 1969 being his best season. He won the 1969 AHRA Super Stock National Championship in their “Just for Fun” Camaro. Winning at almost every major event he entered and being the champion made Gary the “one to beat” for 1970 season.
Towards the end of the race season, in September 1969, Kimball Bros. & Hill transitioned to a multi-car team and purchased their good friend, Grumpy Jenkins’, 1967 Camaro Toy III. This newest edition was dubbed “Strictly Business”. Along with the purchase of the Toy III, the Kimballs received a treasure trove of Jenkins parts along with it. So, they did what any successful race team did at the time, they examined the car closely and learned Grumpy’s secrets to winning.
The original plan was to run the Jenkins’ Camaro as the main drag car for the team, but those plans didn’t quite pan out. With the edition of a second Camaro, the Kimball Brothers made a slight re-adjustment and entered the Jenkins’ Camaro in the AHRA’s new GT class while running the “Just for Fun” Camaro in the Super Stock battle. Gary was the only one allowed to drive the Jenkins’ Camaro but, sometimes other drivers would be subbed-in the “Just for Fun” races.
Looking at old photographs of both Camaros it can be extremely difficult to tell them apart at first glance. Especially, if you are not a gearhead like me. Both cars were painted in the same livery by Oops in Kansas City. The only obvious differences between the two cars were the front end of the “Just for Fun” Camaro was fiberglass as well as it had the badges: ’69 A.H.R.A. National Champ, Super Stock Eliminator, National Record Holder affixed to it. The fiberglass front end remains on the “Just for Fun” car and was given to the Kimballs by Jenkins due to fiberglass front ends being banned in the NHRA.
According to multiple interviews that were conducted for this story, the team’s plans to continue to run both Camaros were derailed at some point during the 1970 season. Multiple first-hand witnesses stated that while racing at Gateway Motorsports Park in St. Louis, Gary wrecked the Jenkins’ Camaro to the point where it was unable to finish out the season. Being the hardcore racers that they were, Kimball Bros. & Hill did the next best thing. They turned their “Just for Fun” Camaro into an exact replica of the Toy III. The only thing they were unable to replicate was acid dipping the frame (to reduce weight) like the Jenkins’ Camaro. Only Grumpy had the Penske hook-up to accomplish that.
From accounts of those that helped the Kimballs work on the car, the drivetrain was taken out of the Jenkins’ Camaro and put into the “Just for Fun” Camaro after the wreck along with many other parts. The Jenkins Camaro’s doors with Lexan glass were removed and put onto the second Camaro (which are included with the sale of the car). The frame of the “Just for Fun” car was stretched and the front wheels were moved back 2 inches (to skip the tree lights) just like the Jenkins Car. The Kimballs had learned this trick along with multiple others from Grumpy to “stretch the rules” for a win.
It was no secret that the Kimballs bought all their racing engines from Jenkins as well. As it sits now, the “Just for Fun” Camaro has a GM L88 427CI motor dated with a 1968 VIN code that was purchased directly from the Kimballs. Since it has been decked, it is unknown whether the engine is a true Jenkins motor. The block has been decked and has value clearance machined cylinder walls. There is a homemade oil baffle system with a stick welded pan and oil pickup. The L88 Aluminum heads are date coded June 1967. The closed chambered heads were ported into open chambered with massive values for maximum horsepower. It is incredibly obvious that there were weeks of work involved in the development of these rare heads. To top it off, the engine has a set of Jenkins carburetors.
Multiple first-hand witnesses have also stated that the original motor from the Grumpy III car was put into the “Just for Fun” car at that time but what has happened to it is unknown. The second owner of “Just for Fun”, Dale Ruff received multiple motors with the purchase of the car and his son is unaware if any of them sitting in a barn are the “one”. During recent restoration of the Camaro, the Jenkins transmission was taken out as a show piece (included with the sale of the car) and a custom Doug Nash 4+1 Transmission, dated 1971, rebuilt by Liberty Transmission was put into the “Just for Fun” car instead.
There had been two original hood scoops for the Camaro to be run in different classes. Unfortunately, after Dale Ruff purchased it, one was lost in transport after a race. The fiberglass front end including the hood scoop that remains with the car is date coded with a 3rd mold stamp from ANA California. The original roll cage was fabricated out of exhaust tubing to help cut down on weight, a subtle trick of the trade at the time. During restoration, the roll cage was reconstructed by the famous Jerry Hass Racing Shop to meet current legal requirements.
After the “Just for Fun” got its upgrade, Gary Kimball continued to win for several years with the Camaro until the team, just like Jenkins switched to Vegas. At that point, both Camaros were sold to other drivers. The Grumpy III car went to a racer in Arkansas and the “Just for Fun” car was sold to driver, Dale Ruff.
Dale started drag racing after returning home from serving on the front lines of Korea in the US Army. He fell in love with the sport so deeply that he founded Thunder Valley Raceway in Bethany, Mo along with Jim McDaniel and Carl Van Meter. The three men formed the Midway Timing Corporation and the 1/8th mile track opened for racing on May 14, 1966. It hosted its first national event in 1972 – the largest event ever attended there. Thunder Valley was not sanctioned by the AHRA when it opened, but it operated by their rules. Dale would race the ’67 Camaro he bought from the Kimballs at Thunder Valley where the car became a star. The track was in operation for 30 years, closed for some years and now is reopen and run by Van Meter’s son, Jeremy.
Ronald Ruff, Dale’s son, decided to buy and restore the Camaro while his dad was on hospice. Researching the car and getting it as close to what it was in its glory days was truly a labor of love. Dale had told his son to forego restoring the Camaro because it would cost too much money, but Ronald didn’t listen. The ’67 Camaro was his dad’s favorite car to race. In addition to that, the two of them shared passion for racing and Ronald felt this was the best way to honor his father. As much as Ronald would love to stay in possession of the 1967 Camaro, due to health issues he confided in me that it’s time for it to find a new home with someone else who shares a passion for drag racing history.
“The summers coming back to the racetrack was like heaven to me. My parents were divorced so, I was only there a month or two in the summer spending time with my dad and grandparents. My dad truly was the king around there (Bethany) because of racing. I love the racetrack (Thunder Valley), it’s my favorite place in life. When I die, that is where my ashes will be sprinkled. Right in dad’s old pit area and on the starting line.”-Ronald Ruff
Author’s Note: When I started researching this 1967 Camaro, I never imagined it would lead me down a roller coaster path to discover its history. It took over a month and a half to interview willing participants and piece together the timeline of the story. I have been deeply honored to interview multiple people and spend time listening to their stories of the glory days of racing. From this journey, I have gained friendships, amazing knowledge of the AHRA and an open invitation to experience a race at Thunder Valley (which I fully intend to do). Thank you to everyone who welcomed my invitation for an interview because without you, this story would have been impossible to write.
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