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Ron Bookman’s Sinister DART VADER is as wicked as they come
By Toby Brooks
Photos by Louis Fronkier, Art Louis Photography
“You underestimate the power of the Dark Side.” –Darth Vader
It is low, loud, and downright mean. One glimpse and an unsuspecting onlooker is irresistibly drawn as if by some shift in the planet’s gravitational field. And sporting unmistakable classic pro street styling cues with science fiction-era high technology, it has enough “nasty” to entrance generations both young and old.
But like every good villain, Ron Bookman’s 1969 Dodge Dart wasn’t always this evil. And just like the heavy-breathing shiny-domed former Jedi, “Dart Vader’s” story is filled with twists and turns and triumphs and heartbreaks.
“I got the car in 1981,” said Bookman. “I went to a drag race and fell in love with the boxy Mopar A-bodies,” he recalled. After a quick local search, the then-high-schooler from Hampton, VA found a solid foundation for a street/strip bruiser.
The car was modified steadily over time, eventually being relegated to strip-only duty in the 90s. By that point, Bookman’s ride had been treated to a Viper Blue pearl paintjob and an S & W Race Cars backhalf in typical 90s pro street style. Bookman eventually tweaked and tuned the all-steel car to a respectable 9.50 through the mufflers.
However, the itch to put the car back on the street with tons of modern technology finally led Bookman to the capable hands of Donald Williams at Virginia Rod Company (VRC). A simple cage modification to get the safety certification updated somehow morphed into a four-year transformation from Jedi-nice to Dark Side-nasty.
“The quality of the work at VRC was so good, I decided to have them upgrade the backhalf on the car, too,” Bookman said. “So we made some changes—and all hell broke loose from there!” he added with a chuckle.
Broke loose, indeed. First off, Larry’s Engine and Marine in Tucson, AZ was tapped to put together a bulletproof 528 CI Mopar Wedge engine. An Indy Maxx aluminum block was fitted with a Callies Magnum Crank, Oliver billet rods, and JE pistons. A COMP Cams solid roller cam was selected to command the valvetrain, while a pair of Indy 440-1 aluminum heads fitted with T&D shaft rockers were torqued into place, as well. An Indy 400-2 aluminum intake topped with a C&S Specialties aerosol billet booster blow-thru carburetor was selected to complement the big F2 ProCharger. A Moroso vacuum pump and Powermaster alternator were added before the gang at VRC fabbed up the custom piping to the Bell custom air-to-air intercooler and supercharger head.
Bookman, an avowed Mopar purist, was quick to point out that his venerable Torqueflite trans could have been beefed up to be more than adequate to handle the stout new power plant; however, gearing issues and the need for an SFI-spec case sent him in the direction of an ATI Supercase TH400 with a 2.10 first gear. VRC added a Griner trans brake and a Pro Torque converter before covering the entire package with a custom sheetmetal fabricated trans tunnel.
Moving rearward, the mighty Mopar’s “Force” is transferred to the pavement through a Moser 4130 fabricated 9-inch housing stuffed with Moser 40-spline axles fitted with 5/8-inch studs. A Strange Ultra case and center section with spool and Richmond 3.55 gears rounds out the deadly Dodge’s drivetrain.
Chassis work consisted of a Riley Motorsports Alter-Kation tubular front member, a Bickel Outlaw 4-link, and a custom wishbone fabbed up by VRC. Copious amounts of 4130 chrome moly tubing was employed in welding up a new cage and custom wheelie bars, while a Bears pro-mod anti-roll bar and Santhuff rear shocks rounded out the freshly certified 7.50 chassis. Donald Williams from VRC and friend Ryan Laroux also custom fabricated the one-off headers and SpinTech 5” oval exhaust, critical for maintaining good flow without compromising ground clearance on the low-slung Mopar.
Rolling stock consists of 25×4.5-15 Mickey Thompson ET tires up front mounted on Billet Specialties Death Stars…er…Comp 5 wheels. Out back, a pair of double beadlocked 15x15s clamp down tightly on 33×18.5-15 ET Street tires. Stopping duties are handled by Strange 4-wheel discs and master cylinder plumbed with copper nickel lines and Fragola steel AN fittings.
As the build continued to progress, it came time to prep for paint. Bookman liked Williams’ idea to paint the car black, but wanted a more muted satin black finish as opposed to a high-gloss sheen. Body mods were kept to a minimum, but fiberglass artist Garry Harris modified the front bumper for the trick intercooler inlet and also tweaked the rear bumper, as well. Bobby Starcher from VRC finished up the sheet metal and carbon fiber work before VRC then mounted up a pair of lightweight Glasstech fenders. Tim’s Custom Painting in Newport News, VA laid down the laser-straight black suede topcoat. Vader-helmet black powder coat was added to all trim and a subtle gloss black tail stripe was added as a wicked-cool finishing touch.
Dart Vader’s evil goes all the way to the core, and the wicked powertrain and chassis needed an equally nasty interior. VRC’s custom carbon fiber tubs and tinwork is most obvious, but other sinister touches like a state-of-the art recessed Racepak dash with Smartwire system and headliner and carpet by Keith Olsen of Kirks Upholstery in Hampton, VA are added for show and go. The entire car was wired without a single relay and features every data acquisition sensor available. Bookman says the high-tech wiring is one of his favorite features of the build.
Despite its clear theme as a dark and sinister villain, the car was recently debuted to a hero’s welcome at several area shows. Bookman has plans to hit the drag strip soon, as well. He fully expects the car’s light weight and copious power on tap to post mid to high seven-second time slips. But before going to the drag strip, Bookman has another stop to make.
“My loving wife of 17 years, Sherri Lynn Bookman, was instrumental in building the car,” he said somberly. “She loved all things drag racing and it was her dream to see the Dart finished,” he added. Unfortunately, Sherri passed on Valentine’s Day in 2013 after a valiant five-year battle with cancer.
“She went to all my races and all the big events we had scheduled and she never let her illness get her down,” he said. “She was a loving person to all with the heart of a lion. She was always my biggest fan.”
Not many grief counselors would have prescribed a wild car build like Dart Vader to help Bookman cope with his loss. However, in a way, the build has been therapeutic for the likeable Virginian. Knowing full well that his beloved bride would have wanted him to do so, Bookman poured himself into the project and completed it just over a year after her passing. In doing so, he paid fitting tribute to the woman he considers his best friend.
So where exactly does Bookman plan to take the car prior to shaking it down at the local strip? The answer might surprise you.
“I plan to go to the cemetery where Sherri was laid to rest so that I can talk to her and show her what we built,” Bookman said. “I’m going to do a burnout for her right there in the graveyard. She’ll love it,” he concluded.