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The Rossi Files

The life and mysterious death of a NASCAR hero

Posted: Thursday September 13, 2007 5:21PM; Updated: Tuesday September 18, 2007 11:57AM
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Bud Moore (pictured) owned a team that was harrowed by numerous tragedies during Mario Rossi's tenure there.  One death encouraged Rossi to engineer a new seatbelt.
Bud Moore (pictured) owned a team that was harrowed by numerous tragedies during Mario Rossi's tenure there. One death encouraged Rossi to engineer a new seatbelt.
David Allio/Icon SMI
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By Becca Gladden, Special to SI.com

Latter day NASCAR fans may not immediately recognize the name Mario Rossi or be familiar with his numerous contributions to the sport. But if you've heard of Darrell Waltrip, Donnie and Bobby Allison, Bud Moore, or Joe Weatherly, you already know something of Mario Rossi.

Among other things, Rossi was a key player in NASCAR's famed winged warrior era of the late '60s and early '70s and took on the formidable Bill France in a power struggle that earned him both fame and enmity.

The early years ...

Mario Rossi, a native of New Jersey, had a long and successful career in stock car racing at a time when most of the sport's participants were born and raised in the south.

While Rossi's talent and skills as a mechanic and engine builder are undeniable, his tenure in the sport was, at times, a rocky one.

A young Mario Rossi was operating a high performance tune-up shop in New Jersey in 1957 when he had a chance meeting with Tom Pistone, a driver in what was then NASCAR's Grand National Series -- the equivalent of today's Nextel Cup Series.

Rossi himself had a short stint as a Grand National driver, running four races between 1955 and 1958 and scoring one top-10 finish. But his real aptitude was for things mechanical and he decided that his talents would be better utilized turning a wrench than a steering wheel.

Mario went to work for Pistone in Chicago in 1958, helping to service and maintain his race cars. The relationship was short-lived and the young mechanic moved to Daytona three months later with an eye toward greater involvement in NASCAR. Shortly thereafter, he and Pistone reunited and Rossi became Pistone's crew chief and head mechanic.

"When Mario moved to Florida in the late 1950s, his struggles were those of so many hopefuls trying to survive in the early years of auto racing," said Rossi's sister, Virginia Rossi DiMattia. "The nickel and dime days were long and hard, and he did not know if it would be a successful career."

Over the next few years, Mario changed jobs and residences several times while working on NASCAR cars and engines, gaining knowledge of the sport and developing important connections for his future along the way.

"Mario had the good fortune to meet up with some very open-minded owners looking for new talent," said DiMattia. "The knowledge he gained, along with his own skills, launched his career in auto racing."

One of those opportunities took Mario to Spartanburg, N.C., where he worked for some of the era's better known NASCAR owners, including Smokey Yunick and Bill Stroppe.

In 1964, Mario went to work for Bud Moore Engineering in Spartanburg as a chief mechanic and engine builder. Fielding cars for drivers Carl Balmer and Darel Dieringer, Rossi's reputation as an innovator and engine wizard grew.

"Mario was a gifted and talented human being who at the age of nine could take a tractor apart and put it together in running condition," his sister said proudly. "His automotive skills were partly self-taught and partly taught by the best of the best."

One of Bud Moore's drivers at the time was 1963 Rookie of the Year Billy Wade. A close friend of Rossi, Wade won four consecutive races for Moore between July 10 and July 19, 1964, and notched five poles along with 25 top-10 finishes in 35 starts.

Sadly, Wade died after crashing during a tire test at the Daytona International Speedway in early January 1965.

Wade's crash came close on the heels of another race-related death for a Bud Moore driver. Joe Weatherly, who won two successive championships for Moore in 1962 and 1963, was killed in a crash at Riverside International Raceway in California a year before Wade's demise.

Mario took both deaths hard, but was especially haunted by that of his buddy Wade, and he made it his mission to improve driver safety. "Billy Wade died because of his seatbelt," Rossi said in a 1965 interview. At that time, doctors concluded that the lap belt compressed Wade's intestines and caused them to rupture -- the only fatal injury he suffered. "Under the impact, the belt became a lethal weapon," noted Ross back then. "Maybe it was a freak [accident], but I don't want that to happen again to anyone."

Determined to find a better solution, Rossi investigated other high-speed collision data, including the results of U.S. Army rocket sled testing. He eventually developed an improved driver restraint system for stock cars, which included the first use of a driver headrest, along with the addition of a third belt to the existing shoulder harness/seat belt configuration.

The extra belt pulled down on the lap belt and fastened to the floor, preventing the horizontal belt from riding up and compressing the diaphragm or intestines during a hard crash in the same manner that killed Wade.

While fulfilling a personal conviction to his departed friend, Rossi's efforts also earned him a prestigious safety award, and led to the installation of a bust in his likeness at the Joe Weatherly Stock Car Museum located on the grounds of historic Darlington Raceway.

Making a Name for Himself ...

In 1967, Rossi parted ways with Moore and established his own racing team in Spartanburg, signing a talented young racer named Donnie Allison as his driver. Donnie's first race for Rossi was the 1967 World 600 at Charlotte. Though he finished 26th, Allison went on to win 1967 Rookie of the Year honors, helping cement Rossi's position as a major player in competitive NASCAR.

His stature in the sport now well established, Mario attempted to capitalize on his first factory deal, pairing with Plymouth in 1968 and reuniting with driver Darel Dieringer. Expectations for the season weren't met, but Rossi was offered another desirable factory contract, this time with Dodge, for the 1969 season, teaming with Donnie's brother Bobby Allison in the cockpit.

Bobby Allison won four of 23 races he entered in 1969 in Rossi's 426-powered Dodge Daytona, including Bristol, North Wilkesboro, Richmond, and Macon. Ford dominated the season overall, however, with 28 victories and a championship for driver David Pearson.

The Rossi/Allison team won the Atlanta 500 in 1970, but by the end of the year a downturn in the economy, coupled with the shift of Chrysler's factory support to Richard Petty, left Rossi scrambling for a new game plan.

Still, the pit crew from Mario's race shop, Rossi Automotive Engineering, won the 1970 Pit Crew championship competition on the strength of another of Rossi's notable innovations - gluing the lug nuts to the wheel.

In 1971, Rossi's Dodge team was reportedly the first in the history of NASCAR to use this time-saving technique under race conditions -- a method which, though more refined, is used throughout the sport to this day.

An Aero Warrior ...

The seasons 1969 and 1970 were unique in NASCAR history, part of an ultra-competitive era known as the "Aero Wars," when two of the nation's biggest auto makers fought head-to-head for dominance in the sport. This manufacturers' battle also set the stage for one of Rossi's most memorable NASCAR races, the 1971 Daytona 500.

While track purses and bragging rights were sought-after prizes for race teams, car companies realized that "what wins on Sunday sells on Monday" -- an adage pointing up the fact that consumer purchasing decisions were heavily influenced by a car's performance on the NASCAR circuit. These racecars were, after all, stock vehicles -- in theory, modified versions of the same models available to the average consumer. Fans at home could motor to work on Monday in the "same" car they saw in Victory Lane on Sunday.

The development of ever larger, more powerful engines was starting to peak in the late '60s, with NASCAR's top teams running engines from 426-429 cubic inches in size and capable of producing massive horsepower. Chrysler and Ford were the leaders in this area and competed against one another for the manufacturer's title in 1967 and 1968 -- Chrysler taking round one in '67 and Ford winning round two the following year.

Round three was in the works for 1969, but with engine size and horsepower now leveling off, the two powerhouses car companies turned their attention to aerodynamic design to try to squeeze even more speed out of their cars on race day.

Engineers added several new features aimed at reducing drag and improving downforce on their vehicles. Modifications included a pointed fiberglass nose extension and a huge rear spoiler or "wing".

The configuration created a totally new, exotic look for cars on the NASCAR circuit. Models bearing this aero design came to be known as the Winged Warriors, and included the Dodge Charger Daytona, the Plymouth SuperBird, the Mercury Cyclone, and the Ford Torino.

The Winged Warriors ruled NASCAR competition in 1969 and 1970, but by the end of the '70 season, NASCAR President Bill France was fed up with the Aero Wars and the dominance of just two manufacturers.

Feeling that he had lost some of his control over the sport, France changed the rules for the winged warrior cars prior to the start of the '71 season. He mandated that the aerodynamically superior cars could use a 305 cubic inch engine only -- 120 cubic inches smaller than that of other body types.

Faced with the choice of running a mighty 426-427 cc engine with a different aerodynamic body, or a 305 cc engine with the winged body type, all of the car owners opted for the larger, more powerful engines to race in the Daytona 500.

All except Mario Rossi, that is.

Rossi was upset not only with France's crackdown on the aero cars, but with Chrysler's decision to throw its factory support behind Petty. In a moved designed to flaunt both decisions, Rossi attempted the unthinkable -- he brought a competitive Dodge Charger Daytona to the '71 Daytona 500 with the improbably small 305 engine.

It was the only winged warrior vehicle in the race.

The 305 Hemi used that day was built specifically for Rossi's Daytona 500 car by California engine builder Keith Black. The motor looked so small in comparison to the larger engines that several people who saw it in the garage joked that someone must have stolen the car's engine and left a lunchbox in its place -- resulting in the engine's permanent nickname, "the lunchbox."

Rossi had signed 1969 Rookie of the Year Dick Brooks to drive for him in 1971, and it was Brooks behind the wheel at the '71 Daytona 500. The crowd was astonished -- and thrilled -- when Brooks drove Rossi's big car with the little lunchbox engine to the lead.

Unfortunately, Brooks was caught up in a wreck after leading five laps, though he finished a respectable seventh from an eighth-place starting spot.

The race marked the last appearance of a winged racecar in the NASCAR Cup series until the Car of Tomorrow debuted earlier this year.

Rossi ran a total of 15 races with Dick Brooks in 1971, posting 12 top-10 finishes but no victories. Petty won 21 of 48 races that year starting with the Daytona 500, and took his third Cup championship.

Leaving NASCAR ...

Mario's discontent with NASCAR had been building for years, even before his showdown with Big Bill France at Daytona in '71.

A few years earlier, Rossi was one of the car owners who, with then-driver Bobby Allison, participated in an unprecedented boycott of a major NASCAR event -- the famous Talladega Boycott of 1969. That incident saw 37 teams leave the track in protest, refusing to participate in the first 500-mile race at what was then Alabama International Motor Speedway, over safety concerns specifically related to tire wear at the higher Talladega speeds.

Based on his experiences in NASCAR over the years, Rossi was an early advocate for the creation of an oversight organization that would address problems in the sport and improve communications between the sanctioning body, owners, drivers and sponsors -- a concept truly ahead of its time.

"The sport should have a combined organization of car owners and drivers with a capable Board of Directors, which is allowed to present its problems to the Commissioner of Stock Car Racing," Rossi explained in an article from 1971. "The Commissioner would have to be completely impartial and knowledgeable, a man who can not be 'bought' by anyone. There's the answer to the success of this sport."

With economic and operational frustrations mounting, Rossi spoke of retiring from NASCAR as early as 1971, prompting friend and journalist Gene Grainger to pen an article entitled "A Farewell to Rossi" that year. "I think about how [Rossi] struggled to reach the top only to have the foundation wiped out by an economy slump," wrote Grainger. "The words 'he will be missed' are overworked. He won't be missed until an honest-to-goodness effort is made to encourage people of his caliber to stay in racing."

In fact, Rossi did stay in NASCAR a few years longer. His next job was as team manager for DiGard Racing, a well-funded start-up team launched in 1973. DiGard signed a young talent named Darrell Waltrip to drive for them in 1975, but he and Rossi were frequently at odds, mainly over engine endurance. Rossi was fired from the company and left NASCAR soon thereafter.

In retrospect, Rossi was among the sport's first participants to acknowledge that NASCAR was changing -- years before polished, media savvy crew members became the norm. In 1974, he was asked if he had any advice for a young man desiring to work on a NASCAR team. "I would suggest that he continue in school and get an education," Rossi said. "Building a race car is a highly skilled profession. As the sport continues to reach higher levels, a mechanic has got to be able to twist a wrench as well as present himself in a good light to the public. There's far more to this sport than changing oil and getting dirty."

Rossi also acknowledged the toll that being a NASCAR team member could take on an individual. "There are many obstacles on the way up," he said. "Nowadays, it takes dedication and education. Unless a man is willing to give the number of hours required, deny himself the luxury of an eight hour day, and dedicate himself to the job at hand, I would recommend that he choose another profession."

Though unconventional in his methods and controversial in his battles with the brass, Rossi was inarguably a skilled engine builder, mechanic and crew chief who played a vital role in the growth of stock car racing, and whose innovations are in use to this day.

Where is Mario Rossi now?

The Mysterious Disappearance ...

When Mario's sister Virginia first contacted me about writing this article, she said, "My brother Mario has been missing since January of 1983. It is a very long and complicated story. My sister and I have been trying to find out what happened to him for the past 24 years."

Indeed, the mystery portion of Rossi's life story begins shortly after his involvement with NASCAR ends.

Not much is known about Mario's specific activities from the late 1970s until early January 1983, when his mother received a phone call informing the family that Rossi had died in the crash of a plane he was allegedly piloting off the coast of the Bahamas.

"At first, when we received the call in January of 1983, we did think he was dead," said DiMattia. "But as the weeks went by and we reflected on the information and phone calls, we were not sure."

Rossi had left NASCAR shortly after his departure from DiGard. His financial situation was grim and he reportedly declared bankruptcy and moved to Atlanta, later returning to Florida to work as a builder of racing boat engines.

South Florida was a mecca of drug activity in the early 1980s (think Miami Vice) and it is rumored that Rossi got mixed up in that dangerous world. If true, Mario's family believes that some aspect of his involvement in the drug trade could account for his strange disappearance.

DiMattia says that over the years, she and other family members have had numerous indications that the plane crash story was not true. "There have been too many unanswered questions and people possibly knowing some answers, telling us to leave it alone," she said. "We do know that for every door opened, another one closed. So many different stories have been told or related to us. Some are hair raising, some are not."

Of note, Mario was an experienced flyer who had owned and piloted a private plane for years.

According to a 1998 article in the Spartanburg, S.C. newspaper about Mario's disappearance, "An investigation by Prudential years later showed that the plane Rossi supposedly died in had been resold three times in the years since."

Rossi's remains were never recovered.

A Family Seeking Closure ...

The surviving family members (siblings and children -- Rossi's mother died in 1986), have considered every theory from the tenable to the extreme - among them, that Rossi may have been killed by someone from the local or international drug scene, or that he turned state's evidence and was placed in a Witness Protection Program, in which case DiMattia believes he could still be alive.

Rossi's sister sent a letter earlier this year to the U.S. Marshals Service requesting information under the Freedom of Information Act about Mario's possible placement in a Witness Protection Program years ago. She received a written reply stating in part, "The Marshals Service will neither confirm nor deny the existence of the records you seek."

DiMattia says that the family had been together just days before receiving word of the plane crash. "The last time I was in my brother's presence was December 28, 1982, for the Christmas holiday at my mother's home in Trenton, New Jersey. (Mario) was driven by family members on December 29th or 30th to the Philadelphia International Airport at 9 a.m. give or take a few minutes. He waved goodbye from inside the terminal, changed airline tickets, and was never seen again by the family. I tried to reach him in the Bahamas on January 1 to wish him a happy New Year, but there was no answer."

Two days later, the family was told that Mario was dead.

Despite the passage of time and the lack of definitive answers, Rossi's next of kin hold out hope that he could still be alive. "If Mario is alive, and he still follows racing news, he may read this and know we are still trying to find him," DiMattia says.

Either way, the family vows that they will never give up trying to learn the truth about Rossi's disappearance. "It has been 24 years of total frustration, not knowing if Mario is alive or dead," said DiMattia.

"We, as a family, must have closure."

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