The Rossi Files
The life and mysterious death of a NASCAR hero
Thursday September 13, 2007 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,
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
in a power struggle that earned him both fame and
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.
young Mario Rossi was operating a high performance
tune-up shop in New Jersey in 1957 when he had a
chance meeting with
a driver in what was then NASCAR's Grand National
Series -- the equivalent of today's Nextel Cup
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
1964, Mario went to work for Bud Moore Engineering
in Spartanburg as a chief mechanic and engine
builder. Fielding cars for drivers
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
One of Bud Moore's drivers at the time was 1963
Rookie of the Year
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
Wade's crash came close on the heels of another
race-related death for a Bud Moore driver.
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
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 ...
1967, Rossi parted ways with Moore and established
his own racing team in Spartanburg, signing a
talented young racer named
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
Leaving NASCAR ...
Mario's discontent with NASCAR had been building for
years, even before his showdown with Big Bill France
at Daytona in '71.
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
With economic and operational frustrations mounting,
Rossi spoke of retiring from NASCAR as early as
1971, prompting friend and journalist
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."
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
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
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
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
"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.
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."
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
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,"
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,"
"We, as a family, must have closure."