Thanksgiving weekend 2016 marks a milestone in the history of Rocket Chassis – exactly 25 years since the company launched by West Virginia racers Mark Richards and Steve Baker constructed its first Dirt Late Model.
The quarter-century since the first Rocket car rolled onto a racetrack has been wildly successful for Richards and Baker, whose partnership has produced a Dirt late Model manufacturing juggernaut. With the 5,000th Rocket Chassis machine soon to come off a jig, the enterprise humbly founded by two friends is now well-known throughout the motorsports industry and can lay claim to thousands of feature wins and championships, including virtually all of the Dirt Late Model division’s most prestigious events and series.
“When I was a young kid – even before I was a teenager – my dad would say, ‘You don’t need to be involved in racing because you can’t make a living in racing,”‘ Richards says. “When I look back, if there’s anything that I wanted to prove that I could do, it’s make a living at this. We’ve been fortunate enough to do that.
“It’s just amazing that we’ve made a product that has been so well received by the racing community.” – Mark Richards
The origin of Rocket Chassis comes from Mark Richards Racing Inc., which Richards formed with Baker in the fall of 1986.
Richards sold his share of WRC Racing to Rodney Combs after a seven-year run with the business while Baker left his job running a transmission shop for a friend to begin building Bullitt Race Cars for Ray Callahan, first out of the garage at Richards’s home and soon after a 4,000 square-foot shop in Shinnston, W.Va., that is where Rocket Chassis sits – with much more work space, of course – today.
Five years later, in the fall of 1991, Baker and Richards turned Mark Richards Racing Inc. into its now more well-known title, Rocket Chassis, when they began building cars of their own. The first car was completed that year over Thanksgiving weekend; Davey Johnson, Mike Balzano and Rick Eckert were among the initial drivers to take delivery of Rocket machines and by February of 1992 nearly 30 cars had already been built – before the racing season had even begun.
In Rocket’s first full year on the scene, in 1992, Baker and Richards sold nearly 70 cars. They haven’t slowed down since as Rocket Chassis has grown into the most prolific builder of Dirt Late Models in the country. By the early 2000s the company was selling over 300 cars a year and currently averages in the neighborhood of 250 new chassis with every flip of the calendar.
A company that began with just three employees – Richards, Baker and Scott Purkey, who still works at Rocket as head fabricator – now numbers 16 full-timers. It’s a group of talented individuals who strive to make Rocket Chassis the shining light of Dirt Late Model racing, a firm that offers service unlike any other in the industry.
The original Mark Richards Racing, Enterprises parts truck you’d see at the track.
Rocket Chassis is more than just a company that builds Dirt Late Model race cars. It gives customers everything they need to be successful – from an expansive network of more than 30 dealers across the United States and in Australia to a huge inventory of parts and components to superb service to vast in-house technical knowledge.
“The big thing we created back in the ’90s was a dealer network,” Richards says. “That’s a big part of our success. We have a bunch of people who can help customers and put cars together, which allows us to better handle everyone who runs a Rocket car.
“And we carry a really large inventory of replacement parts and components for the cars that we’ve built over the years. If our customers crash, they can call and pretty much get a part sent to them in a reasonable amount of team – and if they stop by, they can usually pick it up immediately. We stock all the hard stuff -spindles, A-frames, rearends, birdcages. That’s been our forte that we feel has kept us ahead of everybody else. If a customer calls they want to keep racing, and we’ve tried to provide that.”