Phil Mandella’s career in drag racing has been both lengthy and extremely diversified. He first established himself as an accomplished driver when he won the Super Stock title at the 1984 NHRA Finals, and then went on to assume a variety of roles ranging from crew chief duties and making extensive chassis modifications to a very successful stint as a driving instructor. Most recently, Mandella has been successful in building cars for Super Stock competition, and has specialized in the highly popular SS/AH Mopar Hemi Darts and Barracudas.
Mandella credits his older brother Ron for introducing him to the sport of drag racing. Said Mandella, “Ron used to run a ’63 Plymouth 426-cid wedge station wagon in Stock eliminator, and he was a regular class winner at the Winternationals. I started going to the races with him when I was eight, and I’ve been in drag racing ever since.”
Three years later in 1965, Mandella began to work at Irwindale Raceway when Steve Gibbs was the track manager. Said Mandella, “I did just about everything you could think of there, from handing out time slips to helping out with tech inspection. I did that until I was 16, and it gave me an excellent overall drag racing background.
Mandella began driving in the late 1960’s with a G/SA 340-cid 1971 Duster that was later converted to SS/IA. It was with this car that he won the ’84 Finals after qualifying 52nd in a 52-car field. His final round opponent was Rick Houser in the DeFrank & Cohen SS/AA ’68 Hemi Cuda, and it was around this time that he began to develop a strong working relationship with Jim DeFrank.
In the early 1990s, Mandella began to do upgrade chassis work for a number of Stock and Super Stock entries, and he performed such work on DeFrank-owned cars, and also drove them on a part-time basis. One of the cars that Mandella did extensive work on was DeFrank’s blue GT/AA ’90 Camaro, which he changed from a big-block to small-block powered entry to run in GT/HA. It was this car that DeFrank’s son Jimmy, who had also been given driving lessons by Mandella, drove to his first major title at the 1997 NHRA Finals.
Throughout this period, Mandella was working out of his garage at his home in Upland, Calif., and the demand for his chassis work became so strong that he opted to relocate to a 4,600-square foot building in Montclair. Now doing complete cars in addition to chassis upgrades, Mandella built his first SS/AA Hemi car, a ’68 Dart, for Skip Loeffler. Said Mandella, “We were one of the first to take advantage of a then-recent rule change which allowed the use of round tubing instead of box-tubing. It was one of the first Hemi cars to be built from the ground up, as opposed to either being back-halved or front-halved. The switch to round tubing saved a lot of weight.”
Since then, Mandella has built several complete Hemi cars, including two Barracudas for Michael Ogburn, a Dart [delete: and a ‘Cuda] for Dave Raybourn, and individual entries for Roger Mahan. Jeg Coughlin won the 2004 Mopar Hemi Challenge with an Ogburn entry, and Raybourn was the runner-up one year earlier to Jerry Jenkins, who also was a part of Ogburn’s team.
Mandella has also been active as Ogburn’s crew chief [delete: at Indy] for the last seven years, and he will step in as a temporary driver for Ogburn’s third car, which had previously been driven by Harry Holton, who had just retired. Said Mandella, “Ogburn’s son, Paul Michael [delete: Jr.], has just graduated from high school, and we hope to make him the permanent driver of that car soon.”
The most recent project for Mandella is a new Hemi ‘Cuda for Bucky Hess. Said Mandella, “We debuted at the Division 1 Atco LODRS, and I think it has the most potential of any car I’ve ever built.”
The resurgence in the popularity of the Hemi cars has been a big boost for Super Stock, according to Mandella. “I think the creation of the various Hemi shootouts has been one of the best moves that NHRA has made recently,” Said Mandella. “It brings back the rivalries that had been established in the late 1960s, and these cars can draw a crowd with their huge following. Mopar’s increased involvement with these programs, along with the cars built by other chassis builders, such as Gary Jennings, MPR Race Cars, John Hold Race Cars and others, have made the Hemi’s more competitive than ever with 8.50 clockings.”
On a personal basis, Mandella’s drag racing involvement has become a total family affair. One of his sons, Phillip is a lead fabricator at the shop, and the other son, Tony, has started a driving career after just graduating from college. He was the runner-up in Super Stock at this years Las Vegas spring event in just his second race, and was also the runner-up at this year’s Fontana Division 7 LODRS event. Phillip also won class honors at last year’s Fontana SPORTSnationals. Said Mandella, “And with my wife Mary being the vice-president and office manager of my shop, everyone in our family is totally involved in drag racing. I really have to thank my brother Ron for introducing me to all of this.” – John Jodauga