by Jon Asher
If you knew Ronnie Sox before he and life-long racing partner Buddy Martin became household names in drag racing, you would have probably said that while they might achieve success on the track, it was unlikely that they'd ever translate those successes into something more. Everything about the pair, from their soft-spoken manner to their initial hesitation and shyness in dealing with both fans and media, said that they'd need an injection of outgoing personality to move beyond the confines of the quarter mile, yet they did so with remarkable ease.
It's one thing to bang the gears in a four-speed-equipped Chevrolet, and quite another to, not too many years later, stand before an eager crowd of knowledgeable enthusiasts in a Plymouth dealership and explain the nuances of building and racing a Chrysler product. But, Ronnie and Buddy not only did so, they did it in such an entertaining and informative manner that some three decades later there are still fans who fondly recall the Rapid Transit System program, and the evening when Sox & Martin visited their dealership.
Everything about Sox & Martin said "All-American," from their almost matching blond locks to their penchant for joking with everyone from their competitors to racing officials. Once they began competing with their first red, white and blue Plymouth their ascendancy to the top of drag racing's aristocracy was all but assured. And, while they're probably remembered more today for their successful involvement in the early days of NHRA Pro Stock racing than anything else, long before that they'd achieved legendary status among the quarter mile cognoscenti.
From approximately the mid-60s through the early 70s Detroit's involvement in motorsports literally "made" stock car racing and drag racing. Detroit recognized the potential for new car sales that drag racing represented long before the rest of the corporate world caught on, and Sox & Martin played a critical role in making that happen. While some observers considered drag racing a second rate activity, the vision of clean-cut, well-spoken young men like Sox and Martin put those fears to rest for those open minded enough to pay attention.
Roaring out of the Southeast's hotbed of match racing and "Run What'cha Brung" competition (meaning anything goes as long as it was? gasoline and carburetors), Sox & Martin were at the forefront of a wave of racers who captured the attention of the country's teenagers and young adults. They racked up an enviable record in those appearances, but as elapsed times got quicker and speeds faster, they found themselves being forced to make a major decision: Should they try to keep up with an altered wheelbase Plymouth (the precursor to today's Funny Cars, and the place where the name was born), or stick with a more conventional four-speed car?
When they decided to stick with "conventional" hardware it created a split among the racers. Those seeking faster speeds built cars that were less and less like factory hot rods, while Sox & Martin and Hall of Famer Bill Jenkins (class of '96) stuck with cars that were readily recognizable as "stock."
In the late 60s Sox & Martin split their competitive outings between the American Hot Rod Association's Grand American Series, where they competed in the heads-up Super Stock class with the likes of Jenkins, Hall of Famer "Dyno" Don Nicholson (class of '98) and many others. Using 426 cubic inches of normally aspirated Hemi engine, they won more than their share of races, but when they entered the NHRA national events they were relegated to running in various Super Stock classes with handicapped starts. Bored with that kind of racing, S&M and the other Hall of Famers were instrumental in convincing NHRA of viability of heads-up racing, and thus was born what we now know as Pro Stock.
Sox is widely considered to be the finest four-speed driver of his or any other era. Nobody got from first to second, second to third and third to fourth smoother and quicker than he did. Alas, the coming of the Lenco planetary gear transmission may have leveled the driving field to a certain extent, but not enough to relegate Sox to anything but the winners circle. Listed Number 15 on NHRA's Top 50 Drivers list, Sox (along with partner Martin) also made numerous appearances on the All-Star Drag Racing Team while winning more national events under more sanctioning organization's banners than we can possibly list. It's only natural that the next step for this remarkable duo is induction into the Motorsports Hall of Fame, but how unfortunate it is that Ronnie Sox didn't live to see this day.