Everything You've Always Wanted To Know
With the renewal of interest in Super Stock nostalgia racing, names like Ronnie Sox, Dick Landy, Butch Leal, Grumpy Jenkins and Mickey Thompson are always being mentioned as the great racers in their day. But one of the greatest Super Stock racers of all time, "Akron Arlen" Vanke is often overlooked. "That's why he's referred to as the Forgotten Hero," says Phill Hayenga, a lifelong fan of Vanke.
In the '60s when the sport of drag racing really moved from an under-ground culture to a national passtime, the major auto manufacturers were forced to take notice. They would try to help out some of the top racers by spiffing them parts and sharing technology. The legendary Vanke was one of those racers that Chrysler wanted to carry their logo. His Hemi cars were unbeatable in the late '60s. In fact, Chrysler hired Vanke to test their performance technology. In 1967, Arlen modified the RO23 Hemi intake manifold for racing. "NHRA rules allowed racers to modify the intake manifold, so I made the stock manifold into a plenum chamber manifold, " he said. "Chrysler sent me hundreds of manifolds and my father cut 'em making all the intake manifolds for the R023 and WO23 cars, and also made the steel Hemi flywheels. The heavier flywheels helped launch the cars."
In fact, it was Arlen's friends, Dave Duell and Tony Depilo, that brought Nostalgia Super Stock racing into existence. In the early 1980's Vanke, Duell and Depilo put on '60s-style exhibitions of the Super Stock class races. The popularity of Nostalgia Super Stock racing brought about a whole new class of racing with active participation among clubs and hundreds of drivers. It has become a national phenomenon.
One of the cars that Vanke built to run Nostalgia Super Stocks is a 1965 Plymouth Hemi Belvedere I, built the way Arlen would have back in the '60s, and featuring his yellow and black paint scheme. Vanke talked to us this week from his home in New Mexico. He told us that he borrowed this car in 1998 from Tony Depilo of Dayton, Ohio. He made the car lighter, replacing the glass windows with lexan and getting rid of the window regulaters, ("reduced the weight of the doors by 150 pounds," he told us.) He also rebuilt the Hemi engine, and went through the transmission ... reversed the valve body and changed the power pressure. For the next two years, 1998 and 1999, Vanke campaigned this Hemi Belvedere in Nostalgia drags all over the country. He said he remembered running it at Milan, Mid-Michigan Motorplex, Quaker City, Dragway 42, Cecil County and Merton raceways. And his best run was 10.13 at 130 miles per hour at Norwalk.
Phill and Donna Hayenga of Byron, Illinois, now own the car, and have recently put it up for sale. (See the 1965 Plymouth Hemi Belvedere I in the Mopar Muscle Car Section of the Cars On Line website.) He says he and his wife still race the car occasionally at Nostalgia Racing events. They also own Vanke's first Mopar, the 1963 Plymouth Max Wedge Savoy that Vanke named "Old Brownie." (See photo above of both cars on the line at Byron Dragway in 2010.) Hayenga says he didn't want to part with his '65 Plymouth Arlen Vanke Hemi car. But economics are forcing the sale. "I have to sell this one so I can complete my friend Craig Dawson's '70 Pro Stock Duster project," he explained. He is building a replica of Vanke's famous 9-second Pro Stock car. The Hayengas also own Roy Clark's 1965 Plymouth Hemi Belvedere better known as "Superpicker."
After starting his career with Chevrolet and Pontiac, Vanke was intriqued with the Wedge cars that Chrysler was putting out. His first Mopar was a 1963 Plymouth Max Wedge Savoy that he called "Old Brownie." He drove it to the NHRA Super Stock Championships in C Class in the mid-'60s at the Pomona Winternationals.
Later, it was a 1965 Plymouth Hemi Belvedere I that Vanke piloted to set the Super Stock C class record in 1969. It happened at National Trails Raceway in Columbus, Ohio running a quarter-mile time of 10.64. Vanke said, "I set the record on the final run for the NHRA Divisional Championship. It's not often that you would set the record late in the day when there are 128 cars competing. But it was on my final run when we won SS Eliminator Class that we set the record." The best time before that had been 11.26 so Vanke set a new standard for that class. Vanke always has some good inside stories to tell about his victories. He told us, "Grumpy Jenkins and Dave Strickler had been running the ZL1s (Camaros) for Chevrolet. Grumpy was there at the Divisional Championship to watch my early runs. When I didn't set the record in the preliminaries he figured it wouldn't happen that day so he got on a plane and went back home to New York. When he landed one of his buddies had to inform him I'd set the record." Jenkins realized that as the 11-second mark had been eclipsed things were gonna' get a little faster out there.
The next year Vanke came back with the same car but Chrysler had provided everything he needed to make the car an automatic. The Chevrolets were running soft times and winning too many races. Vanke always had preferred a 4-speed, but Chrylser wanted him to run against the Chevy's that had been winning in the SS/C automatic class. He won the Eliminator at the Divisional Championship again in 1970.
In 1966 Vanke won three classes at the NHRA Spring Nationals with three different cars. In the Stock Eliminator race he literally ran against himself because he owned both cars in the final.
Vanke's Hemi, along with the Sox & Martin team, gave Mopars so many victories in the late '60s that they dominated the scene in Super Stocks. In 1968 he won the Nationals in August at Indy running SS/B with his 1968 Plymouth Hemi Cuda. He reset the record again with a 10.61 at 140 miles per hour in the Cuda in SS/A at the Winternationals in Pomona, California.
In 1971, Vanke was a member of the United States Racing Team, an organization that included all the top names in Pro Stock racing. "Somebody came up with the idea to take it on the road, have our own tech inspections and run exhibitions for the fans across the country," Vanke explained. The team ran in 1971 and 1972, and along with Vanke included such names as Ronnie Sox, Bill "Grumpy" Jenkins, Dick Landy, Don Nicholson, Dave Strickler, Don Carlton, Wally Booth and Herb McCandless. When they printed the brochure for the team, Arlen's list of racing credits was pretty impressive.
Arlen told us he has run his last race. "No more racin'," he said. "I worked long and hard at it for 50 years. I didn't hold anything back." He says he still loves to go to the Mopar car shows, though, and talk to his race fans. On the back bumper of the Hayenga's 1965 Plymouth Hemi Belvedere I is a sticker that says, "The older I get, the faster I used to be." "I got that one from Arlen," he told us.
The Hayengas are not only Vanke fans, they are a racing family themselves. In 1964, Phill Hayenga won the World Series in UDRA A Stock, Unit 2 at the Cordova Raceway with a 1963 Plymouth Max Wedge Sport Fury Convertible. In 1966, Donna Hayenga won 109 races in that same car, but with a transplanted 383 running 12.80's.
Phill met Arlen Vanke in 1988 at the Mopar Nationals. "Over the years we just got to know him," says Phill. "Most of us in Nostalgia Super Stocks have a lot of respect for what he has accomplished. Just look at the list of championships he's won." Now, with another Vanke project in the making, Donna has told Phill that he better sell the '65 Belvedere I. Here is an opportunity to own a super stock nostalgia race car that was built and raced by Arlen Vanke himself. It could be the centerpiece of your collection.