Hank Hankins’ Non-Stop Journey As A Larger-Than-Life Drag Racing Legend
Story by Jim Hill
James Hankins always thought of himself as a local, little guy racer, one of the tens of thousands of weekend warriors that fill the staging lanes at drag strips across the nation. His modesty notwithstanding, Hankins’ lifetime and career achievements touched tens of thousands of individuals. This restless stamina reached far and away from being merely a successful local and regional racer for the man everyone knew as “Hank” Hankins.
Hank Hankins was born in Darlington, South Carolina, November 18, 1930. He left Darlington at an early age, learning the auto body repair and painting craft up north, in Pennsylvania, before returning home to the South. He settled in Norfolk, Virginia where the skills of his craft grew. After working for a local Cadillac dealer, he opened a successful auto paint and body repair shop in 1958.
With his new business thriving, the call to build and drive race cars brought Hank to drag racing. He found that his body repair and painting skills taught him to appreciate fine craftsmanship, and the preservation of all those man-hours of hard work. Drag racing was unlike circle track racing, where weekly crashes required continual rebuild and repairs. Drag racing allowed Hank to bring home a complete, undamaged race car at the end of the day. And the quest for more power and faster speeds satisfied his mechanical needs. He began running at nearby tracks in Virginia and North Carolina, so he could operate his business without undue time away.
In those days most tracks were quarter-mile length, and eighth-mile racing was less popular. Neither made a difference to Hankins. To adapt he would change the rear axle gearing as needed to be competitive and he was equally competitive at either track length.
Although he passed away in 1994, Hank Hankins’ memory and his career as a racer and racing promoter live on. Here his son accepts his dad’s plaque after induction in the 2016 East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame from former NHRA Top Fuel World Champion Jim Walther (left) and ECDTHOF Executive Director Nancy Wilson.
Although Hank’s passion for racing was strong, his love of his family was equally so. Hank and his wife Georgia Mae raised nine children. While there are many such large families, Hank somehow managed to raise his family while he was racing and running several businesses… all at the same time! For example, Hankins juggled management of his paint and body shop, a gas station, and a small grocery store, all while operating Suffolk Dragway and the Langley Speedway dirt circle track! Although spare time was at a premium in the Hankins household, Hank always found time for family.
Hank met and became a friend of Dan Weis, a Virginia racer who later gained fame as the promoter of Richmond Dragway. Richmond Dragway had gained a national reputation for booking top name, traveling pro racers for match races. Weis was also fond of promoting a local hometown hero driver against the visiting traveler. He knew Hankins was a hard-working guy and an over-achiever who also happened to be a tough opponent. First in A/FX cars and later, early Funny Cars, Hankins put on a good show and sometimes upset the booked-in touring pro.
During the mid-1960’s, A/FX match racers were getting more and more radical. To gain traction racers began to drastically alter their Super Stocks into creations they called “Altered Wheelbase Factory Experimentals”. These awkward-looking contraptions quickly evolved into “Funny Cars”. Hank challenged all-comers with his homebuilt ’63 Dodge, a 426 Max Wedge powered, former Super Stocker he called “Hooter Scooter”. Whenever Hank trailered an invading pro the rowdy crowds roared their approval for Hank Hankins, the underdog, little-guy local racer.
Hankins next car was a ’64 Dodge with even more radical alterations, a Funny Car with a blown 426 wedge. This car he called “The Trader”, after ancient Cherokees and their shrewd trading tactics. Hankins’ “Trader” was fast and against a flagman or Christmas Tree, Hank was a cunningly sharp driver.
Hank’s reliable Trader found itself facing many touring pro’s at Dan Weis’s Richmond Dragway. Here he prepares for a rosin burnout before taking on Tom Sturm’s Los Angeles based “Just 4 Chevy Lovers” ’64 Chevelle. Both cars featured significantly altered wheelbased, to move more weight over the rear wheels, for increased traction.
That “hometown hero versus national star” format was one of Weis’ favorite promotions, and his ace-card was often Hank Hankins. Weis tagged Hank as the challenger picked to run against stars such as Dick Landy, Ronnie Sox, Tom Sturm, Don Gay, and even Richard Petty.
NASCAR circle track hero Petty’s drag racing involvement came after the powerful 426 Hemi engine had been outlawed by NASCAR. “Big Bill” France decided the Hemi was too fast for existing tracks and tires, dominating against Ford, Mercury and a handful of independent Chevys. A Chrysler dominated season was deemed to be bad for selling tickets. Big Bill’s business was filling seats with ticket-buying butts, and their owners wanted to see all makes slugging it out on Sunday afternoons.
Hank’s Trader was often featured as an underdog, local challenger against top pro names such as NASCAR legend Richard Petty. Richmond promoter Dan Weis often used Hankins to challenge big name touring pro’s, and Hankins always put on a show, sometimes beating the invaders! Here he prepares to take on Petty’s “43 Jr.” Barracuda.
“King Richard” and all the factory sponsored Dodge and Plymouth teams boycotted NASCAR. Petty and Cotton Owens built drag racing Funny Cars, to keep their racing revenue stream intact and to use the drags as a means for further developing the 426 Hemi.
Hank squared off against Petty with a lighter, smaller, steel bodied ’66 Barracuda Funny Car Hank built in his own shop. It was the car Hank drove in his face-off with “King Richard”.
Petty’s car was an injected, 426 Hemi powered Barracuda built in the Petty shop. “43 Jr.” was a solid nine-second performer and Richard proved a quick learner. Against Hank the Petty Barracuda took two out of the three but Hank showed that local boys without the factory’s deep pockets could be equally tough.
Hank Hankins’ drag racing came of age in the 1960’s, but his career began in 1955. During the early years he built, tuned and drove a variety of cars with reasonable success. By 1963 Hank began racing seriously, running his ‘63 Dodge with a 426 Max Wedge engine. The Super Stock/Automatic Dodge used the proven 426, a cross-ram, two four-barrel intake and a Torqueflite automatic transmission. Because the transmission shifting mechanism was a panel of selector buttons they became popularly known as “push-button” racers.
The “Hooter Scooter” ran consistent high 11’s at 120 mph. Those numbers and Hank’s driving grabbed several Super Stock Eliminator wins at VA and NC tracks. His competitiveness and clean, hard running cars earned Hank a favorable reputation among fellow racers, track operators and officials.
“The Trader” started out as a stock wheelbase ’64 Dodge Super Stock that ran in NASCAR Drag Racing Division’s Ultra Stock class. Hank ran a best of 146.10 mph with that car, very respectable for the day. The next “Trader” was a ’65 Plymouth sedan that received Hank’s altered wheelbase treatment. It was followed by the steel-bodied, ’66 Barracuda Funny Car.
Hank took a humorous poke at being an unsponsored racer with his Altered Wheelbase “Trader”. “Not Factory Sponsored” became a badge of honor for the Norfolk, VA racer.
The costs of running a competitive nitro Funny Car suddenly skyrocketed when in 1966, Mercury debuted Don Nicholson’s “Eliminator I”. “Dyno’s” Comet was a fiberglass bodied, flip-top, tube chassis car designed and built by Logghe Stamping Company, in Michigan. Nicholson’s new Funny Car and Mercury team cars, Eddie Schartman, Jack Chrisman and Kenz & Leslie, forever changed the Funny Car game. Within the ’66 season all the stock based, all-steel cars completely uncompetitive.
Hank’s ’66 Barracuda was built right, but it couldn’t keep up with the ET’s and speeds being blasted out by the Mercury Cyclone team members. Still Hank hung in there, trying desperately to recoup the investment in his equipment. More importantly, Hank still wanted to race.
Hank Hankin’s homebuilt, ’66 Barracuda Funny Car was his last effort at competing against the rapidly evolving Funny Car technology of the mid-1960’s. “The Trader” crashed heavily at Roxboro, NC, seriously injuring Hank and destroying the car. The bar had been raised to new heights – and costs, by the Mercury Comet, tube chassis FC’s, forcing Hank’s career as a racer to a close.
An untimely and serious crash at Roxboro, North Carolina left Hank injured and his race car destroyed. That incident changed Hank’s outlook on the perils of running a nitro-burning, parts-eating Funny Car. The economic futility of racing without factory support became an unavoidable reality. Reluctantly, Hank hung up his helmet and firesuit but he was far too busy to look back. Instead he rechanneled his passion into a different sort of racing activity.
No way would Hank Hankins give up. The racing game had been far too rewarding, in good and bad years. His involvement took a different path when he became manager-promoter at Suffolk Dragway, in Virginia. A former airfield with concrete runways, Suffolk was famous for its excellent traction. Hank’s management of Suffolk came after that of another ECDT Hall of Fame member, Frank LeSueur, (Class of 2015). Hank began managing Suffolk in 1967, while he was still recovering from his bad crash at Roxboro.
Hank’s Suffolk tenure lasted until 1972. In that time, he created many standout and enduring events such as the hugely successful “Little Guy Nationals”. This was a breakthrough event that featured Sportsman racers instead of big-name nitro pro heroes. He also created the “Dixie Drag Classics”, an event that ran for multiple years at Suffolk. So successful was Hank’s formula for these events that they were copied and run at other tracks across the nation.
In 1969 Hank took on promoting and operating Langley Speedway, a storied short circle track at Hampton, Virginia. Langley Speedway was NASCAR sanctioned and home to plenty of rough and tumble, southern short track action. Although Hankins’ was a self-professed drag racer, he loved all forms of racing, and was eager to make Langley successful.
After his involvement with the Suffolk and Langley tracks ended, Hank’s love of race event promotion remained strong. In 1973 Hankins took over Virginia Beach Dragway (also known as Creeds Field Raceway). His days as a weekend racer were not forgotten, and his weekly racing shows took advantage of the wealth of area talent as well as creatively presented feature shows. He managed Virginia Beach Dragway for several years, finally leaving that post in 1980.
Hank Hankins gave many Virginia and North Carolina racers their “big break”, the chance at moving up the ladder to faster and more lucrative racing. Some of these racers even became successful pro racers. In following that path Hank made scores of friends.
After a non-stop life of never standing still, James “Hank” Hankins earned a much-deserved rest when he passed away November 26, 1994, in his hometown of Norfolk, Virginia.
The East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame respectfully welcomes James “Hank” Hankins to its ranks as an honored 2016 inductee.