"Akron" Arlen Vanke is a well known and very successful drag racer out of Akron Ohio, and for a long time sponsored by Jegs. He enjoyed most of his success driving Mopars, but he also drove Chevrolets and Pontiacs.
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Arlen first began drag racing right after he received his drivers' license. Akron airport opened the first drag strip east of the Mississippi in 1951. It remained in operation until 1959. It was here that Arlen got his first taste of racing. He had a 1940 Ford 2 door sedan with a flathead V-8 and tricarbs. His car would run 14.80 at 87 MPH. In the summer of 1953 he raced every weekend in B/Gas. He was usually successful until he had to race against George Montgomery who always beat him driving a 1934 Ford coupe with a Cadillac engine.
In the fall of 1961 Arlen walked into the parts department at Knafel Pontiac to order some parts for a customer's car. He noticed a "Super Duty" 421 engine on a stand and inquired about the engine. Bill Knafel's office was next to the parts department, and he heard the conversation about the engine. He invited Arlen into his office to discuss the new 1962 Pontiac "Super Duty". Arlen was always on the lookout for a faster stock car so he ordered a new red 1962 Pontiac Catalina "Super Duty". The car arrived a few weeks later and Arlen prepped it and began racing. Bill Knafel noticed that Arlen was having a great deal of success with the car at many local tracks. He met with Arlen and offered him a job as a salesman at Knafel Pontiac and the chance to drive under the sponsorship of Knafel Pontiac. Thus began an eight year relationship with Knafel Pontiac.
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. Vanke also acquired a S/S Hemi Plymouth, and the rest, as they say, is history. The personable Ohio native went on to become one of the most successful Super Stock and Pro Stock drivers ever associated with Plymouth, holding numerous national records along the way.
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.
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.
One of the cars that Vanke built to run Nostalgia Super Stocks is a1965 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.
In January of 2013 -- Arlen was living in New Mexico taking care of his mother.
In July of 2013, Arlen had a serious stroke and was recuperating at a facility on Las Cruces, NM
Memories of Arlen Vanke
Those who know Arlen well are encouraged to leave their memories
Dave Duell -- Many Years ago
How Arlen Vanke Spoiled Grumpy’s Day
It was the summer of 1969 and we were having a ball racing my original ’63 Dodge 426 Max Wedge “Drag’n Wag’n.” My friend Arlen Vanke had originally built the engine and was involved in every step of preparing it, and from the onset, that Dodge was an outstanding race car, capable of running under the national record whenever and wherever it needed to.
Since we raced off of the national record, it was important then to be able to run quicker than it; there was no index. Meanwhile, Arlen was running rampant over the other NHRA Super Stock cars in Division 3 in his manually-shifted SS/B Hemi Barracuda; the car could clock 10.20s-10.30s on the 10.64 record, and he and Ronnie Sox were winning many of the national events.
Unfortunately, with the NHRA World Finals only a few months away in Amarillo, Texas, things were not going so great for the guys at Chrysler’s Performance Product Planning. What had happened was that Chevrolet had just succeeded in persuading NHRA to approve the new ZL1 Camaro for Super Stock C stick. These were lightweight Camaros with high-compression, mechanical-cammed 427 motors, decked out with aluminum parts. To be legal, they had to make 50 of them, but many people felt GM reached that number using mirrors. What really compounded the problem was that Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins and Dave Strickler quickly got the ZL1s dialed in to where they could run 10.90s on the soft SS/C 11.31 record. Now, you may not like the Grump because of his affiliation with the Bow Tie brand, but he was truly way ahead of everyone else when it came to Chevrolet engines, and was absolutely brilliant when it came to setting up a drag car. Strickler, with an uncanny sense on the tree, was recognized as a great driver; put him in a car with black Jenkins Competition arrows on the rear quarters, and he was awesome. Running off that soft class record, they would be a real problem to beat.
So Arlen got a call from Dick Maxwell at Chrysler Performance Product Planning. Can Arlen find a ’65 A990 car to build into an SS/C machine? Sure. Oh, and by the way, can you have it done in the next couple weeks to run at the NHRA points meet at National Trail Raceway? You see, at the time, you could only set a record during NHRA-authorized record runs at events, and that new record would be the subsequent class index. If you were more than a tenth of a second under your class record during eliminations, you automatically lost. The only time this rule was waived was if you went to the final round; in that case, you ran whatever you could, and that number could count as a new record if applicable. Arlen assured Dick that, yes, he could get this done and would be at National Trail Raceway (current site of the Mopar Nationals) to set the SS/C mark low enough that the ZL1 would not be a problem. Arlen told Maxwell, “Start shipping parts, I’ll find a car.”
With only a couple of weeks to do it, Arlen ended up getting the Golden Commandos old back-up car, an A990-code Plymouth. But since it had never been used as a race car, it needed extra preparation time for a tach, electric fuel pumps, and wheelwell reworking, among other things, plus the manual transmission. Time was the one thing Arlen didn’t have, but a lot of people, to a small extent myself included, got busy helping him make it happen, while he put together an engine, transmission, and rear end himself. As the event drew near, we knew we would get it done, but it was going to be close.
Saturday morning at the National Trail event featured tech, time trials, and record runs, with Sunday reserved for eliminations. Needless to say, Arlen got in late; that big fresh Hemi hadn’t even been fired yet. The car was unloaded, he set the timing and drove it for the first time ever, taking it to get teched in. It passed without problems, and since it was new, Arlen had a couple of friends drive it around in the pits to get some time on the engine and driveline.
Now, everyone at the track figured something was going on. “Akron Arlen” Vanke had one of the strongest Hemi Barracudas in the country, and he showed up at a major event like this with a ’65 car? The rumors were rampant, but, as we all eventually realized, there are no real secrets in drag racing. Somebody had let the cat out of the bag, and, lo and behold, who came through the gate as a spectator but none other than Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins himself! (Remember, I told you he was smart.)
So, with some pit time in on the engine, Arlen pulled into the staging lanes, but instead of making a time trial, he pulled into the lane for record runs. When he got to the front of the line, it seemed like everything at the track stopped. There was no water box then, so Arlen did a series of dry hops to warm the tires. The car sounded threatening; he would wing the motor, dump the clutch, and have it stopped in a couple of feet. Staged for the run, the five-count tree came down, Arlen matted the gas, and I swear you could hear that Super Stock Hemi five miles away. WHAM. At the flick of green, he let the clutch fly and the car began what would surely be one of the quickest runs ever for an A990 car. But it was not to be; moments later, the car wouldn’t shift into Second gear, the rpm fell, and Arlen coasted through the traps. I figured the worst had happened, that something must have broken. I knew Arlen would not be happy, and I knew that Grump would be smiling. However, an inspection revealed that the number 7 header pipe had interfered with the clutch linkage. As quickly as possible, Arlen got the header off, flattened that tube with a hammer, and prepared for another try at the number.
Once back in line for his second attempt, the whole place knew that C record was going down, and going down hard. Man, I knew it—I was grinning from ear to ear—the Grump was history. As the Belvedere came to the line, everyone was standing, and at the last yellow, Arlen’s foot came off the clutch pedal and the monster was loose. This time, a smooth shift to Second. This was it! He was on one! Then nothing; the front end dropped down, the car wouldn’t shift into Third, and it was over. By now, the day was late, and the opportunity was past. Something more serious had happened, and there would not be another chance to set the record. I didn’t even want to go to his pit; Arlen had to be hurting. What could I say? What could anybody say at that point? Arlen had told Maxwell that he could do this, made every human effort to make it happen, and had failed. The Grump, probably now wearing the grin I had had only moments earlier, left for Pennsylvania, knowing his record was intact. Or was it?
Sunday dawned a little overcast, but was a perfect fall race day. Overnight, Arlen had returned to his shop in Akron, pulled the transmission, and repaired the blocker ring that had caused the Third-gear problem. He worked most of the night, got very little sleep, and then returned to the track for the race. Record runs were over, but perhaps we could still salvage some round wins with the new car.
Up against a full field of Super Stock entries, I was able to see Arlen win the first round with an 11.50 on the 11.31 index. That monster Hemi growled on every run, caught up with its opponents and then inched ahead at the finish. But, as I watched, I noticed Arlen never extended the car, running just good enough to win without going under the record. By now, a lot of onlookers figured that Arlen had built a good 11.30–11.40 machine, nothing less and nothing more. Then, in the late afternoon, there were only two cars left in the Super Stock: Dewey Cook in a similar ’65 A990 Hemi car, and Arlen.
At that moment, everyone suddenly realized that if Vanke indeed had a record-setting car, he could do it right then. His failures yesterday had all been mechanical; this car had never been run flat out. So when they called the final for Super Stock, you could feel the excitement in the air. The two big Hemi cars were fired and ready, carefully staging for the money run. Arlen’s car had a sound all its own. At the final yellow, Arlen dumped the clutch, and, by the green, the monster jumped out of the gate. We were on our way! Bang! Second gear came quickly and the car was moving. Oh, man, let him get Third this time. Got it! Cook was dropping back—he must have been having problems. In Fourth gear, Vanke’s Hemi was roaring as it hit the traps. His win light came on and pandemonium broke loose. There were no scoreboards in this era, and we waited to hear announcer Clark Rader’s voice through the speakers.
“Arlen Vanke wins and resets the national record to 10.64! ”Seven tenths of a second! The record was hammered! Of course, at the time-card shack, NHRA officials were waiting as Arlen came down from the top end and he was escorted to the scales. No problem; the car was legal by a solid 20 pounds. Next came teardown to ensure that, indeed, no funny business was going on, and like Arlen’s other cars, it passed with flying colors.
I was with Arlen when he won Indy, and I had been there for some of his other wins, but this fall points race was the proudest day he ever had. While it was good to win the race and good to set the record, I will always believe that to Arlen, the most important thing was that he had done what he had promised Maxwell and lived up to his word. As for Grump, well, Sox would win the ’69 World Finals. That afternoon was one of the sport’s finest hours in my mind, and I am fortunate to say, “I was there.”
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