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NHRA Amaile Motor Oil Gatornationals
SZ: Pat Welsh with Speedzone Magazine.com and I'm talking with Ken Hirata. Thursday night you, along with Phil Hobbs and Bobby Vodnik were inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame. How has this entire experience been for you?
KH: I was really impressed. In 2003 I got the Lifetime Achievement Award from the NHRA in Bowling Green but this one, I mean all the biggies were there, the food was good, I was really overwhelmed.
SZ: And your partners were there too?
KH: Yes they were. Bobby Vodnik he's the one who drove for us that year when both Phil and I had the bad accident.
SZ: Your wife Chiyo Hirata has she been behind you your entire racing career?
KH: Oh yes. Since my son started to race back in 1997 I think she had missed just two or three races.
SZ: How did you meet your wife?
KH: When World War II broke out my parents came from Japan. I was born in Northern California and my wife was born in Oakland, California. During the war we got placed into an internment camp due to our nationalities. Her family got placed into an internment camp in Wyoming and my family was in a camp near Phoenix, Arizona. I think there were eight more camps in the US.
Then two years later they released both of our families. We settled in Cleveland, Ohio and that's where I met her. The Korean War broke out around July 1950 and I got my draft notice around October and before I went to serve we got married. I told her, "God if we got married you'd get an allotment check." So we got married about two weeks before I went in.
SZ: What branch did you serve in?
KH: For two years I was in the Infantry. After I got out she told me that she put every penny of the allotment checks into the bank. She had a job and lived with her family while she worked. "That will give us a good start on our lives together," she said.
So I bought me a car!
SZ: Let me guess? A hot rod?
KH: It turned out to be a hot rod after I got finished with it. It was a "Go to work car", a 1951 Victoria, the sport model. And soon it had a flathead because you know this was 1952. And before a year and a half was up I had dual carburetors, a set of heads on it, ignition, camshaft, and headers. I was out racing on the streets. Finally I went to visit one of my friends who lived in Lowell, Indiana. Then in 1955 he and his wife came to Cleveland and visited with us.
He said to me, "You know my father in law owns a car dealership in Lowell? There's a body shop in it, it's empty right now."
SZ: What kind of dealership?
KH: It was a Plymouth/Dodge dealership. Anyway he said, "You should come over and start your own body shop." I was in my latter twenties and I said yes why not become a business person? I went to Lowell and a month later I packed up my wife and my two daughters.
At first it was pretty rough. The people in that small country town never saw an Oriental person in their lives before. I moved into town and I'm thinking, "Goddamn, what's going to happen here right?" They might think I'm part of the enemy. Well the first thing I did is I joined the Veterans of Foreign War. Now they know that in order to be a member of the VFW I had to be an American citizen.
SZ: Very smart.
KH: That worked out very well. The business grew. Meanwhile in Cleveland I raced that Ford I had. I built a roadster. Then I built a '32 Ford Coupe with an Olds motor, it ran real good. I wanted to go faster so I sold the body and bought a Model A roadster. I built my own frame underneath it. I cut all the inner body panels off and put the Olds motor in it. I brought this to Indiana with me. And by this time US 30 was built and we started racing. Back then the four quickest cars raced for the Top Eliminator. Of course the dragster won every time but my roadster used to damn near keep up with the dragster. When the dragster left the starting line he had much better traction so he would leave me behind by three or four car lengths and we'd play catch up. Maybe once out five or six times I'd beat him.
So I bought a chassis and put my motor in it. Boy it really ran.
I ran that, it was all carbureted. I put about 35% nitro in it and it ran very good.
Then in 1958 I bought me a Chassis Research kit. We welded it all up and we put a 392 with a blower set up on it and we had a hell of a time with that. Not knowing how to build a supercharged engine the first time I took it out on the starting line I pulled the RPM's up and BOOM it blew up. It didn't even move.
It took about a month and a half to rebuild it. We took it back to US 30 and the thing went about 200 feet, BOOM, blew up the motor again. I thought I had better learn how to build a motor for a supercharged car.
It wasn't the fastest thing. I had met Phil Hobbs around 1959 or so. At that time I'd run the car and I'd ask some of the guys that were helping me different questions about what was happening with the car. And they'd say, "The thing looks alright to me."
To me it was a slug. So finally I thought I needed someone else to drive the car and I'd watch the car. That's when I got Phil to drive the car. He finished the 1961 season with the car. Then in 1962 we bought a Lakewood Chassis dragster.
Joe Shubeck, he comes to up to me and asks, "Kenny what does your car weigh?" I thought somewhere around 1800 pounds. He says, "Wow that's heavy. My car weighs under 1400 pounds."
I said, "So?"
Well he said, "Take your kids little red wagon and fill it with rocks and pull it around. You'll work a little bit harder."
I finally caught on. First pass out with the motor we dropped three tenths. We ran 1962 like that.
Between the winter of 1962 and 1963 I built a brand new chassis. I copied part of the Lakewood car with some of my own ideas. In February 1963 there was four of us guys headed for the West Coast. I had kept track of Drag News and I thought our car would run as good as a car from the West Coast.
SZ: You decided to take the car out west but during the trip your group was involved in a tragic incident. Tell me about that highway accident.
KH: We were on Route 66 headed for the West Coast. Phil, myself, a fellow who lived in our same town, and Don Maynard who was the Greek's (Chris Karamesines) crew chief. On the other side of Amarillo, Texas we had a head on collision. Don Maynard happened to be driving. Phil Hobbs was in the front seat in the middle and I was on the outside of the front seat. The other guy from our hometown was in the back seat. We ended up in the hospital.
I woke up in the hospital and I asked, "Where's Phil?" And the nurses said, "Phil is safe, he's a couple of rooms down."
I asked, "Where's Don?" The nurses said, "He's upstairs, you can't visit him." They didn't tell me he had gotten killed. It was real bad. Three people got killed. Don Maynard in my car, and a couple in the other car. One important part of that accident--it was proven that it was the other people's fault. It was a tragic accident. Both Phil and I were in the hospital. By the way at the time of this accident my son David was eight days old.
When they released me in a few weeks from the hospital I came home. My wife flew out and picked me up and we flew home together.
My wife said, "You go on and race." But neither Phil nor I could drive the race car.
Two guys brought the car home. The race car was damaged. I built the whole car myself. The front end was damaged. I was still healing from the injuries to my face. My wife took one of those grinding shields and made a welding helmet out of it. We put it all back together with the same motor we had before. No driver. So I called Bobby Vodnik. He raced the year before at US 30 and I thought the kid was a pretty good driver. He was nineteen years old. I gave him a call and asked him if he wanted to drive the car. He said, "Oh yea!"
We got him to drive, and he got used to the car. National Dragster was not even published then. We had Drag News and I kept track of what the West Coast cars were doing. And I said, "We can race with those cars." So we went to the Nationals and lo and behold we ended up winning. We ended up racing Don Garlits in the last round of AA/Gas and we won it all.
Then the next year Bobby had other commitments and so Phil drove for part of the year. Then in 1965 we were back again in AA/Gas Dragster cause fuel came in. We won that one (US Nationals).
Then in 1966 we went to the Bakersfield Fuel and Gas Championship and we won that one. We came back and I think in 1967 or 1968 we were runner up at Bakersfield.
Then in 1969 I sold the car. It was rumored that NHRA was going to get rid of the Gas class and put all the cars in a handicap class. Drag racing is NOT handicap racing, it's run what you brung and you run the best you can. I didn't want a handicap. So I sold the car. Then I stayed away for a while, played golf, built a house. Then in 1972 we bought a year old Top Fuel car and raced that for a year.
SZ: Whose car was that?
KH: We got that car from Jim Paoli from Springfield, IL. It was a Woody Gilmore car, a nice car. We ran it for a year. We qualified to go the World Finals for Division three but we didn't win. Then due to a commitment with my business we sold the car and then I got bored. That's when I got real serious about golf.
I came home one day and my wife said, "You've been golfing a lot."
I said, "Not that much."
She pulled up the calendar and said, "By Memorial Day you golfed 31 days straight!"
Anyhow, she's one of my great supporters.
SZ: Getting back to your current racing .
KH: My son he decided he wanted to go drag racing in 1997. So he bought this Top Fuel chassis that Scott Kalitta raced. We had the intention of running an A/Fuel car. The first couple of years we were learning how to run an injected nitro car. Then finally we caught on how to do things. We won a lot of national events and got about 5 or 6 big Wally's and a lot of divisional wins.
Here we are still racing.
SZ: You still enjoy drag racing?
KH: I sure do. January 29th of this year I turned 85. My wife just turned 84. She tells me to go to the shop every day. Don't hang around the house and raid the refrigerator and drink beer. You're going to get fat and die.
My son David he took over our business Lowell Body Shop in Lowell, Indiana. He just turned 50. After he graduated from high school he went to Indiana University for a little over a semester. He called me and said, "Dad I need to come home. I'm not getting anything from this. You're wasting your money sending me to college."
So he came home and I said take it easy for a couple of weeks. And after a couple of weeks I said, "OK it's time to look for a job." He looked at me and asked, "Find a job? I thought I was going to work for you?"
I told him, "OK but remember if there is something that pops up in the shop after 5pm I'm going to call on you first because everyone else is going home. " I didn't want everyone else to think that I'm favoring the kid. So he said, "Fine I can handle that."
I gave him a tool box and said you're going to work for me. He learned how to do complete body work, frame work, uni body, paint, and everything that has to do with cars. And when he got good enough with all that I said then you can come into the office. It took about ten years.
Now we have three buildings.
SZ: How does the racing fit into your lifestyle? Is this just for fun?
KH: Oh yes this is just for recreation. Dave is single and I have nothing else to do. I gave up golf because you can't golf and race that's for sure. I'm not going to build any more houses. I like sports. We watch football. And we support the high school programs in Lowell. We donate heavily to the local high school. Life is good.
SZ: What do you think of current NHRA Top Fuel racing?
KH: When you have the current crop of multi-millionaires and it became professional you have to give up the business. I didn't want to go that route. I've seen too many people try to go that route and some end up losing families through divorce and losing their homes. I'm used to eating three square meals a day. And it's not getting any cheaper. But life is good.
SZ: Tell me how you responded when you got the letter from Don Garlits on being inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame? You might have thought you were forgotten but you weren't.
KH: First of all we won a lot of races back in the 60's and I thought oh boy this is great. I proved that I could be a pretty good racer. Then my kid bought the car. In 2003 I got a letter from NHRA for a Lifetime Achievement Award and I thought this has to be the ultimate. Then a couple of years later I got the letter from Garlits and I thought this is absolutely the best. And the car is running great!
SZ: Ken thanks very much for your time.
2013 Pre season testing at Palm Beach, Florida
PRO Winter Warmup
BF: It's been going great. I was glad to get out here. We've just been doing days of making runs going into Pomona, just back to back seat runs. I was happy about it and I actually ran in the 70's for the first time. I ran a 3.79 which is my best E.T so we're happy about that. We're bummed we didn't get to run tonight but we'll be good before Pomona.
SZ: What are you going to do after this? Are you going to test more or just go straight to Pomona?
BF: No we don't have plans to test more. I don't know if tonight will change that but it will be straight to Pomona.
SZ: Tell me about your Top Fuel Dragster. Was this a canopy built by John Force Racing?
know we did it through Murf McKinney. The Schumacher guys were into
canopies for safety.
SZ: What's so different about driving the canopy versus driving an open cockpit dragster?
BF: You know it wasn't much of difference. The only real difference is I lost a lot of my side vision and that was a little challenge for me just because I was used to seeing so much more and I lost that. But all the guys said it's better to not have that side vision because then you'll be looking at the guy in the lane next to you and you'll drive towards him. A lot of them said they've done that so I think it will be better in the long run.
SZ: What's the big difference between driving an A/Fuel Dragster and a Top Fuel Dragster? Is it the first sixty feet that gets you or is it the middle of the course that gets your attention?
BF: For me it's all of it. I mean it leaves SO MUCH harder, the launch is really hard. But the difference is it continues to pull. Where in A/Fuel I felt like it would leave hard but it wouldn't pull as hard all the way down. In Top Fuel it pulls you all the way to the end. And my routine of shutting the car off-- I had to pick it up that much quicker just because the end of the track came that much faster than I was used to.
SZ: You guys weren't shy last night. I saw you pull the wheels up high at the starting line. That was an awesome pass. Tell me about that run.
BF: It was our first run that we've ever run in the 70's. So I was very excited about that. We ran a 3.79. I definitely felt it was a lot faster (than previous runs). It was a little bit blurrier than most of my runs just because it got that much quicker. Which when I first started in Top Fuel, the first few passes I got out of the car I told my Dad, "It's blurry I can't see anything." And he said, "You know once you get used to it, you make more runs, your mind will slow down and you'll know exactly where you are on the track. And that whole blurry vision will go away." And after I made a few more laps after that the blur was completely gone. So I know it's just moving from the 80's to the 70's, it really made that much of a difference. Themore runs I get in the 70's I know it will be better.
SZ: How do you like the track here at Palm Beach International Raceway?
BF: I liked it. It's a great track for us. We ran great all week long so we are all happy.
SZ: What are your goals for 2013?
BF: I have a lot of goals for 2013. I'd like to qualify for every single national event in the Castrol Edge Top Fuel Dragster. Also, we have a new team, we have a new group of guys. We have Eric Lane he came from Robert Hight's team and we have Dean Antonelli who worked with my sister and he worked with my Dad. I want to get into a good routine with them. We're all a new group, a new mix of people. So I want to get into a really good consistent routine with them. And then obviously I want to go for my first win. I came close in Super Comp and A/Fuel. But never quite got there so I'm going for my first win in Top Fuel.
SZ: Are you going back to California tonight?
BF: No I'll be here until Tuesday. I'm doing a filming thing with Castrol so I'll be here a little bit longer. Everyone is leaving me so I'll just hang out. I'll probably go to the beach if it clears up.
SZ: How do you like being down here for the winter? Is it a relaxing experience or is it very intense?
BF: I like the weather here. I keep telling Courtney every morning when we walk out of the hotel we feel like we're on some tropical vacation somewhere just because we're not used to this weather in the middle of January. I love it it's beautiful. And we saw two alligators so we were excited about that.
SZ: Dean Antonelli is going to be your Crew Chief this year?
BF: Yes. He worked with my Dad and he worked with Ashley. I'm excited about working with him. I've known him for a long time. He taught my sister how to drive her funny car. So I think we're going to make a good match and I think we'll be really good. We also have Eric Lane from Robert's team.
SZ: And what is Eric Lane going to be doing this year?
BF: I worked with him all last during testing. I was mostly with Robert's guys so I worked a lot with Eric. He's going to be co-Crew Chief.
SZ: When you get done with a run and you're coming back to the pits are you sharing information with the team?
BF: Yes I usually talk to them about the run. But it's really when we get back here to the pits I talk to Eric about the run and about how everything felt and we'll look over my incrementals.
SZ: It was great talking with you Brittany and best of luck in 2013.
you very much.
JFR Palm Beach recap
JUPITER, Fla. --
When asked about her final run of the day Courtney Force, the 2012 Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award as Rookie of the Year, was overflowing with excitement.
"It felt like an amazing run. You can always tell when you are going down there and Robert was right out my window. I could tell he was on a good run too. I didn't think it would be a 4.01 but I thought it would be a low 4.0. We had been running 4.03s and 4.05s all week in testing. It is a great feeling. I am proud of my Traxxas team led by Ron Douglas and Dan Hood. They gave me a fast race car tonight. We are just having a lot of fun. We are pushing the limits to see what our car can take. I think we have seen what our Traxxas Ford Mustang can do. That was my quickest ET and the fastest mile per hour run for me. I feel good going into a new season," said Force. "I was talking with my guys and you could tell there was a whole different vibe today. We all just sparked up because today didn't feel like a testing day. We got excited because this felt like a race. Having the fans around really brought all our energy up. We know that it is testing but everybody also wants to get those win lights and be the best out here. You want to show the fans what you have been doing over the off-season. My Traxxas team really stepped it up."
"I was nervous about (running side by side) because I have been testing for over a year without anybody in that other lane. I didn't know what to expect with the whole visual of having someone beside you plus you add in the staging protocol. The sound of another car going down the track was an unknown for me. It was all fine. I ran against Clay Millican and he is awesome. He came over and talked to me before and after. He is a really great guy. I can't wait to run him in the regular season," said Brittany Force, a contender for the 2013 Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award.
two ETs and mph