ANGELO MARCELLI

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Angelo Marcelli is part of the heart and soul of Redwood Acres Raceway.  He’s one of a select few active drivers still racing at the track for more than 35 years.  A four time track champion (2000, 2002, 2004, 2013), he has a unique perspective spanning his early days as a youngster attending the Hard Top races in the 1950s to being a driver in the technical paved racing of today.

A native of Eureka, Angelo is the owner of Marcelli’s Ravioli and Sausage Factory, a business first established in 1927 by his grandfather on 3rd & G in what is now called Old Town Eureka.  They moved the deli to the current location on 5th street in 1953, and opened the cafe around 1973.

“I grew up close to the track.  Went to a lot of the midget races.  I went to the Grand National race they had there in the 50s that went around the big horse track. We had a pizza place in the 60s and a lot of the Hard Top drivers including Harold Hardesty came in there when I was 14.”

Earlty Cars Montage 2

The first race behind the wheel for Angelo at Redwood Acres came during the mechanic’s race in Manuel Arruda’s #84 in 1976  (top left).  By the end of the season he had his own car at the track, a brown primer colored ’57 Chevy (top center), and by 1978 he was driving a silver-gray ’64 Chevelle (top right).  “The cars were right out of the wrecking yard so it didn’t take much to get going, so I got one.  Each year it keeps evolving and next thing you know you’re there.  As you move up you get hooked on it, for sure.   I love it, missed maybe a handful of races.  Never missed a full season in 37 years.   No sense in having a race car if you don’t race it.”

“I always liked old cars, just never got into the aspect of building them.  When I started racing I liked it so I was just going to dabble in it.  I’m still dabbling apparently.”

Angelo at the track with friend and crew chief Frank Arruda Jr.

Angelo at the track with friend and crew chief Frank Arruda Jr. at Roseville

Building Nova Montage 1978

In 1978 Manuel Arruda’s brother, Frank, took apart one of the cars and transformed it into the gold painted Chevy Nova, built in a one car  garage.  “He was sharing space with a washer and a dryer,” Ange says.  “He had a helluva time gettin’ through there, with an old stick welder.”

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“When I started Redwood Acres was fairly dusty, then got to a dry slick track.  Some days you couldn’t tell where you were going but some days it would turn out good; depended on the heat, the sun, how well it was prepared.  They tried different chemicals in it, some worked, some didn’t.  Back in the Hard Top days you couldn’t even see the track from the grandstands some days.”

“If you needed something to go racing we’d go out to the pickups and took them.  You’d see the hoods go up out back where they’d steal starters, radiators… you go out and your pickup won’t start; ‘Oh, I forgot, let me get your starter, I got it on the car….’ ,  put your starter back on for you.  But none of that stuff fits now, its all after market stuff now. Back in the day any Chevy starter would start any Chevy, and any radiator we’d bolt in.”

“Back in the 70s they were stock cars with the frames that came with them.  Then everyone went with Camaros and cut the front clips off them.  Then they started going fabricated clips.  Walker and Pries were probably the first to bring out the fancy Chevelles, ’66s, stuff like that.   That started the trend.  We were always behind the trend of bigger tracks.   But the money won back then, that was just the way it was.  When I look back those were the best races we had, back in the dirt days.  It’s just not the same today.  It’s fun, but not like back in the days when we’d have all these parties:  ‘Dusty Fans & Dirty Drivers’ parties during the Open Comp days in the late 70s, baseball games against the dragsters.”

Left: First Annual "Dusty Fans & Dirty Drivers" party after the North Coast Dirt Track Classic; Center and Right: SRRA baseball game Men vs Women (Women won)

Left: First Annual “Dusty Fans & Dirty Drivers” party after the North Coast Dirt Track Classic; Center and Right: SRRA baseball game Men vs Women (Women won)

First Win:  B-Dash in 1978 brings congratulations from brother Ron Marcelli and Howard Chambers

First Win: B-Dash in 1978 brings congratulations from brother Ron Marcelli and Howard Chambers

scan00001 Angelo Marcelli and Don Graham crash

In 1979 Angelo’s Nova tangled with Don Graham and ended up hitting the front straight wall hard (pictured above).  “Back then we didn’t have the collapsible steering wheels so it pushed the whole shaft right up in my chest.  The ambulance comes over and the wheels were all bent out and they asked me where I was at, and I was bullshitting them and said (in dazed voice) ‘DAY-TON-A’.  Next thing you know they put me in the ambulance and I said ‘No I know where I’m at!’ and they said ‘No, we have to take the first thing you say’.  I guess it’s right; they err on the side of caution.”

“The walls now are a lot harder than they used to be. I told Rich: ‘Maybe the cement’s curin’!'”

Angelo and Larry Pries

Angelo and 1979 Track Champ Larry Pries

“If you have fear you can’t get into the car.  I’m sure it’s in your mind somewhere more than when you were younger, but part of it is we never had the money to fix anything.  I always run more cautious than the guys who had new bodies hanging in the garage every week.  I was working two jobs to go race.  We just couldn’t afford to wreck it all the time.  So I’d let off before somebody else would, but I wasn’t in it to be a super star, I was in it for the fun of it.  Until we really started winning, I think I had more fun, with no expectation to do well.  In the old days I won a lot of B-Mains because technically I had a B-Main car most of the time on dirt.  Hell, before if we made a top race, if we could run with the big guys, we were pretty proud of it.  If we finished third in the old days we’d be partying for a week.”

Reluctantly, Angelo addressed the controversy Fergy Ferguson continues to raise many years later over the Suitcase Race.  “Well, we had a Suitcase Race, we put on clothes, and got back in the car and raced.  That was something that I didn’t think he should have brought up…”   His son Mike sitting at a nearby table at the resturaunt starts laughing, having never heard this story before.

Fergy had said that while he was taking care to stretch the pantyhose on over his fire suit, he was surprised to look over and see Angelo shoving his racing shoes in, destroying the nylons, going for speed over being presentable.  He believes to this day that Angelo had cheated to win.  Angelo responds flatly “Well, he always says that.  I was just quicker because I was the young buck.  And I was legal so I won.”

“We used to do stuff like that all the time for crowd entertainment.  And they used to race just cars off the street out there.  3 Laps.  They’d tape the windows and tape the headlights.  Way back one guy wrecked his girlfriend’s car out there, a Mustang, put it right into the fence.  One time a guy just got out there after the races and took off onto the track.  We used to have to park the grater across there because people would try and sneak their cars in and start racing while we were loadin’ up to leave.”

On Fair Nights Redwood Acres Fairgrounds Manager presents half a toilet seat to Angelo, "My Half-Assed Friend"

On Fair Nights Redwood Acres Fairgrounds Manager presents half a toilet seat, announcing to the crowd “To My Half-Assed Friend Angelo”

“I was a Six Rivers Racing Association board member almost right from the start when I began, and then president at the end, just to close it down.  It was not like a promoted track; we had meetings every Tuesday and the body would come and we’d vote on rules and how we wanted the track to be.   We had our battles and its a tough sport but back then we got over it a lot faster than today.  You’re mad at the time but the next day you’re best friends again and the guy would loan you anything he had, it wouldn’t matter if you just wrecked him.”

“We hung all the lights, picked up rocks on the track, hauled the clay, laid the clay, we built everything out there, the board members.  We had car washes just to put money in it, do everything around town just to get the season started.  We raced a year for nothing, nobody got a dime, just to put it back in the club.”

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1982 Fair Nights Fast Heat – Ange paces a field of champions: (25) Angelo Marcelli, (2m) Tom Wyatt, (87) Ron Peters, (98k) Hank Hilton, (84) Mark Baldwin, (48) Jim Walker, (R) Dane Smith

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1982: “Run What You Brung” Open Comp B-Main winner (note the Larry Detjens style #25). Don Harper won the A-Main.

Mike Marcelli, Angelo’s son and crew chief, continues: “That’s something the younger guys don’t understand about these older guys; they busted their ass just to race.  They come out now and the grass is mowed, the track is clean, concrete all through the pit area, and they still bitch.  Try to get the car level in the pits or jack it up in a mud infield- you put a piece of wood under the jack to get it up.”

Angelo replies: “And the guys before me- we always put it in perspective.  You look in those old cars and it would be like driving a bus.  Those old midgets, the old roll cages, your head was the first thing to hit.  They wanted to race.”

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In 1983 the SRRA brought in clay from Union street to change the feel of the dirt track.  “Then we got to a clay track, what I call bay mud.  I didn’t like the the clay they put in and what we called Outlaw Cars, big wedge bodies.  We thought it would be really good but what it did it sucked the horsepower right out of it.  We went to the wedge cars and the money cars started coming in and they pushed these home builts out of the program.   The wedge cars, the high horsepower cars liked the clay we put on.  The low buck guys aren’t going to like anything that hurts them.  Whoever’s gettin the advantage is going to like that.  It was hard to race with them.”

From Racing Wheels July 24, 1985:  "Angelo Marcelli startout out hot laps with a bang. His throttle stuck wide open going into turn one.  He climbed out unhurt.  His crew worked on the damaged car throughout the night and he came back the next night to win his heat race, place third in the B Main, tranferred to the A Main where he finished 8th in the North Coast Dirt Track Classic at Redwood Acres Speedway in Eureka, CA."

From Racing Wheels July 24, 1985: “Angelo Marcelli started out hot laps with a bang. His throttle stuck wide open going into turn one. He climbed out unhurt. His crew worked on the damaged car throughout the night and he came back the next night to win his heat race, place third in the B Main, tranferred to the A Main where he finished 8th in the North Coast Dirt Track Classic at Redwood Acres Speedway in Eureka, CA.”

Probably the last place you want to end up during a race is upside down.  “First race, new car just built, never drove it before, the throttle stuck” Angelo explains.  “My wheel hit a tire when it flipped me.   We were trying to get it straight to get it on the trailer, this wheel back into the frame firewall, gas tank fell out, everything,  just trying to get it straight enough to get it on the trailer, and Frank says ‘You know, we could get this drivable’.  I said ‘Yeah, if you can get it fixed I’ll run it”.

Mike continues: “It was all bent to Hell.  We had a water truck on one end and a grater on the other, pulled the thing straight and went out and won the B Dash, B Heat, transferred to the A Main.  That’s back on dirt, that’s what you could do.  The difference between the old days and the new days is every angle in your front end means something now.  It’s just a different day.”

Angelo concludes: “There’s probably not much that has happened out there that hasn’t happened to me at least once.  We’ve been on fire, been upside down, we’ve been in the walls, we’ve been on cars.  Probably the worst one I was in was when Randy Olson spun that guy in the Open and Jim Walker just missed him.  I hit that guy and went spinning through the infield.  Kind of knocked me out…caught on fire.  I think that was the worst one I ever had.”

Wedge dirt car for the clay - Angelo with son Mike, 16 years old.

Wedge dirt car for the clay – Angelo with son Mike, 16 years old.

A new Camaro for the freshly paved track at Redwood Acres in 1988

A new Camaro for the freshly paved track at Redwood Acres in 1988

In 1988 new promoters brought a paved track and NASCAR sanctioning which opened up the track to host the Southwest Tour and Winston West races.

“When it was paved we lost a few drivers that had done well on clay- the Henells and Ron Peters.  A few of them backed off, not racing every race.  Back then when we were racing Super Stocks, before templates, you didn’t have to change much to run with the Southwest Tour and they wanted the local cars to run against the tour for the fans.  But NASCAR was for NASCAR- they didn’t do nothing for you, just cost you a bunch of money.”

“I liked the asphalt right away.  I used to go to Anderson and we had Lakeport and Ukiah.  It was cleaner but was harder to drive; on dirt you can horse it around and get it to do what you want to do, on asphalt if you aren’t right on the money you’re in a lot of trouble.  It’s a real fine line.  You’re set up has to be right there.  You were spinning out before you knew you were spinning.  I’d be sitting in the infield and wonder ‘Now just how in the Hell did that happen?'”

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Mike Marcelli:  “Randy Olson took me under his wing and taught me a ton about chassis and how to set up for asphalt.  It’s obvious to everybody now that if you aren’t perfect when you leave the garage, geometry-wise, you are going to have a bad day.”

“Most anybody can go around and qualify and be fast,” Angelo says.   “But it’s when you’re in traffic and making that almost instant decision when you feel it in your butt when you’re slidin’.  When I first raced on pavement I must have spun that thing twenty times a race, but now I can feel that thing and just automatically react.  Jim Walker’s a natural, that guy can miss anything, and he’s probably the best thing that ever hit here.  That’s one guy who could have made it big time from here.  When he won Riverside and raced at Daytona, he had the talent, there was just no doubt about it.”

Late 90s red Camaro - Mike: "A few times that car was a #&@?ing rocket!" Angelo: "I Had my worst wreck in 1997 in that car."

Late 90s red Camaro – Mike: “A few times that car was a #?@&ing rocket!” Angelo: “I Had my worst wreck in 1997 in that car.”

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1997: A winner’s trophy with grand kids and their assorted friends

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“I watch and follow NASCAR, went to Phoenix 10 times in a row.  Used to go down to Riverside, was there when Walker won.  If Walker was going to the races we were going.  Riverside was better than Sears Point, almost an oval with the S’s in it.  Went there every year for years.  There wasn’t any kind of Open Comp we didn’t go to in Redding, Roseville, even if I wasn’t racing in them, we’d go watch them.  We just never had the kind of money to compete in those kind of shows, and I don’t like to be in everybody’s way.  I don’t want to be the one who screws everybody up.”

“I think we won the B-Main in Ukiah once.  Made B-Main a couple of times at Anderson, but they’re 150 lap races in 200 degree heat.  It was miserable.  I liked the tracks but they were too small compared to Redwood Acres, you were just in a turn all the time.”

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“Back in our day we knew what we come from, we weren’t gonna go to Daytona.  We raced and then went over and finished a keg of beer, went out and argued about the races and fought and did all our rollin around and would be best friends next Saturday.  It’s at every track not just ours, but each generation you get people who think they’re the next Dale Earnhardt.  They don’t mind wrecking people now.  If you can’t get by them, spin them out.  That started after we went paved.”

Angelo drives underneath Ronnie O'Neill in his 2002 Track Champion Miller Lite car

Angelo drives underneath Ronnie O’Neill in his 2002 Track Champion Miller Lite Grand Prix

Angelo has been track champion now four times since 2000 and he’s seen the technical side of racing take over since the old dirt days. “Back in the day you’d go over to John’s wrecking yard and you got a motor, put it in your car and went runnin.”

Mike concurs,  “When we were on dirt you’d throw some Monroes on there and you’d go racing.  Now the shock package is multi-valving, the right valving for each corner of the car; you have to be down on the shocks or your car ain’t working.  Guys like my dad with experience can still drive the car and make it go fast, but one mistake and you’re gone. The things we have seen change from when we started in 1976 to 2013 are ridiculous.  It’s just night and day.”  Both say a lot of the local guys who know people back in North Carolina working in NASCAR get the latest technical information and can use that advantage at the track here.  “A couple of tenths is forever on a race track”, Angelo adds.

“I went to the Gold Cup over in Chico and saw a couple of the old hard tops they had in the museum.  They were tore all to Hell but you look in the back and they had a military gas can – the old jeep cans – in the back for a fuel cell behind the driver’s seat with a strap holding it in, and half inch water pipe for roll cages.  It brought back memories when I’d see those guys come flippin’ down the track at Redwood Acres.  Them guys had cajones, man.  Or stupid, one or the other.”

Frank Arruda Jr., a.k.a. “Sarge”, reading the morning paper at his spot in Marcelli’s cafe

While the cars and the track have changed, the constant for Angelo and Mike remains the relationships formed through the years with the other folks at the track.

Frank Arruda Jr. was Angelo’s first crew chief in 1976 and has been with him ever since.  Says Angelo of his old friend, “His brother Manuel got me started and Frank kept me in there.  He’s my main man.  Does the body work the ducting, changes tires, does everything the crew guy does.  If we get in a wreck he’ll go out the next day and start working on it.  He’s a machinist, was in the Marines, went to work with Redwood Kenworth, retired there.   He’s been with me forever and there isn’t anything on there he can’t do.”  Frank is joined on the team by Angelo’s son and current crew chief, Mike, and mechanic and former long time driver Casey Dungan.

“We had some of the top of the line drivers between Jim Walker and Larry Pries.  Tom Wyatt would come over from Medford.  Jim Walker and Bill Schmitt of Redding had some of the best races you’ll ever see.  Don Harper, Valerie Harper’s brother, Larry Detjens was around here, and Don Hood.  Hank Hilton was really good, Kenny Wallan, Don Price.  Me and Don were real good friends.  The old timers; Fergy of course, and Jack Clark- he was a good writer too (columns in the Stock Report).  I don’t think there was anybody out there we didn’t like runnin with.”

Mike Marcelli likes to talk about a driver they were particularly fond of:  “Hank Hilton, in his later years, with his cane, won a main out here with the tour, that was the highlight of our day.  We were just sentimental towards him anyway.  We ran against him on dirt for a championship and we broke and that guy went and got a part and he gave it to us.  We finished second to him.  He was a helluva dude.  One time we’re in Redding and we’re struggling and that guy walks over and says ‘Here’s part of your problem…’, and he set our front end settings, caster and camber, by eye; no gauge, no nothing.  We went out and ran better than you can believe.  He got us maybe half a second.”

“That old guy helped me in Ukiah too”, Angelo says.  “Walked up and said ‘Hey, you’re hittin the throttle where you’re supposed to but you’ll spin out every time at this track.  Right at the apex you’re gone, so you have to hit it right before, or right after.’  The big joke with us is that we’d be struggling with the car and Hank would come over with a ball of string.  I’d say ‘We got all these tools’ and he’d say ‘All you need is a ball of string’,” Ange says laughing.

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Angelo has particular admiration for fellow driver and friend Don Price.  “Don was the best at never using a tape measure.  He’d put the clip on the car and just stand back and look at it and I thought this guy’s out of his mind.  You go to measure it when he’s done he was within a sixteenth, just eyeballing it.   But Don Price could do just about anything.”

“Don Price was incredible,” adds Mike.  “And that’s what the younger generation doesn’t get, that all those people that you’ve met, and all those people that were amazing to you.  Still to this day, Don and my dad are best of friends.”

Angelo concludes: “I’d never trade the friendships and things that we’ve done in racing, the people were just fantastic.  That was the best form of racing and group of drivers, before or since, between here and Redding.  And it was that way around the country.”

Angelo clinched his fourth Sportsman championship September 14th 2013.  On that night Jim Walker came out to race in the local Sportsman class, winning the Trophy Dash and Main Event – the Memorial Race – held in honor of their friend Larry Pries.

Fair Nights at Redwood Acres 2013

Fair Nights at Redwood Acres 2013

Huge thanks to Angelo Marcelli and his son Mike for their generous support and tremendous passion for the history of racing at Redwood Acres Raceway.

All archival photos are courtesy of Angelo Marcelli.

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HANK HILTON

2003 Fall Spectacular Sunday

On March 8, 2008, friends and family met at the Country Club Bar & Grill in Klamath, California to celebrate the life of Hank Hilton.  Old silent films from the 1950’s Devil’s Thrill Show which starred Hank projected on the wall while “Roadhouse Blues” played on the jukebox.  A table displayed photos of Hank from throughout his life and at the center a trophy he won as the Redwood Acres Raceway Track Champion of 1982.  Beer bottles were raised as stories of Hammerin’ Hank filled the room;  about how he began racing at Slauson Speedway in Los Angeles at 16,  how he raced on Enderts Beach in Crescent City, and how he was still racing in 2007 in the North State Challenge Series at the age of 74.  About how he ‘turned his own wrenches’, and how in later years could use his walking cane to clear personal space around the garage or break up a fight in the bar.  Drivers young and old referred to him as both tough and a father figure.  Born July 2nd 1933, he had passed away on February 28th, 2008 after a battle with lung cancer, before his 60th anniversary of racing.

1950s Red Hilton at Slauson

Red Hilton announcing the action at Slauson Speedway 1950s

Five years on, Hank’s wife Delores Hilton still holds an amazing collection of photos, trophies and stories.  “In the 1940s when Hank was a boy his father Red Hilton had a horse stable in Los Angeles and they taught movie stars including Roy Rogers how to ride.  Hank said Roy Rogers was a butthead, but Dale Evans was the nicest person you’d ever want to meet.”

In the 1950s Hank raced the the rugged dirt track known as Slauson Speedway in Los Angeles.  Though much of the film footage has been lost to deterioration, you can still see the jalopies bouncing through the spine-jarring ruts and at the finish line going either high or low to avoid a car-swallower of a puddle.  It was more like an off-road endurance test than a race around a track.

“Hank’s dad Red and he both raced the same cars in the same races at Slauson”, Delores says.  “Slauson wasn’t really a race track, they just used it on weekends.  It was just a big old field beside the railroad tracks and there was garbage with big holes and he said you’d just be bouncing and jumping, lucky you didn’t run into a pile of garbage.”  Red, who was a promoter and track announcer, would sometimes be both driver and flag man for the same race, and at the finish would jump out of the car and wave the checkered flag.  “His dad was crazy like he was.”

Hank on three wheels at the battlefield that was known as Slauson Speedway, mid 1950s

Hank on three wheels at the battlefield known as Slauson Speedway, early 1950s

1950s 54 Car

Hank Hilton, mid 1950s

1956 Slauson Firewall Crash Frames

1956 Slauson Hank with TrophyThe craziest stunt had to come in 1956 with the Chuck Casteel Hell Drivers Thrill Show featuring Hank Hilton’s Death Leap, where Hank did the Fire-Wall Crash while riding on the hood of a ’51 Hudson.  In the old film Hank is shown in his white trousers spread eagle on the hood of the car crashing through a wall of flame, then jumping off to the ground as the others ran in to check on him. Delores described the events: “He was on the hood of the car and the wall was on fire and all was well….but they had put tar paper in the wall and it stuck to his face giving him third degree burns.”   The film shows him returning later with a face covered in bandages to accept a trophy and consoling pats on the back.   This would not be the first injury from his daredevil lifestyle, nor the last (see A LIFE IN RACING).

Hank would still always remain a racer.  Throughout the 1950s in Southern California at tracks like Riverside and Ascot, Hank competed with big names including Lee Petty and Parnelli Jones, and raced and won in NASCAR Grand National late models.  In 1957 he had a driver’s test with American racing legend Dan Gurney and won a seat in an open wheel Grand Prix type car, competing in a 500 mile race at Willow Springs, finishing 2nd in a car built by George Hulman, son of the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"Flood Mud"

“Flood Mud”

Moving back to the north coast for the health of his son, he lived in Loleta before settling in Klamath in the Yurok Indian Reservation on the Klamath River.  The 1964 flood which destroyed the town center also dragged his Ford through the mud.  He resurrected it as a race car calling it ‘Flood Mud’ and took it to the track in Eureka.  Hank would race all over California, Oregon and Nevada, but his home track would become Redwood Acres.

1970-71 Red #9 Bob's Bookkeeping car

The #9 Bob’s Bookkeeping car at the Arcata/Eureka Airport, circa 1970-71

1972 SRRA Yearbook

1972 Six Rivers Racing Association Yearbook

In 1972 in a Move It or Lose It deal with Caltrans, Hank bought his Klamath house for $100 and hauled it from its spot next to the soon-to-be expanded Highway 101 down twisty Hunter Creek Road to the subdivision where it sits today. (On the way the wheels got stuck in mud up to the axles, and Hank worried it was so deep that he would have to burn the house off the trailer to get it out.)

Pointing to a metal pole that now resides in the living room supporting the ceiling of the house, Delores says “He could suspend himself completely horizontal, parallel to the floor, like a flag on a pole.  He was small but very athletic.  Hank loved to dance.  You name it, music came on, and we danced.  He could do a back-flip.  When that NASCAR driver Carl Edwards started doing back-flips after winning races, Hank said ‘I did that before he did!’, and I said ‘Well, HE didn’t know that!'”

The #90 Chevelle Hank drove in 1972 and into 1973 until he switched officially to the #27 red Chevy

The #90 Chevelle Hank drove in 1972 until he switched officially to the #27 red Chevy in September 1973 (1972 SRRA Yearbook & The Stock Report 72-73)

1973 SRRA Yearbook driver photoIn a 1973 profile in the Redwood Acres Raceway program The Stock Report, Hank was asked why he raced, and he replied: “Why breathe?  In my blood…competition.”  Already a winner of 300 trophies at the time, he said his favorite was when he set the World Record for height and distance over parked cars in a non-modified  production car.  His advice to someone who had just bought a race car was “Not to try too hard, race to finish, and then race to win.  To be a winner you have to work hard, pay attention to what the other drivers are doing, and race clean.  Good reflexes, foresight, and guts are what it takes.”  He added that racing for fun was his only goal and to keep driving as long as he could afford it.  Hank would still be racing nearly 35 years later.

The memorable #27 red Chevy raced and won at Redwood Acres from 1972-1975, on the trailer at the Klamath Subdivision

The memorable #27 Chevy Hank raced and won with at Redwood Acres from 1973 to 1975, shown here with trophies on display at the Klamath subdivision

In the post race interview parlance of today: "The Blue Ox Cafe - Klamath Jet Boat Kruises - Requa Inn - Benedicts Tackle Chevy ran beautiful all day."

In the NASCAR post race interview parlance of today: “The Blue Ox Cafe – Klamath Jet Boat Kruises – Requa Inn – Benedict’s Tackle Chevy ran beautiful all day.”

Hank winning another trophy at Redwood Acres, early 1970s.

Hank winning another trophy at Redwood Acres, early 1970s.

As with Ferndale’s farmers, the Klamath/Crescent City contingent of racers made their mark on Redwood Acres in the 70s.  Known as The River Rats, they included Joe Wilson, Vestel Skaggs, Jim Mostovoy and Ken Woods, all having trademark yellow cars. (Hank had his own car separate from the Rats, the red #27.)  They were named after a bar “The River Runt” which was located where the vista turnout is today on Requa Road above the mouth of the Klamath River.  Hank was a mentor to many younger racers, from the early days in Los Angeles with the youth group The Black Knights, into his later years with drivers like touring Late Model champion Howard Ford of Crescent City, who spoke at the Country Club in 2008 about how Hank was like a father to him.

Back in the 70s women weren’t allowed in the pits, so drivers’ families and supporters often found themselves next to each other in the grandstands, and the action there sometimes rivaled what was happening on the track.  Ace drivers  like Dane Smith would come down from Medford to challenge the locals and the battle lines in the stands were drawn.  “We’d all be drinking beer and getting into arguments.  Hank sat in the stands once and said afterward he could see why someone would want to punch somebody, the things they would say.  But we never would- just a bunch of yelling.  Dane was a real good driver.”

The real fights at short tracks across the country often happen in the pits.  Like a high speed rush hour with bumping and trophies to the fastest, the result is often bent metal and expensive repairs, creating the perfect brew for flaring tempers.   A former amateur boxer, Hank knew how to take care of himself.  (He got his nickname “Hammerin’ Hank” not from his driving style but for how he handled his fists.)   Dolores remembers the night some time in the 1990s when her sister-in-law, driver Sandra Woodhurst, was confronted by an angry male driver approaching her in the pits after a race, and Hank, then in his 60s, was waving that walking stick of his, sending him on his way.  “It would make Hank so mad how they treated the women on the track” Delores says.  “We would watch one of them racing and Hank would say ‘They use them as a pick.’  A lot of the guys would put the women into the wall. One thing about Hank, he was always respectful of women.  And he always had women friends.”

1976 Red and White Car

Hank arrived late for the 1976 season at Redwood Acres with a new car, still the #27 but now on the side of a newer Chevelle that sported a red and white paint scheme, a car Delores Hilton says now was her favorite.  “To me that is the most beautiful car that ever was built. I loved the blue ones but that one I thought had class.” The car was later owned by Bert Watson who lead the points in the Super Stocks for a time with it in 1978.

Hank was back racing the $90 in 1978

Hank was back racing the #90 in 1978

1975 Jimmy and Hank Main Winners x980

In 1979 Hank and partner Bill Isaacson bought Jimmy Walker’s ’72 Chevy Nova that he had driven in Winston West and at short tracks in ’77 and ’78.  In response to Jimmy’s ‘Coffee Creek Special’ that had adorned his cars, Hank and Bill painted ‘Isaacson-Hilton Special’ on the side.  “Jim and Hank were always goofing on each other,” Delores says.  “Jimmy’s wife said ‘It’s amazing how much alike Jim and Hank are’.  She said basically they are both the same kind of guys.”  Though Hank said initially Jimmy wanted him to change the color, Hank was adamant that the color stay, and the two Petty Blue cars of the long-time friendly rivals shared the track for many years.  In one of his final races with Jimmy, Hank had an ill-handling car and decided to park it, and with an acknowledgement of the huge popularity of Walker at Redwood Acres, said afterward in the pits “I couldn’t keep the car straight and if I had crashed Walker and taken him out they would have strung me up!”  The #98k light blue car with the dark blue top would be Hank’s signature on the track for the rest of his racing days.

1979  Hank driving Jimmy's old Nova

Hank driving Jimmy Walker’s ’72 Nova in 1979

1979 98 Hilton Nova 8 Camaro

Hanks car that finished 2nd in SRRA Points in 1980

Hank’s car that finished 2nd in SRRA Points in 1980

1982 Stock Report ProfileAfter close finishes in the Redwood Acres Super Stock final points in 1979 (3rd) and 1980 (2nd),  in 1981 Hank finished the season tied for 1st with Ken Wallan at 805 points, but a tie breaker instituted after the race gave the title to Wallan and Hank was frustrated once again.  Delores Hilton says “If we had to lose it to anyone we’d want to lose it to Ken Wallan.  He was a nice man and we liked him a lot.”  The next year Hank said in a profile piece in The Stock Report that he was more relaxed and was just trying to finish races the best he could, and would race “until they make me quit.”  At the end of the 1982 season Hank was finally on top of the standings all alone, Track Champion at Redwood Acres Raceway at the age of 49.

1982 Six Rivers Racing Association Super Stock Track Champion Trophy

1982 Six Rivers Racing Association Super Stock Track Champion Trophy

Hank and his asphalt car, early 1990s

Hank and his asphalt car, early 1990s

In 1988 Redwood Acres Raceway would be paved and NASCAR sanctioned, with various touring series passing through town.  In his later years Hank no longer raced in the local Sportsman points races, opting instead for the Late Model Open Comp shows at RAR and other tracks, while running with the highly competitive northern California tours like NOR CAL, TRI-STATE and the North State Challenge Series, finishing as high as 4th in the standings in 2003 at the age of 70.  And he did all this with just a couple local sponsors and without a mechanic in charge of the car, unlike many of the other teams.

The sun setting on Hank and his Chevy Lumina at the Redwood Acres Fall Spectacular 1997

The sun sets on Hank and his Chevy Lumina at the Redwood Acres Fall Spectacular in 1997

2005 Hank Hilton

Redwood Acres Fall Spectacular 2005

In the pits after another Fall Spectacular 2005

“He would have people come and help him with the cars but basically he did it alone.” Delores Hilton says.  “He was the number one mechanic in Del Norte County.  If you wanted your car fixed, house built up or torn down, plumbing, painting, wiring, you name it, he could do it.”

“We crashed so bad at Redding once it took two tow trucks to bring our car back to the pits.  We had to put it on our trailer backwards to bring it back from Redding to Klamath.  He backed up to the garage at home and hooked it up to the chain hoist and I’d pull forward a bit and he’d add another block to support it until we had it off.  It was in such bad shape- but he fixed it.  He always fixed it.”

Portrait of a shade tree race car mechanic

Portrait of a shade tree race car mechanic

In late 2007 Hank was diagnosed with lung cancer.  While in the Hospital in Crescent City, Hank was watching NASCAR races on TV with the sound down.  “He did not like Darrell Waltrip.  He would watch all the races with the sound down” Delores says.  “While in the hospital they stopped his heart three times to get it beating correctly- the nurse said it was going from zero to a hundred in no time and I said ‘give me a break- he’s a race car driver, what do you think?!‘.” Hank would eventually go home to Klamath, spending his final days with his family and friends.

Hank at the 2007 Fall Spectacular sitting in the back of his hauler, an ambulance he bought from a mill in Orick for a dollar.

Hank at the end of the 2007 Fall Spectacular, his final race at Redwood Acres, sitting in the back of his hauler, an old ambulance he got from a mill in Orick for a dollar.

Hank passed away on February 28th, 2008, at the age of 74.  A few months later when the season was starting again at Redwood Acres, the #98 was driven again at the track in a memorial lap by Hank’s son, Frank Billy.  Later in the season local Sportsman division driver Romeo Venza raced the car and afterward in the pits was telling people how great the car handled.

Times Standard Racing 2008 Insert

Eureka Times-Standard ‘Racing 2008’ Insert

“Hank left behind two engines” Delores says; “a Sportsman engine and the Late Model ‘Big Engine’; and the guy that bought the ‘Big Engine’ was going to use it for drag racing, but it blew from having so much power.  Then he sold it to a teacher in Ukiah for students to use at Sears Point, and its still running around somewhere. We raced in Nevada and Oregon and all over California.  I still have one of his race cars in the backyard.  Some day I’m going to paint it and number it again.”

From bouncing around old Slauson Speedway in a jalopy racing with his dad, to riding the hood of a Hudson through a burning wall in the thrill shows of the 1950s, to streaking down the paved straight at Redwood Acres in a Late Model stock car at the age of 74, what was the draw…was it the adrenaline rush?  Delores nodded while the question hung in the air for a moment, then added “He was crazy, though.  He always did crazy things.  The man knew no fear.” Or as Hank put it himself back in 1973: “In my blood…competition.”

“Between the two of us we had 10 kids, 18 grand kids, and so far 23 great grandchildren”, Delores says.   “He loved people, he loved sitting and talking to people, never got old to him.  He lived the life he wanted to right up until the end.”

The Klamath River

The Klamath River

Special thanks to Delores Hilton for her generosity in opening up the scrapbooks and old programs, and for sharing her memories both colorful and personal, and also for sharing an attention to detail in nailing down the history the best we could.  I had spoken to Hank in the pits after races about getting to hear his stories and see his old photos and his reply was “I’m in the book”.  I had always regretted being too shy to take him up on his offer.  I think I needed a project like this, a place for the photos and stories to go, and after several years I finally found it, and Delores made it even better than I had imagined.

At Hank's favorite hang out, The Country Club Bar & Grill in Klamath Ca, 18 years of customer signature dollars over the bar surround a photo of the #98, of Hank Hilton.

At his favorite hang out, The Country Club Bar & Grill in Klamath CA, 18 years of customer signed dollars over the bar surround a photo of the #98 of Hank Hilton.

2013 Country Club 017

A LIFE IN RACING

1954-55 #5 Hank Hilton 20y at Slauson

“A LIFE IN RACING” by HANK HILTON

1943 Hank Hilton at 10y

Hank Hilton, age 10, after a fishing trip with a family friend, 1943

“I grew up with racing. My Dad was a promoter, driver, announcer, flagman & sports writer. He promoted auto racing, boxing, wrestling, dance-a-thons, walk-a-thons, and greyhound dog racing. He also raced Model-T sail cars. He started me racing at I6 on the Endert Beach in Crescent City to get me off the streets. This was I949. Then I began racing at the Crescent City Fairgrounds Track (Big mistake; then I was hooked.).   It was a 1/4 mile dirt track. I also raced one of the first chain-saw powered go-carts ever built. The track was finally condemned because of too many spectators and too many drivers’ injuries. I ended up with a spine injury. A new track was built, it was the Lake Earl Track near the drive-in, a small I/4 mile dirt,  it later became asphalt.  I held the record for fast-time when it was still dirt. I also raced in Gold Beach, Grants Pass, Medford, and up to this date I had run all three tracks at Roseburg, OR, and I also raced at Eureka (I952 or so).

Along with auto racing I was the gas-man and portage-man for Burt Pluvoy and the Trees of Mystery boat for the Klamath River White Water Rapids races. They raced from Yreka to Klamath. Burt was the first man to come down the White Water Rapids alone. My job was to make sure he had gas, we were in a pickup and had to race ahead of him. I had to go down over the cliffs to deliver gas to him before he ran out. I had to crawl back up, get in the pickup truck and we would race off to the next gas delivery or deliver a new propeller or portage to pick up the boat and motor and carry it over the rocks at the falls. Then back to the truck and off to the next gas stop. After the last stop the boat would beat us back to the finish line in Klamath by an hour, as we had to go over the Bald Hills to get the rest of the way back.

I also tried boxing, which was short-lived as there was nobody left to box in my weight class, which was 132-I34 lbs. The trophies were too small anyway.

These dates and times may not be accurate, due to carbon monoxide poisoning on a commercial fishing boat out of San Pedro in I957.  I lost over four years of my memory and was considered legally dead – but I fooled them.

1950s Hank ArmyThen I was drafted into the Army, where because of more I injuries to my spine, I received a medical discharge. I came back to Klamath and raced in Crescent City, south Oregon tracks, and Eureka.

I raced in Ferndale, but because a corner flagman was killed by a car that was in the spot I should have been in, and of offers to drive in Southern California I moved to Los Angeles.  I opened up an auto repair service and raced three days a week at Circle City Track at San Bernadino (which I think now is the Orange Bowl), Long Beach, Slauson, Guardina, etc.  I ran mostly jalopies, ‘32-’34 coupes and sedans. I was driving, building, and sponsoring as many as five cars.

Hank at 20 in the early 1950s with trophies won at Slauson Speedway.

Hank at 20 with trophies won at Slauson Speedway, early 1950s

1956 Thrill Show on hood

I was also in the Chuck Casteel Hell Drivers Thrill Show where I was the featured attraction-

“HANK HILTON’S DEATH LEAP”

DSCN7252I did the firewall crash laying on the hood of a ‘5I Hudson going through a wall of fire, and I received 3rd degree burns to my face and back. This happened because the set-up guys put paper with chopped tar in between the layers on the fire-wall. Then I had to do the T-Bone stunt, where I drove up a ramp, hit a car, and flipped over onto other cars. The seat belt broke and I left my burned nose on the steering wheel.  In the following year of ’57, I did the “Fire-Wall Crash” plus “Death Leap“ in a ‘36 Plymouth Coupe, where I jumped over parked cars using only one ramp. The set-up crew screwed up again and I had the wrong rear-end in the car, so I overshot the cars, crashing down on the hard track. Again my seat belt ripped out of the frame. I had a mild concussion and got 57 stitches in my forehead. At the time I held the World Record for height and distance over parked cars in a non-modified, street production car. (This was the end of my thrill-show career; p.s. all the cars were green).

I also joined NASCAR which was called Grand National Late Models at that time.  l raced at Ascot, Riverside, and San Diego. The last race I ran in Southem California was at Willow Springs. It was a 500 mile race in an open cock-pit Grand Prix style racecar. I finished second.

1970s 27 Red Car scan00001

Hank (center) raced the red #27 Chevy for Elmo Bowie (right) in the early 70s; pictured here with Larry Woodhurst (left) at the garage in Loleta, CA.

Hank Hlton and niece Bristol Woodhurst circa 1980s

Redwood Acres Jr. Fan winner Bristol Woodhurst with her favorite race driver: Uncle Hank

During NASCAR, Willow Springs, and Ascot, I also raced with Lee Petty and Parnelli Jones.   At a Championship Banquet in LA, I received one of my championship trophies from Johnny Parsons, one championship trophy from the Mayor of Montebello, and one from a Chief of Police. While I was winning in jalopies, I was also winning in Late Models. Then my son got seriously ill, so we moved back to Klamath.

I drove a few races in Crescent City, Medford, Roseburg, and Eureka. I joined Six Rivers in Eureka. Then after the I964 flood, I took my Ford that went through the flood, called it “Floodmud” and raced in Eureka. Then we went to Bob Britt’s I/4 mile track and then to the bigger one in I968.  Eventually, I ended up back at Redwood Acres.  Then I was racing in Eureka, Shasta, and Medford.  I had my neck broken during this time, then racing full time.  I ran NASCAR in Eureka (Sportsman & Late Model) when it became asphalt.

1981-4-26 Stock Report Cover

A-Main Winner at Redwood Acres Raceway (The Stock Report cover 1981)

I bought a car from Jimmy Walker and raced at Roseville, Shasta. and Eureka.  In Eureka I finished 3rd in I980, 2nd in I98I, and won the championship in I982.   Because of rule changes made after the pit meeting and alter the race, I was cheated out of ‘80 & ‘8l.  I’m the only driver I know who was blackflagged while leading a race.

After ‘82 I ran Roseville, Shasta and a few Eureka opens. Then the track was asphalted and I haven’t been worth a damn since. But I did finish 9th in the NOR-CAL Series in I998. and 4th in TRI-STATE with the Wasmunds in 2003…

I was going to retire in 2003 but my friends, Dave and Barbara Porter of Crescent City, did not want to see me stop racing so they bought a new body for my car. Then I picked up a sponsor with Klamath’s Ravenwood Motel, help from the Klamath Country Club Bar & Grill, and help from my friend Howard Ford, so I decided to race another year…

2004 Hank Hilton signed postcard

With a little help from his friends:  Hank was rolling in a new car for 2004

Scrap BookDuring my career I have helped many kids in Southern California and up here get started in racing.  At one time we had the hated “Klamath River Rats”, there were five guys from Klamath and Crescent City running in the street stocks.  My son Frank Billy, who used to help me with my car before he joined the Marines. and was my pitman when he came home, is now in Sportsman.

So, other than breaking my back, burning of my face, breaking my neck, steam-broiling the family jewels, knocking out most of my teeth, having my head split open and mild concussions, I have never really been hurt bad in a race car in all my 56 years of racing.”

– Hank Hilton

 

2006 Fall Spectacular

Hank racing at age 73, after the annual Fall Spectacular open show at Redwood Acres, 2006

This article was originally written by Hank Hilton in 2005 at the request of Lissa Usleton for her excellent and much lamented web site racintheacres.com

Hank passed away February 28, 2008 in Klamath, California.  He was racing right up to the end.

Archival photos are courtesy of Hank’s wife Delores Hilton.