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Drag racer “Akron” Arlen Vanke dead at age 80

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Arlen Vanke. Photo by Thomas A. DeMauro.

For all his drag racing victories, most behind the wheel of a Pontiac or a Plymouth in the Stock, Super Stock and later, Pro Stock classes, “Akron” Arlen Vanke should have been a better-known driver. His talent as a mechanic was equally noteworthy, and his improvements to the dual-quad intake on Chrysler’s 426 Hemi engine gave rise to the term “Vanked,” or tuned to extract maximum power at a specific RPM range. Following a life that revolved around racing and building cars, Arlen Vanke died last Thursday at a care facility in Deming, New Mexico.

In Terry Shea’s Hot Rod Hero profile of Vanke in the December 2013 issue of Hemmings Muscle Machines, he relates the story of the Ohio native’s first drag race. Vanke, driving a flathead V-8 powered 1940 Ford, lost by a substantial margin, prompting his mother to write a check for $600 worth of performance parts to further her son’s career. Another story, related by the Akron Beacon Journal /, says that Vanke once had to explain to his father that he’d destroyed the transmission in the family’s brand-new car in a drag race. His father’s response? “It’s Tuesday, your mother don’t need the car ‘til Friday.”

With supportive parents and still in his teens, Vanke soon progressed to racing his own 1956 Chevy before moving on to Pontiacs. In late 1961, Vanke purchased a ’62 Super Duty 421 Pontiac from Bill Knafel Pontiac in Akron, Ohio, then proceeded to set an NHRA record in A/Stock behind the wheel. Sensing that the winning driver could be very good for business, Knafel hired Vanke to work as the dealership’s service manager during the week, representing the dealership at the strip on weekends.

Vanke seemed set with the arrangement, but then GM issued its 1963 edict withdrawing all divisions from any form of motorsport. His career path (temporarily) blocked, Vanke purchased a pair of Plymouth Belvederes, one powered by a Max Wedge V-8, and the second by a Hemi V-8. In short order, he proved to be faster than many factory-backed drivers, but despite his demonstrated talent, couldn’t seem to get backing from Chrysler.

Frustrated, Vanke returned to Pontiac in 1966, running the “Tin Indian” GTO sponsored by Knafel Pontiac. His performance soon came to the attention of Chrysler execs, who offered him a contract if he’d return to Plymouth. He did, and his calls to the factory, where he always identified himself as “Arlen Vanke from Akron, Ohio,“ gave rise to his “Akron” Arlen Vanke nickname.

Vanke received cars and limited spares from Chrysler, but still wasn’t a Mopar A-list driver. By choosing to race at tracks with the highest purse, he made enough money to quit his day job and race full time by the late 1960s. Ultimately, he made more from winnings than from his sponsorships, and to further supplement his income, built engines and even complete cars for other racers.

Throughout his career, Vanke earned a reputation as a blue-collar racer, building cars in his backyard and working without amenities that bigger teams took for granted. Later in life, he moved from Ohio to Michigan, and ultimately, New Mexico. In 2016, Vanke was inducted into the Michigan Motor Sports Hall of Fame, and also honored (along with the Arfons brothers  and Otis “Otie” Smith) with an Ohio Historical Marker, recognizing the contributions of Akron residents to the sport of drag racing.