He didn’t look like a hero race car driver. In fact, he more resembled the farmer he was and racing in a pair of coveralls enhanced that bucolic image. But Tommy Hinnershitz’s record on the race track conveyed a radically different story.
Traveling from his Oley, Pa., farm to race on weekends, the “Flyin’ Farmer” won 103 AAA and USAC features. He captured four consecutive AAA East Coast sprint car championships from 1949-’52 and another in ’55. When USAC assumed the sanctioning chores in 1956, he didn’t miss a beat, claiming USAC crowns in 1956 and ’59.
Hinnershitz possessed a laid-back, humble, aw-shucks demeanor until he buckled into a race car. Then he became a terror. He was spectacular on the half-mile dirt tracks, with a forte for running high, plowing a storm cloud of dirt to the heavens.
A.J. Foyt ranked him among the toughest drivers he raced.
“Of all the drivers on dirt, Tommy Hinnershitz stands out in my mind as one of the best,” stated Foyt. “When it got dry and slick, if there was anything up against the fence, Tommy found it and would blow you off. He was unbelievable.
“He’d have that car up on two wheels, one wheel, on its side, whatever it took. And as he went by, you’d hear the throttle wide open and still he wasn’t in trouble. It always amazed me how he could balance a car.
“I remember at Terre Haute, it was so slick, nobody could get around,” Foyt continued. “But there he was, running on the wall. I mean, he was flying. He blew everybody off.”
Renowned for his dirt-track exploits in sprint cars, Hinnershitz was also quite versatile. He won in midgets on the boards of New Jersey’s Nutley Velodrome. He ran sprint cars on the Midwest’s “Hills,” winning the first three races at Salem (Ind.) Speedway in 1947. He raced late models at Richmond (Va.) Fairgrounds and competed in the Indianapolis 500 three times, with two top-10 finishes.
Born in 1912 within 10 miles of Reading (Pa.) Speedway, Hinnershitz saw his first race there as a youngster. He raced and won at the storied half-mile dirt track for the first time in the fall of 1930.
His mount for that ambitious undertaking was a Ford Model T that he’d bought from a neighbor for $25. When he received $75 for his feature win, he was ecstatic.
“Boy, I was really rich then,” Hinnershitz marveled later. “That was the best investment I ever made in a race car.”
From that time forward, Hinnershitz mostly maintained his own cars. He did drive for his hero, Ted Horn, at one time and handled the highly respected Pfrommer Offy another.
But his Offy-powered, Hillegass cars, some nicknamed “Bluebirds” because of their light blue paint jobs and others sponsored by Miracle Power, were his rides of choice.
During his last few years of racing, arthritic hands hindered Hinnershitz’s driving. Cotton Farmer noticed he experienced so much pain that late in a race he’d drive with both hands at the top of the steering wheel for relief.
He’d considered retiring for a time, even before his friend Johnny Thomason died at the Allentown (Pa.) Fairgrounds on Sept. 24, 1960.
“I was staying at their farm after that race,” Farmer told journalist Terry Reed. “He didn’t say anything that night. He was really quiet. The next morning at breakfast he told his wife, Betty, ‘I ran my last race yesterday.’”
While he’d quit driving, Hinnershitz didn’t quit racing. He took charge of Lee Glessner’s Windmill Truck Stop Special, preparing it for a succession of drivers, including up-and-comer Mario Andretti at Langhorne (Pa.) Speedway in 1964.
“I was just a young kid, trying to impress people from home,” Andretti remembered. “When it came time to qualify, Tommy said, ‘No matter what, when you get to that pole, you back off.’ I guarantee you I wouldn’t have done that. He not only made me look good, but he potentially saved my life. With his help I finished eighth. I was as proud of that as I ever was about winning a race.”
Andretti may have best summarized Hinnershitz’s death on Aug. 1, 1999.
“He was a great man who lived a rich life and had the admiration of all his peers and the affection of a lot of fans,” Andretti said. “He will be missed.”