Soft Spoken Henry Banks Showed Great Driving Ability

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AT THE WHEEL: Noted midget racer Henry Banks later became a trusted USAC official. (Bob Gates Collection Photo)
AT THE WHEEL: Noted midget racer Henry Banks later became a trusted USAC official. (Bob Gates Collection Photo)

Henry Banks didn’t look like a race-car driver. Soft spoken and well mannered, he looked more like an accountant or a teacher. Yet, behind the wheel of a race car, that Clark Kent persona disappeared, replaced with an extraordinary finesse, aggression and ability.

Banks drove sprint cars, midgets and Indy cars. In 1947 he won 30 midget features with the ARDC and was its champion in 1941. In 1950, he won the AAA national championship over Walt Faulkner in a battle that went to the last Indy-car race of the season, at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. For his driving prowess Banks has been inducted into four halls of fame.

His driving career finished, he became USAC’s director of competition from 1959 through 1970. During his tenure he guided the still new organization through a tumultuous era, with rule changes intended to control the technology of speed, as it quickly outpaced the technology of safety.

Banks, who contributed so much to American racing, was by birth English. Born in Surrey, England, June 14, 1913, his family moved to Edmonton, Alberta, before settling in Royal Oak, Mich. It was in Michigan that Banks was irrevocably drawn to the sport.

His father often took him to the AAA National Championship races in nearby Detroit. Banks hung around the railroad boxcars that the stars of that day hauled their cars in and used as garages once they reached their destination. One evening the wide-eyed youngster was invited in. From that moment Banks dreamed only about driving race cars.

Out of high school, he and some friends from the RAJO Car Club built a sprint car that Banks convinced them to let him race. His first outing was at Bay City, Mich., in 1932. The inexperienced Banks crashed. But by his third race he’d won.

After that he couldn’t be held back. When he wasn’t working at his job as a test driver at the GM Proving Grounds, he was winning races all across Michigan.

By 1936 he was at Indianapolis. He failed to qualify, but eventually ran Indy six times once he made the field in 1938. His best finish was sixth in 1951 driving the Lindsey Hopkins car that he’d used to win the National Championship.

Banks retired during Indy practice in 1954, but remained a friend and conciliator to his former competitors, a harbinger of his future USAC role. For instance, when Bill Vukovich’s car owner, Howard Keck, pulled out of racing after Vuky’s 1954 500 win, it was Banks the reticent Vukovich turned to. Banks brokered a deal between Vuky and Hopkins for the ill-fated 1955 race.

Tempted to make a racing return, Banks didn’t, though he’d do an occasional test drive. In 1962, he tested John Zink’s turbine at IRP when assigned driver Dan Gurney couldn’t because of commitments in Europe.

Henry Banks stayed with USAC in a variety of positions until 1984, but was never far from the sport until his death in 1994.