Getting to be a star in racing can be a very tough row to hoe. For most, from the get-go, the odds and hurdles are stacked against them. It is even harder for them when their mother not only forbids them to race but to even go to a racetrack. That was a major obstruction in the young life of now West Coast-racing-icon Wally Pankratz. Fortunately, with age, he was able to tiptoe out, and for a half-century now, he has been doing what he loves most. Turning left on bullrings, he carved out a glorious career that is the envy of most drivers who preceded and followed him.
My mother did not want me to be a race driver because of what happened to my dad.
Like so many drivers, Pankratz was born into a racing environment. His father Bob (a member of the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame) worked for Clyde Adams, who was a well-known chassis builder in the late-1920s and 30s. The elder Pankratz learned how to make race cars from Adams. Being part of that landscape pushed the family patriarch from behind the scenes and into the cockpit. Early on, he drove stock cars before moving into midgets. In 1948, when Wally was only 3 years old, Bob was in a severe crash in a midget that saw him remain unconscious for three-months and never able to race again.
“I wanted to be a race driver ever since I was a little kid,” Pankratz said. “Of course, my mother did not want me to be a race driver because of what happened to my dad. He never fully recovered from the injuries, and in the late-50s, he ended up in-and-out of mental hospitals.”
Forbidden To Race
Due to his father’s crash and resulting injuries, Pankratz’s mother not only forbid him to race, but he also could not attend races with her knowledge. It took until he got his driver’s license before he could even go to spectate at Ascot. Before that, he was limited to observing the Jalopy races on channel 5.
“I could not tell her I was going to the races,” Pankratz laughed. “She wouldn’t care if I was going to a burlesque show in downtown in L.A., but if she found out I was going to the races, she would make sure I was not going to leave. It was difficult.”
While racing was still on his mind, Pankratz shined at other sports, including football. The chatty young man played college ball for Fullerton Junior College and Idaho State. His talent chasing the pigskin around warranted an invitation to attend training camp with the American Football League’s San Diego Chargers, but the handwriting was on the wall. At 5’9” and 160 pounds, he quickly surmised his size would probably not work out well playing against the behemoths in the pro game.
The Start Of A Racing Career
His mom’s insistence on not being at the racetrack and college ball delayed his unavoidable debut as a race driver. In fact, it postponed it until he was 25 years old when a friend of his father gave him a chance to wheel his Chevy II midget. The owner wanted to be sure the newbie could handle the car. So, he took the aspirant racer to Whiteman Stadium in Pacoima for a practice session. That went well, and late in the 1969 season, he allowed Pankratz to start his career at a race in the desert city of Barstow and a subsequent race at the dirt track in El Toro.
“Early-on contemplating racing, there were no rollcages, no firesuits, no bladders, and racing was hideously dangerous,” said the 2006 High Banks Hall of Fame National Midget Auto Racing Museum inductee. “It was like riding bulls today in the PBR. Except, the bulls do not catch fire. You could get pretty beat up and hurt pretty bad.”
It was like riding bulls today in the PBR. Except, the bulls do not catch fire.
First Major Crash
Things looked good after the first two races, justifying another start in the car at the well-known Saugus Speedway just north of Los Angeles. Saugus was a paved quarter-mile that was flatter than a championship billiard table. It was there that Pankratz, using safety gear that would make drivers of today shudder, got his first personal taste of being stung by a race car.
“The throttle stuck, and I hit the fence,” he remembered. “I flipped three or four times, and it beat me up pretty good as the car did not have a rollcage. It did not really hurt me; it just beat me up. If I had any sense, that would have been the end of it, but I really wanted to race.”
The initial crash of his career did not sit well with the matriarch of the family. To say she found out about it right away is an understatement.
“Yeah, she did,” Pankratz lamented when asked if his mom knew about the crash. “She was taking care of my son the night I got hurt at Saugus. I was pretty beat up and scratched up, and I did not want to pick my kid up because I knew she was going to beat me up. Being what happened to my dad, her position was very understandable.”
The Turning Point
That wicked tumble, nor anything else, was going to keep the budding star out of a race car, and in subsequent years, he began to build quite a name for himself. Owners liked putting him in cars, as they knew good results would come. They also wanted him for his incredible personality. As formidable as he was in the car, he was an intelligent, affable guy out of the vehicle. It made racing more fun than what owners were used to
One turning point in his career came in 1977, when he teamed with owner Greg Pieper to drive his rear-engine car in sprint car and super modified races.
“The Pieper car was a strange car,” Pankratz smiled. “It was a rear-engine car, and he [Pieper] tried to run it on the dirt at Ascot with Rich Wolfe, who ended up being an Ascot stock car champion, doing the driving. He also ran it on the pavement with Jerry Weeks driving it. John Morton and I drove it at a practice session at Speedway 605. When Morton was in it, the throttle kind of hung up a bit. He almost crashed it, and he said, ‘I don’t want any part of this.’ He bowed out, and I got the ride.”
Should Have Taken Up Bowling
While Pankratz had the ride, many of his driver friends were not convinced it was a good idea.
“You don’t want to drive that car, it is awful, it is terrible, everyone was telling me,” Pankratz said with a laugh. “They told me it would ruin my career. Well, about the time I got to drive the car, Pieper worked out some of the problems. We did pretty good to start with. We were fast qualifier several times, and we were recording track records. The car did have a problem, though. It would not finish.”
There were three or four races in 1977 where Pankratz was leading and would have won when the car broke. One time an upright broke, and then it was the engine. The car just had an aversion to getting to the checkered flag first. The problems with the car caused Pankratz’s first wife, Cheryl, to suggest they take up bowling because “she had never seen anyone have to quit bowling because their bowling ball broke,” the veteran racer laughed. “She had a point.”
In 1978, Pankratz and Pieper decided to cast their luck against some of the best Super Modified teams in the country. They ventured just about as far east as you can go without driving into the Atlantic Ocean to Star Speedway in Epping, New Hampshire. The result? A victory! They then headed to Ohio’s Sandusky Speedway where they beat track champion, and future NASCAR star Tim Richmond, for a win. When all was said and done, they won 27 main events across the country with that car.
While he loved driving Super Modifieds, he was well aware of one thing. They were extremely dangerous.
“We called them “Stupid Modifieds,” Pankratz laughed. “One car I drove for Clyde Prickett had a 480-cubic-inch small-block that made 900 horsepower back then [early-1990s]. They did not have a weight limit, and that car weighed like 1,300 pounds. They were semi-guided missiles. When they are right, they are like a tether car with someone whipping you around the corner. But, their little window of happiness is not very big, and if they are not set up quite properly or something goes south, they are a handful because of all that offset. They are weird cars.”
Indy 500 Dreams
Pankratz’s prowess in the rear-engine car gave him hope that he could transition to Indy Cars. The easy-going driver’s ambition was to get to the Indianapolis 500. While that never materialized, he did get a couple of rides in Indy Cars.
The transmission probably hated me … I wasn’t too great at shifting.
“Johnny Parsons Sr. got me hooked up with Norm Hall, and I had the opportunity to drive his Indy Car a couple of times, but it never panned out,” Pankratz stated with a shrug. “It probably saved my life at the Riverside Raceway that the thing blew a head gasket. The transmission probably hated me. I had only driven cars with an in-and-out gearbox, and then all of a sudden, I am shifting gears. I wasn’t too great at shifting. I was just kind of jamming the gears, and I did not use the clutch after leaving the pits. I only had two practice sessions, and I was not that far off. Then in Phoenix, we crashed in practice, and that was the end of it. I can’t ever say that I did not get the opportunity. It was a lot of fun.”
The biggest reason he never got to drive Indy Cars regularly was he got to that point in his career about five-years too late. By then, you had to have cash if you wanted to play.
A Degree In Marketing To Become A Driver
“Basically, when I got competent enough to maybe become an Indy Car driver, the big money started to come in,” Pankratz sighed. “You had to have money to get the ride. I did not have any money. It was not like in the days of Parnelli Jones and A.J. Foyt. Auto racing, for the big time and Indy Car racing, used to be a meritocracy. Kind of like the NFL or Major League Baseball; you worked your way to the top, and you did it by performing somewhere. Drivers, even in NASCAR now, who are not that good or are even terrible, if they have the money [behind them], they will get the ride. That is the way it is today.”
“You should get a degree in marketing to become a race car driver,” Pankratz continued. “Maybe not try to learn to drive race cars, because you can get a ride with very little experience if you have the money. That has come back to bite a couple of guys who got hurt in drivers’ tests. They were able to get the rides because they were adept at getting money, but they were not skilled enough to perform at that level.
Can’t Win On Dirt
A bizarre aspect of Pankratz’ winning ways on the pavement in Super Modifieds spurned a theory of many who opined he could not prevail on dirt. Quite the contrary. Pankratz has five series championships in his resume. One came on the pavement in the now-defunct Super Modified Racing Association. However, his titles in the Ascot Super Midgets, Hanford Sprint Cars, and USAC Western States Midgets were all captured on the dirt.
In late-October of last year, approaching his 75th birthday, he added another dirt title to his name when he was crowned 2019 Ventura Raceway Senior Sprint Car champion. Only a fool would bet against him adding to that total in upcoming years.
When his Super Modified calendar permitted, he spent his Saturday nights racing with the CRA Sprint Cars at Ascot. He always found rides but was never able to get a steady one. Despite that, he always made the heat races and the main events back in the days when 60 cars showed up for a regular Saturday show. One of the career achievements that eluded the likable driver was winning in a sprinter at Ascot.
I am sad that I never won a sprint car race at Ascot.
“One thing in my career that I am sad about is I never won a sprint car race at Ascot,” Pankratz said. “I won sprint car races at other places, but not at Ascot. My dad had always said one thing he was sad about in his career is he never won an A-Main event at Gilmore. During his time, Gilmore was like Ascot was when we were running it. I kind of share that with him.”
Nothing To Lose
The midgets at Ascot were the exact opposite for Pankratz. He had regular rides and was very successful in them, winning numerous races at the Gardena speed plant, as well as the 1977 Super Midget championship, driving for “Big Jim” Sullivan.
While he had rides in a lot of good cars, Pankratz never saw a ride he thought was beneath him. He would drive anything. Throughout his distinguished career, he has been known for driving weird cars. For instance, Gary Lynch had a rear-engine midget with no suspension. It was basically a midget/go-kart. He was taking it to Mesa Marin, the former big, fast half-mile in Bakersfield. When he was asked, “who do you think you will get to drive that thing,” Lynch quickly replied, “I will ask Wally. He will drive it.”
Decades ago, after a race when he hopped into a car that was less than desirable, he told this writer, “If I did good in it, people would say, ‘look how good Wally did in that shit box.’ If I did bad, the same people would say, ‘what do you expect, he was in a shit box.’ I had nothing to lose.”
The Difference From Then To Now
Years later, that explanation illuminates the difference in the sport from bygone days to now.
“All parents now days want their kids to be driving nothing but top-notch equipment,” he stated. “Most of my peers, when we started, we did not drive top-notch stuff. We drove lesser cars, and if you looked good in a lesser car, somebody would move you up to a better ride. You learned to make up for what a lesser car couldn’t do. You learned how to adapt. I think that was very valuable.
“Nowadays, if kids drive nothing but good cars and they wheel bang somebody and bend something up, or a shock has frozen up and the car doesn’t handle very good, they can’t get the best of what’s left of it. That is because they have never been in a situation where the car is awful.”
Like him following in his father’s footsteps, Wally’s daughter Randi followed him into the sport. Like her dad, she has been in it for a long time. Her career spans nearly four decades. She has been a regular, and one of the most popular drivers, in the USAC Western Midget Series for years.
114-Plus Main Event Wins
To say that Pankratz is modest about his career is an understatement. When queried as to how many main events he has won, he tells you 114. But, that was before he started running Senior Sprints and the occasional Focus Midget race. He has won quite a few of those, but he does not count them as he has so much more experience than most of the competition.
These days, Pankratz drives for car owner Ray Swann in the Senior Sprint Car Class (drivers 40 and over) at the Ventura Raceway and occasionally at Perris Auto Speedway. In a unique twist to that relationship, Swann’s uncle Charlie Allen was, as Pankratz puts it, “The Roger Penske of midget racing before World War II.” Wally’s dad built cars for Allen. That enabled Swann to meet Wally’s father some-60-years before he hired Pankratz to drive his sprint cars.
“I will race as long as Ray wants to race,” Pankratz grinned. “Ray is 85, and he is in pretty decent health. He had a stroke two years ago and does not see very well. That may be one reason I am still driving for him. He does not see my screw-ups. If he wants, and I am capable, I will race.”
“I am really enjoying it,” the friendly driver went on. “I love to slide around in the dirt, I love to race, and I love the competition of it. I can’t play tennis anymore because my knees are screwed up. But, I can still sit in that car and drive it. My ankle can still work the throttle.”
When not racing and running the family pool business these days, Pankratz presides over the Wally Pankratz driving school. Those wishing to further their career or just to get the feel of driving a midget at the Ventura Raceway or Perris Auto Speedway can contact Wally at (714) 749-4817 for more information on his classes.