Tommy Hinnershitz
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Tommy Hinnershitz

 

            One of the most-exciting, most-popular and most-successful Sprint Car drivers of all-time, Tommy Hinnershitz (April 6, 1912 – August 1, 1999) of Oley, Pennsylvania, was a farmer by occupation but he raced because it was fun, he could make a little money doing so and he was very good at it.

            So good, in fact, that he won 103 races during his 30-year-career (1930-1960) and seven Eastern Sprint Car titles – five (1949-1952 & 1955) with the American Automobile Association and two (1956 & 1959) with the United States Auto Club. His efforts in those old wingless, non-roll-caged machines were such that no less than fellow EMPA Hall of Fame member A.J. Foyt once said that “The Flying Farmer” was the best Sprint Car driver that he ever saw.

            Hinnershitz first began racing as an 18-year-old at the old half-mile Reading (Pa.) Fairgrounds in a 1914 Model T Ford that he bought from a neighbor for $25 and he improved on that investment immediately when he got $75 for winning the race.  But ever the farmer, he usually stayed close to home running at Reading and the half-mile Williams Grove (Pa.) Speedway.  His trips to the Midwest, his farming background and his cordial personality helped to draw big crowds on the one-mile tracks at the Minnesota and Iowa State Fairs and at short tracks like those in Terre Haute, Indiana, and New Bremen, Ohio.

            Hinnershitz was also a talented Midget racer in the late 1930s when the Mighty Mites were all the rage and the fields were full of AAA National Championship drivers.  One of his more unusual rides was an outboard-motor-boat-engine-powered car at the old Nutley (N.J.) Velodrome – which was a one-sixth-mile, 45-degree-banked, bicycle board track.

            He also ran in 30 AAA and four USAC National Championship races across the country from 1937-1956 with his best finish fourth: in 1946 (AAA) on the one-mile dirt Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta, Georgia, and in 1951 (AAA) and 1956 (USAC) at Williams Grove. 

            He qualified in three of his six attempts (1939-1941 & 1946-1948) to race in the Indianapolis 500: in 1940 when he started ninth and finished 32nd in the maroon and sliver Joe Marks No. 27; in 1941 when he started 20th and finished 10th in the Marks No. 27; and, in 1948 when he started 23rd and finished ninth in the red and silver No. 7 Kurtis-Kraft Offy. 

            Hinnershitz – who usually wore overalls when he raced and won on a variety of dirt, asphalt and wooden-surfaced speedways – preferred driving his own cars.  And the ones forever linked with him were those that carried a “Bluebird” moniker.

            Put together by their owner-driver and powered by the venerable 4-clyinder Offenhauser engine, these light-blue, tube-chassised cars were as fast and successful with Hinnershitz at the wheel as they were popular.  “Tummy” – as his neighbors called him in their distinctive Pennsylvania Dutch accent – was an excellent mechanic who did all the work on those famous winning cars, including taking care of the rebuilds on the Offy engines.

            During his last two years of racing, Hinnershitz – who in the 1950s was one of the first drivers to attract major sponsorship when Miracle Power Fuel Additive came on board – drove John Pfrommer’s Hiram Hillegass-built Offy.  Hhe used it in 1959 to win three of the six events on USAC’s Eastern tour – twice at Williams Grove and once at Allentown, Pennsylvania.

            Tommy Hinnershitz retired from driving after the 1960 season, in part due to the racing death of his great friend and fellow EMPA Hall of Fame member Johnny Thomson.  But the primary reason was that the 48-year-old racer was having a bit of trouble with arthritis in his hands.  Like the champion that he was, he didn’t feel that he could continue to drive the way that he felt that he should in his power-steering-less, yellow and blue Sprint Car.  

            Tommy Hinnershitz - known as the "Oley Dirt Farmer," "The Flying Farmer," and finally the "Flying Dutchman" -- remains to this day one of the most popular sprint-car drivers in racing history even after his death in 1999 at the age of 77.