Known as “Mr. Offenhauser,” Ken Hickey (April 28, 1912 – April 9, 2002) was a great racing mechanic and an acknowledged master in the care and preparation of the venerable 4-cylinder Offenhauser engine. But he was also a championship-winning Midget car owner and in his later years one of the finest restorers of vintage automobile racing machines.
Born in Tupper Lake, New York, Hickey moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1934 and worked as a mechanic in a Ford dealership. And when former Indianapolis 500 driver Zeke Meyer wanted to get out of Midget racing he bought Meyer’s Ford V-8-60-powered Midget.
Car owner Hickey put Charlie Breslin into his red No. 19 and they won their first race together at the old one-fifth-mile paved Sanatoga (Pa.) Speedway. And along with Shorty MacAndrews the Hickey cars were a dominate force in pre-World War II Midget racing.
After the war, Hickey’s Ford V-8 60 “rail job” Midgets were still able to keep up with the Offy-powered cars. In fact, fellow EMPA Hall of Fame member Len Duncan won the American Automobile Association’s 100-mile Midget race in 1946 at the old Trenton (N.J.) Fairgrounds one-mile dirt track, and Hickey’s work on Fred Kernan’s No. 17 with Fred Meeker driving made it one of the best Fords in the Offy-dominated American Racing Driver’s Club.
However, in the late 1940s when the new Kurtis-Kraft Midgets began to make their presence known in the East, Hickey saw this as the way to go. At that, he bought his first Kurtis-Offy and provided rides over the years for such aces as George Fonder, Larry Bloomer (No. 19 Kurtis-Kraft Offy), Jimmie Kirk and Ronnie Dunstan.
The 1949 & 1967 ARDC Owner Champion, Hickey’s shop in Ambler, Pennsylvania, was always bustling with activity and this was especially so in the early 1950s when the Midgets were not as popular as they once were and car owners were asking Hickey to take their Midgets and convert them into Sprint Cars. And one of these cars that he stretched and widened was the black No. 55 that he created for noted owner Sam Traylor.
Hickey was also one of the few dealers for Offenhauser and later Meyer-Drake engines, including the 220-cubic-inchers for Sprint Cars like the one in his own Duncan-driven No. 19.
In 1955, Hickey was hired to be the chief mechanic for Traylor’s black and gold No. 42 KK2000 entry with Al Keller driving at the Indianapolis 500. And when the larger stock-block engines began to make it tougher for the 110-cubic-inch Offy to hold its own in Midget racing, he was instrumental in developing a newer and more powerful 120-cubic-inch Offy engine.
Hickey’s roster of drivers also included Johnny Pierson, Tommy McAndrew (the 1970 ARDC Champion) and Red Reigel (black No. 29 Kurtis-Kraft Offy), and his devotion to the sport saw him serve on the ARDC Board of Directors for several years.
In the late 1960s, Hickey began to run a four-bar Don Edmunds Midget chassis (No. 59) and in the 1980s he built some customer VW Midget engines. But his Offy work was how he gained his great acclaim and one of his 122-cubic-inch engines was in Gordon Eliot White’s famous red and blue No. 9 Kurtis-Kraft Midget that the noted author and racing historian drove in 1988 to a one-way run of 159.775 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah and then backed that up to set the all-time International and Class Midget speed record of 156.902 mph.
In the 1990s, Ken Hickey worked closely with teams fielded by Ray McCabe and Joe Grandnetti and their driver Hank Rogers Jr., while in his later years he devoted a great deal of time in his old race shop restoring to perfection some of the great racing cars of another time.
In recognition of his overall career as a top engine builder and mechanic, ARDC annually presents its Ken Hickey Memorial Crew Chief of the Year Award.