They nicknamed him Akron Arlen-a racer who started making laps down primitive drag strips with the likes of George Montgomery and the Arfons Brothers in 1953. Arlen Vanke, operating out of his shop in central Ohio, proved early on he had what it took to be a contender. After winning the Junior Stock crown in 1966 with a new GTO at the NHRA Springnationals in Bristol, Vanke landed a payroll deal with Chrysler's Dick Maxwell to become one of the good guys, and he soon began putting Mopar machinery on the map.
Because he lived close to Detroit, Arlen ended up with a pretty cherry job, drag racing on weekends and working as a test driver for the factory. Vanke is remembered for his work on the '67 big-block A-Body and RO/WO Hemi package cars. he received one of the earliest cars built for Super Stock racing by Hurst, and added the Plymouth Hemi Barracuda (shown here) to his stables toward the latter half of 1968.
"That was my legal car," recalls Arlen, who now lives in Michigan. "We bought it as a secondary car because we were always changing stuff in the primary car for testing. I ran it through 1969 at a lot of points meets, and it was a good car. I sold it late that year when we realized we would be going heads-up racing in Pro Stock in 1970."
"There were so many people who helped me back then," recalls Arlen. "Bill Abraham from Firestone drove for me, Dave Kirby helped me with mechanical work, and Dave Duell and Charlie Gilbertson, and so many others. My name was on the car, but one man couldn't do it all. My success came from having people who gave their all to this racing effort."
Arlen recalls selling this 'Cuda in 1969 as a Super Stocker minus the engine, and it went through a couple of owners before being taken off the track as a bracket car sometime in the '70s. It sat for many years, until restorer Le Hodge got word about the Nebraska-based car in 2002. The owner had taken it apart long ago, but for a '68 Hurst machine, all the right stuff was there, and there had been no major changes made to the suspension since the early '70s (a real rarity with these cars). The owner even knew it had once belonged to somebody named Arlen, but other than that, its use from 1970 on was unknown. The deal was made, and Hodge brought the carcass home in bags and boxes.
"I got back and we began sanding down the areas the former owner had not media blasted," recalls Hodge, who owns Hodge Restorations in Inman, South Carolina. "As we went through the layers, we began to find the original paint. This car was very solid-it has all the original Hurst fiberglass parts on it, and all the sheetmetal was very clean. The only major body work we did was to redo and clean up the expanded wheelwell housings, which Arlen asked me to do as a personal favor." That change had been rushed when it was first done at Arlen's shop back in the day.
Arlen was hands-on during the course of the restoration project. He put together a '68 vintage Hemi Super Stock mill using parts that Le supplied, including a set of nice heads and a special race crank that came out of the garage of NASCAR great Cotton Owens. Le wanted the real deal, and Arlen was happy to oblige, including a set of race-tuned Holley carbs (which never missed a beat during our photo session). One of Arlen's race secrets was the use of six-cylinder Ford Falcon valve seals than he swore by back in the day. The only recent piece of equipment on the engine is a deep-sump oil pan built by Charlie Gilbertson of Barbourton, Ohio. Charlie also built the first pan in 1968.
Real men stirred gears back in the day, and this was no exception. The original New Process A833 four-speed and 4:56 geared Sure Grip Dana both went back under the car. The shifter is on a special bracket Arlen fabricated. The car's first one was history when Le got the car, but Vanke had a spare one among his parts and pieces at home. Arlen also had an original Stahl/Moroso tach-drive tachometer that is now mounted on the steering column for the restoration.
Le and his crew of talented artisans (brothers Trey and Shannon Bogan) chose a unique course for the restoration. Most of these cars (which came into the racers' hands in the middle part of the busy '68 season) were never taken apart for painting; the glass and trim were masked off, and the pigment went on. In those cases, the hidden black fiberglass and grey primer area never got painted. Shannon was responsible for getting the car back together. after his brother Trey got all the pieces prepped, the paint (complete with some authentic overspray) was applied. Le admits it took ten days to do the complex job. "This kid has a real eye for art; we could not have done this without Trey." The team relied on period photos and still frame captures from an old Chrysler promo film to get the lines correct. The lettering was carefully created by Hot Rod GrafiXXX and applied in-house. The car was redone to match the second paint scheme the car received. Arlen threatened Le with bodily harm if he chose to use the first version, which is universally thought of as mundane.
As always, the difference is in the details. Le pointed out some of the things that gives the car its era look: the vintage speed parts, the original Firestone slicks (Arlen also came through on those), and even some careful "rust" that Trey airbrushed on welds that would not have been well protected by the Hurst-applied primer basecoat.
The project took longer than expected. Arlen laughed about that, "I have to give Le a lot of credit, these Hurst cars are not like working on a showroom stocker. When you are putting them back together, what you think will take about three days ends up taking a month!"
There are a lot of very nice restored racecars in the hobby, but this one retains the feel of the old days-it's definitely a keeper.
Fast FactsCar: Arlen Vanke's "Legal" Super Stocker
Owner: Le Hodge, Inman, South Carolina
Body: '68 Ss Barracuda
Engine: Vanke-built Hemi (Apparently, it's still a Super Stock secret, because we received no info.)
Trans: New Process A-833
Rearend: Sure Grip Filled Dana with 4.56 gears
Wheels And Tires: Vintage Cragar SS's and Drag 500 racing tires