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Richard Parks

Gone Racin’

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Gone Racin’…Van Dyne Engineering

Danny Oakes, Roger Rohrdanz and I visited Van Dyne Engineering in Huntington Beach, California. Stewart Van Dyne bought the Drake Engineering Company in 2002, and with the purchase came the storied molds and forms for the Offenhauser racing engine. Danny, who turned 92 years old this year, is a three time West Coast Midget Racing champion from the early days of Midget racing. He went on to work on Offy engines at the Indy 500, and was the Top Mechanic at Indy in 1960. If you want to know how an Offy works, Danny is your man. Danny started racing in 1931, running in the B classes at the old Legion Ascot Speedway, in Lincoln Heights, above Montebello. He is one of the last of the living racers who raced at this storied track. Earl Mansell passed away earlier this year, and Johnny Klann, are the last of that era. 

Struggling to make a living against the Miller engined cars of that generation was difficult, and when the midgets became popular, Danny switched over to the tiny cars and found his niche. He earned a whopping quarter of a million dollars in prize money just after the World War II, in just one season alone. Danny tried to qualify for the Indy 500 on many occasions, but struggled with cars that just didn’t have the horsepower to contend. He missed the field by just fractions of a mile on several occasions. He then turned to tuning the engines and his cars were a marvel of consistency. Danny later dabbled in offshore boat racing for a time, as had Earl Mansell, but found it to be dangerous and unpredictable. He returned to his garage and worked on cars well into his eighties, and outlived five wives. He was always a good dancer, when popularity with the ladies required such talent, and on a Saturday night can be found on the dance floor.

Stewart Van Dyne worked at Traco Engineering, Drake Engineering, and Leading Systems before founding Van Dyne Engineering in 1987. He has a storied past as well, being on the 1972 Indy 500 winning team, which was won by Mark Donahue that year. His experience in working on engines enabled him to participate in winning seasons for the Trans Am in 1968-69, and 1971-72, Formula 5000 Championship in 1969 and 1971. Other championship seasons came in the 24 hour overall in 1969, Iroc Camaro Series in 1974-75, USAC Silver Crown in 1978 and 1989, Turkey Night Grand Prix in 1994, USAC Western States Midget Series in 1998-99, and 2000, and the BCRA Midget Series in 2001-02. Then proving that oval track racing is only one of his skills, he was a member of the APBA Modified Catamaran Championship team in 1999. His latest venture is a Bonneville streamliner, powered by a 501 c.i. engine, driven by Carl Olson, landspeed and dragracing driver.

Van Dyne and Oakes related the history of the famed Offy engine. Developed by Harry Miller and his chief engineer, Leo Goossen, the Miller engine passed into the hands of Fred Offenhauser, who brought it to the peak of its fame, success and popularity. The company, plans and forms passed into the ownership of Louis Meyer and Dale Drake, who gained full control of the firm when Meyer sold his interest to Dale in the 1960. Johnny Drake inherited the company, and on his retirement sold the name, forms and rights to the Offy to Stewart Van Dyne, who had worked for the company in the 1970’s. Stewart explained that it would be prohibitively expensive to make just one casting of the famous engine, but that It would be within reason to do 6 or more at a time. We were given a tour of the shop and were impressed with the skill and knowledge that Stewart and his four employees have, including his son, Tres, who is restoring Wally Pankratz championship car. Like his dad, Tres has aspirations to be a race car owner and chief mechanic, and is looking for a driver and sponsorship to re-enter the midget series.

Jerry Mielke was busily rebuilding an engine block and showed the steps that he goes through to insure the high quality that Van Dyne Engineering is known for. He states that he carefully checks the rod bolts. He also said that a good mechanic has to understand how each engine was originally meant to be made, used and serviced. Van Dyne Engineering works with all forms of racing: NASCAR, NHRA, sports car, land speed, and other groups. They are also well known among the hot rodders and anyone looking for performance engines. He pointed out the various machinery and the Heenan & Froude Dyno, and pointed to the glass window. “That window,” he said, “came from the old Meyer-Drake Dyno room.” It’s still serviceable and it represents an unbroken line of succession from the great engine makers of the past to the engine builders of the present. Seeing Danny Oakes, a racing legend of the old motors talking to Stewart Van Dyne, a respected engine man of the present, brought a feeling of satisfaction in knowing the Offy tradition is still with us.

Gone Racin’ is at www.oilstick.com

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