Tommy Hinnershitz - known as the "Oley Dirt Farmer," "The Flying Farmer," and finally the "Flying Dutchman" -- remains one of the most popular sprint-car drivers in racing history even after his death in 1999 at the age of 77.
His numerous nicknames were well earned as he captured seven Eastern sprint-car championships and posted 103 feature victories during his 30-year racing career. While he first gained success and popularity near his Pennsylvania home, racing at the Reading Fairgrounds and Williams Grove Speedway, he also was very popular with fans and fellow racers in the Corn Belt. The famed overalls he wore while driving helped draw crowds to venues like the Minnesota State Fairgrounds and the Fairgrounds in Iowa.
Hinnershitz won his first race in 1930 driving a 1914 Model T Ford he purchased from a neighbor for $25. He earned $75 for winning. "Boy, I was really rich then," Hinnershitz said later. "That was the best investment I ever made in a race car."
From the very start of his career, Hinnershitz preferred driving his own cars as opposed to wheeling machinery owned by others. He was an excellent mechanic and did all the work on his cars, including rebuilds on his Offenhauser engines.
Several months before his death while attending the annual Reading Racing Reunion, Hinnershitz acknowledged he "never made much money." He said he might have done better financially had he worked for another car owner.
"But at the same time, maybe, I wouldn't be here, because if something on my car didn't suit me, I could go and change it. I didn't have to go to the owner and mechanic to change things around. I always considered that an advantage."
During the midget racing boom in the late 1930s, Hinnershitz wheeled an outboard-engine car with great success on the board track at the Nutley (N.J.) Velodrome. He was one of a handful of racers, who won races on dirt, asphalt and boards.
In the 1950s, he was one of the first drivers with major sponsorship, his cars flying the colors of Miracle Power. During this period, Hinnershitz's performance was not as good as other times during his career, and many fans felt The Flying Farmer should: "Go back to the Offy." In fact, his car still carried an Offy engine, as Miracle Power was simply a fuel additive.
Hinnershitz retired from driving in 1960, three hours after his friend and rival, Johnny Thomson, was killed in a race at the Allentown (PA) Fairgrounds. "I had been thinking about retiring for several weeks," Hinnershitz said at the time. "But I won't say what happened to John didn't help me make it definite. I quit for two reasons. One, I didn't approve of some of the new drivers and their driving philosophies. Two, my hands were gone. I simply couldn't grip the wheel well enough."
For several years after his retirement, he served as a mechanic on Indy cars, which at the time, raced mostly on dirt miles.
Motorsports Hall of Fame, www.mshf.com