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Pankratz at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in 1990. - JOHN MAHONEY PHOTO

Wally Pankratz

With the 2020 season a write-off thanks to the pandemic, Don Kazarian and his staff were giddy at the prospect of swinging the gates open at Perris Auto Speedway again.

A new year brought renewed hope that normalcy could be restored; thus, the appearance of the USAC-CRA sprint cars on April 21, 2021, took on added significance. Perhaps lost in the shuffle, the undercard for this night featured the Senior Sprints.

Those with a keen appreciation of racing history were not anxious to head to the concession stand when the older set hit the track. Then suddenly even nonchalant spectators moved to the edge of their seat as announcer Scott Dalosio set the stage. Wally Pankratz, 75, was out front and had a chance to bring it home.

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Wally Pankratz posing with the Hamilton midget at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway in 1979. – JOHN MAHONEY PHOTO

Coming out of a dark time for our country, this was just the kind of feel-good story that could put a smile on everyone’s face. When Pankratz passed under the checkered flag a cheer erupted in the stands. Everyone waited for what was to follow. Pankratz is witty, observant and thoughtful. The camera told the story. Racing a sprint car at this age would be hard enough, but after being on the shelf for months, Pankratz was exhausted. Still, the overall feeling was the same as that first trip to victory lane at Ascot Park in the 1970s. The following day he summed it up by saying, “If anything else I have been determined, and if you are determined you can make things happen.”

Wally Pankratz has been making things happen for more than a half-century.

Given his lineage one might imagine Pankratz would have had an early start to his career. The bloodlines were there, but along with the glory and euphoria racing can produce, there are also elements of heartache and despair. The bleak side of racing proved to be an early impediment to his involvement in the sport. His father Bob Pankratz was an open-wheel racing giant. The depth of his accomplishments led to his enshrinement in the National Sprint Car and Midget Halls of Fame.

Bob Pankratz was born in Wisconsin in 1916, but his family moved to Spokane, Wash. He proved to be a stellar athlete who excelled at multiple sports. Before America’s involvement in World War II, Bob’s brother, Wally, relocated to Southern California and convinced his sibling to join him. Before long both men were waist-deep in the racing scene.

Wally became proficient in stock cars winning multiple championships and was hired by top-flight owner Johnny Balch. Once the hostilities ceased, he was back behind the wheel and poised to make history. The inaugural race of the then California Roadster Association was held on Sept. 2, 1946, at Carrell Speedway in Gardena, Calif. Pankratz was assigned to a Mercury powered roadster owned by Rudy Ramos. Ramos who is legendary in his own right would be found on the cover of Hot Rod Magazine in 1948. At the conclusion of the 20-lap feature, Wally beat Bill Cantrell and Gordon Reid to the line, while youthful Troy Ruttman finished fourth. Wally eventually established a crop-dusting business in the Imperial Valley, occasionally providing employment for his brother, his nephew and namesake the younger Wally Pankratz.

Meanwhile, Bob Pankratz found work in the shop of the extremely talented Clyde Adams. In the heyday of California’s Legion Ascot Speedway, the stars of Hollywood flocked to see the action at the five-eighths-mile oval.

Bob learned from this craftsman and was soon producing cars that were fast and beautiful. He built striking midgets for owners Charlie Allen and Johnny Balch. His touch was also evident in the creation of the Cheesman Offy. This beauty driven by stars like A. J. Foyt and Eddie Sachs is widely considered the most elegant sprint car of all time.

Additionally, when Emmett Malloy purchased a successful sprint car from J.C. Agajanian, he tasked Bob with reworking the car. The true litmus test was how these cars performed. Pankratz routinely passed this test.

When Troy Ruttman traveled east to take on the famed high banks of the Midwest in the Malloy Special, the team struck gold. There was no question that Ruttman was a cut above other drivers, but there was more to this story.

When Wally Pankratz was young, he had the chance to watch his dad’s cars perform, and as he moved forward in his career, he had an opportunity to interact with the stars who came before him. The veterans were the ones who underscored that one key element in the success of Ruttman and others was the genius of Bob Pankratz.

“That car did win a lot of races,” Wally remembered. “That is what gets lost. Don Edmunds said that he was such a talented metal guy, but the suspensions were also way ahead of their time. I was told by Johnnie Parsons, Duane Carter and Cal Niday, who drove a lot for my dad, that he was the first guy to have a weight jacker. That seems like such a simple thing now, but back then it was a big innovation. According to those guys and Tom Malloy he had a weight jacker in the car that Ruttman drove, and he covered it up so no one knew it was there. One of the secrets of that car was that Troy could tune it during the race.”

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