Second Time Around
The vehicle itself is the culmination of 40 years in drag racing. Since Dale Wilkens did his first street race as a 17-year-old in the Army, he’s had an infatuation with fuel-altered vehicles.
“I raced them, worked on them, always wanted the engine to get bigger, the car to get faster,” Wilkens, 57, says.
And every lesson he learned, every idea he ever had from those 40 years, all went into this one car.
The only problem was the car wasn’t his—at least not at first.
The “Hemi Hunter,” as it’s called at the track today, is a fuel-altered monster that uses a 30-percent charge of nitro methane to run a 526ci Keith Black Oldsmobile engine. Its name comes from the uniqueness of that engine—it’s one of the few non-Hemis you’ll find in the “outlaw” circuit. (Fuel-altered vehicles were banned from NHRA in 1972; they race in highly competitive “exhibitions” today.)
“This is my dream car,” Wilkens says. “I’m not sure there’s anything else I’d add to it.”
Wilkens, owner of The Car Shop Inc. in Independence, Kan., first built the drag racer for a customer whose son wanted to get into the sport. Initially, it was a methanol-fueled vehicle with a 427ci big-block Chevy motor—overall, smaller and weaker than what Wilkens preferred for his own vehicles, but top-of-the-line in nearly all areas. It was a spare-no-expense sort of job, one that made Wilkens wonder how the family paid for it.
A veteran of the racing circuit, Wilkens even helped out the family as their crew chief at the track for the kid’s entire racing career.
That was a whole 12 months.
“I built it for them in 2007, and they raced in 2008,” Wilkens says. “Then in 2009, they got busted for a Ponzi scheme. I mean, I’d always wondered where all the money came from. Then I knew.”
Wilkens bought the car from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for about $30,000 (“About 30 cents on the dollar for what it was worth,” Wilkens says.). Then he began transforming it into the Hemi Hunter.
Wilkens is nicknamed “Lurch” due to his size—he’s 6 feet 7 inches, 280 pounds—and he adapted the car to fit his frame and his penchant for speed. He lengthened the chassis to where the car now has a 130-inch wheelbase. He changed the seats, the inside structure of the roll cage and a number of minor improvements including a new paint job and design.
Then, he pumped up the engine. He made a full fuel system switch to make the car burn nitro. In doing so, he lowered the compression ratios, as well, down to about 10-to-1. The engine itself has Pontiac Big Duke heads and custom pistons, all done in-house at his shop.
All the work—both initially and the second time around—was done by Wilkens and his lead tech, Aaron Leyda. Wilkens guesses that if they went straight through, from scratch to finish, the car could be built over a winter, working about 30 to 40 hours each week on it.
“It’s a little lucky, because we got paid to do it the first time around,” Wilkens says. “I would guess, though, that it’s probably a good $100,000 worth of work over the years. That’s about what it’d cost to build it again.”
The car’s best time on an eighth-mile track (the most common for these vehicles) is 4.04 seconds at 180 mph. Wilkens says they’ve done 6.25 seconds at 218 mph for a quarter-mile best.
Leyda is now the primary driver, ever since Wilkens badly hurt his neck in a non-racing 2008 crash.
Still, the vehicle is one of his greatest passions, even if he doesn’t drive it.
“It’s got everything I ever wanted to do to a car, every idea I’ve ever had,” Wilkens says of the Hemi Hunter. “(Aaron) and I were talking the other day about what we would do to it if we had unlimited funds to do it. And I just said, ‘Aaron, I’m not sure I’d do a single thing.’ For me, it’s just perfect.”