Alice hanks on her 71st Indy 500…

Widow of 1957 Winner Hanks Treasures Return Trip to Indianapolis Every May

 

Alice Hanks had no idea Indianapolis Motor Speedway would become her second home when she first visited in 1947.

She was dating driver Sam Hanks, and he asked her to attend. They had met at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, where she was a civilian secretary and he was working on an engine in the power plant.

Still spry and engaging at 91 and marking the 71st anniversary of her baptism into racing with a visit to IMS last week, Alice remembers the details of her first experience like it was yesterday.

She took the train to Indianapolis, then another one that dropped her off outside the IMS main gate. She walked across the street and sat in wooden grandstands in Turn 1. She knew nothing about racing. She also couldn’t have known how her life would change so dramatically. A short time later, she married a man who went on to win the 1957 Indy 500.

What a ride it’s been. And still is.

“I’m just another old lady pushing a grocery cart back home,” she said with a smile about living in Pacific Palisades, California. “I feel like somebody here because I’m treated so well. It’s a lot of fun. Sam would appreciate it. He would say, ‘You’ve taken care of Alice really well.’”

Sam Hanks died in 1994, but Alice keeps coming back. She’s only been absent from IMS in two years since that first time.

“I haven’t run out of steam yet,” she said.

The wife of a winner has been treated with the respect shown a winner. Sam and Alice Hanks enjoyed a lengthy friendship with the family of IMS owner Tony Hulman, which included her sitting in the owner’s suite for races and both being asked to attend all the popular galas.

“I feel like somebody because I’m treated like somebody,” she said. “It’s been really nice. Thank heaven for nice people here who welcome me. I inherited the No. 36 silver badge, and it’s set aside for me every year. Sam had a replica winner’s ring made for me. I also have Sam’s winner’s ring that I sometimes wear on a chain around my neck when I’m around racing people.”

She holds out her right pinkie finger to show off her replica ring, engraved inside with her name.

Truth be told, IMS wasn’t love at first sight. Aside from the sound and fury of the race cars and not knowing what was going on, she saw Shorty Cantlon suffer a fatal crash in front of her.

“Then Sam and I got married two months later,” she said.

Sam Hanks was racing midgets several nights a week when they were dating. He would eventually be inducted into the Motorsports, National Sprint Car, National Midget Auto Racing and West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fames. So while she never questioned why he raced, one of her happiest days was when he decided to retire.

Her husband made that pronouncement from Victory Lane after winning the 1957 Indy 500.

“He was thinking about quitting, he was 42, but George (Salih) described the new car he was going to build, he had already designed it,” she said. “Sam said, ‘You got me.’ I said, ‘Not again, we’re coming back?’”

Hanks drove the No. 9 Belond Exhaust Special, built for Salih by Quin Epperly in his Southern California shop.

As the race neared its conclusion, friends asked Alice if she should head down to Victory Lane.

“I said: ‘I don’t think so. I’m kind of superstitious. I’m afraid I might get down there, and something will happen on the last lap,’” she said. “It didn’t. The guards had to lift me over the fence to get me into Victory Lane. It was just a fenced-off area in those days.

“The guards were happy to do it.”

Life accelerated from that moment.

“You can’t believe it, then things start happening so fast,” she said. “A lot of radio interviews. I was allowed in the garage area for the first time. Sam was still in his uniform. His bath was somebody handing him a mechanic’s rag that was wet and washed out with water, and he wiped off his face and went on with the interviews. I think people want to see dirty after the race anyway.”

Her husband was happy to pocket 40 percent of the winner’s check and call it a career, except for running a stock car the rest of that year.

“No lawyers, no agents, just a handshake,” she said. “He got his 40 percent and walked away. Sam was thrilled, $40,000 was a big deal in those days.”

The couple was whisked away to New York City, her first time experiencing the “Big Apple,” so he could appear on “The Ed Sullivan Show” with Cyd Charisse, the movie star who had kissed him in Victory Lane.

As the Hanks prepared to return to IMS the next year, Hulman called and asked him to come work for him.

“They made up a title,” she said. “Sam was suddenly director of racing.”

Her husband also drove the Indy 500 Pace Car from 1958 to 1963.

Each year she returns, Alice is amazed at what IMS has become from the early days of using outhouses and buying lunch at a hot dog stand.

“It’s so awesome, I can’t believe it, the comfort level, everything is so modern,” she said. “I was in the owner’s suite watching qualifying and eating real food.”

She enjoyed touring the IMS Museum basement, saw two cars her husband drove and took pictures. And she always has to say hello to her husband’s likeness in bas relief on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

She is assured Sam is watching and smiling.

“I live on a cliff and have a view of the Pacific Ocean,” she said. “We loved our red-tail hawks. They glide. Sam said one day, ‘When I’m gone, I’m going to turn into one of those red-tail hawks and keep an eye on you.’ I think about that now when I see those red-tail hawks.”

Each May, he can keep an admiring eye on her at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The trip never gets old.

“No, it doesn’t,” she said. “I’m euphoric.

“It’s always hard to leave. Then I look back on the good memories I’ve had, and it takes care of me for a long time.”