Man Overcame Racism to Become Racing Legend
By John Sammon
Kenny Hirata will tell you the most important thing to becoming a great race car driver is to concentrate, concentrate—on winning.
“When that light turns green, if you don’t jump on it, you’ll get beat,” he said.
It’s a particular skill he’s acquired, as today Hirata is considered one of the legends of the sport. However, he had to overcome adversity including imprisonment during World War II to do it, and prejudice, back in a day when Japanese Americans in auto racing were unheard of.
“I always wanted to go fast,” Hirata said. “I couldn’t have done any of it without the support of my wife Chiyo. She was what kept me going. This year we celebrated our 65th wedding anniversary.”
The 87-year-old Hirata was born in 1928 in Stockton, California, and like many Japanese Americans of the period, his parents were farmers in the Central Valley.
“My dad (Ataye Hirata) was born in Japan,” Hirata recalled. “My mother (Fusa Hirata) was also born in Japan. They immigrated to California and became tomato farmers. We had a big tomato farm near a place called Roberts Island. At first my dad grew and sold vegetables to markets.”
Hirata’s father was the oldest of four brothers brought to California from Japan one by one by his grandfather as soon he saved enough money.
Hirata was 14 when his life and that of his family was shattered in 1942. They were imprisoned along with 115,000 other Japanese Americans living along the West Coast, accused of being potential enemy aliens for no reason other than ethnicity.
“My family lost their house and their farm,” Hirata said. “We were sent to the Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona. There were two camps, Camp One and Camp Two.”
Hirata said the desert landscape was offset by large cactus plants and was a barren, dusty windswept area.
“Some of the cactus plants were 15 feet tall,” he said. “We would rest in their shade, what little they gave.”
Hirata, though only a boy, helped an adult friend driving a water truck in the camp.
“That was used to keep the road dust down,” he said. “The camp was built like a barracks, with blocks, Block One and Block Two. The end room would be for the largest family, maybe six or seven people. My father, my mother, my older sister and I had a single room 24 by 30 feet.”
Bathrooms and showers at the camp were in separate buildings from the living quarters.
“The bathroom had a row of toilet seats,” Hirata added.
Hirata attended a makeshift school in the camp and his father got a job in the mess hall as a cook.
In 1944 toward the war’s end the family was allowed to leave the camp. They were given $50 and a train ticket to their preferred destination. The family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where Hirata’s father found work making storm windows. His mother, an expert seamstress, got a job at a clothing factory making dresses.
One of Hirata’s first jobs as a young man was as a houseboy for a woman.
“When I was 16 still going to school I stayed with this family and I would clean their house and do the dishes and chores, but I didn’t care for the work,” he said. “The woman of the house was kind of strict.”
Back when he was a boy in Stockton he had seen young men hanging around a local gas station where members of an auto club met informally.
“Even back then I was interested in cars and wanted a gas station of my own,” Hirata said.
In 1946 after graduating high school, Hirata got a job at a small auto repair and body shop in Cleveland.
“I thought I could make a pretty good car mechanic, so I worked as an apprentice,” he said.
In 1950, another war intervened to change his life, this time the Korean War. Hirata was drafted and sent to Korea as a maintenance engineer helping to rescue stranded trucks and jeeps in the combat zone. His rise in the ranks was rapid.
“I was a private for 30 days, then a corporal after another 30, then a sergeant,” he said.
After his service in 1952, Hirata visited an army buddy who lived in Lowell, Indiana. In 1955, the friend then visited Hirata and his wife in Cleveland.
“My friend told me his father-in-law who owned a car dealership had an empty building that could be used as a body shop,” Hirata said. “This friend said I could get rich. The following year in 1956 we moved to Lowell and I opened a three-car body shop.”
Hirata had already owned a 1942 Mercury auto that his father had helped him to purchase. As his expertise in car repair grew, he began tuning up cars, increasing their performance.
“On my own car I bought and installed a cam shaft, headers, and dual carburetors,” he said. “I started racing people back in the early days when there were deserted roads. I would race anybody I could, usually on Fridays and Saturdays. I had a pretty nice car.”
Most hot-rod racers in those days were Anglo. Asked how he managed to avoid the prejudice against Asians common in the 1950s, Hirata said by making his patriotism known.
“When I first moved to Lowell (Indiana) my wife said, ‘these people have never seen an oriental face,’” he said. “I said we’ll be okay. As soon as I arrived, I joined the American Legion and the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars). The other racers thought we were alright.”
Hirata kept acquiring cars and beefing them up for speed, including a 1932 Model Roadster with a V-8 engine.
“I stripped that one down to make it lighter,” he said. “I also had a 1932 Ford Coupe with an Oldsmobile engine. I took up racing in Ohio any free time I had. I would race at local race tracks.”
Running his own body shop and auto repair that could handle three cars at a time wasn’t easy at first.
“It was rough, I didn’t think I was going to make it,” Hirata said. “I worked seven days a week, 13 hours a day. My former boss in Cleveland told me you can have your old job back if you want it. I would exaggerate and tell family members I was doing okay.”
However, hard work and dedication eventually paid off. The business survived, helped by a particularly skillful CPA (accountant) who gave assistance. The business began turning a profit. Expansions followed, to a seven-car operation in which Hirata had seven body mechanics. Eventually eight additions in square footage were added as the business grew to encompass three buildings.
“I purchased a bigger building and that’s where I’ve been ever since,” Hirata said. “We can put 35 cars in our big building and we’ve also got a metal shop. Part of our business today is restoring old cars and making show cars.”
All during the 1960s Hirata continued to race, graduating from hot rods and street racers to high octane drag racing.
“I drag raced whenever I could find the time,” Hirata said. “When the U.S. 30 Dragway (race strip in Hobart, Indiana) opened in 1957, I was racing a roadster. I built myself a dragster chassis from a kit. I started racing in it and I was winning. I was the king of the racing neighborhood.”
Hirata teamed up with Phil Hobbs and a teenaged driver from Illinois named Bobby Vodnick to score one of the biggest upsets in the history of drag racing, when the trio scored a win in the U.S. National Top Eliminator Race held in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1963.
“I worked on that car and my two partners drove it,” Hirata said.
Vodnick had been acquired in 1963 after Hirata and Hobbs were severely injured in a highway car crash outside Amarillo, Texas that left three people dead. The racer they were towing was damaged and had to be rebuilt.
In 1965 Hirata won the U.S. National event in the “Top Gas” category.
In 1966 he and his teammates won the Bakersfield Fuel and Gas Championship.
For these and other victories Hirata was given the (NHRA) National Hot Rod Association Drag Racing Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003, and was named to the racing organization’s Hall of Fame in 2013. Along with his wife Chiyo, Hirata has been titled one of the sport’s “Honorary Legends” for his contributions to drag racing history in the U.S.
Though he quit racing in 1969, the legacy continued when Hirata’s son David decided to enter the sport.
“I built a house and got bored, so I took up golf,” Hirata said. “In 1996 my son said he would like to drag race using nitro-methane fuel. I said let’s go. I’m your help. Since then he’s won eight national racing events.”
Among the growing list of victories for David Hirata is first place in the Top Alcohol Dragster Division at the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals held in Norwalk, Ohio in July of 2013.
David Hirata also runs the business his father established, Hirata Motorsports and Hirata’s Lowell Mechanic & Tire Shop.
“I officially retired when I was 62, but I still go to the shop every day,” Hirata said. “Business is doing great.”
Asked how fast he’s gone, Hirata responded, “185 miles per hour, and it was in a dragster.”
Hirata said he has been lucky in life.
“I think you have to be persistent and do the things you love,” he said.