“The Alhambra Thin Man” who refused to give up and won the Indy 500

When he took to the driver's seat, he was known as the "Alhambra Thin Man."

With the Indianapolis 500-mile auto race celebrating its 100th anniversary, it’s a fitting time to look back at Alhambran Sam Hanks, who left his mark on the storied race.

The son of a carpenter, Hanks was born in Columbus, Ohio in  1914 and moved with his family to Alhambra when he was six. At Alhambra High, Hanks played football and was in the art club, orchestra and school bank. He also enjoyed tinkering on engines and driving his hot rod on streets around the family home on Hellman Avenue, and learned to fly at the nearby Alhambra Airport.

Upon graduating in 1933, Sam went to work at a tire shop. He developed an interest in racing midget cars — smaller versions of the Indy cars that were raced on shorter tracks. Hanks began his driving career racing a car powered by an outboard boat motor at  Gilmore Stadium and Atlantic Stadium.  Soon, top car owner Danny Hogan spotted Hanks and hired the lanky young driver nicknamed “The Alhambra Thin Man.”  Hogan’s assessment paid off as Hanks won the midget championship in 1937, his first full year of racing.

Hanks purchased the car the following year and would serve as his own mechanic while campaigning the car for 10 years.  His midget success led to an offer to race in the Indianapolis 500, where he finished 13th out of 33 drivers in his 1940 debut.
The day before the 1941 Indy 500, Hanks was doing a test run when the engine seized, locked the car’s rear wheels and sent the car skidding through the infield fence. He was thrown out in the crash and, while not severely injured, would miss the race. It would be the only serious crash of his long career. Hanks only other racing injury came when his nose was broken by a rock kicked up from a dirt track surface. This was notable, especially in an era when helmets were primitive, seat belts were nonexistent, and there was little else in the way of safety equipment. 

World War II brought a halt to racing. Hanks was drafted and served in the Army Air Corps at Wright Field in Ohio, working on aircraft engines.  It was while stationed there that First Lieutenant Hanks met Alice Hedrick.  They would marry in 1947.

When racing returned after the war, Hanks resumed his winning ways in midgets. Staying close to home in 1946 he won the United Racing Association championship and many other races, including the 250-lap Gold Cup race held at the Los Angeles Coliseum in front of a crowd of 65,128.  He started third at Indianapolis only to suffer engine trouble just 18 laps in.

Hanks continued to race midgets, primarily in the Midwest and East, along with his annual attempt at Indianapolis.  In 1949, Hanks moved  to Glendale and won the American Automobile Association  midget championship. He retired from midget racing in 1952 to concentrate on Indianapolis and to run the full AAA Championship for Indianapolis cars. He finished third both at Indy and in AAA Championship points in 1952. In 1953 he placed third once more at the Indy 500 and claimed the AAA National Championship.

Despite his accomplishments, the big prize at Indianapolis kept eluding him.  He nearly retired following a runner-up finish in 1956, but George Salih approached Hanks about driving a radical new car he’d designed.  The “laydown” featured an engine turned almost completely horizontal, giving the car a lower profile, lower center of gravity and lighter weight.  Hanks  dominated the race and took  the checkered flag in the 1957 Indy 500.  Driving down pit road  to victory lane, Hanks was overcome with emotion, wiping tears away as other crews saluted him. After 12 starts, the 42 year old Hanks had achieved his dream.  In victory lane, he announced that he’d run his last ‘500.’  It is the only time in the 100 year history of the Indy 500 that a winning driver announced in victory lane that he would not return.

Upon retiring, Hanks became Director of Competition at Indianapolis, drove the pace car several years and presented  the theatrical telecasts of the 500 at the San Gabriel Civic Auditorium.

Though he’d long moved away from Alhambra, “The Thin Man” never forgot the place from which he’d gotten his name. Hanks kept his ties with Alhambra and got involved with an alumni group that raised funds to build a student activity room. He was inducted into the Alhambra High Athletics Hall of Fame, and was a familiar face at annual AHS athlete reunions in the 1970s. In 1994, Sam Hanks died in Pacific Palisades at the age of 79.

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