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Orange’s Hoenshell Races Out of Own Garage : Driver Started on His Own and Is Still Fending for Himself

When he was 16, Duke Hoenshell constructed his first race car in his garage, using parts he had collected from the auto wrecking yard where he worked. When it was finally completed, he would drive it to a local race track as often as possible, race a few laps and then drive it home.

Now 28, Hoenshell, who lives in Orange with his wife Nancy, is a professional race car driver, still designing and building cars in his garage. The last car he and his crew completed, he drove last Sunday at Riverside International Raceway, where he won his second consecutive LA 200 race for Grand American cars.

Hoenshell was born on an Air Force base in Africa, where his father was stationed, but after six months, his family moved to Santa Ana. He has been an Orange County resident ever since.

His father, Whitey, who has served as Duke’s crew chief for the past 12 years, is a former race car driver. He raced as teen-ager during the 40s and became involved in racing again from 1969-74, when he was a NASCAR Sportsman racer. It was during those later years when Duke initially became interested in auto racing.

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“When Duke was 12 years old, he started saving his money for his first race car,” Whitey said. “He knew that’s what he wanted to do. He used to help me build motors for my cars.”

After four years of saving up money and working on race car engines, Duke finally purchased a 1966 Chevelle convertible chassis and began to construct his first race car.

“I worked at a wrecking yard and so I scammed as many parts as possible, and built it from the ground up,” Hoenshell said. “I drove that car to the race track and drove it home afterwards. For five weeks I did that before I got the ball rolling. Up until then, I had just practiced in my Dad’s car. After that, it was all me.”

Since then, Hoenshell and his crew have designed and constructed all of his cars from scratch except one. He says that no manufacturer makes a car with the exact specifications he wants, so he has accumulated ideas from a variety of sources and combined them into building the most suitable cars for him. Consequently, he takes a bit more pride in the cars he drives. “I buy some of the hard parts to get, but everything from the chassis up is mine,” Hoenshell said. “We’ve checked out as many other chassis manufacturers as we could and got ideas from them, and the result is--it works. It’s different from anyone else’s, but it works. I’m especially proud of that. To start with nothing but a pile of tubing and make it happen, I feel is quite an accomplishment.”

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In Sunday’s race, the car Hoenshell was driving was being raced for the first time. He and his crew had been working laboriously for the past three months building it, and it wasn’t completed until 1 a.m. on the Saturday preceding the LA 200 race.

His last car was nearly totaled in February during the Copper World Classic in Bakersfield, when he ran it into a wall after his throttle stuck. “We completely rebuilt it from the ground up. We completely updated it,” he said. “We had to squeeze eight months of work into three months. The result was overwhelming.”

All entrants were to have their cars ready by the Thursday before the race, but Hoenshell’s crew was still making minor adjustments immediately before Saturday’s race for qualifying times.

Said Hoenshell: “If not for all those people, I never could have won this one. Everyone was involved--the wife, everyone. The last three nights, there was no less than three, and up to 15 people working on the car. Friday night, there were 15 people in there taping it. Everyone was doing something.”

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In his 12 years of racing, Hoenshell’s LA 200 wins are the only two racing victories he has earned.

“We really haven’t gotten the recognition we deserve,” he said. “I’m not a glory-hound or anything, but nobody notices (who finishes in) second, just who won . . . We’ve been right there (near the front of every race) every time for the last five years.”

The recognition that Hoenshell would welcome most, however, is that of a sponsor.

He had a sponsor from 1977-81, but it was forced to pull out due to financial reasons.

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Ever since, Hoenshell has been able to participate in only two or three races per year because of a lack of funds. His racing expenses are paid for from what he earns during the week at his job at car dealership in Newport Beach.

“With somebody else’s financial support, it’s a whole lot easier,” Hoenshell said. “When you gotta take the punch in the chops (while racing) and in the wallet, it’s tough. I can take it in the chops, but I don’t know how much I can take in the wallet.”

Consensus on the NASCAR circuit seems to indicate that Hoenshell’s lack of sponsorship is the only factor separating him from consistent success.

Owen Kearn, the western operations public relations director for NASCAR Winston West, is among those who believe Hoenshell has enormous potential to become a prominent name in auto racing.

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In a telephone interview from Bakersfield, where he is in charge of the race at Mesa Mirand raceway this weekend, Kearn said, “He does awful good for someone with no sponsors. I know we’d like to have him. He’s real talented. Anytime you can race door-to-door with guys like Hershel McGriff and Glen Cummings, you’ve got to get the respect.”

Whitey Hoenshell said that his son’s driving continues to improve all the time.

“With his experience, he’s doing a lot better than I did,” Whitey said. “I can’t hold a candle to him. The more time you spend on the track, the better you get. I don’t think there’s any limit to how good he can be. He just keeps improving and improving and improving.”

The next goal for Hoenshell is to win some of the bigger races, such as those held at Mesa Mirand. And with his newly constructed car, he sees this as a very realistic objective.

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“I’d like to win at Mesa Mirand,” he said. “And now we have the car to win up there. Prior to building my new car, I was outclassed up there. But now we’re state of the art.”

‘With somebody else’s financial support, it’s a whole lot easier. When you gotta take the punch in the chops (while racing) and in the wallet, it’s tough. I can take it in the chops, but I don’t know how much I can take in the wallet.’

--Duke Hoenshell


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