Herman Wise was born in Buncombe County, North Carolina. He was a racecar builder and former driver. He was one of many early outlaws who relocated in Pennsylvania and raised that region to prominence.
Wise won the 1971 Little 500 in Anderson, Ind. and at Williams Grove and ran second at Port Royal and Susquehanna before retiring abruptly at the end of 1972.
He moved to Toccoa, Georgia and was the owner/operator of North Georgia Processing and Action Septic. He died in Habersham County, Georgia from injuries sustained in a head-on passenger vehicle crash on July 1, 2003.
Here is a rare color picture of Herman and his cut-down '32 Ford sedan with small block Chevy engine. You can see the rear portion of his Supermodified in the background. Herman built a lot of the rail cars raced in Northeast Georgia. He was known for car building skills almost as much as his driving skills.
By Mike Bell
Posted in Feature Stories 7/7/11
Before the Swindell brothers and Bobby Davis Jr. left Memphis for the Outlaw Trail; before Rickey Hood invaded Indiana and won his USAC titles; and before the ageless Frank Riddle drove up from Florida to show his physical prowess by winning the Little 500 in Anderson, Indiana, there was a deep South driver who invaded sprint car country and was successful.
Herman Wise, born in North Carolina and raised in Northeast Georgia first showed the USAC drivers how good southern drivers are, went on to win the Little 500 in 1971, and won at what was called then, and still is now, the toughest weekly sprint car circuit in this country, Central Pennsylvania.
Where did Herman get the credentials to do battle on these tough circuits? He was almost born on the Fourth of July (July 6, 1937) in Asheville, North Carolina, moonshine and racing country. In the late forties, Herman’s father died and his mother became a teacher at Toccoa Falls Bible School in the northeast Georgia town of Toccoa, moving Herman and the family there.
As a teenager, Herman hung around Sam Brown’s Body Shop in Toccoa with friends Sam Sosebee and Jabez Jones. Racers would ride by all the time. One was Sam Elrod, who towed his 1956 Ford by as he went to race at Darlington in the Southern 500.
Finally, Herman and Jabez went to Gainesville, Georgia Speedway (which is now under the waters of Lake Lanier) to see Herman’s first race, but Mother Nature intervened with a rain shower. After that, Herman was a pit crewman for his good friend Jabez Jones. This went on for about a year before Herman bought a 1936 Ford. He stripped down the body and painted it, but for the sake of a marriage and a move to Foley, Alabama, that car went to someone else.
Foley is a small farming town in that part of the state called L.A. – Lower Alabama – between Mobile, Alabama and Pensacola, Florida. Of course, Herman found his way to Five Flags Speedway and a completed 1940 Ford coupe.
Back To Georgia
During the winter of 1956-1957, Herman returned to Toccoa with his 1940 coupe and took a full-time job with the Telephone Company. But the car just was not competitive. At first, Herman tried to drive the car but he turned the chores over to Frank Burcham. Neither had any success with the car.
At the time, Hugh Jones of Jefferson, Georgia, was the big winner in the amateur class in northeast Georgia. Herman changed all that by consistently winning at Banks County Speedway near Homer, Toccoa Speedway, Twin Lakes Raceway near Elberton and Rufus Tribble’s East Park Speedway in Anderson, South Carolina. Herman ran in the amateur class for about three years.
Next, Herman built a 1932 Ford three-window coupe open wheel racecar with a fuel-injected Chevrolet engine. He raced at Athens Speedway in Athens, Georgia and the Peach Bowl Speedway in Atlanta. In 1962, he ran Chattanooga’s Boyd’s Speedway, Cleveland, Tennessee Speedway, and at the Peach Bowl on Sunday nights. When Charlie Mize opened the all new Anderson Speedway northeast of Anderson, South Carolina with open wheel modifieds, Herman raced there in 1963 and 1964, on Friday nights, as well as the Peach Bowl. Herman and his family moved to the Atlanta area while Herman worked at the General Motors assembly plant in Doraville. Here Herman built a true super modified. The car was quite similar to the late Harold Fryar’s car, which has been restored by his brother Billy Fryar and displayed at several car shows.
Being a master welder helped Herman copy Harold’s car, which outran him the most. With the new car he ran open competition races at Chattanooga and Cleveland, Tennessee and the Peach Bowl. Due to dwindling places to run open wheel races in his area, Herman also towed the car to special races throughout the South. This was influenced greatly by Wayne McGuire of Grayson, Kentucky and Sam Irvin of Chillicothe, Ohio. They ran Louisville, Kentucky; Mobile Alabama; Pensacola, Florida; and Memphis, Tennessee, just to name a few.
Herman’s second and even more successful super modified was highly influenced by the one in which Wayne McGuire was so successful (profiled in the April 1993 issue of Open Wheel). Herman used a Chevrolet engine instead of a Pontiac like Wayne. With this car, Herman traveled into Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. He won wherever he went, whether on dirt or asphalt.
Herman drove for other car owners at times and built cars for other people. His supers were not legal at a lot of tracks in North Georgia and he filled empty weekends in the seats of other owner’s cars. The frame he fabricated to copy Wayne’s car was actually copied three times. He sold the other two to pay for the third. Both of these cars were successful on the local scene. In the mid-sixties, he helped George Elliott, Bill Elliott’s dad, build a 1932 Ford sedan with a 289 Ford (of course!) to run at sportsman races in Athens, Gainesville and Cumming, Georgia. Later in the sixties, they teamed on a 1964 Ford Fastback for the Permatex race run in February in Daytona. This car was also raced at Lakewood.
One of the many friends Herman made while racing was Johnny Ardis of Mobile, Alabama. One time, Herman drove Johnny’s super-modified sprinter in the Mobile 300 at Mobile International Speedway in the mid-sixties. Donnie Allison normally drove the car. In the spring of 1968, Herman won a super sprint race at Byron, Georgia’s Middle Georgia Raceway in the Ardis car.
At this same race, that had a lot of IMCA sprinters in it, were Floyd Trevis and his mechanic Ted Swanteck. They were running a USAC sprinter for Bob Zeigler of Zennopolis, Pennsylvania. Bob was a highly successful cabinet manufacturer in Western Pennsylvania. Herman was asked to come to the famed Reading Fairgrounds for the USAC 1968 lid lifter. Herman, remembering the incident years later recalled, “I didn’t even have a driver’s uniform. I had to borrow one from another driver.”
Herman and the team followed the full USAC sprint car circuit in the East and Midwest that year and finished twelfth in the final standings. During that year, he moved his family to Indianapolis until after the awards banquet in the late autumn. During the winter, they returned to North Georgia.
A Bad Spill
In 1969, again, he drove the “RZ Special” (which has been restored and went on display at the Sprint Car Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Iowa) number 12 on the USAC trail. At Terra Haute, Indiana, he took a terrible spill that put him out of action for a while and into Stock Car Racing magazine with a full page, multipicture spread. That was not the way to make the magazines.
The car was easier to mend than the driver was and the team ran with a substitute driver until later in the summer. After he returned to the team, Herman had another accident – this time at Eldora Speedway. A rock struck Herman in the forehead, smashing his bubble shield in the process. Somehow he steered the car into the pits but was so far out of it, he just chugged along. Several pit workers ran alongside the car to get it stopped. That was the end of his USAC driving.
To start 1970, Herman drove a CAE copy he bought from Johnny Ardis; on a part-time basis he planned his next move.
Later in 1970, he made his move when he bought a brand new Hill Engineering sprint car out of McKenzie, Tennessee. Hill is now J&J owned by Jack Elam. With this car, Herman campaigned at Atomic Speedway in Alma, Ohio and Portsmouth, Ohio, as well as Southern Indiana. He even tried his hand at the Little 500 on the quarter-mile asphalt in Anderson, Indiana. This race starts 33 sprint cars, three wide on the night before the Indy 500. It has been a fixture on the sprint car scene for over 50 years now. Later in 1970, he ran some special end-of-the-year events in Central Pennsylvania.
The next year, 1971, Herman invaded the Central Pennsylvania circuit with his Deep South sprinter. He had since completed apprenticeship in the open wheel modifieds and super-modifieds of the South and with the USAC sprint years, Herman felt he could eke out a living running his car on the tough but well paying circuit. To supplement his income, he would do welding at nearby Three Mile Island nuclear power plant.
The Little 500
During the Memorial Day weekend of that year, he made a foray into Indiana and stayed long enough to win the Little 500. Afterwards, he returned to Central Pennsylvania to do battle on the big half-miles at Williams Grove, Selinsgrove and Port Royal. He won once at the “Grove” and several times at Selinsgrove. Personally, he favored Selinsgrove with its wide and long turns.
With the rigors of the circuit taking its toll, Herman fabricated a copy of the Hill Engineering car. His plan was to field a car each night no matter what happened the night before.
Enter into the picture Dave Young of Dillsburg, Pennsylvania, a stone’s throw from Williams Grove Speedway. Dave had watched Herman run in early 1971. Over the Memorial Day weekend, he met his brother (who was living in Missouri at that time) in Indianapolis for the Little 500. Dave introduced himself to Herman and he became what Herman termed “adopted brothers.” “He just adopted me” was what Herman said years later and the two were inseparable.
No wonder! The first time Dave helped Herman in the pits was at Williams Grove Speedway during the Fourth of July weekend. They ran an extra distance race and Herman won. Years later, Dave said, “the track became ‘dry slick’ and covered with rubber from the racing tires. Seeing this Herman pulled a couple of old tires from the trailer that looked like asphalt tires. “We changed gears and tires and went on to victory lane.” They would work on the car during the week with Herman teaching Dave about sprint cars and sprint car racing.
When Johnny Ardis took the car back to Mobile, he sold it to Ray Thomas. Ray and his family had moved to Mobile from Kokomo, Indiana, in 1965. His son, Kevin, was getting old enough to start running sprint cars.
In early 1979, Ray and Kevin ordered a Shores sprinter but the car was delayed. To get things started, they purchased the Hill car from Johnny Ardis. They reworked the car and ran six shows in late 1979. Kevin said, “I knew it was a good one when we ran second at Forest Hill Speedway in Alexandria, Louisiana, and that was our first time out.”
In 1980, the Shores car was delivered but Kevin stuck with the old Hill car while his dad drove the new car. Kevin won fifteen races that year in the decade-old car. They ran regularly at Citronelle, Alabama, about 20 miles northwest of Mobile. They also ran in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas. They tried to run West Memphis but the 400-mile one-way trek was hard to do every week.
Kevin remembered winning at Pearl Speedway in 1980, just east of Jackson, Mississippi. It was a fifty-lapper on the quarter-mile dirt and he bested Hooker Hood for the win.
In late 1980, Kevin ran off the turn at Louisville, Mississippi, and through the fence. It was a pretty rough ride. What was left of the car went back to Johnny Ardis.
Kevin has retired (again!) from racing sprint cars but his career in the Indiana non-winged sprint car wars has left him with the nickname of “Professor.” He also ran the USAC circuit. When contacted, Kevin remembered the car fondly and noted with new tires and a fresh engine the car would still be competitive. He was talking about a racecar that was over twenty years old.
Restoring A Legend
Dave’s trip south had netted him two sprint cars – one complete and one in pieces for $150. With the help of several people, the Hill Engineering car was restored.
Russ Rupert of Dover, PA, who helped Dick Tobias when Toby first started, running USAC sprinters, did the mechanical restoration in his backyard shop. His is not an ordinary backyard shop as Russ is somewhat of a stickler for details. He has been around racing for over three decades, has built midgets, sprinters, and Dirt Champ cars built and maintained engines for several teams, and nowadays rebuilds old airplanes as a hobby. With this kind of experience and success, Dave knew Russ was the man to restore Herman’s ‘Hill’ car.
Russ had his work cut out for him as three of the main frame rails had been “borrowed” for another “project” of Johnny’s. Using a photo furnished by Herman, the car was completed. Carl Beamer, a professor of Art in Bloomsburg, PA, did the paint and lettering to finish off the job. Carl had done the original lettering on the car some twenty years before when Herman raced in Central PA.
The car was finished in time to go back to Anderson, IN for the twenty-year anniversary of Herman’s win of the Little 500. Dave met Herman and his wife in Indiana before the Little 500 in 1991, and a great weekend was had by all. Herman presented Dave with the trophy awarded in 1971 so it could be displayed with the car at the speedway during the race.
In later years, Herman was not involved in racing at all as most former racers are.“Racing took so much from me, I just didn’t want to be around it anymore,” was his assessment of the sport. His expert welding and sharp mind helped him to design and build his processing plant near Homer, Georgia. He worked as hard, or harder, at making it a success as he did with his racing. Knowing through racing that the extra hours in the designing and building of the plant would pay off in the long run, Herman used his racing experience to become a success in another unrelated field of work.
On July 1, 2003, Herman’s life ended way too early. A traffic accident killed him and another driver while injuring one of his help and an innocent bystander in the process. Herman will be remembered for his climb to fame through the car his “adopted” brother has restored. He will also be remembered by all the fans he entertained with his smooth driving skills on the tracks throughout the raceways of this great country.
Editors note: This story originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of the Pioneer Pages magazine.
Mike Bell is the CEO and historian for the Georgia Auto Racing Hall of Fame Association, Inc. (GARHOFA)