Denny Zimmerman

RJ: I understand it was a visit to Nazareth Speedway as a lad that first attracted you to racing. Do you remember what it was about that first race that hooked you into racing?

DZ: For an eight or nine year old kid (I?m not sure how old I was when I went there), it was pretty exciting. The noise, the smell, and those cars zooming around the track so close together and not wrecking ?well, maybe once in a while - but for the most part they were pretty skillful. Also back then, in the late 1940?s, you have to remember most cars on the road at the time were black, but these race cars had colourful paint jobs. I remember one driver was called the Flying Dutchman (RJ Note: Tommy Hinnershitz, who also like Denny appeared at the Indianapolis 500) and another was the Flying Milkman (RJ Note: Mitch Smith, sprint car legend) and all of this was pretty cool stuff for a little kid and it looked like FUN.? I decided there and then that when I got a little older I was gonna try that; the seed was planted that day.

RJ: You then took part into soapbox racing and you're still the only man to have raced at the Soap Box Nationals and the Indianapolis 500. What did you learn through soapbox racing that you felt helped you when you were racing later in life?

DZ: Soap Box Derby was for me (and I think for a lot of other kids too) a great learning and growing up experience. It took place in my early teens, a time when a lot of kids seem to shut their parents out of their lives and start down the wrong road. In my case, it was a family affair, a real bonding with my parents. We had to build the car ourselves. We got the axels and wheels and the rest we built ourselves. I used my father?s woodworking tools and if I was having trouble with something he would show me how to do it and then I would go ahead build it. The only thing I didn't do was paint the finished car; we had that done by a professional as that was permitted.

Another aspect - or life learning event if you will - was finding a sponsor. We were supposed to find a sponsor for the wheels and axels which cost $25. I found the Rotary Club in Glastonbury and in return I had a Rotary decal on the car. Kids today assemble the cars from "kits" but the end result is the same, except I bet the kits cost more!

I guess to summarise an answer to your question; Soap Box Derby in addition to other things gave me confidence that if I really wanted something and was willing to work at it that it could be achieved.

RJ: You began racing in 1957; what do you remember of your very first race?

DZ: That was a loooong time ago, I don't remember! One thing I do remember that first year (this would be before Eddie Flemke noticed me) was that several of the ?hot dogs? racers noticed that I was timid about running on the outside next to the wall. Ha ha! Well, during the warm ups they would sneak up and get under me and then just match my speed and force me to run the outside groove. I guess it helped though because after that I was comfortable pretty much anywhere. One of those hot dogs is still alive and I bring that up every time I see him at a reunion

RJ: It's been well documented how Ed Flemke Sr. was a help to your career - do you think you would've had the success you did without his assistance?

DZ: Simple answer; No.

Eddie had a huge impact on my career. Eddie was a lot of things to me, a friend for sure, but also an instructor, a confidence builder and a person who truly enjoyed helping someone and then watching them do better. I was his first student - so to speak - then Pete Hamilton and then Richie (RJ note: Richie Evans, nine-time NASCAR National modified champion). Eddie gave me a basic foundation to build on, about chassis setup and how to drive a race car. One of his favourite confidence sayings was "When you?re racing with big name people, just remember they put their pants on one leg at a time just like you do?. Ha ha, that makes me laugh today.

RJ: For a long while, you built and raced your own cars. Do you feel having that intimate involvement with the car helped throughout the rest of your career? What did you enjoy the most about having more than just a driving role?

DZ: I did build and maintain my early stock cars. I also put together and maintained my first sprint car, but it was more out of necessity than anything else. I just wanted to drive, however it gave me a sense of how much work went into these race cars and how much more work was required after a wreck in addition to all the normal maintenance. Along the way I learned how to gas weld and arc weld. I put the motors together in the cars that I owned so I guess I learned to be a reasonable mechanic and craftsman and to a certain degree a designer, and of course I took pride in my work but I just wanted to drive, and as soon as I could I just drove other people's cars

Denny racing stock cars.

RJ: You raced in various different types of racing before appearing in Indycars; modified, midget and sprint cars. Is it easy to vary between them and what are the biggest differences between each discipline?

DZ: I started in Sportsman/Modified stock cars with a ?37 Ford Coupe with flathead Ford V8 engine for the first two years of racing, then later powered by 327 Chevy. Ran mostly fifth-to-half mile paved and dirt tracks. They weren't "stock" they were real race cars, and real fun to drive.

For me Sprint cars were next, lighter than stock cars; shorter wheelbase, massive horsepower and massive acceleration. Ran mostly third-to-half mile paved and dirt tracks. Sometimes there were bigger tracks but half-mile would be the normal length. Also real fun to drive.

Midgets; - lighter than Sprint cars with a shorter wheelbase and less horsepower but very nimble or manoeuvrable. Ran mostly fifth-to-half mile paved and dirt tracks. Ideal track size for midgets would be third mile tracks. Real fun to drive.

Indy cars, well they were about the same weight as Sprint car, with the wheelbase about the same as a Sprint car. Horsepower was about the same as sprint cars - in fact, maybe a little more - but because they go so fast, acceleration is not as noticeable, you reach incredible speeds. Pretty much the shortest track an Indy car would run would be a one mile up to two-and-a-half like Indy, however I ran a 2.8 mile Track in Argentina. Again fun to drive!

RJ: Do you have a favourite track? If so, why is it a favourite?

DZ:? No favourite, I like them all, even Pocono in Pennsylvania. However my least favourite would be Pocono because it has three corners which are all different and this? presents a challenge to set up the chassis, and thus becomes a challenge to the driver. One corner is a high banked high speed corner, the next corner is high speed but not much banking and the third corner is flat long sweeping turn at a slower speed than the other two. So do you compromise and do all corners at reasonable speed, or do you pick one corner and do your absolute best there at the expense of the other two, or do pick two corners to do your reasonable best at the expense of the other one? Tough question, and it depends a lot on the driver?s style.

Now, having said that, everyone has that problem so it kind of levels the playing field, I guess.

RJ: The Rookie of the Year award you got in 1971 at the Indianapolis 500 is often the most cited information about your career. What do you remember of the race as you moved from quite far down the grid and the Fiore-owned Vollstedt wasn't the most modern car either?

DZ: True, it was an older car but it was well prepared. I had a lot of help ? when I say help, I mean driving tips from Bobby Grim, Bob Harkey, Jim McWithey, Sam Hanks and many others. I think we would have finished a little better except I stalled the car leaving the pits on one of the stops, my bad.?

Denny at the 1971 Indianapolis 500.

It was a family owned low-budget operation. Did you know that Frank Fiore Sr. mortgaged his house in order to participate at Indy? Glad I didn't know that at the time as to run fast there, you need to have no fear and if I had known that it would have slowed me down.

Also Frank Sr. was a mechanic for United Airlines in San Francisco and he only got a two week vacation each year. As you know, Indy is a month long commitment, so in order to get the whole month off, he made a deal with the airline and its union whereby he would put a United Airlines decal on the car. If you look closely at some of the pictures of me in the cockpit you will see the decal on the side windshield. Also, Frank Jr. - his son - at the time was not old enough to get into the garage area during the day but at night would wonder into the garage area at night to help his Dad. Frank Jr. would later become a successful crew chief on his own at Indy and I think the youngest crew chief at Indy.

RJ: 1972 wasn't as successful, having to retire due to a broken distributor. How good was the McLaren M15A car compared to the 1971 car?

DZ:? In 1972 the McLaren that I drove for Rolla Vollstedt, sponsored by Bryant, was a top car as far as I was concerned. We did start in the back but I was moving forward pretty well I thought. We had moved into 10th position when the engine just stopped. I feel the way we were running we would have had a top 5 finish at least, of course, barring any other issues.

Denny in the? McLaren M15A Vollstedt car for the 1972 Indianapolis 500

RJ: What do you personally consider your biggest achievement in the sport?

DZ: Surviving. I lost quite a few friends and even worse, some of them survived but were paralyzed for life. I knew that came with the territory but you just had to deal with it. If you weren't prepared for that, then you shouldn't be in the cockpit. There is a saying; ?Racing is so great for some and so cruel to others?.

Now having said that, the next best thing is all the great friends I've made along the way and of course being named Rookie of the Year at Indy.

Denny in the car he never ended driving for the 1972 Indianapolis 500. Built by Rolla Vollstedt and Harold Sperb, the Patriot car never made it to the grid.

RJ: What was it that appealed to you about flying? When did you decide to look beyond racing for another profession because you seem to have thought ahead about your future?

DZ:? I always wanted to learn to fly. My father was a pilot and it just looked like fun. I started driving modified/sportsman stock cars in my senior year in high school and when I graduated I started driving full time. I figured I could race full time but maybe give up one weekend a month to the Air National Guard, and let them teach me how to fly. So I went to the recruiting office to join up. That ended pretty quickly as they told me "You need two years of college and then IF you meet the requirements we MAY teach you how to fly". Well, that was a dead end as I was really too busy racing.??

From 1957 till 1974 I earned a living driving racing cars. By 1971 I had saved enough money and now had time between races to learn to fly on my own. My original intent was just to get a Private Pilot License and just fly around on nice days when the weather was good, never intended to do any commercial flying.

Well, flying came easy to me (I'm not that smart but I had good instructors) and I kept getting more advanced ratings and guess what...I was hooked and by 1973 I had all my ratings. In 1974 I attempted to qualify the M.V.S. car at Indy and we missed the show. I was 34th fastest which made me first alternate, which means I missed the show.

At that point in time I still enjoyed racing but I now was also addicted to flying and it occurred to me that as long as I stayed healthy, I could fly airplanes longer than my racing career would last.

So I quit racing cold turkey and started flying. At first, it was small jobs in small airplanes and gradually, bigger jobs in bigger airplanes, before I finally got hired by the airlines. I retired at the mandatory retirement age in 1998 as Boeing 747 captain.? Then because I was still in good health, I flew a corporate jet for ten more years, then I retired for good.

So you can see I never had a real job, I was blessed by the fact that I was able to earn a living doing something that I would have done for a hobby anyway.

Denny (far left) in his piloting days

RJ: Once you started your flying career, did you ever consider a return to competitive racing?

DZ: No, once I quit racing I never looked back, really didn't have time for it either. I did however follow it in the papers and on TV whenever I could. Just to see how my friends were doing and the new guys coming along. There was one exception to that though. One night, in a hotel in Jacksonville, Florida, there was a little quarter-mile cinder track across the street that was running dirt modified cars and I could hear them, so I bought a ticket and sat in the grandstand.

I left before the feature race as the spark just wasn't there. I guess I'm a participant type as opposed to an audience type.

However, one day, after I was completely retired from flying, I got a call from a friend and car owner that I had known for years and had raced against his cars before, but I had not actually driven for him before. He wondered if I would like to drive one of his midgets.

?Hell, yes!? I said (now I'm about 72 years old at this point) and I did for that year -with a best finish of second - then the track closed. The next year my friend found a nice dirt track in Bradford, Vermont, that our group and I raced at. I raced for two more years up there then quit for good.. I think! Our group of midgets (DMA, Dirt Midget Association) is sanctioned by USAC. I was hoping to win a midget race but it didn't happen, because if I had done so, I think that would have made me the oldest driver to win a USAC midget race.

RJ: During your career with both Evergreen International Airlines and then your cargo pilot role what would you class as the most challenging airport to negotiate? What are your favourite memories of these days?

DZ: Kai Tak Airport in Hong Kong. (The airport doesn't exist anymore, they built a new one). If you Google "Old Hong Kong Airport" or Kai Tak Airport, Hong Kong, there is a lot of info about it being kind of a non-standard airport. Another one is Islamabad, Pakistan. Islamabad Airport is surrounded by very high terrain and the airport is far below, making it impossible for a large aircraft to make a normal approach and landing. So the arrival procedure takes you to a point at a safe altitude inside the circle of mountains from where you can descend in a holding pattern to a point at which you can now make a normal landing. Departing in a large aircraft is the same deal, climb in a holding pattern until high enough, then proceed en-route.

London Heathrow was "confusing" to me until I got used to it. I'm talking about once you are on the ground and then need to taxi to the gate or your parking spot. Taxiways all over the world (at least the airports I've been to) are like an airport road map or "taxi chart", and the taxiways named A for alpha or B for bravo and so on. So once you clear the runway tower will say "taxi via alpha, charlie, foxtrot" and it's pretty simple. We have a chart with us that shows the complete layout of the airport and the taxiways on the airport are clearly marked.

Now for London Heathrow; Instead of taxiways named by a letter of the alphabet, the whole taxiway system is divided up into "blocks" with numbers. It?s pretty challenging until you get used to it, and then it?s okay. By the way runways are named with a number that coincides with the compass heading, for example if you are assigned runway 18 you will land to the south and runway 27 will have you landing west and so on, this is standard all over the world.

Another tidbit....you may wonder how I flew all over the world and I only speak English? Well, fortunately the standard language for all pilots and all air traffic controllers is English. So if you grew up in say Africa and you wanted to be an international pilot you would need to be "reasonably" fluent in English. Having said that, not everyone's English is the same, so one needs to listen carefully. Fortunately, most communications back and forth between pilots and air traffic controllers are expected instructions for the particular portion or phase of flight.

As for memories, there were so many, but one nice one was one year when the Indy cars were racing in Brisbane, Australia, I flew them there. I had all the Indy cars and the pace car, and there was another 747 following, with all the tool boxes and wheels and tires. Again, the next year I flew the Indy cars and pace car back from Rio or S?o Paulo (I forget which) to the U.S.

Denny with his own named cargo plane.

RJ: You then worked as a pilot for corporate jets which put you in close proximity of movie stars, politicians and other VIP's. Did you have any particular favourites of those famous travellers?

DZ: It's hard to turn on the TV without me seeing someone I've had on the airplane! Paul McCartney did a concert tour in the US several years ago and I carried him around for a week, different city every night. There was Paul, his girlfriend at the time, his manager and a bodyguard. It was an enjoyable week. It just happened, that the female flight attendant we had on our crew, was a big Beatles fan growing up and that week just happened to be her birthday, so she now has a video of her sitting next to Paul with a birthday cake in front of them and Paul singing Happy Birthday to her! I thought she was going to faint!

Another time was with Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer - this was when they were doing ?Good Morning America? on ABC ? and they decided they were going to do their morning show each day in a different state, until they had done a show in all 50 states. I got to fly them for a week. I picked them up in New Jersey, flew them to Minneapolis. The next day it was off to Raleigh, North Carolina, then Denver, then Sonoma, California, and then flew them back to Boston. That group included Charlie, Diane, Dave Murray, the weather man, the producer, and two make up ladies. We stayed in the same hotel they did and we could sleep in, watch their show on TV, have a leisurely breakfast, go to the airport around noon and take them to the next city. They were all down to earth normal people and another very enjoyable week.

When people ask who I have flown I tell them; Howard Stern (the Shock Jock) and Reverend Billy Graham and everyone in between. One of my last flights before I retired, I flew Colin Powell, the former Secretary of State. Another gentleman. I wish he would run for President, as he would have my vote.

RJ: Did you get to keep the Stark and Wetzel Trophy they awarded you for the Rookie of the Year Award? If so, do you still have it?

DZ: No I didn't get the Stark and Wetzel Trophy. They just put my name on it and it stays in the Speedway Museum. What I did get was a nice sterling silver cup from Monroe Shock Absorbers with my name engraved on it, and I still have that.

Denny nowadays

RJ: Other than racing and attending reunions, what else do you enjoy the most in life currently?

DZ: I go to the gym every day, and weather permitting I play golf every day

RJ: In more recent years, you've been back racing in historic events and midget cars. What do you enjoy the most about racing now?

DZ: I'm committed to a couple of historic events but I won't do any more of those, the "spark" for that isn't there, no disrespect, but to me it's not real racing. As for the midget races I think that's probably over too. Having said that if someone offers me a ride in a real race car to do "real" racing I would do that in a heartbeat....but I'm not expecting it.

The interview with Denny was done via a series of email exchanges in March and April 2016. All the photos are from Denny?s own personal collection. We?d be happy to credit any original photographers of some of the shots used, please do contact us. Thanks very much? to Denny for his time and effort making this interview a good one.