Age, cancer haven’t stopped 82-year-old from putting pedal to the metal

Larry Hale is a biological anomaly, spurning age and cancer with every stomp of the gas pedal.

The 82-year-old Buhl resident is the oldest drag racing competitor at the 46th annual Pepsi Nightfire Nationals, which continues through Sunday at Firebird Raceway.

At an age when many of his peers have stopped driving altogether, Hale still can guide his 1960 Studebaker Lark down Firebird’s quarter-mile strip at speeds surpassing 130 mph.

“He’s just as competitive now as he was 30 or 40 years ago,” Firebird General Manager Scott New said. “I watch him on the Christmas Tree (electronic starter) with his reaction times and how consistent he is, and he is just as good and in some cases even better than a 17- to 25-year-old young man or young woman.”

On Thursday morning — the opening day of Nightfire competition — Hale wasn’t particularly pleased with his first pass in his metallic green Studebaker.

He spent the next two hours tinkering with various parts under the hood as longtime friend George Dion, 82, looked on. The two have known each other since they were 18-year-old “drinking buddies” in Southern California.

“He can’t leave nothing alone,” Dion said.

Hale began drag racing in 1951 — the same year the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) was founded — when his uncle told him about an up-and-coming sport for “hot-rodders” being held weekly at the Santa Ana Airport.

Already an expert racer in his “hopped up” motor scooter, Hale’s first race car was a 1944 Coupe with a full-race flathead Ford motor.

Hale didn’t purchase the Studebaker he drives now until 1970, and he has since sold and bought it back three times.

“I could buy it back cheap and I knew the car,” Hale said. “When I bought that car in 1970 for $150, it didn’t have any motor in it. I put a Cadillac motor in it, and it’s had Cadillac motors in it ever since.”

Hale’s love of racing has outlasted a marriage and two blown engines, and he doesn’t have any plans of retiring as he nears his 83rd birthday on Sept. 5.

“I haven’t did so well in the last six or seven years, but I am coming around,” Hale said. “All of a sudden I’m getting better. I put a different transmission in my car, and that helped.

“I told my son, as long as I can get in and out of the car, I’m going to continue to race.”

Surrounded by the fancy trailers and motorhomes of his competitors, Hale’s pit is much more sparse.

Dion hauls Hale’s Studebaker in on a flatbed trailer attached to his truck. The pair bring little more than a cooler full of soda and the same chipped coffee mug Hale has used for years to corral his tuning tools.

Hale does all his own work — engines, transmissions, brakes, whatever it takes.

“I fool with my car all the time,” Hale said. “Everybody always tells me, ‘Why don’t you leave that thing alone? It’s running good.’ That’s just what I’ve done my whole life, and it’s hard to stop.”

He says he couldn’t race if he didn’t do his own work.

“All I have is Social Security,” he said.

While electronic controls have become the norm, Hale’s Studebaker is like a time capsule.

“I think drag racing has come so far from the 50s with so much modern technology that has incorporated into the sport — lots of gizmos and widgets and this and that — and a lot of the younger generation loves to have that in their car,” New said. “For him, he’s as old school as they come. It’s as if he was racing in the ’50s at a track in Southern California. He is using that same formula right to this day, and I mean at 82 years of age, it’s pretty remarkable.”

Although Hale was beaten in the opening round of eliminations Thursday, he didn’t have much to complain about.

He’s had his share of victories over the years, including winning the Pro eliminator on back-to-back nights at Nightfire in 2007. He was the runner-up at the Oldies But Goodies Drags in June.

And at a prostate cancer follow-up last week, Hale’s doctor offered some remarkable news.

“Larry, you’re doing really good, but I don’t know why,” the doctor said.

It’s no matter to Hale. The positive checkup just means there should be plenty more weekends of racing ahead.

“His life has truly been a love affair being involved with the sport of drag racing. There could not be any better medicine than to be able to come out here, compete and do what he loves so much,” New said. “He’s testimony to the fact that he’s out here still doing it and battling something that’s been a tough part of his life. But he’s bound and determined, and he’s not going to let it whip him.”

Rachel Roberts: 208-377-6422, @byrachelroberts