27 Apr Checking in with CMHF ‘Class of 2000’ inductee Junior Hanley
By Bryce Turner
When compiling a list of the most legendary Canadian short track racers from the 1970s and 1980s, Junior Hanley is probably one of the first names that comes to mind.
The Malaga Mines, Nova Scotia native was drawn to motorsport at a young age, when his dad took him to the races.
He started racing in the Maritimes in the early 1960s, before moving to Ontario in 1973. Beyond his checkered flags on this side of the border, he amassed wins at tracks across the U.S., in states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida and Arizona.
As a builder, he continued his winning ways, preparing cars for notable NASCAR stars, including Darrell Waltrip, Bill Elliott, Mark Martin and Alan Kulwicki.
That transition from racer to builder happened in the early 1980s, fueled by the fact that he would make more money fixing and building cars, than racing them. While he would’ve preferred to focus his efforts on driving, he was still able to strap into the driver’s seat when things were quiet in the shop.
“It was from seven in the morning until midnight, most of the time,” said Hanley, when asked about his work ethic.
Despite the long hours, there wasn’t really any burnout, as he was used to it.
“My dad made me work when I was a young kid and it just turned over, kept going,” he said. “You used to plan on doing so much in one day and if you didn’t get it done, you just stayed later to get it done.”
When shifting his focus to car building, Hanley tried to emulate his friend and Michigan native Ed Howe. Howe got started as a winning racer at various tracks, before going on to build cars.
Hanley learned a lot from Howe and says Howe knew everything about a car and how it worked.
Another notable influence in his career was 1983 NASCAR Cup Series champion Bobby Allison. When Hanley lived out east, he would use sponsorship money from a Chevrolet dealership to buy parts from Allison. During the winter, he’d stay with Allison for a couple of weeks and go to races with him.
Both Howe and Allison also worked on their own cars and raced a variety of different vehicles, just like Hanley.
Allison’s shop wasn’t the only winter destination for Hanley, who frequented Florida throughout his career for the annual World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing, held during the Daytona Speedweeks at New Smyrna Speedway.
An event winner himself, Hanley remembers his fellow competitors, who would come from far and wide to race in this week-long event. One of those racers was his good friend Danny Knoll from Western New York, who he shared a special moment with one year.
When Knoll was dying of cancer, Hanley helped build him a modified to take to New Smyrna for a final ride. Hanley was asked to drive for him and won a couple of races, about two weeks before Knoll’s passing.
Another good friend of Hanley’s, who shared the New Smyrna connection, was Don Biederman.
On Hanley’s first trip to the World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing, he drove from the Maritimes to pick up Biederman along the way.
In the early days, the two were close, with Biederman acting as a mentor to Hanley when he first moved to Ontario. They would travel to various races together and would never carry any angst away from the race track.
But all of that changed when the protégé started running better and the mentor started running worse, which Hanley attributes to a differing mindset.
“(Biederman) always figured (that) everything on the race car was the motor,” said Hanley. “If he didn’t have a good motor in the race car, (it) didn’t run good. It wasn’t really that, it wasn’t really true. If you got your car working good, the motor wasn’t that critical, as long as it didn’t blow up.”
As the competitive balance shifted, so did their relationship. The two became bitter rivals, which Hanley blames in part on the talk of the town.
“We were pretty good friends, but then a lot of people stirred (it) up,” he said. “You know about people, they always say 10 people got hurt, then the next guy tells that it’s 20 people, then the next guy, (that’s) how the racing stories used to go. It was a shame, but that’s the way it happened.”
One of the events that stirred things up was the 1979 “Battle of the Decade,” held at Delaware Speedway in southwestern Ontario. The event pitted the two rivals against each other, head-to-head, in a best-of-three series of 10-lap sprints.
Hanley won the event in two races, but believes, in less flattering words, that the event was bogus and blown out of proportions.
The promoter of the Battle of the Decade was Tony Novotny, who later founded CASCAR. At one point, Hanley was offered a deal by Ford and Quaker State to race in CASCAR, but declined, saying that a move to CASCAR at the time would’ve been like building a Porsche all of his career, just to buy a Volkswagen.
While he acknowledged that Novotny was a good promoter, the two didn’t see eye-to-eye when it came to the rules.
“A lot of things I didn’t agree with,” said Hanley. “A regular guy racing on Friday night and working during the week backs it into the wall, (it) takes him a week and a half to put the pin back in the trunk and the people from the grandstands can’t tell if that thing’s got a pin in the trunk or not.”
Hanley was inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame in the class of 2000.
“It was really special… I was honoured to be inducted,” said Hanley. “I don’t usually talk too much, (but) that night I did talk.”
When looking back on his career, he says that he wouldn’t do anything differently.
He remains an active part of the racing scene, particularly at Ontario’s Flamboro and Sunset speedways, where he tries to help young racers who stand out, including Treyten Lapcevich during the 2020 season. When it comes to advice, work ethic stands out.
“Learn how to work on your car and understand how it works,” said Hanley. “That would be the important part of it and money helps too.”
At 76-years-old, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see him still roaming the pits, as he’s known nothing else.
“I still go to the races pretty well every weekend,” he said. “I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t get to go. Ever since I was 20-years-old (I’ve gone racing) and before that I’ve gone to the races with my dad on the weekend.”
With an iron clad work ethic and memories from countless friendships along the way, Hanley’s illustrious career is more than just wrenches and wins.