BEAVERTOWN — Stories of Ralph Heintzelman Sr., who died last week in his Beavertown home at age 81, are sure to elicit memories by longtime dirt track race fans and competitors of a bygone era.
Heintzelman was known nationwide for his skill as a sprint car mechanic and car builder for some of the top drivers of his day, most notably the late, great Jan Opperman, who was the dominant sprint pilot of the early ‘70s.
Before Opperman, a Californian who moved to Snyder County to race, Heintzelman wrenched for his lifelong friend, Barry Camp, of Beavertown, and afterward for Dillsburg’s Lynn Paxton. Along the way, he helped other legends such as the late Richard “Mitch” Smith and the late Dick “Toby” Tobias.
His car owners were a Who’s Who of the sport, including the late Luke “Dick” Bogar, of Selinsgrove, with the Bogar 99, made famous by Opperman; the late Roy “Shorty” Emrich, of Manchester; Al Hamilton, of Manheim; and Maynard Boop, of Millmont.
Paxton drove Emrich’s car to the inaugural championship in the late Jack Gunn’s KARS series in 1974 with Heintzelman on board.
After a year with Hamilton, who was known to switch drivers quicker than Opperman could turn laps at Selinsgrove, Paxton ended up with Boop’s No. 1, taking Heintzelman along for the ride over several successful years. After that, Paxton decided he didn’t want to travel, so he changed rides to drive for the late Bob Benchoff, of Blue Ridge Summit.
Heintzelman stayed with Boop, with the late Kramer Williamson, of Palmyra, behind the wheel, racing and winning for part of the season in Florida, before returning north.
Paxton recalled Heintzelman as a diligent problem solver.
“He was a very hard-working individual. He would do anything to make that race car go good,” said Paxton, who celebrated many of his 225 career wins with Heintzelman.
“There wasn’t a lot of spit and polish, but that wasn’t really necessary. He worked real hard on the race car and he was a good guy. We got along real well together,” added Paxton.
Paxton explained that Heintzelman’s cars were not what anyone would call attractive, but they could run better than most and they won races.
So the story goes, Bogar once walked into the race shop, took one look at Heintzelman’s car and said something along the lines of “Do you expect me to win in that (crap) box?”
Camp, interviewed by phone from his summer home in Lewis, Delaware, agreed with Paxton’s description of his pal.
“The thing you liked about him was he could be nasty, and we all picked on him — whether it was Paxton or me or my crew — but he was hard-working. He just wouldn’t quit working if there was a problem. He wanted to find it and he generally did,” Camp said.
Camp knew Heintzelman his whole life, but their time working together on the race car began when Heintzelman worked at the Super Service Garage, located across the street from Camp’s Beavertown race shop.
“He was probably one of the hardest-working mechanics I’ve ever seen. When there was a problem, you knew it was going to get worked on,” he said.
Camp recalled once when he and his wife, Connie, picked Heintzelman up at his house to go to the annual Port Royal Speedway banquet, he was wearing a long trench coat.
“Connie joked that he looked like (former TV detective) Columbo,” Barry said. “He was funny as all get-out. I loved Ralph.”
Camp added with a laugh, “No matter what went on with Ralph, if he got into trouble, I got the blame for it (from his late wife Helen).”
After his days as a traveling race car mechanic ended, Heintzelman went into business for himself, building race cars for drivers around the country.
He lost his shop to a 1980 fire which destroyed much of what he had worked so hard for. He decided not to rebuild and eventually worked on race cars again, but only locally. He ended his career working for several years on the pro stock car of his son Ralph “Peanut” Heintzelman, who became a regular driver at Selinsgrove.
Although Heintzelman has not been inducted into the national hall of fame — he is in the York County Racing Club Hall of Fame — Selinsgrove Speedway general manager Steve Inch, of Lewisburg, and former sprint car driver Phil Walter, of McClure, compiled a detailed documentation of Heintzelman’s accomplishments last year in nominating him for induction.
“He was a neat guy and a terrific mechanic, mainly because he wouldn’t quit. He would work himself to death until he got it right,” Camp said.