I’ve known Hemi Denny since Elementary school in Arnold, PA. Denny lived on the 1900 block of Alcoa Drive (formerly Orchard Avenue) and I lived on the 2000 block of the next street uphill, Ridge Avenue. Between those two streets was an alley that was common to our two residences. At most houses, the garages faced the alley, so the alley was where “things happened”, like Hemi Denny testing a new set of drag slicks on his race car. The Thomas house had a beautiful two-car garage to the alley and Denny’s dad, Harry Thomas, was a car nut, so that also came naturally for Denny. Harry Thomas was a machinist at the Alcoa facility in New Kensington, the lab, I believe. They were a Chrysler family. I always remember the big Chryslers of the 50’s and 60’s at their house. Harry Thomas had a beautiful, show winning 1930’s Chrysler Airflow sedan that he would work on while Denny was improving some version of a Chrysler hemi motor in another Chrysler. Harry Thomas was a member of the Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA), and Denny was a member of the AACA.
I recall one experience in the alley – Denny was testing his 1961 or 62 Dodge Dart race car – this was the year car that had the odd roof and front/rear window treatment – bent glass front and rear – looked like the police car in the TV show “Car 54 Where are You?” He sat there and smoked off those rear tires, shut it down and went under the hood – a few minutes later, smoked ‘em off and then finally smiled. “Okay, its ready for the strip!” The police didn’t bother Denny about his “preparation” work. Denny always told the younger audience to “Get up there in that yard if you want to watch. I don’t want anybody in the alley – things can go wrong.” So we’d get up behind the fence in a yard and watch him burn them off.
Over the years, we went different ways. Denny worked in the electronics/computers business (IBM) and I went off into the world of steel business. Years later, we ended up somewhat neighbors again – Denny buying a farm out in Kittanning Township and Bobbi and I buying our place over in Worthington. We were members of the same AACA car club.
Denny later built the blue Hemi Roadrunner that we’ve all come to know at the cruises. He preferred some of the older Chrysler parts in his newer car – he liked the older short cross ram dual 4 barrel intake over the newer factory 2 fours in line version. He also preferred the old vacuum push button automatic to the newer shift lever selector transmission. If you’ve ever really taken the time to look at Denny’s Hemi Roadrunner, you’ll see these features still in the car. With the earlier race car and the Roadrunner, Denny ruled the Newbie (New Bethlehem) 1/8 mile Drag strip, and other drag strips I would guess.
Many stories. The earlier Cadet cruises back in the 1990’s, when Cadet cruisers actually would go out onto route 422, stop and burn them off, all the while stopping traffic. Denny was going out – this was one everyone was waiting for. Denny would start the Hemi, walk out to the road, look up and down the road, walk back to the car, rev it a few times, check the gages, walk back out to the road, look up and down the road, and back to the car. Everyone wondered, “What the heck is he doing? Get out there and get it done!” Denny was doing a number of things – letting the engine come up to operating temperature and looking for police. Denny always feared getting pulled over – he didn’t care for “regulations” people in his life. Then he’d finally go out there onto 422 and put on a show. I don’t ever remember him getting pulled over by the police.
A drag racing story. Denny and Butch Griffith were at the track. Denny told Butch to run the car down the track. The hood on Denny’s car is fiberglass and pinned down in the 4 corners. So, Butch jumps in, does the burnout thing, and runs it on down the track. On the trip, the hood lifts up uniformly, gets sucked into the draft above the car and levitated behind the car slightly as Butch was letting off – the hood touched down lightly on the asphalt behind the car and came sliding to a gentle stop – no damage to the car or the hood. Lesson learned – always remember to check your hood pins before launching vehicle!
Another story. Back when we did the downtown Kittanning car show on Saturday and the Cruise in the park on Sunday, Denny had his dad’s Airflow in town for the Saturday show and then brought the Hemi Roadrunner to the cruise the next day. The Roadrunner was on the grass in the park along the river and I observed two young fellows looking it over closely. One said to the other, “Man would I like to have this car to restore.” I couldn’t help myself – I broke into the conversation and I said, “Guys, you need to understand that there are some cars, because of their history, that need to be exempt from restoration consideration - this is one of them. Leave it as it is. Do you see that list of win tags from the Newbie drag strip? That’s part of the history of this car – it ruled the drag strip for years.”
Again. In a conversation with Denny about the new Hemi’s. “So Denny, what do you think about the return of the Hemi?” “Humph! Have you studied anything about them? Powdered metallurgy rods! How are they going to hold up to hot rodding? There’s going to be some real aftermarket forged hot rodding pieces needed if these things really catch on.”
Denny’s dad died tragically on the farm and Denny never fully recovered from that loss. He was very hurt in the loss of his dad.
In recent years, Denny found a lot of comfort in the Kit-Han-Ne Car Club. He became the club DJ by responding to a request for anyone that had some sound equipment and would be willing to help the club with some music. So Denny started out with some basic equipment, and then he’d upgrade, and upgrade, and upgrade – just like he did with his race cars. His final version was some mega-amps setup with 24 heavy speakers that would break glass in buildings if he wanted it to. Typically, for cruises at the Cadet that had a threat of rain, Denny would load part of his equipment into the Mercury and come on in to set up if it was dry enough. If it was a beautiful day, like the May 2009 Cadet Cruise was, Denny would have it all with him – the truck, trailer, Hemi Roadrunner, and DJ equipment. His greatest test was this year’s dry event, the May cruise. I got there early to help him unload and set up. I said, “Denny, how many speakers do you want out? He said, “All 24. We’re gonna rock the house tonight!” So, I drug out 24 75 pound speakers and set them up per his instructions. I was sweating and Denny was smiling kind of devilishly. And so, he did rock the house that evening – his grand slam of DJ’ing.
No way would I have ever thought that was to be Denny’s last cruise and big DJ hurrah. The June cruise was rained out, but Denny was there as always, with the Mercury and some of the equipment. The equipment remained in the car and Denny remained in the Cadet, at “his” seat at the counter. That was the last time I saw Denny alive – he was at the counter with Ernie Luke and George was buzzing around looking at the rain clouds. Denny missed the club meeting the following Wednesday – he was typically fashionably late, but he didn’t miss meetings – this one he missed.
Can’t say much more – we’ll really miss a great car guy with a great reputation. Hope there’s a hemi in heaven for him to work on. May he work on it in peace. God bless a good friend.
19 September 2012
Our thanks to all at the Cadet Restaurant and the KIT-HAN-NE car club for inviting my friends and I to your last get together of the 2012 season. The warmth and hospitality of everyone at the Cadet is so very much appreciated by us all. We really enjoyed meeting with everyone and only regret we did not get to spend more time with each and everyone who welcomed us. We'll be sure to do it again next year OK.
My friends put in an extraordinary effort to get Denny Thomas' car back in good condition. I'm sure your long time friend, "Hemi Denny" is looking down and smiling!
Ted Brine (Road Runner)
Mark Becker & son Bob (06 Roush blown Mustang)
Ed Tysarczyk (71 gold Nova)
Ralph Verrico (65 red Buick Skylark)
Jim Kramer - (Kramer Automotive - Butler)