Put Away Wet
Henry "Hank" Wendt was a blue-collar guy with a black-and-white-checkered dream. The 20-something Pennsylvania native worked days as a union pipefitter in and around the greater Philadelphia area, but spent his evenings hanging out with his gearhead best buds at Chuck's Flying "A" gas station in nearby Swarthmore. Henry was an up-and-coming racer, and he had his sights set on one day driving a "world-beater" in the NHRA Nationals.
Hank was a driven young man with a burning need for speed and had a major stash of cash on hand—a sum he saved pulling double-time at his day job. What do you suppose he did with it? He blew his life savings on the year's hottest ride: a brand-new 1963 Corvette.
The new Corvette was certainly a site to behold. Loaded with a potent 327/four-barrel powerplant and a four-speed, the car was an absolute performer on the street, especially when Hank leveraged his ample 6-foot, 6-inch frame against the right pedal. He drove the Vette as both a commuter car and local street fighter, but then decided going fast around town just wasn't enough. He needed more.
In late 1963, Hank wheeled the Vette into an open bay at Chuck's shop. His good friends—Jim "Needles" Bingham, who ran a dual-quad '57 Vette; Wayne Hoch, and his 265ci '55; and a young start-up artist named George Hignutt, who ran around town in a 283-motivated '55—were all present. The crew had met to witness the transformation of his beautiful new roadster into a fully decked, quarter-mile pavement-pounder. Hank wanted to go "snake hunting" and the '63 was to be his own personal "Cobra Killer."
Hank took out a handsaw and started hacking away at the perimeter of the stock wheelwells—fiberglass shards and dust filling the air. A pair of Halibrand 16-inch mags shod in big piecrust slicks found their way to the back axle. Hank then cut a passage for the downpipe on his custom roll bar, using all the ingenuity mustered from his pipefitting days. The boys were floored by Hank's techniques, as he showed no bias to the beauty of the stock Corvette.
A custom fuel cut-off was installed in the passenger-side front wheelwell and is activated by a hand-pushed rod underneath the dash. World War IIera seat harnesses were added for a bit of safety. The windshield was removed and replaced with a small Plexiglas wind deflector mounted in the windshield channel in front of the driver. Hank then pulled out his saw and cut into the Corvette's stock hood to clear the blower's girth and extra height.
From there Hank designed and executed his own scoop to cover the supercharger. It's here we see that Hank was truly a function-over-form kind of guy; the rudimentary and bulbous hoodscoop did its job, but not with style. For Hank it didn't have to be pretty, it just had to work—the mark of a true hot rodder.
George was called upon to letter the car and paint a graphic on the rear. "I designed it from photos," George said. "The mongoose is the only animal that can kill a cobra, so Henry thought it would be cool to have that on the back of his Corvette. It was painted in the gas-station bay using enamel while he was fitting the blower," George continued. "I also did all the lettering on the car."
The Corvette emerged from the shop christened "Chuck's Flying Ray" and was soon brought to nearby Atco Raceway for shakedown runs. The spring and early summer were spent getting the bugs out and tweaking the car. But Hank had another issue: his height. He decided to move the gas pedal to the passenger-side floor so he could fit in the car more comfortably. He used the now-unneeded clutch pedal to double the size of his brake pedal, welding a metal extension between the two.
All accounts say Hank went to the Nationals in Indy in 1964, though it's known that the Ray had issues. After running poorly, the car was brought back to Chuck's shop, where the motor was torn down and rebuilt. The last stop for the Corvette was Hank's personal garage, and it's possible this was the last time the car saw daylight for the next 50 years.
Though the Corvette was put away for safekeeping, Hank wasn't through with racing. He was enthralled with speed and competition, and starting in 1966, the young gun became involved with high-performance race boats. Hank became a constant in and around the boat scene as an owner, driver, and mechanic.
Hank met Mike Conte, a young, brash driver, in 1972 while he was racing a Jersey Speed Skiff (a small inboard two-seater runabout). Hank was running a potent SK boat (ski racing runabout) armed with a destroked Chevy big-block engine. In just a few short years, Hank became a legend on the circuit, not only for his driving and mechanical skills but also for cheating death several times on the water.
Mike and Hank soon started working together, and Mike's driving steadily improved and was soon at the top of his class. The two teamed up in 1982, running an SK boat owned by Fred Perkins based out of Delran, New Jersey. The one-two punch of Mike driving and Hank as head mechanic scored them a national championship in 1985, setting a class record along the way.
Mike was into fast boats and fast cars. Though many muscle cars found their way into his garage over the years, Corvettes were and still are his all-time favorite. Hank said he had the '63 stashed away in a garage in southern Pennsylvania, but somehow the two never visited the car together. They did, however, attend several major Corvette gatherings in Carlisle over the years, checking out the scene and scouting parts, but Hank's "Cobra Killer" was still just a legend to Mike. It was a phantom hot rod in every sense of the word.
Hank continued to be part of the SK scene over the years, rubbing shoulders with big-time racers and engine builders like Bernie Agaman (the "Bayonne Missile") and Ralph Truppi and Tommy Kling of TK Performance in Green Brook, New Jersey. Hank thoroughly enjoyed working with modified engines and got great thrills building competitive powerplants for the race series.
Hank's health started fading slowly over the years, and he passed away in 2013 at 71. At his service, Mike eulogized Hank and recited a quote from Bruce Springsteen's "Terry's Song": "They say you can't take it with you, but I think that they're wrong 'cause all I know is I woke up this morning, and something big was gone."
Yes, Hank was that kind of guy: a big, gentle giant who was loved by all lucky enough to witness his huge heart and larger-than-life persona. He made a lot of friends on the Jersey waterfront and his involvement in the performance-boat scene has been sorely missed by all.
Mike kept in touch with Hank's wife, Peggy, after his death. One day she mentioned someone was interested in buying Hank's old Corvette—the one no one, including Peggy, had ever laid eyes on. Mike had forgotten about the Chevy over the years, said he would be interested in buying it from her. A deal was struck sight unseen.
Good friend Trevor Kirsh, a young motorhead, speed-skiff freak, and car aficionado who watched Mike and Hank race since he was seven years old, came in as a partner with Mike. Trevor had the space available and was interested in keeping Hank's car amongst friends. Now the twosome was ready to finally see what Hank had talked about over the years.
The day finally arrived for Trevor and Mike to see the phantom Corvette for the first time. The door was opened, and right there sat Chuck's Flying Ray, resting the way Hank had left her more than 50 years earlier, except covered in decades of dirt and peppered with raccoon feces. It looked like hell, but it was the Holy Grail to these two. Mike could just picture big ol' Hank sitting behind the wheel, stretched out across the front two seats, manhandling the spirited Corvette down the track.
The boys came back the next day to extract the car, which rolled freely onto the flatbed. Back at Trevor's, the car was scrutinized by a selected group of local hot rodders. This time capsule of mid-1960s ingenuity was a big hit with the old timers who remember how it was to build on a budget.
Today, the car is in good hands with Mike and Trevor and will be kept in posterity just the way Hank built it. It's a testament to the way it was done back then—when a kid had a few dollars and a dream to build a car not for show but for speed. Chuck's Flying Ray is one of those great cars, built by one of those great guys.