Remembering Alice Hanks, 1925 – 2021

Alice Hanks was the living link to the IndyCar’s post-war era, a bridge to its glorious past where she and her husband, 1957 Indy 500 winner Sam Hanks, became the sport’s first celebrated couple.

Subsequent to Mr. Hanks’ death in 1994, Mrs. Hanks’ passion for IndyCar remained undiminished as she continued to make annual trips to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where her evangelizing and educational efforts with each new generation of drivers, crew members, and team owners made permanent impressions.

On Friday, October 1, Mrs. Hanks, often hailed as ‘The First Lady of Racing,’ the great orator of IndyCar’s yesteryear, died at the age of 95.

“It’s a real shame that Alice Hanks passed away,” four-time Indy winner A.J. Foyt told RACER. “She was a really nice lady. She and my wife, Lucy, were good friends, too. Her husband, Sam Hanks, won Indy and was a good driver. Alice never seemed to age. She was just as beautiful now as she was when Sam won the Indy 500. I had good memories with them.”

Born in 1925 in LuVerne, Iowa, the daughter of William and Molly Hedrick was spirited from her earliest days. With the onset of World War II coinciding with her final years of high school, she graduated, earned a secretarial degree at the College of Business in Des Moines and promptly moved to Dayton, Ohio, where the 18-year-old civilian supported the war effort at Wright-Patterson US Army Air Corp Base.

There she would meet an airplane engine mechanic by the name of Sam Hanks, and the two married in 1947. Love and devotion would guide the rest of their intertwined lives.

Widely recognized as one of the all-time greats of American short track racing, Mr. Hanks maintained a barnstorming lifestyle before and after the war as he — and his new wife — were in constant motion, towing his race cars throughout the country to event after event. It was here, with Mrs. Hanks at his side, where she defied antiquated gender beliefs that women should stay well removed from motor racing.

Despite the strict enforcement of patriarchal rules that prevented women from being untended by a male overseer, and with restrictions that barred women from being on pit lane, Mrs. Hanks was always there, even when she was forced to spectate from the grandstands, before resuming their life on the road. With great dignity, Mrs. Hanks weathered the inequalities of the era without allowing the idiocy to dampen her innate enthusiasm for the sport.

A fixture in the sport, Mrs. Hanks’ impact traces back to the 1940’s. Image courtesy of Steve Shunck

All the while, she amassed encyclopedic knowledge of open-wheel racing and forged deep friendships with the stars who made the Indy 500 a raging success from the late 1940s onwards.

“Alice was an ambassador of the sport to so many,” said her longtime friend Steve Shunck. “With her youthful and charming personality, along with her knowledge of the Indy 500 and its personalities, she tied the 1940’s to the 2010’s like very few could. For years she made the pilgrimage to IMS with her husband Sam, and after his passing she kept coming back because she loved Indy the people. She had a strong circle of friends, including past 500 winners and drivers and winner’s wives. She truly embraced the traditions and history of the race.”

A young Italian immigrant and his brother got to see Mr. Hanks, the defending Indy 500 winner, in action upon their first trip to the Speedway. Years later, as his career took flight, the Hanks would welcome him like an extended family member.

“No question, there’s something very special there between us, and she knew all this, of course; that’s why every year we gravitated to each other with a big embrace,” said Mario Andretti. “In 1958, 18 years of age, I was in this country three years. That’s when my uncle Louie took Aldo and I to Indianapolis. We sat on the second row, Turn 4, to watch Sam. He’d won Indianapolis and later when we met, I communicated all that to both of them about how much influence they made with me.

“Sam passed away before I came out of the cockpit in 1994, but every year, we would chat about the times back then, right to the very end with her. We had a very special relationship, and she’s one of the grand ladies of our sport that graced us for our lifetime.”

Like Mrs. Hanks’ wide array of friends who are mourning her loss, Andretti was saddened to learn of her passing and offered an appreciation for her tireless efforts to support IndyCar racing and pass its history onto new caretakers. She was there, well before the Marios and the AJs set foot inside IMS, setting an example and making an impact of her own that would, in time, help its leaders to embrace the more modern and inclusive views that followed.

“In Indianapolis, next to [former IMS owner] Tony Hulman, they were the movers and shakers in the series, very much part of the family, and throughout, even after Sam was gone, she certainly carried their weight,” the 1969 Indy 500 winner said.

“Alice was in everything, all the civic events, you know, everything that was going on, and she represented the sport is such an elegant way. We will miss her greatly.”