John Smith Zink, the no-nonsense young man who stood Daytona Beach, Fla. on its ear the other day in his first flyer at NASCAR's Speed Weeks, meets a stranger with unwavering concentration. He pays keen attention with an alert mind and steady gray eyes. If the occasion seems to call for it, he writes down the stranger's name and gives him his calling card—a pocketknife with the inscription "John Zink Co., Tulsa, Okla."
The John Zink Company, manufacturer of industrial burners and consultant on air pollution, is headed by his father, John Steele Zink. John Smith, or Jack, Zink is vice-president, but it is not only as a businessman that he is making a name for himself these days.
At 28 Zink is the accredited boy wonder of the Indianapolis Speedway. He has been taking cars to the "500" since 1950, when he was 21. Last year Pat Flaherty won the "500" in a Zink car; the late Bob Sweikert was champion of the Brickyard for Zink in 1955.
Zink and his mechanics drove nonstop from Tulsa to Daytona Beach. As befits a man who made straight A's in calculus, he shunned the garish lights of Atlantic Avenue and the party-happy Speed Weeks' crowd, lived in a plain kitchenette apartment and fussed over his cars night and day.
He brought two Pontiacs—one with a passenger-car chassis for the beach trials and one for the Grand National stock-car race. Zink had two engines for the passenger car. One was a 400-hp, fuel-injection model that he had intended to run on racing alcohol in the experimental class. Like some other contestants, he discovered too late that alcohol was not permitted; the car did 160 mph in a practice run on gasoline, but "pinging" commenced and a hole was burned in a piston.
Zink pulled that engine, replaced it with a superbly tuned 317-hp stock engine and all but blew the heralded Chrysler 300-C off the beach. (The Chryslers had reached 145 mph at the proving ground, but, lacking the tuning perfection that is imperative at the beach and running with what proved to be the wrong gear ratios, failed to surpass Zink's 136-mph top-speed average. A 300-C had the fastest average when Zink's car was disqualified on what he considered a technicality, but it was a hollow victory.) Zink's stock car crashed after displaying early speed.
(The USAC, in whose events Zink customarily competes, was not happy about his Daytona NASCAR adventure. NASCAR events are considered "outlaw" activities by USAC, which sanctions, among other things, the "500." Zink may draw a fine and temporary suspension.)
THE INEVITABLE MODEL T
Jack Zink has been confounding his elders in the automotive arena ever since he was given a Model T Ford dump truck to play with at the age of 7. He took it apart and put it together over and over again, worked the dump bed (but not the useless engine), and was disconsolate when his mother finally gave the beloved truck away.
She had envisioned a more graceful leisure for her son. "Mother tried to make me do something respectable, like playing the piano," says Zink. "They had to whip me to make me take the lessons, but I got pretty good at it. I guess some boys who have all the advantages just don't go straight."
Zink could not keep away from the fascinating machinery of the motoring world. He built a car for himself that was powered by a lawn-mower motor, was seduced by racing at his first sight of a midget-car event, and placed third in the All-American Soap Box Derby at 12. (If you cherish any illusions about the Derby as a schoolboy jamboree, do not talk to Zink. "All the guys that win have professional help," he says. "A lot of really scientific information goes into that. You have to true the wheels and break in the bearings and get the proper streamlining.")
Work in his father's plant and extracurricular motorcycle racing did not keep Zink from achieving a mechanical engineering degree at Oklahoma A&M and membership in Pi Tau Sigma, the equivalent of Phi Beta Kappa. In 1950 he began his bold and resolute attack on the "500."
His Indianapolis record reads like this: 1950, fourth with the late Cecil Green driving; 1951, Cecil Green leading when a piston broke; 1952, seventh with Jimmy Reece driving; 1953, Driver Jerry Hoyt spun out on the fourth lap; 1954, Driver Gene Hartley retired with a burned-out clutch; 1955, Sweikert won; 1956, Flaherty won.
Meanwhile, Zink campaigned other cars and drove a race or two himself, out of range of parental disapproval.
One of Zink's most rewarding aptitudes is his eye for gifted mechanics. A. J. Watson, the man who built his two winning Indianapolis cars, may well be the best in the country.
Watson has his hands deep in a new machine for 1957, a car that should make big Troy Ruttman one of the "500" favorites from the outset. "We'll have a few improvements," says Zink. "Nothing radical; we're not going to run it upside down or anything like that. Everybody knows pretty well what everybody else is doing." Newcomer Jud Larson will drive the old Flaherty car.
But wait till next year. Another talented Zink mechanic named Bob De Bisschop is building a brand-new Indianapolis engine in the well-equipped Tulsa shop.
"We're aiming for a conservative 450 hp—an engine that will stay together at 450 hp. Tops for the Offen-hausers now is 360 to 375."
No one will have to whip Jack Zink to be sure that engine will sing.