Kirk F. White took a circuitous route to his successful classic car business in Philadelphia, entering the workforce earlier than most young men after his father passed away when he was a pre-teen. Because he had to help keep the family afloat financially, he went to work as a gofer in a summer camp for $30 to be paid at the end of the summer! As luck would have it, his mother rented out one bedroom of their three-bedroom home to a Mr. John Jewell, who introduced Kirk to automobiles and the racing of them. Among his early haunts was the daunting Langhorne Speedway not far from his home, and eventually Kirk moved into car sales and worked his way up to owning his own dealership. Among his associates in the business was Roger Penske, who subsequently became his partner in several ventures that took him as far from home as Le Mans in France. Today, his motorsports life has slowed down a bit and its focus has turned toward collecting automobile memorabilia. VR contributing editor John R. Wright recently engaged White in conversation to discuss his life in the sport.
Despite enjoying a happy childhood, didn’t your life change completely after your father died in 1949?
White: I was devastated. Our family was destitute as my father was the main breadwinner, but my mother rose to the occasion and my sister and I survived. However, my mother had to rent out one bedroom of our three-bedroom house.
Could you give us an encapsulated version of how that happened, and how it affected your life then and in the future?
White: I was 11-years old and one day a gentleman appeared at the front door. His name was John Jewell, and it turned out he was a prince of a guy. He was one of the fellows who got me interested in cars. It was a Saturday, and for a change I didn’t have a million chores. John asked me if I would like to go to the midget auto races at Hatfield Raceway. I had only been to one race before, the first 150-mile NASCAR stock car race at Daytona. The races at Hatfield were in the evening on the Montgomery County Fairgrounds. Virtually as my feet hit the ground, my life changed forever. I’ll never forget the glorious, staccato shrieks of the exhausts of the Offies and the Ford V8-60s bellowing out over the fences. The drivers I saw were Bill Schindler—in the #2 Caruso Offy, Len Duncan, Ted Tappet, Tony Romit and a host of others. Yes, a switch turned on and I never turned it back off.
The first Christmas after your Dad’s death was also pivotal in certain ways. Can you tell us about that?
White: My sister had come home for Christmas and it seemed all the attention of the family was focused on her. I had gone out with my meager savings of $5.63 and had bought her a complete set of aluminum pots and pans. I got socks, handkerchiefs, a shirt, a sweater. But then my mother told me there was one more gift for me behind the tree. It was a Cox Thimble Drome Special, a gas engine tether-racing car! The complete set up. Bright red racing car, engine, tether setup, fuel, instructions, everything! My Dad had worked at Leeds and Northrup, and my father’s friends got together and purchased it for me. A family friend brought it over on Christmas Eve. I raced it in my basement and got pretty good at it.
Didn’t you get so good you won a championship?
White: In the late summer of 1950, I went to the Philadelphia Sportsman Show. I entered the Thimble Drome race with a car provided by the organizers. I had a technique of lying on my back to race the car and using that technique I was faster than the other entrants. The prize I won was a yellow certificate and a brand new Cox Thimble Drome Champion in brilliant yellow over red!