Rocketing to the write stuff |

Rocketing to the write stuff

AP photoAt last weekend's Mile High National in Denver, almost every car was using some of Hank Manley's Manley Performance Products.

VAIL ” Hank Manley knows the answer to the great American question: “How fast does it go?”

His reply? “Just a little bit faster.”

Manley is one of those great American success stories possible only in the country that invented rock ‘n’ roll and the V8 engine.

Manley founded Manley Performance Products 40 years ago in Lakewood, N.J., with a military surplus lathe and mill. He traveled from race track to race track hawking pistons, pushrods and anything else he could think of that would make a race car go faster. At last weekend’s NHRA Mile High Nationals in Denver, almost every car was using his products, and they were all going just a little bit faster.

These days he can walk through the pit area of just about any race track doing a car count ” the number of cars with Manley Performance Products in their engines. It’ll be just about all of them.

The automobile performance-enhancement business is not complicated.

“We made parts, we sold parts,” Manley said. “Everyone has the same goal: Go fast and don’t break. And they all say the same thing: ‘We won last week. Now make me another part just like it, but make it lighter. And remember it can’t break.'”

He was around when Big Daddy Don Garlits broke 200 mph in a top fuel dragster for the first time.

“All kinds of engineers insisted that the aerodynamics were all wrong and an engine could not be made powerful enough to make a car go 200 mph,” Manley said, with the confident tone of a man who helped prove them wrong. “Now they’re going 300 mph and generating thousands of horsepower.”

He was also around when Garlit’s engine blew up and cut off part of his foot.

“He thought that, maybe, having the engine in front of you under your feet might not be a great idea, so he put it in the back,” Manley said. “That’s how everything’s built now.”

He gave much of his adult life and some of his hearing to the automobile performance industry. He stepped back a few years ago, turning the business over to his son because, frankly, he has quieter stuff he wants to do.

The Manley Performance Products business is still in Lakewood. These days Manley’s back and forth between Cordillera and the Caribbean. He and Paul McCartney are both 64 years old, and they both are lucky enough to be healthy, financially comfortable and aging gracefully. And they both get to do pretty much what they want.

“When I left I told my son that I’d rowed that boat for 34 years,” Manley said. “That’s plenty for anyone.”

Not that he has a natural aptitude for inactivity. He doesn’t.

He built his own boat, a 70-footer that slices through the water at 55 mph. They were on their way back from Bimini, motoring by floating bales of marijuana all worth more than the gross national product of some Third World countries, when a huge boat with a massive outboard motor started bearing down on them, apparently determined to intercept them.

“I thought it might be time to get a weapon from below,” Manley said.

It turned out to be a DEA boat with a tri-engine outboard setup. It seems the agents weren’t accustomed to seeing boats go as fast as Manley’s.

For Manley, life is contrast, back and forth between Cordillera and the Caribbean, race tracks with their thundering cars and the big blue where the only noise you hear is what you make. From noise to novels.

He played hockey in college ” he graduated in 1965 when muscle cars were beginning to come into their own and built his business along with that industry ” and started skiing eight years ago. They rented houses around the area, trying it on for size, until they found the right house in the right neighborhood and put down roots.

Good writers ” and Manley is a good writer ” write about what they know about. Manley knows about the Caribbean and some of the unseemly characters who hide there.

He has written four novels, all set in the Caribbean: “Bahama Snow,” “Bahama Payback,” “Bahama Reckoning” and “Coral Cemetery.” He spent some time on a long-line boat ” a commercial fishing vessel that will drag as much as 30 miles of net behind it ” trying to get to the bottom of an argument between commercial fishermen and sport fishermen about who was responsible for the plummeting number of bill fish.

It’s both, as it happens, which he chronicled in his book “Beyond the Green Water.”

He and his wife set about catching 1,000 bill fish ” marlins, sailfish and the like ” in a year. They finished with 1,111, all released alive and well back into the sea. That experience became the book “Grand Quest.”

“Now virtually all billfish are released,” Manley said. “If you want one, you just call the taxidermist and tell him what size.”

Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado

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