LOWELL | With wraparound headphones on and a National Hot Rod Association cap atop his head, 85-year-old Ken Hirata talks up a vendor before switching to a conversation with a Lake County planner on expanding one of his buildings immediately west of Lowell.
Hirata is owner of Hirata's Lowell Body Shop, Lowell Automotive and Radiator, Hirata's Motorsports and Hammer'd, with his wife Chiyo, 84, and son David.
In March, Hirata was inducted into the NHRA Hall of Fame after receiving the NHRA's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003.
David Hirata, a nitromethane dragster racer on the national circuit, said of his father's most recent honor, "This is the biggest thing in racing you can get."
Ken Hirata grew up on a truck farm in rural Stockton, Calif., where his parents, Japanese by birth, raised tomatoes to sell to Del Monte and Heinz and where, as a young teen, he dreamed of owning a gas station and working on cars.
"I wanted to build cars and go fast. I wanted speed," Hirata said.
It was the early 1940s. The American love affair with cars was in high gear, but Hirata's dream detoured when Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941. He and his family were moved to an internment camp in Arizona where he would remain for two years before catching a train for Cleveland and a new life at age 16.
"My dad would say, 'The U.S. government is doing what they feel is right to protect their country,'" Hirata recalled.
Still, Hirata's family lost their land and their possessions. They never went back.
In Cleveland, Hirata got his first car, started street drag racing, met Chiyo and was drafted into the U.S. Army. Like many couples, they married before he went overseas. He also built a couple of cars before leaving. "I got pretty good at it," he said.
"In 1950, Korea broke out. I spent two years there," Hirata said.
In basic training, Hirata and Bob Kuiper, the father of Lowell Councilman Phillip Kuiper, became fast friends.
An invitation to move to Lowell was extended and accepted in 1956. "Bob said his father-in-law ran a dealership and a three-car body shop garage that was vacant," Hirata said. "I was still in my 20s ... Joanne was 3-years-old and Mimi was three months."
Hirata said Chiyo wondered whether anyone in Lowell had ever seen a Japanese-American, but she supported his decision as she always did. "She's a great lady," he said.
Hirata quickly set up his body shop, then joined American Legion Post 101 and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6841.
"I worked seven days a week, usually 12 or 13 hours for five of them," Hirata said. "I didn't know if I could make it. I hung in there, and by the 10th month, I thought I'd be OK," he said.
The second year, he bought the building and lot. By year five, he had put on an addition.
Just two years later, Hirata won the 1963 U.S. National Drag Racing Championship. "It's the equivalent of the Super Bowl in football," he said.
In 1965, Hirata won the Nationals a second time and bought the property where the family businesses are today.
Since then, the buildings there have been added to eight times.
Hirata sold his winning car in 1969 to tend to his business. But, then, he said, "I got bored, so in 1972 I got a top fuel car."
He went on to qualify for the top fuel world finals in Amarillo, Texas, in 1973.
After selling that car a year later, he and a friend built the Lowell home the Hiratas live in today. "With the house done, I was bored and started playing golf," he said.
Soon, though, Hirata was back racing, this time as part of his son's racing team.
"He races a nitromethane-burning injected dragster," he said of David, proudly.
Like his father, David Hirata is a multiple national racing champion.
And the beat goes on.