FAST EDDIE, the Greatest Driver You’ve Never Heard of

Championship winning Crew Chief Clint Brawner said of Ed Elisian: “I always liked him. He worked hard and had a great, if uncontrolled, desire to be a race car driver.” Author Ross R. Olney referred to him as: “Another Vukie…Almost. He only lacked a little of the skill and judgment of the great Bill Vukovich.” And Vukie himself had sung the praises of his fellow driver before Elisian arrived in the Midwest. He may in fact, have set the bar too high.

Elisian was born in Oakland, CA and began his racing career in the late 1940’s. He drove Hardtops at Contra Costa Stadium and rapidly found his way into the popular Midgets. In 1951 he won Bay Cities Racing Association features in the indoor series driving for Bob Marchel and in ’52 finished fourth in BCRA points. It was during this time that Elisian became acquainted with Bill Vukovich whom had nearly won Indianapolis in his sophomore appearance. The two became fast friends in the Midget ranks and Vukie did his best to contact Elisian with Big Car rides.

In 1953 Elisian made his first Big Car start at high banked Dayton, Ohio while Vukovich dominated the Indy 500. Driving a state-of- the- art Kurtis roadster, Vukie qualified on the pole and led all but five laps of the hottest race on record. Finally, the following year, Elisian was able to join his mentor in Indianapolis. Vukie would again pilot the ’53 winning car while Elisian secured a ride in a solid Stevens’s dirt car owned by H.A. Chapman. Vukovich struggled in qualifying and didn’t make the race until the third day. He would start from the nineteenth slot while his protégé stormed from the final row. In the race Vukovich paced himself, finally taking over the lead at the halfway point and won going away. Rookie Elisian did a respectable job, bringing his mount home eighteenth, and six laps behind the leader. Away from the Speedway, Elisian was making a decent living. He won a Big Car race at Terre Haute and finished ninth in AAA Midwest points.

1955 was looking promising for the duo; defending Champion Vukovich had a new Kurtis roadster for the 500 which he qualified fifth while Elisian switched teams and put his Kurtis in the twenty ninth position. When the starter’s flag dropped, Vukovich forged his way into the lead and appeared to be on his way to an unprecedented third victory. Then on the fifty seventh lap some back markers got together and tagged Vukie as he attempted to squeak by. The contact put him into and over the guardrail, crashing in flames. Seeing this Elisian intentionally spun his car, unbuckled and attempted to save his friend from the burning wreck. Sadly his actions were in vain as Vukovich had fractured his skull in the initial impact. Elisian was led from crash scene sobbing and was too distraught to resume racing.

With the demise of his closest friend, Elisian became a bit of a lost soul. The sullen driver soldiered on in 1956 qualifying his first proper roadster fourteenth at Indy but was out at 160 laps. He fared better in the short track events, finishing sixth in AAA standings. In ’57 he procured his best ride to date driving for Lee Elkins and put the McNamara Special seventh on the grid but broke a timing gear at fifty one laps. On the short tracks he improved by one position in the AAA (now USAC) rankings and again was victorious at Terre Haute.

In 1958 it appeared that Elisian’s period of mourning had ended. He secured the seat in Jack Zink’s new roadster and a rivalry developed between him and Dick Rathmann who had taken over the McNamara ride. Fast lap of the month was passed back and forth between the two with Rathmann ultimately claiming the pole. The feud continued after the drop of the green flag as neither driver was willing to lift at the end of the back straightaway. This resulted in a collision that started a chain reaction involving more than half the field. In the end, Elisian, Rathmann and six other cars were eliminated and crowd favorite Pat O’Conner was dead.

Though Elisian wasn’t any more responsible than Rathmann, the incident was more or less pinned on him. The fact that he was unpopular among his fellow drivers certainly didn’t help. Without his advocate Vukovich to defend him, Elisian’s life began to spiral downward. He continued to perform well on short tracks but missed the ’59 500 over a suspension that involved gambling debts and bad checks.

Before ever having reached his full potential as a driver, Elisian crashed to his death on the Milwaukie Mile on August 30th 1959. He was thirty two years old and had never married. Unfortunately other than his immediate family, there were few to mourn him.

5 Things We Don’t Need

The late standup comic, George Carlin used to practice what he called “Observational Humor.” If he observed something that bugged him, he might call our attention to it and proclaim that it needed to cease. One example was bald guys that grew their hair out in the back and wore it in a ponytail. It bugged Carlin. He said it was” something we didn’t need “and wasn’t going to be tolerated any longer.

In the spirit of George Carlin and with the swap meet, car show and cruise in season back upon us, here is my version of 5 Things We Don’t Need.

Baseball caps have always been part of car culture and it makes sense to protect your noggin if you’re planning to spend your day out of doors. What doesn’t make sense is to wear a visor with a prickly wig attached. When did these things first show up-more than a decade ago? I’m trying to remember if the first one I saw evoked a smile. I’m quite certain that the second one, did not. I get that they’re a goof, meant to be humorous but it’s a joke that is only funny the first time you see it. By now we’ve all seen it. I think Carlin would agree that visors with prickly wigs attached should go away. It’s a joke that lost its punch years ago.

Muscle shirts, tanks or any form fitting shirts without sleeves seem to be popular with car guys. Unfortunately, I don’t think most guys know whether they look good in them or not. In a recent Melissa McCarthy movie the joke was made: “Only guys with muscles should wear muscle shirts” and I think she may be on to something. A burly guy I called “Big Dog” used to wear them to the races all the time. When I bought a sleeveless shirt that had vintage sprint cars on it, my daughter called me “Little Dog” every time I wore it. Eventually I got the message. If you want an honest assessment of how you look in your muscle shirt, ask your teenage daughter.

Do you know what a “Time Out” is? A Time Out is a homemade doll of a two or three-year-old standing with its face concealed in shame. I must believe that women make these…only an adoring mother would find anything cute about a pouting tot. But the bigger question is how did these dolls find their way to car shows and cruise ins to begin with? Somehow, they became a fairly common sight in years past but I believe they are now on the decline. I say let’s outlaw them altogether. Then the question becomes: “How do you dispose of one?” My answer: Goodwill!

According to Wikipedia, oversized dice originated during World War II. Pilots hung them in the cockpit of their fighter planes displaying “seven pips” before a “sortie mission.” At a time when the mortality rate was high, anything that a soldier perceived gave him good luck was justified. Though their history is solid, somehow over time, enlarged dice lost their dignity. Tell me, when you see a set of flocked dayglow green dice hanging from a rearview mirror, do you think about bravery? I think oversized dice have become a tacky metaphor for hot rodding or nostalgia in general. In fact, I hadn’t even thought about fuzzy dice in years…and then I came across a whole table full at the “Mild to Wild” Show. They are for sure something we don’t need.

Lastly, there is Betty Boof. The character was created in 1930 by a contemporary of Walt Disney’s named Max Fleischer. As popular as Betty was, she was retired after nine years as the star of her own cartoons that appeared in theatres prior to the featured attraction. People grew bored with Betty because besides being cute, she didn’t really have much going on and her cartoons mostly consisted of her being chased around. It has been the merchandising of her likeness on everything from greeting cards to coffee cups that has kept Betty in the public eye ever since. At some point someone rendered her as fifties style car shop with roller skates on her feet and a tray in her hand. For some reason that image really resonated with people and she has been typecast as a waitress ever since. Evidently it is Betty the Car Hop that will forever be linked to hot rodders but at eighty nine she is overdue for retirement. It is time to give Betty a rest.

Mild to Wild Motorsports Swap Meet

It took guts for promoter Steve Moore to move his successful swap meet from Albany to Salem. Not only did he move the venue but he rescheduled a bit later in the year. The new February date conflicted with Puyallup, Washington’s Early Bird Swap Meet which has a fifty year history and Skagit Speedway’s Northwest Racer’s Swap Meet held at Burlington (WA) High School. In spite of the competition, Moore report that this year’s edition of the Mild to Wild Motorsports Swap Meet was his second highest attended show in its thirteen year run. Beyond that, all vendor booths were sold out and a waiting list existed that included another thirty seven vendors that unfortunately could not be accommodated. Efforts will be made to include all that wish to participate next year.

Why the boost in interest? Pairing the gathering with other automotive events; The Salem Roadster Show and the Salem Indoor Dirt Track Races, likely had something to do with it. The Roadster Show in fact, pooled advertising dollars with Moore and they co-promoted their events happening simultaneously in adjacent buildings. But both benefited by the scheduling of the short track racing held on the grounds as well. We talked to people that planned to attend multiple events. One swapper was heading to the Roadster Show just as soon as he finished making his rounds. One family of racers was camped at fairgrounds for the weekend. Dad had a booth at the swap meet and the kids were racing on dirt oval that night!

Speaking of racetracks, three that I know of were represented at the swap. Michael Short and Joel Imamura of Bar-S Motorsports were manning a large booth and letting patrons know that they will be operating Willamette Speedway this season. When asked if they were still operating a retail store in Albany, I was told that the store had been relocated to the racetrack in Lebanon and was open five days a week. Heather Boice, who has managed Cottage Grove Speedway for numerous seasons, had a table at the far end of Columbia Hall. If you wanted information about her venue, the Head Honcho (Honcha?) was front and center. Even River City Speedway (Saint Helens) had Representative Darrin Rye on hand, passing out schedules and answering questions.

As far as the merchandise offered, this swap remains very Stock Car oriented. Mostly Late Model and Modified stuff but we did spy a Sprint Car or two. Regarding the quality of the used merch, it was all over the board (Why do people haul around used rubber?) or you could buy new- Besides Bar-S, Jeremy Shank of Left Coast Motorsportshad a boatload of stuff, William Drager of Drager Performance had a sizable booth and there were likely others.

As an added attraction, Moore sets up ramps and conducts valve cover races every year. He says people always show up with new entries but they’ve accumulated a pretty decent stable by now so anybody that wants to can play.

All in all, it’s a very upbeat gathering of enthusiasts and along with the swapping some hi-jinx and tom foolery ensues.

Spinning the Big Wheel

Parnelli Jones was considered one of the “Big Wheels” at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He had arrived on the scene in 1961 and shared Rookie of the Year honors with Bobby Marshman after an inspired performance. In 1962 he broke the 150 mph barrier, qualifying J.C. Agajanian’s roadster in the pole position and forfeited a commanding lead after losing his brakes. In only his third start, Jones again captured the pole and went on to win the 500 stopping the foreign invasion (Team Lotus) dead in their tracks.

In what would turn out to be his final Memorial Day classic (1967), Jones was again the man to beat. His assigned steed was Andy Granatelli’s Turbo Car, the most technically advanced racecar to ever appear at Indianapolis. Legal to the letter but extremely controversial, Jones’ turbine powered, four wheel drive rocket ship was a dark horse. There had simply been no precedent. Turbines had always been eligible, but no one had ever qualified one. Adding to the mystique, Granatelli, Jones and everyone else involved with the race car, shrugged when asked about its capability. Their qualifying time was nothing spectacular but some found their ambivalence suspect…Perhaps they were saving what they knew until race day?

At the drop of the green flag, Jones laid his hand on the table. He chased the first two rows of qualifiers into turn one drifting high and powered around them. In the short chute he crisscrossed the track and devoured the leader Mario Andretti as they entered turn two. By the time he reached the start/finish line, Jones was already leading by a country mile and pulling away. At fifteen laps the Turbine was twelve seconds ahead of second place. Then at eighteen laps, it began to rain.

The 500 was postponed until the following day but when racing resumed, Jones’ domination continued.

Meanwhile after starting back in the twenty sixth position, a rookie from the NASCAR ranks was experiencing his first Indy car race. Lee Roy Yarbrough was well known down in Florida but here at the Brickyard, he was just another neophyte. He had a year old Vollstedt Ford to drive for seatbelt magnate Jim Robbins. It was a competitive car but Yarbrough spun in the opening laps and by now was just trying to keep pace with the field.

On the fifty second lap Jones swooped in on Yarbrough to put him yet another lap down. “My car runs so quiet, the other drivers can’t hear me coming,” Jones explained later. Nor could Yarbrough see him, evidently. Even if he could, he wouldn’t have been expecting the leader to dive underneath him (left wheels under the line) going into the turn. The racers touched wheels and began a graceful pirouette into the infield. The Turbine T-boned the Vollstedt briefly, then they slid together and separated. Amazingly, neither car was disabled, and both contestants were able to continue after a pit stop to change out their flat spotted tires.

Jones claimed that after the initial contact, the cars never touched again but photographs show damage to body panels on both racers after the incident. Was the damage merely cosmetic? We’ll never know.

The balance of Jones’ race is well documented. He continued to ride roughshod over the field until four laps from the finish when a six dollar bearing in the gearbox failed. Yarbrough soldiered on until he was involved in second incident, this time trying to avoid a spinning car. The crumpled Vollstedt was abandon in the infield with a total of eighty seven laps scored.

In Bill Libby’s biography “Parnelli” the incident was blamed entirely on Yarbrough but examination of the film tells a very different story. For his part, Jones never accepted any responsibility-then again, why would he? When you are a former 500 champion and a respected veteran, you think about your legacy. With everyone willing to point a finger at Yarbrough, it was prudent for Jones to keep his mouth shut.

NWDRA HI-PERFORMANCE AUTOMOTIVE SWAP MEET January 27, 2019

Does anyone stay home to watch the Pro Bowl? I mean, I enjoy pro football as much as the next guy but aren’t most of us ready for a break between the Playoffs and the Super Bowl? I think the answer is “yes” and that helps explain why the Northwest Drag Racing Association’s swap meet held the weekend prior to the Super Bowl, is always so well attended.

This year the club was celebrating their 43rd year- the inaugural having taken place way back in 1975. “The first (gathering) was held at Mount Hood Community College,” explained Event Spokespeople Andy Tabor and Lettie. “From there we moved to Canby Fairgrounds because we needed more room and from there we moved here because it was warmer!” (Heat is certainly a consideration when planning a mid-winter swap meet).

When asked what they were shopping for, two racers that had driven up from Roseburg responded that it was mostly a social event for them. “We don’t get too much time to shoot the breeze at the track,” they agreed. A massive fellow was pulling a wagon overstuffed with goodies like Santa’s sleigh. “My wife likes the flea market,” he stated. She had found a vintage game of Pick-Up-Stix and was over the moon. Sure enough, the offering at this gathering is diverse. Hardcore new and used engine components are plentiful as is gently used safety equipment ( I, myself purchased a used driving suit last year). But there is also a huge selection of non-racing items, hence the “flea market” reference.

When asked what else the organizers had planned for the coming year, they mentioned “The Classic”- a racing event they started at PIR then relocated to Woodburn. There are new events still being planned for the upcoming season so for more information call Lettie at (503) 644-5707.

A Breed of Parts

I first spotted “ ‘Ol Yeller II” in Viva Las Vegas. The “Special” stood out among a field of Corvettes, Jags and Cobras because it was something I couldn’t identify. What I didn’t discover until fifty years later, was that the same guy that built the car had choreographed all the racing scenes in the movie. His name was Max Balchowsky.

Balchowsky was born in Fairmont, Virginia in 1924 but migrated west to join his brother in business after WW II. In a garage in southern California he spotted his future wife “Ina” and together they established Hollywood Motors. By the early fifties the hot rod movement was reaching a full boil. Concurrently, the well-heeled were purchasing exotic foreign jobs and knowledgeable technicians were in demand. The Balchowsky’s shop became the veritable “Garage to the Stars” and soon was overflowing with Ferraris and Maserati’s. Road racing too was gaining in popularity and seemed like the next logical step for a serious enthusiast.

When Margaret Pritchard was killed racing a Special at Torrey Pines, the owner became disenchanted and sold his wreck to the Balchowskys. It was an ungainly brute based on a ’32 roadster and powered by a Buick Nailhead mill. The couple hammered out the body panels, gave it a piss-coat of lemon yellow paint and went racing. In comparison to the curvaceous exotics they were competing against, the Special was “a dog”. The Balchowskys couldn’t deny this so they decided to embrace it. Walt Disney Studios had a recent hit with their movie starring a yellow Labrador called “ ‘Ol Yeller” so they adopted that moniker.

“ ‘Ol Yeller I” had never been and never would be a great racecar but with it, the Balchowskys learned to race. Max learned chassis set ups and became a very capable driver. A genuine romance developed between he and the high revving, high torque, 401 cubic inch Buick engine. After several years of flogging around their rebuilt car, the Balchowskys were convinced that they could build something better.

This time they would start from scratch. Utilizing what they’d learned working on other people’s racers, they laid out the chassis using chalk marks on the garage floor. The car would utilize a lightweight tube frame. Parts and pieces came from this and that: a Studebaker rear-end, a Jaguar transmission, the upper A- arms were off an XK120, the lower were Pontiac. Cast off whitewall tires would be used not only for economy but because they were of a softer compound. For power there was never a question- their beloved Nailhead. By now it had been race tested for over five years. Other than some heating issues, it had been rock solid. The entire build took seven weeks and “ ‘Ol Yeller II” was ready for the 1959 season.

From the get-go, the new car was a front runner. Able to run with the best, the Balchowsky’s wondered if a professional pilot could put their creation in victory lane. They solicited the top road racers on the circuit: Carroll Shelby, Dan Gurney, Bob Bondurant, Billy Krause…evidently even Grand Prix ace Stirling Moss took a test drive in the car (on the street) that ended in his arrest! And the combination proved successful- in ’59 and 1960 many wins were achieved. But there was a new beast on the horizon- the mid-engined sports racer and ultimately it would prove superior to the front engine design.

The Balchowskys produced several more “ ‘Ol Yellers” but none exceeded the success of their original build. A longtime friend of the family, Ernie Nagamatsu owns the fully restored racer today and travels around globe showing the car and competing in vintage events. “ ‘Ol Yeller II” even appeared in the Pebble Beach Concours as the photos on the cover of last months’ Roddin’& Racin’ NW attest.

Roadmaster’s 20th Annual Cruise for Kids

It seems that the Roadmasters car club’s annual gathering is generally about the last cruise of the season, so I usually plan to attend. Even when we’re blessed with an Indian Summer, in the Pacific Northwest, the pleasant weather is bound to have ceased by Halloween.

Scheduling a cruise on the first Saturday of December is a crapshoot at best but—Hey! This is a Christmas themed affair so when else are you going to hold it? You get what you get when you plan an outdoor event in Vancouver, Washington on December 1st but I have to say, we lucked out this year. Saturday dawned cold yet clear and the droplets held off until early afternoon. Club president Art Wohlsein grabbed the microphone and finished passing out the homemade awards before anyone got wet.

It’s all for charity anyway with a truckload of new unwrapped toys and groceries going to the needy. The good folks that keep track of such things, report that contributions were up this year- not that last year was bad! This is a well-established gig with Benny’s hot rod /racing themed pizzeria providing the locale for the last thirteen meets. For added incentive, Benny’s prepares a special breakfast menu for attendees and kicks in some of their profits on the backside.

Eighty plus vehicles braved the cold to support the Cruise for Kids this year and it was a good mix of classics, retro rods, muscle cars and “what have you” (as Jack Corley might say!) When you procure your 2019 calendar, be sure to highlight the first Saturday of December. Just make sure those wipers are in good working order and pack a warm jacket. In all likelihood, you’re going to need them.

Auto Art

As I go about my business, making calls on various automotive oriented shops and attending select swap meets, I have noticed a trend. I am observing an increasing number of enthusiasts that have begun to create original objects of art. And they are now presenting them right alongside their other wares for viewing and possible purchase.

I’m not talking about shellacked river rocks with googly eyes or cute sayings but legitimate artwork created by real craftsmen. The objects themselves are as varied as conceivable- limited only by the imagination of their creator. Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about…

I stumbled across Donnie Talbert’s art in a combination tire salon/service garage located in Stayton, Oregon. After I commented on his coffee and end tables, a friend of Donnie’s suggested that I meet with him personally and made the arrangements. Talbert is an unassuming young guy that is employed as a union glass worker. After spending a few minutes with him my gut feeling was, “This guy is the real deal—he possesses a true artist’s sole. He is sincere and totally committed to what he’s doing.”

I think some people would describe Talbert’s work as “steampunk” but it is so much more. He describes it as “motorcycle art” or “rat rod art” but I don’t think that is accurate either. Everything I saw required a high degree of engineering to execute. And everything I saw (unlike steampunk), looked clean and was brightly finished. The amount of time Talbert devotes to each table or lamp is clearly evident and reflected in his asking price. “I make unique art,” he proclaims. “No cookie cutter.” His artwork is lowbrow and high-end… simultaneously! I strongly urge everyone to check out his stuff on Instagram at: broken_gear_art.

By contrast, there is enigmatic Jim Nichols. I found his artwork in a second hand store in Sweet Home, Oregon. Nichols builds approximately twelfth scale vehicles out of cardboard, found objects and bits of this and that. I purchased his version of a ’32 Ford Roadster for a paltry fifteen dollars a couple years ago. When I returned to the shop a few months later, they had sold out of his creations save a stagecoach-like affair. The owner of the shop had no phone number or forwarding address for Nichols. He described him as “an old man” and that was the extent of the information I received. It is all together possible that Nichols is no longer among us…but man, what a creative guy! The proportions of my Roadster are damn close. It has opening doors, an opening trunk and a removable hood which reveals a detailed engine made of cardboard, duct tape, a plastic bottle cap and god knows what. The low profile roof is upholstered as is the interior. The wheels and tires are made from jar lids and caps. The headlights are bottle caps filled with clear RTV!

Nichols is/was very familiar with hot rod building and I have to wonder if he also built full scale models. If he is out there in reader-land or if anyone knows him, we would certainly like to hear from you. I know your fellow readers would enjoy seeing more of his work.

Finally, I make auto-themed shadowboxes (or memory boxes as some people call them.) I assembled my first one during the summer of 1974. It was high school themed because that’s where I was in my life in ‘74 but it included automobilia as I was already a committed car guy. Since then I have assembled many boxes with specific themes like: Early Hot Rodding, Early Nascar, Short Track (Hardtop) Racing, Bonneville, Midget Racing, Sprint Car Racing, Indianapolis, etc. I thoroughly enjoy the process and experience great satisfaction when I complete one. Generally, I give them away to close friends or family; I have donated them to fund raisers and presented them as trophies. I have actually sold a few.

From the beginning, my intention has never been money motivated. In fact, I’ve lost money on even the boxes I’ve sold. That is because the price of the boxes themselves plus the automobilia therein, cost me more than I can possibly charge for the finished shadowbox…but I’m okay with it.
I am compelled to create like Donnie Talbert whom I suspect will continue to build his amazing tables and lamps even if no one purchases them.

I wonder if Jim Lambert ever collected the fifteen dollars I paid for his Roadster?

A White Race Suit and a Pink Dodge Charger

Balladeer Marty Robbins is probably best remembered for the tremendous catalog of songs he recorded including ”El Paso” and “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation”. He would tell people repeatedly however, that he was as passionate about his auto racing as he was about song writing.

Born in Glendale, Arizona Robbins became enamored with racing at an early age. He followed the exploits of local standout Jimmy Bryan and the Bettenhausen family back at Indianapolis. When his musical career took him east to Nashville, Tennessee he found himself in a hotbed of short track activity. He attended a micro midget race in 1959 and officially launched his driving career shortly thereafter.

Typical of most racers, Robbin’s desire for more power soon led him to the V-8 powered hardtops at Nashville Speedway. 1962 found him piloting a magenta ’34 Ford coupe with a Thunderbird mill built by Preacher Hamilton. He used the vehicle to promote his new record album “Devil Woman” and even featured the car on the album’s jacket. It was in Nashville that Robbins established a huge fan base. He was a regular performer at the Grand Old Opry and on the popular 5/8th mile oval. He was known to pull off the racetrack early at times to traverse town for a live singing engagement. He always put his music first, understanding that one passion financed the other.

He evolved into a Mopar guy and in a corrugated tin garage behind his home, built his own modified using a ’64 Plymouth Belvedere body and a huge displacement Hemi engine. The engine was so large in fact, that once installed, there was no room for the radiator so he mounted it in the trunk. (The “777” car was discovered years later and restored by Ray Evernham for his television show “Americarna”).

The sixties were kind to Robbins and his wealth afforded him the opportunity to move up to NASCAR’s premiere division (what today would be the Monster Energy Drink Series). He purchased a ’71 Plymouth which Cotton Owens had constructed for Petty protégé Pete Hamilton. Robbins had the car reskinned as a Dodge and raced it for the first time in the Alamo 500 at Texas World Speedway. Owens maintained the car for the following nine seasons while Robbins tested his skill at all of NASCAR’s greatest venues: Daytona, Talladega, Michigan and Charlotte. He earned the respect of his contemporaries and all agreed that he had become a very capable racer. AII tolled he amassed thirty five career NASCAR starts. His best finish was a fifth in the Motor City 400 at Michigan in June of 1974. The event had particular significance to Robbins as one of his idols, Gary Bettenhausen finished directly in front of him.

A history of cardiovascular disease was what ultimately brought Marty Robbins down- that and his age by the time he reached the professional ranks. He drove in his last race, the Atlanta Journal 500 on 11/7/82 and died after open heart surgery the following month at the age of fifty seven.

Once during his rookie season, Robbins had stunned officials by turning in race laps that were fifteen miles per hour faster than he had qualified. At the conclusion of the event, NASCAR attempted to present him with honors but he stopped them in their tracks. He admitted to them that he’d cheated by messing with his carburetor.
“I just wanted to see what it was like to run up front for once,” he confessed.

Mr. Veeder’s Wild Ride

It wasn’t unusual for elderly Indy roadsters to be repurposed as short track cars. Many ended up at Oswego (NY) for example, competing as Super Modifieds. One 1957 Kurtis-Kraft 500 ventured west however, arriving in the Seattle area around 1960. I suspect that Ole Bardahl may have had a hand in this as his Ballard based additive company had a huge presence at the Speedway back in those days. In fact, in ’57 there were two Bardahl sponsored Kurtis roadsters in the 500. One was piloted by “Cactus” Jack Turner and the second by a New Yorker named Al Keller.

Keller competed at Indianapolis six times from 1955 to 1961, finally earning a top five finish in his final appearance. Sadly, Keller perished later the same year (11/19/1961) while racing in Arizona.

Interestingly, a young racer of the same name emerged as the driver of the Kurtis when it reappeared in the Pacific Northwest. Was this Al Keller a relation of the Indy veteran or someone that had simply adopted his racing persona? That is a mystery. Portlander Del McClure who raced against Keller, recognized his name but didn’t know him. ”Mid-pack guy”, was McClure’s comment. “We didn’t really socialize much with the Seattle guys,” he continued.

Long gone was the 252ci Offenhauser when Keller unloaded at Monroe (WA) and Portland Speedway. It was supplanted by a ground pounding Buick Nail-head boasting nearly twice the cubic inches. Bob Fadden was listed as the Owner/Mechanic and ultimately a turkey farmer named Bob Hamilton (based in Aurora, OR) agreed to sponsor the effort.

In the early seventies, Hamilton purchased the Kurtis and that was when Salem racer Earl Veeder Jr. got his chance behind the wheel. Veeder admitted to me years later that he didn’t have the finances to field his own car at that juncture in his racing career. He would show up at the track with his helmet and see what was available. Piloting a vehicle of questionable pedigreed had become “the norm” for Earl and he had a reputation for getting the most out of whatever he drove. The Kurtis/Buick was a rocket ship that was capable of smoking the tires the length of any straightaway. Fearless Veeder had no bitch about that but complained to Hamilton that they needed more tire. Apparently the budget minded owner had procured a boatload of M & H drag racing rubber at a bargain basement price and insisted that they use it up before he’d purchase anything else. And that was where things stood when the team made the decision to tow south to Altamont Speedway (near Tracy, CA) for a big open show.

On the banked half mile they would be competing against some of the best short trackers in the business: Uprights from San Jose, new Offsets and even rear engined, four wheel drive creations, so they needed to be on their game. Unfortunately in their haste to push Veeder out, the crew forgot to remove the plugs from his injector stacks. Most teams used a brightly colored, rubber ball affair that was highly visible and difficult to overlook. “Thrifty” Hamilton had decided to make his own utilizing sink stoppers that he’d purchased at the local hardware store and chained together. When the crew attempted to push start Veeder, the Kurtis balked as he goosed the throttle. Then the stoppers fell into the injection and jammed the butterflies wide open. The huge Buick exploded to life, taking Veeder from a rough idle to full throttle in perhaps two seconds. He pointed the roadster toward the high groove and somehow managed to keep it out of the fence. Down the back straightaway Veeder left a vapor trail then aimed for the pit entrance. (Hamilton estimated his pit speed at maybe one hundred mph?) He roared past his crew, brakes screaming helplessly, teeth clinched, hands firmly planted on the wheel and in his wake, wide eyed pitmen, railbirds and onlookers. It was miraculous that he hadn’t run over anyone. When he arrived at the end of the pit lane, where was he supposed to go? Veeder rejoined the race just as the leaders were passing by! And this is where the real racer showed his moxie- Veeder STAYED OUT! Up against the fence, throttle stuck wide open, brakes toasted, ‘Ol Earl hung with the leaders for a couple laps before coming to his senses and hitting the kill switch.

Needless to say, the team was never invited back to Altamont but it wasn’t the end of Veeder’s association with Hamilton. The two remained friends (practically neighbors) for the remainder of the turkey farmer’s relatively short life. Earl Veeder Jr. raced until he was nearly seventy and died of heart failure “in the saddle” so to speak.(He was participating in a midget race.)

The ’57 Kurtis-Kraft 500 had long life ahead of it as well. The Buick Nail-head was replaced by a 302ci Ford with Gurney (Westlake) heads and shipped to Pennsylvania for a ground up restoration. It is said to reside somewhere in a New York today, in a private collection.

Note—A big thank you to those who generously offered their recollections and photos which enabled me to retell this story: Jerry Burkholder, Ralph Hunt, Bill Nootenboom and David Veeder.