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.