Some people are just meant to have a famous car in their care. Some people are just wired to want to protect and share the history of a car that represents a snapshot in time.
Ernie Nagamatsu is one of those people.
Nagamatsu fell in love with Ol’ Yeller Mark II, one of the most famous of the Ol’ Yeller cars and one built by the ground-breaking husband and wife team of Max and Ina Balchowsky, long before he became its caretaker.
Ol’ Yeller II wasn’t just a typical race car — not even at the time of its creation at Hollywood Motors in 1959. It’s one of America’s most famous of cars, having been driven by the likes of Dan Gurney, Carroll Shelby (it’s said Shelby got the idea of a lightweight car with an American motor from driving Ol’ Yeller II after he was leading all the factory teams by 51 seconds in 1961 at Road America), Bob Bondurant, Billy Krause (the first Cobra driver for Shelby), Bobby Drake (the first Maserati Bird Cage driver) and others.
For the first time, Ol’ Yeller II will be making an appearance at Barber Motorsports Park as the Historic Sportscar Racing and the Historic Motor Sports Association are teaming up to present the 2019 Barber Historics this weekend.
“I used to sit down and have long discussions with Max about cars and racing over coffee that would last hours,” Nagamatsu said. “He gave me certain memorabilia from Ol’ Yeller II over the years, I collected other items and knew so much about the car when it became available for sale in the early 1990s.”
At the time it went on sale from a man in Oklahoma, it was out of the price range of the longtime Southern California dentist and artist. Balchowsky, however, made all the difference. After nearly two years of waiting and dropping the price, the car went to Nagamatsu so it could return home to Southern California and in the care of the Balchowsky’s engineering and Nagamatsu’s passion for preserving its history.
“The prior owner turned down a lot of offers before I could buy it,” Nagamatsu said. “I already had the race programs, invoices, a ton of photographs, magazines and so many other items that document its history. I just didn’t have the car.
“A lot of people will go to an auction, buy a car and then have to do the research on the car so they know who raced it, where it went and everything else. I knew everything about the car long before I was able to buy it.”
HMSA President Cris Vandagriff said it’s a very big deal that Ol’ Yeller will be making an appearance in Alabama this weekend.
“It says a lot about the event that Ernie is coming because he doesn’t go to just any event,” Vandagriff said. “He goes to really big events around the world. Ol’ Yeller is a special car and I think people in Alabama are going to say, ‘What the heck is that?’ Ernie is such a unique ambassador that he is going to blow people away.
“Thank goodness this special car has such a special individual as its caretaker.”
Vandagriff said Ol’ Yeller might be the most unique car to ever grace the grounds at Barber – a bold statement considering the type of events that have been showcased on site previously.
“We are extremely lucky to host Ol’ Yeller at the Barber Historics because Ol’ Yeller is the type of car that we want to showcase because it exposes the car and our sport to a new audience,” Vandagriff said. “I don’t think that a car as unique as this has ever run there before. There have been more modern cars, famous cars, Formula 1 cars, but they haven’t seen a home built special like Ol’ Yeller.
“This car was made from bits and pieces from other cars, made in a junkyard and it was going out and beating Ferraris. Very special drivers drove it and if that car wasn’t special, they wouldn’t have raced it as often and as long as they did. This car is from an important chapter in historic racing in North America. When racing started again after World War II, Southern California was the hub of motorsports and this was one of the great cars to come out of Southern California.”
Nagamatsu owns this famously unique car but he treats the relationship more like a museum and its curator than anything else.
“The car is the star,” he said. “We have the keys, but we just get to tag along.”
The Barber Historics is the only time this year that vintage cars will be allowed on the 17-turn, 2.38-mile road course. Nagamatsu has raced Ol’ Yeller II and shared it with crowds all over the world.
“We’ve been to England, New Zealand, Australia and all over the United States,” Nagamatsu said. “We’ve raced it all over and it means so much to share it with other people because it was innovative at the time and has a lot of stories.
“People from around the world tell me they made a model of the car. One guy showed me a slot car he made of it that he races. It was the underdog car and even today it is still one that people can relate to. It’s approachable. Goodwood is the Kentucky Derby for cars and people will come up and tap the car. It’s beat up and scruffy. They wouldn’t dare do that to a Ferrari, but they can to Ol’ Yeller.”
Tickets are available to the public for the Barber Historics both Saturday and Sunday. Click here for ticket information