Through The Esses - Balchowsky's Old Yeller II Is In The Doctor's Hands
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© Andrew S. Hartwell

Those of us with gray in our hair and a half a step in our strides surrendered to the years, look back on the late 1950's and early 1960's as a treasured time in sportscar racing. In the odd moments when our memory cells are able, we conjure up images in our minds of some of the cars and the people who captured our imaginations way back then. Through the wonderful medium of vintage racing we are able to relive some of that magic today, thanks in great measure to the people who have taken care to preserve the cars of our youth.

Doctor Ernie Nagamatsu is one of the people we can thank for keeping alive one of the great cars of the past; the hand-crafted product of a very special pair of California natives. Max and Ina Balchowsky were the proprietors of the legendary Hollywood Motors shop located in southern California. Here they put many broken cars back together and helped many a lead-footed fellow get up to speed in their new rides. And Max and Ina also put together a series of sportscars they called 'Old Yellers'. These were original creations they designed, built, and helped get up to speed on west coast road racing circuits.

Of the nine cars to wear the moniker Old Yeller, perhaps the most remembered and most endearing of all was the second one, referred to simply as 'Old Yeller II'. (Its full name is the Old Yeller II Buick Special.) It had wide fenders, a huge nose, and a big 401 'Nailhead' Buick motor and was of course painted a bright yellow. It was simply like nothing coming out of the race shops in Italy, England or Germany at the time. It was practically a borderline hot rod with a dash of family sedan thrown in, courtesy of its big, wide, whitewall tires. Often referred to as a 'junkyard dog', it was nonetheless quite successful against cars with proper pedigrees, such as Ferraris and Maseratis. And in its time, it was raced by some of the biggest names in the sport.

This note appears on the Old Yeller II website:
"In 1960 Old Yeller II was driven by many legendary drivers such as Carroll Shelby (Road America & Santa Barbara), Dan Gurney (Riverside International Raceway & Laguna Seca), Bob Bondurant, Billy Krause, Bobby Drake, Paul O'Shea, and Max Balchowsky."

Ernie Nagamatsu has been the caretaker of Old Yeller II for over 17 years now. Being a dentist by trade but a racer at heart, Nagamatsu has been taking steps to bring this bright yellow racer with the flaring front fenders and the big brute of a Buick motor back to the condition it first raced in, at the hands of Max Balchowsky himself.

We met Nagamatsu recently at the Rolex Vintage Festival at Lime Rock Park. His pride and joy was one of the cars featured in the 'Rolex Moments In Time' exhibit, situated on the midway. Nagamatsu actually had the car on the track for a few laps at speed before several mechanical maladies crept up, requiring the assistance of some very helpful people.

We spent some time talking with Nagamatsu about how he came to be the latest - and longest - caretaker of Old Yeller II, what he has experienced in his years of ownership, and the relationship he enjoyed with Max and Ina Balchowsky as both a friend and admirer.

"Back in the late 1960's or very early 1970's I was playing tennis with a guy (he drove a rare Osca with a special Max-Buick motor!) who was one of Max Balchowsky's buddies who would go with Max to the races, back when Max was still driving. He told me I have to meet Max because he is a really interesting guy. Soon after I met Max he and I became really good friends. And I can say that because, the way you knew you were a friend of his was you never got a bill from him for work he did on your cars. But it was a double edged sword because you had to figure out how much you owed him and then if you didn't pay him enough he would get insulted! He was like an off and on switch at times. You didn't know how he was feeling some of the time.

"Max had a knack for