Ernie Nagamatsu

Updated: Sep 5, 2020

What the Goodwood Festival of Speed is all about. An amazing car, driven by an amazing man. Ernie Nagamatsu told me the story behind Ol' Yeller II and I just had to share it. I hope you enjoy.

My first feature on people involved in the family of Motorsport is Ernie Nagamatsu and his car Old Yeller II. I met Ernie at the 2018 Goodwood Festival of Speed when I spotted his car in the paddock and was immediately drawn to it.


I have been lucky enough to attend the Festival of Speed for at least one day each year since 2001, my seventh birthday, and there is always something new at the show that you have never seen before. The Old Yeller II Buick Special was first invited to the FOS in 2000 and Tribute to Dan Gurney and his Eagle. Each year, I find I take away a memory from it that stands out from the rest. It can be anything, from a joke to an amazing car and this year, Ernie was my stand out moment.


I first started talking to his wife Elaine along with my Dad about the car and how they had flown it over from America, only for its engine to blow on its second run up the hill on Friday. Ernie and his wife are also American, and currently live in the heart of Los Angeles which took us on interesting tangents before Ernie came back from Lunch.


Prior to retiring, Ernie was a top dentist in LA, in particular creating artisan fillings for his patients. Ernie grew up in Orange County near Disneyland, coming from a farm family, where his uncle, a Dental Technician, encouraged Ernie to go to USC Dental School in LA.


Out of all his classmates, Ernie was the first to obtain a California Dental License at the age of 23. Amongst his clients was American Formula 1 legend Phil Hill, whom Ernie became close to. When Hill passed away, Ernie provided the written eulogy for the 1961 Champion

As mentioned Ernie now resides in LA following the move and first met Max Balchowsky as he lived up the street from Balchowsky’s legendary Hollywood Motors garage. The pair often went out for late night coffees, Max telling Ernie endless stories. This is where Ernie first found out about Old Yeller II during one of these conversations.


Ernie and Max became close through one of Ernie’s old Tennis friends called Jerry, who owned an Ocsa Roadster with a Buick engine. As well as owning a Osca Roadster Jerry also owned a printing company and would print of extra entrant passes as Max and Ina often had a below budget team.  


As we talked to Ernie he started to share some of his own stories with myself and my dad. The story which stood out for me was in relation to Tazio Nuvolari who used to race with a turtle pin on his turquoise turtleneck race wear as a sign of good luck. Once you know about it you notice it in every photo of Nuvolari you see on track. The amazing part was that Ernie, designed, duplicated and cast that very turtle pin, and has given it to legendary drivers and motorsport figures such as John Surtees, Murray Walker and the Duke of Richmond. It was an amazing story and one which touched me, as it shows how much of a motorsport enthusiast Ernie is, which is what gave me the inspiration to write this piece on him.


Prior to talking about his amazing turtles, we spoke about the “Junkyard Dog” as they called the car beside us and how it was in fact the fourth time they have been to Goodwood, the first being in 2000. The Old Yeller II has raced at the Goodwood Revival Meeting many times racing in the Sussex Trophy Race. Old Yeller II, or the Junkyard Dog as it was described by creator Max Balchowsky, was built in 1959 for supposedly less than $1500 at Hollywood Motors.

Max Balchowsky drawing Old Yeller II’s design in chalk on his workshop floor.

Max Balchowsky was born on the 15th January 1924 in Fairmont, West Virginia, growing up here until the Second World War when he became a B-24 “belly gunner”. Once the war had ended, he and his brother Casper set up a business in South Gate, California and became well known for street racing. He married Ina Wilson in 1949 with the two of them setting up Hollywood Motors in LA. As their workshop became better known as the epicentre for the fastest Hot Rods, it started to attract stars such that could often be found relaxing there.


Balchowsky was known as a master of engine transplants which is very popular with Hot Rodders and would routinely replace any engine with either a Cadillac or Buick motor, in keeping with one of the original taglines from Hollywood Motors “we can replace anything with anything”. Max would also often appear as a stunt driver in many films as well as working behind the scenes preparing stunt cars and looked after the cars of the stars such as James Coburn, who left his Ferrari California Spyder V-12 with Balchowsky.


One of Balchowsky’s most recognised pieces of work is that he worked as the stunt car preparer and stunt car driver for the film Bullitt staring Steve McQueen. Max carried out the work on the two 1968 Ford Mustang’s and two Dodge Charger 440 Magnum R/Ts at Hollywood Motors.


Both cars were completely altered for the film as Max tested his work, originally running up Griffith Park, the reason being "Max knew all of the cops and he knew they would never stop him. Following this test, Max wanted to test the cars in San Francisco and unbeknown to the Director, Steve McQueen and Max went to Cotati, 45 miles north of San Francisco, for a test day."


During the 1950s however Balchowsky made various Old Yeller cars and was known for driving them to the venues as he never owned a trailer, racing them and often winning against far more exotic Ferraris, Jaguars, Listers, and Maseratis in the biggest purses in the world of auto racing at Riverside International Raceway.


In 1959, Balchowsky built Old Yeller II. Balchowsky bragged that it cost him exactly $1456.72 and was named after the film of the same title. Based on a Buick Special, it was made up of parts from other cars of the time such as Morris Minors, Jaguars, Buicks and Lincolns. In comparison, it was built at a tenth of the cost of the fantastic Ferrari Testa Rossa.


Going back to Hollywood Motors’ tagline, Old Yeller was fitted with a 6.6 litre 1959 Buick “nailhead” engine which is (Hot Rod trick) positioned as far back as possible to the firewall as the cockpit of Old Yeller is over the rear assembly. The engine produced a stock 305 bhp at 5400 rpm in the mildest set up so power was never a concern, however for the first five races it suffered with reliability issues. The early race tracks were old Military Airfields so the races were a Drag Race to the next corner and no one could keep up with the massive torque of the mighty Nailhead Buick motors.


During the build of the Old Yeller II the iconic Pete Brock who designed the famous Daytona Coupe for Shelby American, worked with Max and Ina Balchowsky. The chassis was drawn with chalk lines on the concrete floor at Hollywood Motors and since the Buick Nailhead had heating problems, Max selected the big Studebaker Truck radiator with a huge core leading to the look of a “Yellow Brick” racing.


Amazingly Old Yeller was first raced professionally by Dan Gurney at Riverside International Raceway in May 1960 at the Riverside International Sports Car Grand Prix.  Two months later Carroll Shelby raced the Old Yeller II at Road America in July 1960. 1960 was Shelby’s last year as a driver before going onto produce cars synonymous with his name. For the race, Shelby had the pick of the cars with the grid for the race attracting some of the best cars from Europe at the time, including Ferraris, Listers, Jaguars and the latest Porsche RSKs.


Shelby opted to go for the Buick Special rather than the Maserati’s he was driving at that time as he knew the horsepower that Old Yeller had would be advantageous on the long straights of Road America.


Carroll at Road America lead the race by over 51 seconds against the very best newest Factory Team cars from Ferrari and Maserat and Carroll thought that with a light-weight chassis and American Big Banger was the formula and the Cobra idea started in his mind


The race took place on the 31st July 1960, with the opening laps being led by Augie Pabst in the beautiful Scarab with Shelby behind in second. It did not take long for Shelby to grab the lead managing to stay there for 31 of the 50 laps. Sadly, the transmission on Old Yeller gave way while 51 seconds ahead of the field giving Augie Pabst the lead once more, however he only led for 8 laps before his own retirement.


The eventual victor was Jim Jeffords in the Maserati Le Mans Streamliner Bird Cage.


The legendary Road America race.

This was the beginning Old Yeller II’s fascinating record as it made history competing at all of the major international Sports Car Races as well as almost every important Californian Sports Car Race in 1960. Despite its peculiar appearance in comparison to the streamlined European cars of the day, Old Yeller was hugely successful in America, with it being driven by some of Motorsport’s most famous names.


Bob Bondurant, Bobby Drake, first Maserati Birdcage driver in USA, and Billy Krause, the first Cobra driver for Carroll Shelby, all drove Old Yeller at some point however for me the stand out name was Dan Gurney. Gurney’s finest moment in the car was setting the track record at Riverside International Raceway, a circuit which sadly no longer exists, the last race being held in 1989 after 32 years of racing.


Ol Yeller II went through various modifications during its fifteen year racing life however by 1974 the car was retired and found itself in the backyard of a Californian home in Fresno after a minor accident. Old Yeller II was rediscovered by David Gibb with Ernie buying the car from Gibb in 1989. By the early 1990s Ernie had started racing and went onto race it around the world in America, New Zealand and England to name a few countries. Ernie spoke of this and how he had been friends with Max for many years before purchasing the car showing my dad and I how he already owned programs, pictures and even invoices regarding Old Yeller prior to purchasing it, he really is a true motorsport enthusiast.


Since purchasing Old Yeller II, Ernie has raced at the Goodwood Revival over 10 times as well as competing at Montereey and winning the Rolex Phil Hill Montereey Cup, winning the first Bruce McLaren Perpetual Trophy at the New Zealand Festival of Motor Racing and winning the Rolex Australia F1 Grand Prix Historic Race “Winner” Trophy. The Old Yeller II Buick Special has also raced at Donington, Chateau Ipney Hill Climb, and at the Silverstone Classic in England.


No expense has been spared getting Old Yeller back to its original condition and when you look at the car, the restoration job is flawless, capturing the feel of how it was when it was first built. The image is spot on, often leaving spectators walking past wondering “what on Earth is that?”

Ernie giving an interview for the upcoming Bullitt film.

Ernie spoke how he loved the car because it was so different and how it was an underdog up against some of the biggest names and best technologies from Europe. He also loved the customisation of the car, with it often being changed up to twenty times per season. The Old Yeller II had a full suspension system built by Max using shims and washers contrary to European Factory Teams with inability to adjust suspensions for each track like Max.


One of the features of Old Yeller that I particularly liked was that it ran on white wall tyres. By 1959, these were out of fashion with teams and manufactures designing specific racing tyres for their cars. This was not the case for the Buick Special and it is something Ernie still maintains now, often painting tyres to match the cars original look.


Ernie told us a story regarding the tyres and how Balchowsky worked with tyre manufactures and tried out huge varieties of tyres, finding the softest compounds he could which could cope with the horsepower of Old Yeller. One example is that Max came across a station wagon of Goodyear Blue Streaks, a very soft tyre that eventually got recalled because they were so soft. Before the recalling however, Max and a group of his friends managed to gather as many sets as possible, all of which white walled, giving the car the look it was famous for. Max was one of the first to constantly use a Durometer to check softness contrary to others using rock hard tires for racing worrying about blow outs in long races. 


The car may not have been as successful as it was if it had not been for Balchowsky’s eye for detail, in fact he was well ahead of his time, often measuring tyre pressures and comparing compounds to ensure he got the maximum of out Old Yeller.


Ernie spoke to us with such pride about Old Yeller, it was fantastic to hear all the stories which make the car so special and how it developed over a number of years. For me, I have always been an admirer of Dan Gurney, so to see a car he valued so highly was a memory I certainly will not forget. While talking to Ernie, I was lucky as he gave me a few copies of photos of Dan in the car as well as stickers associated with Dan.


It was wonderful to speak to Ernie for as long as we did and learn so much about a car that I did not know existed prior to out impromptu chat. It is fascinating how many amazing stories there are in the world of motorsport that are yet to be uncovered.

I must thank Ernie for his help, dedication and commitment to helping me write this piece, it truly has been an honour to learn so much about Old Yeller, but more so about himself as a person and the knowledge he possesses.

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