I met Max Balchowsky, for the first time, when a good friend, Jerry Jann, thought it would be interesting for me to meet Max. Max was a legend in building racing cars and I was a fan of racing cars. Jerry told many stories about how he would always go to all of the races of the Old Yeller I and II (and the other Old Yeller race cars) and would be in the extended family / crew and groupie scene during the many races. I arrived at the legendary Hollywood Motors to meet Max and that first meeting would eventually evolve into a long friendship over the years. The garage was famous and the center of innovative racing designs but never had a sign on the big white garage on Hollywood Blvd. There was an open pit (classic motor pit before hydraulic lifts) and it was covered with long wood boards. Max always wore his “trademark” white coveralls and he had a shop rag in his hand and always kept the floors of his shop spotlessly clean. Max always had exotic Sports Cars in the shop. The cars usually belonged to some of the great Movie Stars of that era. At the time that I met Max, he was busy working on special projects as well as movie assignments as part of the stunt car development.
There was always one car in the shop undergoing the famous “Balchowsky engine transplant” and nothing was too sacred. His ever-constant challenge was to know the exact part number of a gasket or bearing that could be used as a replacement (many a GM part would end up in a foreign exotic sports car and Max knew every number needed for replacement from European to American parts) for some of his projects. There were sections of the Hollywood Motors garage with bins filled with carburetors, rims and tires (Max hated to throw away tires even if they were rock hard), distributors and many sections of rare foreign parts. In the far right corner was a race-car with deflated tires and it was the Old Yeller IX that languished for many years. I had a Gullwing Mercedes as a daily driver. Max would work on my cars through the years and I never once saw a bill, which made it difficult to estimate what would be fair payment back. Max was busy with Movie Stunt car preparation work and. his very good friend was the “God Father of movie automobile stunts- Cary Loftin and Cary made sure Max was included in many of Cary’s movie assignments. Max became good friends with Buddy Hackett as Max did the set ups for the VW – “Herbie” in the movie Love Bug. Max is most legendary in the movie stunt work with the set up of the cars for Bullit with Steve McQueen. Max would later set up the Baja race pickup for Steve McQueen for the Baja Races and he knew Steve well. The last weekend before the end of the shooting of “Bullitt” there was a regional Sports Car Racing event and Max and his friends took the cars of the movie and put numbers on the cars and entered the races near San Francisco. Max had designed some very innovative automobile setups for action shots with cars for many movies. Max worked with Elvis Prestley in several movies and in Viva Las Vegas, Max used two Old Yeller races cars in the movie (one crashed heavily).
Ina was always ‘business and serious looking as she had reason to be with the years of being the “gatekeeper” of Hollywood Motors …as everyone wanted a piece of Max and his incredibly diversified knowledge of the entire automotive field. His legions of fans were from the street racing scene during the late 1940s and hanging out at the drive in restaurant. He was proud of his highly modified Studebaker street racer (he used a Studebaker Champion rear end in Old Yeller II) as he seemed to gravitate to “non main stream” cars and he was seeking any strong reliable part even if the part was manufactured (Auburn clutch) many years ago. Ina did the billing and she would let people know if you were not “invited” back to bring your car to Hollywood Motors. As the years went by after the high energy racing scens, Ina tired to sell real estate and led a quiet life. I would go for dinner time to time and Ina always would shop for special food items. When Ina was stricken with cancer of the upper vertebra- neck area, it was devastating for Max. Ina had complained for several years and it went un-diagnosed until too late for intervention surgery. Ina was known for helping laying out the “chalk” lines for the Old Yeller race cars on the floor of Hollywood Motors and special tune the cars for the races. She would take the brunt of criticism as they drove the Jimmy Summer’s 32’ channeled highly modified named the “Bu-Ford” Special to Pebble Beach Road Races in the early 1950s. Max and Ina with their “extended family/ team” would battle the “Sporty Car” scrutinizers as they were often almost considered ineligible for Road Racing events The Bu-ford Special was at the front of the pack for the first few laps in one race until the giant sized military tachometer fell off the steering column and jammed under the throttle. Ina would call the race track a week ahead if they had not raced to check on length of the track and the number of left and right hand turns to the astonishment of the Race Track manager… when asked, Ina would say abruptly… she is setting up the front suspension for the race car. One event at Riverside International Raceway, Ina was also very well known for keeping perfect timing sheets on the race cars during the races and one race that there was a dispute regarding 3rd and 4th place… they called up Ina to see her lap charts to verify the placement of the cars. It was a touching moment when she had cancer and under treatment, she came out with Max (she did not go to any races or race track after they finished racing in 1963) to Willow Springs Raceway to see me race a Formula Race Car. Ina brought lunch… and she had her old stopwatch to check time. When Ina was struggling against the ravages of cancer at the Arcadia Hospital… Max and I would go almost every night and one night Max slipped me a $50 dollar bill in my hand and told me to give it to one special nurse that was taking care of Ina. The passing of Ina was difficult as well as the closing of Hollywood Motors due to a planned new building on the site. Max hunkered down and would not face the fact of the closing and at the last minute, he had to have all of his friends come and help move years of incredible collecting of rare and not so rare auto parts. Max had a key to my garage and shortly one day I saw my garage filled with automobile parts, a Maserati engine and an old cardboard box of the Road Racing and Drag Racing trophies… the trophies were once on the shelf of his tight small one desk office at the legendary Hollywood Motors. Max mentioned the “flow bench” with reverence and for many years it had a special place in my working garage. Sometimes we would have dinner at Algemac’s Coffee Shop in Glendale and he mentioned that he was a dishwasher at the Coffee Shop long ago while attending night school for classes in watch repair (hangout for “Hot Rodders” in early days). We would spend many a late evening together over coffee as he would spin out story after story of his legendary racing day.
I noticed the rare Bizzarini cars (Corvette engine- car designed and built in Italy) in his garage- Holly Motors and Cary Loftin owned two cars. Max was to be the dealer for the Bizzarinis and he loved that combination, as that is why he admired the Iso Grifo cars as well. I bought one of Cary’s cars and that is one car that I wished did not get away… the GT America and most perfect Bizzarrinis. There was a 1964 Cobra that I would see time to time in the shop and Max helped me buy the 289 Cobra- a one owner car. The Cobra had the famous Max “fingerprints” on the car with the 351 Windsor motor…an automatic transmission, and air conditioner with vents coming out of glove compartment. When I started to race the Cobra, Max insisted that I could race with the automatic transmission and he wanted to modify (like Jim Hall?). What an exciting racing moment with the “Balchowsky” modified Cobra, racing through the “esses” and into turn 6… fussing with the stock Ford automatic transmission! I could have turned on the air conditioner on as it was a hot day at Riverside International Raceway.
One time we were to co-drive the 1964 Shelby Cobra and Max drove to the half way stop to finish the second leg in Baja Mexico race. His engine “re-builds” by that time included pistons/ rods from the used parts “bin” and he did not adapt well to modern high tech parts with high costs of racing. Max forgot to hook up the fan and during staging at Ensenada, the temperature went off the gauge and the radiator blew. Speaking Spanish well, I asked the policeman where the radiator shop was… got a flat tow operator (just dropped off a race car) to load the Cobra… found the radiator shop and two young boys jumped on the trailer and pulled out the exploded radiator… repaired and tested… replaced in position … all for $5.00. I raced to the staging area on a hilly stretch of road (there was no working emergency brake and had to move the car to the start). At the start of the race I took off on the off camber roads through the mountains, passed a replica police car upside down and raced into the flats when the motor broke big time… and I pulled over to the side. Since all of the slower cars had to pass by and the roads finally cleared took time… I took a nap on the grass…. Max comes up to me and says…” what the hell happened to the Cobra??? Max and I would go to late coffee sessions and story after story would spin out and he had great respect for Ed Winfield, Cook Machine shop, Axtell, Pete Brock, Ken Miles, and Dan Gurney. Ken Miles took time to discuss his approach to racing and his concepts on building Specials. Once Ken had Max follow him at Pomona Raceway and Max felt he learned a lot… Max was at Riverside International Raceway when Ken Miles died in the GT-40 J car prototype and Max was devastated. When I raced Formula Fords, Max would I think change the cam against the rules late at night but I was racing the horrible Formula Race Car- Crossle 55 that no one would buy under any circumstances as it was the most erratic and evil car I have ever raced.
Max gave me the “Balchowsky” historical photographs and race programs along with Max’s WWII campaign over “Burma” military suit- Bu-Ford Special jacket- driving suits- helmets, dash plaques and other memorabilia over the years. I tape recorded for Old Yeller and Max history… Max, Casper Balchowsky, Jerry Jann, John “Bat” Masterson and other individuals related to the Max period of racing history. Max would give me photographs of some of his cars that were currently owned by individuals, but most of the cars were not being raced. I was on the search for one of the Old Yeller cars, but the prices were very high. I saw the drawings of the Old Yeller X and notations of the innovative new possible rear engine Old Yeller X. I paid for the parts designated for Old Yeller X and chassis parts and did a video of the project. The Old Yeller II, which was the most famous of the Old Yeller race- cars, was up for sale. Owner Dave Gibb of Oklahoma waited patiently for 2 ½ years, so as I could buy the car as he was aware I had all of the race history and photographs during the build of the car as well as race photographs/ trophies. Max was disappointed in the chassis (although he did not mention directly) as there were square bars poorly welded everywhere and the odd square roll bar was barely tack welded on one side. The army surplus “Dzus” fasteners did not work, as everything was tack welded to the stringers. The nose of the Old Yeller II was too low with the carburetors sticking high above the hood. We have had the Old Yeller II in a slow re-build to historic period of 1959 as Max intended and finally the last element was re-established with the changing of the Corvette independent with half shafts to the now correct solid rear end with leaf springs… and working Dzus fasteners… Max and Ina would be proud indeed.
Each year I would roast a turkey for each thanksgiving and he enjoyed coming over for dinner from time to time. The special honoring of Max at the Phoenix International Raceway Vintage Races was a highlight and he toured in the Old Yeller II for photos with the other Old Yeller race-cars that he had built. Max seemed to enjoy hanging out in our pits at the Vintage Races and it was a moment at Monterey Historic Races when he had a reunion with Dick Morgensen (Morgensen Special- AKA Old Yeller I)… and reunion meeting with Bill Sadler at the Coronado Races. Once, I planned a surprise Birthday party for Max about many years ago. Many of his long time friends came to the party including Bob Bondurant, Carroll Shelby, Pete Brock among others… after the event when we were driving home, Max stated…”I really did not think that they really respected me that much”…only if he could have been with us and the Old Yeller II at the Goodwood Festival of Speed 2000 in England and the Old Yeller II was one of 9 legendary race cars picked for the “Opening Ceremonies” of the event (160,000 race fans)… as the Old Yeller II was parked in the pre grid staging area between the Renault Turbo F1 with Rene Arnoux and the Ferrari F1 with Jean Alesi.
One race fan wanted to share a story which reflected the admiration of so many different groups of fans cheering for the “Junkyard Dog” race car when he said…” we were at the Riverside International Grand Prix for Sports Cars and every time the Old Yeller race-car would round Turn 6… everybody in the stands would stand and cheer regardless of the race position… it was like saluting American “Can Do” ingenuity, underdog, “blue collar” common people’s car- American raw brute power, budget racer, Drag racers, Hot Rodders… and everyone else not in the “Sporty Car” group with their sleek Italian leather string back driving gloves.
If he and Ina could have seen the Old Yeller II Buick Special be awarded the coveted duPont REGISTRY “People’s Choice Award in March- 2003 at Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance …and as in the Los Angeles Times newspaper of 1960, one writer wrote… “If there be a People’s Choice Award given… it would be for the unruly back yard special Old Yeller II”.
If only they could see the Old Yeller II on manicured grass fairways of Pebble Beach being showcased at the legendary respected Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance… with other “Road Racing Hot Rods”. If they could have seen the wonderful tribute in a “Salon” feature in the Road and Track magazine on the Old Yeller II and their contributions to motorsports with the original feature in November 1960 on the Old Yeller II. They would have been so amazed to see the Old Yeller II Buick Special being specially invited to the most prestigious Chateau Chantilly Concours d'Elegance in France or to see the Old Yeller II win the very first Bruce McLaren Perpetual Trophy at the New Zealand Festival of Motor Racing.They would have been thrilled to see the Old Yeller iI win the coveted Rolex Australia F1 Grand Prix Historic Race "Winner" Trophy in Melbourne, Australia.
If only Max and Ina could have watched the one hour documentary produced by WATV and Speed Channel that presented the entire history of the Max and Ina legacy and their race cars they built… and to hear the warm and touching comments by respected individuals that knew Max and Ina.
If they could have been at the most prestigious Vintage Racing event in the world, the Goodwood Festival of Speed and the Revival Meeting Races as the Old Yeller has been featured for over 12 Goodwood Racing events.
If only Max and Ina were around to see Billy Krause once again after 40 years race the Old Yeller II with fire and passion as he did in 1960 at the Monterey Historic Races – 2005… and to have the Old Yeller II win the most coveted Trophy in Vintage racing in America- the Rolex Phil Hill Monterey Cup” … for performance- presentation and for the ‘Spirit of Monterey’.
Max Balchowsky died unexpectedly while visiting childhood friends in his birthplace community of Fairmont, West Virginia in August 1998. Yes indeed, Max and Ina Balchowsky with their legendary Old Yeller Race Cars were the “People’s Choice” in it's time and forever in time.
Owner of Old Yeller II