Max Balchowsky’s Old Yeller won’t make you cry, we promise

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Jay Leno's Garage

Although the phrase “Old Yeller” is typically associated with that tear-jerker of a book, don’t let this similarly-named car fool you. The only tears you’ll find around this beast are those of its competitors. Never heard of this legend? Lucky for you, Jay Leno was able to get Dr. Ernie Nagamatsu, the car’s current owner, to swing over to the shop with Old Yeller for a chat about this righteous racer.

To best appreciate the car, we first need to talk about the man behind it. Max Balchowsky was determined to be the underdog success story at every racetrack he towed his Old Yeller home-built specials to. At first glance, it’s not surprising to know that Balchowsky’s challengers were rarely taken seriously in race paddocks with elegant beauties such as the Maserati Type 61 “Birdcage” and Chevrolet XP87. But looks weren’t everything. Balchowsky was resourceful and scrappy, using whatever he could to get a leg up on the competition. For instance, he once used recalled Goodyear station wagon tires because they were the softest compound he could find.

The entirety of the car seen here embodies that scrappiness. A Buick Nailhead V-8 sits under the hood, backed by a Muncie four-speed. The Nailhead is a torque monster compared to some of the other engine options of the time, perfect for a man who believed that torque was the answer to most of the problems he encountered with Old Yeller. It seems his theory worked, as this car brought home trophies from road courses and drag strips alike.

Jay takes the car for a spin out on the streets around his shop and the experience surprises him a bit. The torque is stunning, as are the brakes, which nearly put Jay face-first into the windshield. The steering is light, which is rare for a car of that era with such big sticky tires. That may be a result of the engine being set so far back from the nose of the car that the front axle is not carrying the entire weight of big iron block Buick. That engine placement is also why Jay looks mighty uncomfortable with the lack of legroom in the car.

It’s a wild car built by a scrappy and smart man during a time when one could still pull a feat like this off. Preserving machines like this goes a long way in highlighting the history of so many fascinating adventures from days gone by. Kudos to Ernie Nagamatsu for his stewardship of the car and his willingness to share its history.

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