Tri-City man restores historic Indy car, drives it at Brickyard

May 13, 2011 

KENNEWICK — The man with the unruly white hair crouched behind the eight-cylinder engine.

His friend in the driver's seat signaled thumbs-up. The starter motor whirred in the gray-haired man's fists.

The engine fired, sputtered and came to life with a scream that lurched the man at the wheel closer to his childhood dream.

That was a few weeks ago, after the two men - Michael McKinney and Bob Talbert - plus several others, had spent about two years restoring a unique race car with deep Pacific Northwest roots. This weekend, the team has taken the vintage racing machine to the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500.

McKinney, who now lives in Kennewick, finally drove alongside racing greats on Friday. And he did so in a car that's been piloted by some of the world's best drivers.

A Northwest car

In the mid-1960s, a new type of race car showed up at the Indy 500 and other open-wheel races. The new rear-engine cars looked like small airplanes with wide tires instead of wings.

Portland car builder Rolla Vollstedt, now 92, was one of the first to switch to the new style.

The car he originally built as a back-up for the 1967 racing season - the 67-B - would become his most successful. It ran in 30 races and finished in the top ten in half of them - quite an accomplishment for a low-budget shop from racing's hinterlands.

"A who's who of racing champions drove this particular car at one time or another," McKinney said. "And it was fabricated in the Northwest by Northwest builders and crewed by Northwest people."

The car had its greatest brush with fame when world champion Jimmy Clark drove it in Riverside, Calif., in late 1967. The Scotsman is considered one the top three drivers of all time.

A story in Car and Driver magazine at the time said Clark in the Vollstedt car "had driven faster than was thought capable by a mortal man."

The 67-B was the last car Clark drove in America. He died on a track in Germany six months later.

Vollstedt sold the car to a fellow Oregonian in 1972, whose driver promptly crashed it. The 67-B changed owners again but was never repaired.

It disappeared for three decades until a Tri-City racer went looking for it.

A lifelong pursuit

McKinney became a race fan in the place that's built on high-octane fuel - he spent his teenage years in Indianapolis before moving to the Northwest.

In college he started racing go-carts as a one-man team.

"I couldn't afford to pay anybody," McKinney said. "I learned to weld and to work on engines."

He won a lot of races and moved up to low-budget, but professional, race cars. Around 1994, McKinney - then a project manager at Battelle - met Bob Talbert, a scientist with a passion for high-performance automobiles.

Talbert brought a physicist's mind to tuning engines and suspensions. The two became known for some innovative and unusual modifications on their race cars.

"People scratched their heads wondering what we were doing," McKinney said laughing.

Winning races is what they were doing. McKinney won three regional championships and several national events. But he was running out of time to become an Indy racer.

Life hadn't been on hold for McKinney's stab at a racing career. He'd married and had kids.

He and his wife, Lisa, had treated racing as a family affair. Their two young girls helped out at the track. But their daughters were getting old enough to participate in school sports and other activities that require a parent's full attention on weekends.

McKinney knew where his priorities lay and hung up his racing gloves in 2002. But he couldn't stop dreaming of Indy cars.

A lasting dream

Twenty years ago, shortly after McKinney finished law school, he and his wife were in the stands at the Indy 500.

"It was hot, and I was six months pregnant and wondering why I came," Lisa said, laughing at the memory.

Her husband didn't notice the heat.

"He told me he's coming back some day with his own car," she said. "I said, 'Sure you are.'"

Mike McKinney hung onto his dream, even after he quit competitive racing.

Vintage races, in which cars from yesteryear run in friendly competition, have drawn growing crowds in the last decade. They often feature former champions in their original cars.

"I couldn't race with them at the time," he said. "But I still might have a chance to go out on the track and participate in an event with one of my heroes."

He started looking for a vintage car, one with Northwest roots. Through an ad in a racing magazine, McKinney met Rolla Vollstedt.

McKinney couldn't afford to buy a fully restored Vollstedt, which might go for up to $250,000. He was looking for a project car.

Vollstedt said all his cars either had been restored or were in the process - except one, the car Jimmy Clark drove in '67. It hadn't been heard of in years.

A pile of junk

McKinney spent eight months looking for the 67-B, to no avail. He gave up and bought another car.

A few years later, McKinney by accident dialed Vollstedt's son's number. When Kurt Vollstedt realized who he was talking to, he shared some surprising news.

The 67-B had turned up near Bremerton. The bad news was that its owner had just sold it, Vollstedt said.

McKinney called the owner anyway, to see if the man had parts for his other vintage car. They talked for a few minutes before the man realized which car McKinney had been after.

"He suddenly said, 'Oh, you're talking about the Vollstedt - I still have that,'" McKinney said.

A few days later, he stepped into an old machine shop.

"It was rusted piles of parts," he said. "It was hard to see what was even there."

Even in its sad state, he couldn't afford to buy the car on his own and partnered with friends. Ron Hjaltalin and Mark Prentice were excited about becoming part owners of a piece of racing history.

McKinney asked his old racing buddy Talbert to become a partner, too.

"I said, 'Hell no, it's a pile of junk and you'll never get it together,'" Talbert said.

A team effort

The disassembled car came to the Tri-Cities in 2008. It had no engine or transmission, the left side of its nose was crushed and many bits were missing.

It took a while to find a metal fabricator who could recreate the smashed aluminum skin - Rhody Hayes, a longtime instructor in the now-defunct auto body program at Columbia Basin College.

Then, on a visit to his parents in New Mexico, McKinney went to the Unser Racing Museum. He walked out having secured an engine for his car from racing legend Al Unser Sr., who was once a teammate of Clark.

The pieces were coming together. But a lot of work lay ahead.

McKinney was the force behind it. And despite his pessimistic assessment earlier, Talbert put in a lot of hours. McKinney's partners, Hjaltalin and Prentice, invested time and more money. Two others - Dan Mack and Mel Eayrs - provided crucial expertise.

How many hours went into the car?

McKinney just shook his head. "I have no idea," he said. "Over the last year there were a lot of weekends and evenings. In the last four months, it was every spare moment outside of work."

McKinney wanted to have the car ready for the 100th anniversary of the first Indy 500. He wanted to make his statement of 20 years ago come true.

Last month, they had the car restored and reassembled. After a few evenings of experimenting with fuel injection and ignition settings, its engine fired.

"It was very gratifying to know that we did it, we finally did it," McKinney said.

Racing with legends

A few weeks ago, the car rolled off a trailer at the old Tri-City Raceway. McKinney squeezed himself into his old racing suit, put on helmet and gloves and got behind the wheel.

Talbert manned the external starter. A small crowd of friends had assembled. A box of earplugs was passed around.

The engine screamed to life and McKinney piloted his childhood dream onto the cracked pavement of the old track.

They'd done it.

"There aren't many opportunities (to) bring a piece of history back to life," McKinney said later. "And even though you can't bring Jimmy Clark back to life, you can bring his instrument back. For the people that were there - it brings their memories right back."

Those words proved to be true this weekend, when McKinney and the team took the 67-B to Indianapolis for an on-track exhibit of vintage cars.

"All day, these old-timers came up to me and said, 'I remember this car - I was at Riverside,'" McKinney said. "Sitting in the pit lane and being part of this event - it's been fantastic."

You can't bring Jimmy Clark back to life. But reviving the Scotsman's memory made a boy from Indianapolis realize a lifelong dream.

The Vollstedt 67-B by the numbers:

- Top speed: 185 mph

- Average speed at Indy: 160-plus mph

- Engine: Ford V-8, 700-plus horsepower

- Fuel tank: 60 gallons

- Weight: 1,500 pounds

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