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Adventure meets history

California dentist's passion for vintage auto racing drives him to compete in England and Australia

Los Angeles—When Dr. Ernie Nagamatsu gets ready for yet another international trip, he packs one accessory that sets him apart from most, if not all, other travelers: his own vintage car, Old Yeller II, widely known and revered in the motor racing community around the world.

Cars and drivers profiled online

Dr. Ernie Nagamatsu shares his vintage car racing passion, along with the history and continuing adventures of Old Yeller II, in a special Web site at www.oldyeller2.com

Here are some excerpts:

Mongrels and movies: The name for Dr. Nagamatsu's Old Yeller II (and predecessor OY I) was reportedly coined by Lester Nehamkin, a Hollywood studio photographer. Mr. Nehamkin dubbed the cars after the 1959 Walt Disney movie "Old Yeller," the story of a boy and his stray but brave mongrel dog whose heroic actions saved a family but resulted in his demise. Since the Balchowsky-built cars were "backyard specials," not off the assembly line, the name recognized them as mechanical "mongrels." The choice of bright yellow paint soon followed.

Meeting Max: Dr. Nagamatsu attributes his strong interest in car racing—and ownership of Old Yeller II—to Max Balchowsky, owner of the "legendary Hollywood Motors." That first meeting in the early 1970s, he says, "evolved into a long friendship over the years. The big white garage was famous and the center of innovative racing designs but never had a sign on Hollywood Boulevard. 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 carried around a shop rag and always kept the floors of his shop spotlessly clean. Max always had exotic sports cars in the shop, which 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 for stunt car development.

"Max became good friends with Buddy Hackett and did the setups for the VW known as Herbie for the movie 'Love Bug.' Max is most legendary for the movie stunt work he did for the movie Bullit with Steve McQueen, and he knew Steve well. Max worked with Elvis Presley in several movies, and for Viva Las Vegas, Max used two Old Yeller race cars in the movie (one crashed)."

Car, driver and team have been invited to numerous and prestigious racing events, from the Goodwood Festival of Speed in the United Kingdom (nine times) to the New Zealand Motor Racing Festival, held this past January in Auckland.

It's at this last event, says Dr. Nagamatsu, "that we somehow scooped the big first-time Bruce McLaren Perpetual Trophy over some of the toughest drivers on the planet." The award, he explains, recognizes the "performance of a race car, driver and team that best represents the spirit of Bruce McLaren, the most important Kiwi racing legend, who was also known for his dedication to his team." (A New Zealand native, Mr. McLaren became a world-class driver before his fatal crash in 1970 at age 32.) Dr. Nagamatsu, with his wife Elaine, accepted the award for "our great team. We were overwhelmed and humbled for the incredible journey that our 'junkyard dog' of a race car has taken us."

Off the race track, Dr. Nagamatsu is equally passionate about his practice, having opened a new high-tech office in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles two years ago, where Elaine also assists.

Dr. Nagamatsu's dedication to both dentistry and driving has thrived for decades. He started competitive racing in Formula Fords in southern California in the late 1980s. He moved into vintage car racing with the help of his longtime friend, Max Balchowsky, who with his wife Ina owned the legendary Hollywood Motors, where Old Yeller II (OY II) was built in 1959.

But, it would not be until the early 1990s that OY II would be acquired by Dr. Nagamatsu.

In the meantime, from 1960 until 1974, OY II made racing history, competing at major sports car races internationally and throughout California. The "Homebuilt Backyard Special," as it was dubbed by Mr. Balchowsky, went on to break track records and outpace Maseratis, Ferraris, Jaguars and Porsches. After a last regional race in California, OY II was left to languish in a backyard in Fresno, Calif., until it was again refurbished and returned to the track.

In 1991, Dr. Nagamatsu acquired the car, and by 2005 had restored it back to its original 1959 specifications and road performance. That same year, he says, OY II took top honors at the Rolex Monterey Historic Automobile Races, earning the prestigious Phil Hill Monterey Cup Award. "It was emotional and overwhelming in front of all the drivers and teams from more than 400 cars eligible for the award," he recalls.

Dr. Nagamatsu is not the first dentist on the racing circuit. He refers to the following two as his heroes:

  • Britain's Dr. Tony Brooks, an oral surgeon, was known as the "racing dentist." He participated in 39 Formula One World Championship Grand Prix races, scoring a first Grand Prix win in 1957 for a British driver in a British-made car.
  • Dr. Dick Thompson, who practiced in Washington, D.C., started racing in 1952 in one of the first 12-hour races at Sebring International Raceway. Dubbed the "flying dentist," he was inducted into the Corvette Hall of Fame in 2000.

Described by "TheRaceSite.com" as a "dentist by trade but a racer at heart," Dr. Nagamatsu insists "I still love dentistry after all these years." He graduated in 1963 from the University of Southern California School of Dentistry.

Early in his career, Dr. Nagamatsu was an assistant clinical professor in fixed prosthodontics at USC and also taught pediatric dentistry. After dental school, he also pursued formal art education at El Camino College, the University of California, Los Angeles and the Otis Art Institute, leading to his work on dental illustrations which appeared in published texts for clinical dentistry and clinical thoracic diagnosis.

In 1976, Dr. Nagamatsu was appointed by then Gov. Jerry Brown to the California Board of Dental Examiners. He served two terms until 1984, including two years as president of the board.

Dr. Nagamatsu also directed the American Indian Free Clinic, established in the 1970s for the American Indian population of Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties. He also served on the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center Board and is now on the board of governors for the JACCC in Los Angeles. In recent years, his wide-ranging cultural interests also took him to the Kingdom of Bhutan. "I became acquainted with Her Majesty Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck and made two solo trips to the kingdom. I noticed there was not a cookbook about Bhutan and decided to publish one." A limited edition, "The Foods of the Kingdom of Bhutan" is both a comprehensive cookbook and a pictorial journal.

Today, Dr. Nagamatsu says that running his practice and racing cars "takes the same kind of focus and dedication." It's also the reason, he says, that when he's not on the racing circuit, his days in Los Angeles start with a 3:45 a.m. workout or squash game, and he's in the office by 6 a.m. "With appointments and treatment plans to finish, I don't get home until almost 7 p.m."

Dr. Nagamatsu continues to use his early art training, frequently turning to his "huge art pad to illustrate patient problems" for referring specialists. He also creates watercolors and other artistic tributes to celebrate occasions as well as encourage patients who may be facing cancer and other serious health issues.

He anticipates more races with OY II, including participating in the third Tasman Revival Meeting Races in Sydney, Australia, in November, and pending another invitation (his 10th), a return to Britain's Goodwood Festival of Speed.

Dr. Nagamatsu says his life is full of "awesome experiences" that are "meaningful and magical, and sometimes bigger than life—ear-popping and eye-bulging."