Don Freeland in the Bob Estes...
Don Freeland in the Bob Estes Special at the 58 Indianapolis 500.
Heres what No. 26 looked...
Heres what No. 26 looked like the day it saw sunlight for the first time in 37 years. Slim Fisher sold it to Tony Martinez along with a stack of Halibrands and many spare Offy parts. Tony later had the nosecone painted to match the car, but the rest of the body remains unrestored.
The Estes team originally...
The Estes team originally had the interior done in red leather by Lambert Built in Encino, California. Time had made dust of the material, so Tony had it redone by Michael Miestas at a shop owned by Bob Lambert, son of the original upholsterer. He treated the leather with a patina of authentic wear to match the feel of the rest of the car. The steering wheel is also not original, but the Stewart-Warner tach and oil-pressure gauges are. Note the lefthand shift on the two-speed trans.
In 1958, USAC touted its safety...
In 1958, USAC touted its safety standardsbut can you imagine a magnesium fuel tank today? The rearend is a Le Blanc quick-change thats revealed by removing the fiberglass tail via Dzus fasteners. You can also see the the torsion bar adjuster inboard and behind the tire.
Much of the allure comes...
Much of the allure comes from the vintage speed stickers that remain on the car. Tony had initially planned on restoring the paint, but we helped him decide to leave it as is. He may build a driveable fiberglass replica based on the original body panels.
The Offy DOHC four-banger...
The Offy DOHC four-banger displaced 251-255 ci (our sources were not definitive) and probably made around 400 hp on methanol. This core engine was sold to Slim Fisher by Bob Estes along with the car, but it is unknown if it competed at Indy or Monza. Tony Martinez is currently assembling a running Offy for the car, and even got an anonymous donation of a magneto from a former racer who wanted to see the car back in action.
The tires on the car are vintage...
The tires on the car are vintage dirt-trackers, but Tony wanted some real Indy tires of the time. He located a slightly used set, and if you look closely, you can read Dayton Steel in yellow chalk on the tread. Dayton Steel Foundry was an Indy competitor from 1957 to 1959, so its possible that these tires raced alongside the Bob Estes Special when they were new. The original Halibrand magnesium wheels are reversible, providing slightly different offset depending on which way you mount them.
It was the era of the Indy roadsters1952-1964a time many consider to be the glory days of the Indianapolis 500. The popularity of the event progressed nationally even when competition was more gritty and less marketed. It was still the great American race because, even though those years were dominated by cars from Frank Kurtis (who debuted the first Offy roadster in 1952) and A.J. Watson, the most savvy and well-funded of backyard motorheads could still hope to build a car and qualify. Between Kurtis and Watson in Glendale and Eddie Kuzman, Lujie Lesovsky, and Quinn Epperly elsewhere in the Los Angeles area, Southern California was the hotbed for IndyCar builders. The local hot rodders saw what was going on firsthand and the rest of the world read about it in Hot Rod . The Indy 500 was something to which even average street racers aspired.
Today, the romance is compounded by the sleek lines of the vintage Indy front-engined roadster body style and the seemingly crude technology used to run frightening speeds in the open-cockpit racers virtually devoid of safety gear. The appeal of these roadsters has always compelled Tony Martinez, whose office at Memory Lane Auto Dismantlers in Sun Valley, California, overflows with scale models of historic open-wheel circle-track cars. Despite more than an acre of 40s and 50s Detroit iron behind his desk, the prize Tony was after was a real vintage race car. One day he was chatting with an old customer and mentioned the urge. An old Indy racer, huh? said the customer. Got one in my attic I might be willing to let go.
The long-forgotten car turned out to be the 57-58 Bob Estes Special built at Estes Lincoln-Mercury in Inglewood, California. Most of the work was done by Jud Phillips, a dealership mechanic who later went on to Indy successes including crewchiefing the winning Bobby Unser car of 1968. Estes had owned Indy racers since 1951, and this * one was built specifically for the big race. It was notable at its time for its abnormally huge rear upright wing (that was handformed in fiberglass over a wooden buck stuffed with trash), and came to be known as The Wing Car. The wing was designed for aerodynamic stability, but drivers would later report that it worked too well in a straight line, making turns more difficult.
The car debuted in 1957 as No. 7 and was driven by Bob Veith in his second Indy 500 appearance (his first with Bob Estes). Veith qualified at 141.010 mph, earning a 16th Place starting position behind the Mercury Turnpike Cruiser pace car. He finished in Ninth Place, earning $5,969. The rest of the cars life in 1957 is largely unknown, though we did find a photo of it crossed up on a dirt track in Trenton, New Jersey; presumably it made the rounds as a champ car.
The car number for 1958 was 26 and the driver was Don Freeland, an Indy veteran who had shoed other Estes Specials from 1953 to 1956. He qualified at 143.030 mph and started in 13th positionright behind rookie A.J. Foyt, who spun on lap 148and finished Seventh, earning $7,049. Photos of Freeland after the race show him soaked in oil from the knees down, which was standard for the Offy-powered racers. The 58 Indy is remembered for its opening-lap pileup in turn 3 that DNFd eight cars, sending Jerry Unser out of the park and killing Pat OConner. The Estes Special is seen in most of the photos of the crash as Freeland ducked into the infield to avoid the carnage.
Just a month after the 58 Indy 500, the Estes Special became one of just a handful of American cars to compete in the Monza 500 at the Autodroma near Milan, Italy. It was the second year of the race, conceived by the Automobile Club of Milan, which was designed to pit American and European drivers in an international standoff. The Italian racers and audience proved nonplussed by the proposition, and it was a financial debacle. That fact led to the races demise after its second year in 1958, and it was another 20 years before American IndyCars would compete in Italy, making the participation of the Estes Special quite historic. The long straightaways and high banks of the Autodromas 6.2-mile course made it much faster than Indy, and Freeland qualified the No. 26 at 175.180 mph. Unfortunately, it broke a cam gear and never finished the race.
Once the car returned home it completed locally, but after nosing into the wall at a race in Milwaukee, it went into storage. It remained there until 1961, when Bob Estes retired from Indy racing after 10 seasons. During that time, his cars had finished seven Indy 500s and led just seven laps. The entire race operation was dismantled, and the No. 26 car was sold to Chet Slim Fisher of Glendale, California. Slim replaced the crunched aluminum nose cone with an aftermarket fiberglass version, changed the front suspension from transverse torsion bar to transverse leaf, and shortened the wheelbase 5 inches in preparation for turning the Estes roadster into a championship dirt-track car. Hed marked a tapeline where the tail wing was to be severed, but before the deed was done, Slims partner Ray Douglas was killed racing one of their other cars. Slim never returned to the racetrack. He disassembled No. 26 and stored the parts in the rafters of his garage.
It sat there for 37 years. It was in 1998 when Slim struck the deal for Tony Martinez to buy the roadster sight unseen. Tony knew the car by its history, and he knew it was in pieces. All he asked was help putting it back together, which Slim figured he could do in about a week. Tony was so excited to see the car that he couldnt sleep, but that didnt last longSlim worked through the night and had No. 26 back on its wheels in 36 hours. Tony tells us that Slims two adult daughters had grown up in the house where the dismantled racer was stored and never even knew it was there.
History emerged from Slims garage that day. Despite the modifications made after Indy, the Bob Estes Special still carries its lettering from 1958. The names of Don Freeland and Jud Phillips remain on the body handformed from sheets of magnesium. Many of the historic racing decals remain, including the United States Auto Club crest that was applied to all the American cars that raced in the Monza 500. If you look closely at the left side of the rear wing, you can see the tapeline Slim made in preparation to cut it off. When you experience the car in person you cant help but marvel.
On one hand youre impressed with the craftsmanship of these hot rodders, but on the other you cant fathom driving this thing 175 mph, getting showered in scalding oil, with nothing more than a seatbelt and a helmet, on the high banks of the Autodroma. Those mechanics were skilled, those drivers fearless. It means even more to Tony Martinez, who fulfilled a lifelong dream with a car raced in the year of his birth and carrying the number under which his father competed. Hes been approached by the Indianapolis 500 Museum to participate in race festivities with the car, and hes already turned down offers to sell it for many times what he paid for it. This ones a keeper.