|Vintage Indy cars roar back to life|
|Wednesday, May 16, 2012|
The first motorized vehicle he created as a youth of 12 came from the dregs of two walk-behind lawn mowers. His first set of wheels in high school was a 1947 Cadillac hearse.
But next week, Bill Akin cruises the fabled Indianapolis Motor Speedway in something that runs a little faster: His Bowes Seal Fast car, which raced here in the 1959 and 1960 Indianapolis 500, has hit a top speed of 177 miles per hour.
“On Thursday before the race, we get to run our cars,” Akin said matter-of-factly about the thrill of spinning his wheels at speeds of well over 100 miles per hour on the planet’s most famous racetrack. “This will be the 13th year to run my cars at the track.”
The honor of turning laps on the legendary 2.5-mile oval goes to those who own cars that have raced here in past decades, and Akin possesses three Indy cars that ran from the mid-1950s into the early 1960s.
“I’m into all kinds of old cars, not just Indy race cars. I restore ’em to what you see here,” said Akin, 67, who grew up in Hermitage.
What you see here in his basement garage a few miles out of Mt. Juliet is the sleek, ebony, 1953 Kurtis Kraft KK 500B Bardahl Special that finished third in the 1955 Indianapolis 500 and the gleaming, white Bowes Seal Fast race car that wound up in sixth place in the 1959 Indy 500. (His third car is in the paint shop.)
These cars are not mere boy toys, but pieces of history that in their heyday were among the fastest vehicles on asphalt. And come May 25, Akin and his cars will be part of the rolling museum that includes speed machines from 1930s to the 1970s as they return to the scene where they once commanded the limelight.
“I’m into old race cars. I always wanted one. I read everything I could find about the Indy 500 and listened to the races on radio as a boy. At some point in the game, I decided I wanted one and started looking. I found my first one in a junkyard in Russellville, Ky.,” he said of the 1961 Autolite Dealers Association Special that he bought in 1984 for $800.
His Autolite was to be driven by Tony Bettenhausen in the 1961 Indy 500, but the racer was killed in a crash a few weeks before the big event, thus Lloyd Ruby drove the car to an eighth place finish. Built in 1960 by Quin Epperly, the car has also been driven by such racers as Parnelli Jones, Don Branson and Bobby Marshman. It is currently getting a new “old look” as it is being painted to its 1963 original blue color.
Akins gets hands-on with all of his cars. The Middle Tennessee State University alum holds a degree in industrial technology and spent decades in the mechanical contracting business. While he has worked on rockets and machinery that turned out toaster strudel for Pillsbury, he also guided projects at the first Nashville Convention Center and the now extinct Nashville thermo plant and oversaw the heating, venting and air conditioning that went into the restored Hermitage, home of the president nicknamed Old Hickory.
Coincidentally, Akin’s family owned a farm going back 200 years ago that made them neighbors with Andrew Jackson, and one of his ancestors served as a pallbearer at Jackson’s funeral. As the traffic and noise grew in the Hermitage area, Akin sold the land and moved to a quieter spot of ground.
Indeed, his basement garage spills over with tools, engines, pistons, trophies, old advertising signs, nuts, bolts and more tools, and also offers refuge to his Indy car trio.
Akin’s pride and joy is the Bowes Seal Fast car which he restored in 2007.
“This is my favorite car. It has a pleasing shape and is just a pretty, pretty car,” he said of the speed machine he purchased in 2006. It had been kept for 40 years by its previous owner in a Detroit condo.
“It still had the 1964 oil in the engine,” Akin said. “Completing the first two cars were hard, but I had a very easy time with this. The first time I was driving on the Indy track, I was scared to death. I got a little stupid last year with this car and drove it 150 miles per hour,” he said. “It felt pretty good. This car loves to run fast.”
Akin said that when he met the car’s original mechanic, George Bignotti, “I told him I planned to restore it like it was in 1959. He paused and said, ‘Man, that’s a fast SOB.’”
The Bowes Seal Fast car was built in 1959 by Quin Epperly for owner Bob Bowes. Driver George Amick crashed the car in a race at Daytona that same year and was killed. Then Johnny Boyd drove it to sixth and 27th place finishes in the 1959 and 1960 Indy 500s, respectively.
“Somebody else does the painting and upholstery and chrome plating for me. The rebuilding work and fabricating of parts I do myself," said Akin, who works part time for Vanderbilt on various campus construction jobs.
As for his other Indy car, the 1953 Bardahl Special, he said, “I traded an engine for the chassis and body of the Bardahl car, and that’s all it was—bones.”
Akin bartered with John Mecom Jr., former owner of the New Orleans Saints NFL team, for this vehicle, which belonged to Memphian Pat Clancy in its heyday. The Bardahl Special finished third in 1955 Indy 500 with Jimmy Davies behind the wheel.
“Everybody likes that car because it’s black and shiny. Get all the dust off and shined up, and it’s like a black pearl,” he said with pride.
The old-Indy car community remains an exclusive club as about 100 to 125 of these types of race cars were built. Approximately 85 still exist.
His three Indy cars are roadsters, meaning the driver sits real low and off to one side of the car. Powered by four-cylinder, Offenhauser engines, the cars have body pieces made of hand-formed aluminum.
Akins’ truck license plate reads 1PBLBCH, a clue to a second major car event where he occasionally displays his Indy jewels on four wheels.
In four trips to the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance over the past 10 years, he has won two first place and two second place trophies. In 2010, his Bardahl Special took first in the open wheeled race car class “W” and also captured the Tony Hulman Trophy for its historical significance in open wheel racing.
The 180 or so cars are shown in 25 classes on the 18th fairway of the Pebble Beach Golf Course in Monterey, Calif. That's where Akin has rubbed elbows with such celebrities as Jay Leno and Ralph Lauren, and he has plans to return.
“It was fun to go out there and do well with the big boys,” he said. “Pebble Beach is another world, and I don’t live there, but I like to visit.
“One of the greatest joys of messing with these things,” he said, is “I get to meet a lot of my heroes from when I was reading about Indy in the 1950s,” referring to drivers such as Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Lloyd Ruby.
Next Thursday afternoon, Akin will don his helmet and strap himself into his Bowes Seal Fast car at the track known as The Brickyard. “I’ll whiz her about 10 or 12 laps around the speedway,” says Akin, whose real heroes are the men who build the marvelous machines that turn race drivers into legends at the legendary Indianapolis 500.