Bob McKee had chutzpah. He believed he could build racecars that were as good as anyone else’s and build them safer. Not only did he build racecars, he also built components like early transaxles, which many people in the early days of mid-engined racecars sought out from him. However, a lack of a major sponsor and the money that a sponsor would bring, meant his cars became increasingly uncompetitive and the buyers stopped arriving at his front door. Today, he repairs and prepares vintage racecars at his Lake Zurich, Illinois, shop. John Wright recently caught up with this modest and retiring man at his shop on a quiet day.
Tell us something of your background.
McKee: Well, I was born in Evanston, Illinois, and my father was a civil engineer, with an engineering company that did foundations, pile driving, etc. I really did try to get interested in civil engineering but it didn’t take. I was much more taken with the allure of racing. I tried college at Michigan Tech for one semester, but I wanted to start my own business. Jack Sullivan, a friend of mine, and I tried a speed shop, and we did anything we could in that shop to make a living. However, Jack got married and there wasn’t enough money in that for both of us, and so I sold off my share to him. Jack, by the way went on to work for Smokey Yunick with people like Fireball Roberts. He was also crew chief for NASCAR racer Freddie Lorenzen. I tried another semester at the University of Nebraska but again it didn’t take. Then, I worked for Tiny Lund, a Harlen, Iowa, boy and in 1956 we went to Daytona. I had built a 1956 Pontiac for Tiny to run, and we ran NASCAR until we ran out of money. Tiny had financed the Pontiac and had missed his payments, so the finance company sent a repo man down to take the car. He was surprised to see a roll bar in it! We pleaded with him to let us run it one more time. He let us, and then he came down again and took the Pontiac away forever.
But that wasn’t the end of your NASCAR career because those days were the heyday of factory-backed competition.
McKee: It was an exciting era. I went to work for the Howard Moore factory Pontiac team. Pontiac paid the bills and ran the cars. His uncle, Lou Moore, had built the Blue Crown Specials and so there was a tradition of racing there. He had died and Howard took over the business. Then, in 1957 you may remember that the AMA, or Automobile Manufacturers Association, banned factory NASCAR racing and we were all out of a job. Up to that point, the factories had given cars and equipment to the teams and you had a steady salary. You had tow trucks. It was a civilized life.
So, what did you do to get by? Where did you go to get work?
McKee: I was hanging around Indy at that time. I was more enamored with Indy cars. It was more interesting. I was ready to try more things. I thought Indy was the place to be.
I worked for a bunch of people around Indy, Dick Rathmann for one and Marshal Teague for another. He was a good mechanic, a smart guy. I also worked for A.J. Watson and did grunt work for him like washing parts. I really respect A.J. He’s a great guy.
Dick Rathmann died of cancer a while back. He was one of the first top-name drivers I knew. We were good friends, and I lived with him for a time. I worked with him at Ray Nichels’s team, and we all became really good buddies. Dick was like a big brother to me. He grew up as a tough kid in Los Angeles with his brother Jim. Jim was more successful than Dick. He won Indy in 1960 after finishing second in 1952, 1957, and 1959. Dick was a tough guy and was his own mechanic and driver in the early NASCAR series. He towed and owned his own car. It’s hard to appreciate today that in those days, two guys—the driver and his mechanic—were perhaps the entire team...
For the whole story, see the December issue of Vintage Racecar.