James Long’s Vintage Auto Shop Class

Period shot of Kelly Petillo and riding mechanic Jimmy Dunham in the original Gilmore speedway special during the 1935 Indianapolis race.

Text + Photos: Mike Blanchard

Spotlight  |  It is not often that you see an Indy big car from the ‘20s or ‘30s, the age of giants. Even more unusual that you should see the owner of said car encouraging kids to get in it so their mom can take a picture. And yet there was James Long beaming, as the kid sat on the red leather upholstery, in the bright yellow car and cranked on the steering wheel, making engine noises, while his mom got a shot. 

The car is a replica of the Gilmore Speedway Special, that Kelly Patillo drove to victory in the 1935 Indianapolis 500. It is a replica but it is made from real deal components. “Everything in the car we tried to find a racing connection,” says Long. “All the details, I want it to look right.” And it does, gauges, pedals, steering wheel, frame, engine all came from pre-war race cars. Long is careful to make sure that this cars is known as a replica. He has a contempt for fakes and the people who make them. This is a learning project designed to give students the opportunity to walk in the shoes of the men who built the originals.

All the details, I want it to look right.

Long is passionate about the history of America’s racing past and just as enthusiastic about passing that heritage on to young people. The car is the current shop class project for a group of high school kids from Bitney Prep high school located right next to Long's shop. The kids have had a hand on almost every component on the car. As they work on the car, Long is also teaching about the history of these cars and the men who built them and raced them.

Russ Jones is the Director at Bitney Prep. “When I came here three years ago I looked over the fence at the precious metal in his yard and I went and introduced myself,” says Jones.

Bitney Prep is focused on big picture learning. “We are all about where are you? Where are you going?” says Jones. “Making connections between school and goals. Whether it is vocational training, the military or college. We have 90 students in mentored internships every week,”  The shop program has six to eight students working in the shop three days a week.

“James has an amazing skill set in racing and the industry,” says Jones.” He’s got connections that I could not dream of.” 

“I started working for George Wingard when I was 16,” says Long. “I learned a ton from him. I’m still learning.”

We have 90 students in mentored internships every week. The shop program has six to eight students working in the shop three days a week.

Wingard is the owner of some of the most significant historic race cars in existence. Jay Leno has characterized Wingard as having “the finest collection of cars in the United States.” He owns such cars as 1908 and 1914 Grand Prix Mercedes (the 1914 car was the winner of the 1914 French Grand Prix and is one of the most historic, important and valuable cars in private hands today), a 200 hp Blitzen Benz, the 1920 Ballot 3LC Grand Prix car designed by Ernst Henry that came in second at Indy in ’20 as well as the amazing 1904 FIAT S74 race car, one of the celebrated “Beasts of Turin”.

Wingard’s shop was a pretty good environment for a car crazy kid to learn the ropes. Long started out cleaning cars and running errands and eventually moved up to working on and maintaining cars in the collection. Through these early connections Long has met and become friends with many of the people who built and raced these cars as well as the people who own them now. “I’ve wiped the oil off of the best cars in the world,” says Long.

Students Brandon Clanton and Brandon Chaffing with racing legend and noted dandy, Sir Jackie Stewart. (courtesy of James Long)

He wants to leverage those connections to teach young people and make sure that the skills required to own and maintain these vehicles, and the history behind them, are not lost.  “The goal is to connect the guys who know with kids that want to learn,” says Long. “We call this our 100 mile an hour classroom.”

The staff at Bitney Prep has written a grant which has allowed Long and the school to put a program together. The students have been able to bring the car to Indianapolis for the 500 as well as attend the Monterey historic weekend. This gives them the opportunity to interact with collectors, racers and restorers and see that there is a legitimate career in the collector car industry. 

The goal is to build the car and sell to raise money to restore another race car and do it all again. Long’s shop class has restored or repaired several vehicles which were sold to fund the program.  They also have larger donors who have contributed. Among others, the Haggarty Foundation has given them a grant to buy welding and plasma cutter equipment.

The unusual class project sits on a set of Miller frame rails and rolls on correct period hubs and wheels. At the moment there is a Ford model B based four cylinder DOHC racing engine in it but there is a correct early Offenhauser engine waiting in the wings. The body was made for Long by students at McPhereson College in Kansas. The defining visual features of this car are the heart shaped grill and its dynamic lion graphics which were recreated by Jim Mosier. Long is not quite happy with the shape of the grill and will be having the nose remade. 

The shop is a riot of parts and vehicles. On stands are two Offy 255 sidewinder engines Long is rebuilding that will go to “Speedy” Bill Smith’s collection. There is a custom Packard coupe under a lift. A Pierce Arrow and a Stutz sit out in the yard. There is the tub of a Gurney Eagle Indy car sitting in the back of the shop. 

Long’s desk overflows with rare racing literature, bricks from the Miller factory and correspondence. Sitting on top is Leo Goosen’s index of engine blueprints from the old Miller/Offy factory, written in his own hand, an amazing treasure in and of itself.

The classe’s next project, a ‘30s Lincoln phaeton sits on the rack ready for work. An 1888 painting by Harry Miller’s father Jacob hangs high on the wall. Rare parts sit on shelves lining the walls.

One of Longs prized things is a doctors bag overflowing with metal objects. “The Bag” is a learning tool that he takes with him when he speaks to students. He pulls out a Bugatti connecting rod followed by a piston taken out of Leon Duray’s 1928 Miller 91 race car when it was refreshed prior to being taken to Europe and subsequently traded to Ettore Bugatti. These small bits of metal are history. These are rare and valuable objects that Long passes around for students to hold while he tells their story. 

“Every part has a lesson. We’re not in a museum,” Long says. “Touch it, fix it and get it back into service.”

One of Long’s former students, Mitch Hooper, 21, is back helping out in the shop. He is on his summer break from studying industrial technology and vehicle design at Western Washington University. He credits Long with starting him on his path. 

“James needed an intern and it evolved. Now we are working on race cars,” says Hooper. “I feel like pretty much anything James would like me to do I could do.” 

Hooper would like to find a place on a race team after graduating. But for the afternoon he will be helping Long fab new radiator mounts for the cars.

Bitney Prep director Jones is convinced that Long is making a difference in young people’s lives.

“Last year he mentored two kids with issues. After working with James they saw they had skills they never realized,” says Jones. “James has great empathy, sensitivity and understanding. Some kids take to it and some don’t but the experience is real.”