Remembering Bob Estes


 by Steven N. Levinson
January 17, 2002

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Robert Stewart Estes, better known as Bob Estes, passed away on December 11,2001 at Santa Monica Hospital in Santa Monica, California. He was 88 years old and had resided in Brentwood, California. 

Estes was born in Los Angeles, California on September 21, 1913. He became a well known fixture in the 1950's AAA Mid West Sprint Car Championship, the AAA National Championship and later both the USAC Sprint and national Championships as well as a perennial entrant in the Indy 500. 

After serving in world War II, Estes started the Bob Estes Lincoln-Mercury dealership in Inglewood, California in 1946. His cars would appear as the "BOB ESTES SPECIAL". In 1955 he also started "Precision Motor Cars" in Beverly Hills, California and was later joined by Otto Zipper to form Estes-Zipper Porsche-Audi. 

Estes had a fascination for cars as a child that continued his entire life. He collected classics, as well as racing cars. One of his earliest forays into motor racing was with teen-age phenom Troy Ruttman (later to become the 1952 Indy 500 Winner at 22 years of age) in the California Roadster Association, the precursor of the California Racing Association. 

In 1948, he took the plunge and went to Indianapolis with a "MERCURY" powered car.  He wanted to challenge the "Offy" dominance. In 1948 Manuel Ayulo failed to qualify; In 1950 Joe James was "bumped'' on the last day of qualifying, and in 1951 Bob Scott failed to make the Indy 500 field. 

In 1952 Estes went to Indy with Jim Rigsby in an " Offy" and finished 12th! It was also in 1952 that Estes entered a "sprint car" in the highly competitive AAA Mid West Sprint Car Championship for Rigsby. For anyone not familiar with this sprint car series that raced on the treacherous high banked half-miles at Dayton, Ohio, Salem and Winchester, Indiana, I can only describe the racing as "heart-throbbing", "mind altering", "nerve bending" affairs that literally had both drivers and fans "holding their breath for 30 grueling and dangerous laps. It was simply an "extremely dangerous" activity. 

Unfortunately, 1952 was not a good year for car owner Bob Estes. On August 31st Jim Rigsby sailed over the third turn wall during the running of the Dayton (Ohio) "100" in a horrifyingly spectacular accident that took his life. As a 9 year old, I was in the stands at Dayton that day, and the memory still haunts me. Later in November, his Champ Dirt car driver Joe James lost his life in a freak accident during a caution period while leading at the San Jose Mile dirt track. 

Bob was vilified in certain circles, even though neither accident was the result of any mechanical failure. It also cost him his marriage, as if Estes was not already devastated by the year's event. 

In 1953, his fortunes took a turn for the better as his driver, Pat O'Conner won the AAA Mid West Sprint Car title, and Don Freeland finished 7th in the AAA National Championship. 

In 1954, Pat O'Conner repeated as Mid West Sprint Champion. 

1955 was not a good year in the history of motorsport. In fact, it was horrific. Larry "Crash" Crockett, the 1954 Indy 500 "Rookie of the Year" lost his life in March in a sprint car at Langhorne; Veteran Mike Nazaruk also lost his life at Langhorne in a sprint car; Manual Ayulo died at Indy in practice, and the indomitable Bill Vukovich was killed on the 57th lap during the Indy 500 while leading handily on route to a potential 3rd straight 500 win; the very next week, Pierre Levegh's Mercedes plunged into the stands at Le Mans; In July, '55 Indy "Pole winner" Jerry Hoyt was killed in a sprint car crash in Oklahoma City; and finally, in the penultimate round of the national championship at the mile dirt track at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, popular and perennial Indy 500 front row starter Jack McGrath was killed. 

Thus ended the year and with it the American Automobile Association's Contest Board terminated it's association with the sanctioning of motor racing. 

As a result of AAA's departure, Tony Hulman, Arthur Harrington, Gordon Betz and Bob Estes, among others formed the United States Auto Club (USAC) to continue the sanctioning of the Indianapolis 500 and the national Championship. 

1956 also brought Bob Estes another Mid West Sprint Car Championship under the capable and talented hands of popular Pat O'Conner. In addition, Don Freeland finished 3rd in the USAC National Championship. 

1957 and 1958 saw Estes enter cars in the USAC national Championship and Mid West Sprint car Championship, as well as entering cars in the "Race of Two Worlds" at Monza, Italy which saw Indy Cars run on an oval on Monza high banking. 

1959 brought Estes another USAC Mid West Sprint Car Championship. This time with Don Branson as his driver. 

In 1960, Branson drove the Bob Estes Special to a 4th place in the Indy 500,and Branson finished in 2nd place in the USAC Mid West Sprint Car Championship to "rookie" sensation Parnelli Jones in the all conquering Fike Plumbing Chevy powered sprinter # 51. 1960 also marked Estes final trip to Indy as a car owner. 

I was personally very fortunate to not only witness the AAA Sprint cars at Dayton and Salem (Indiana), but to also have met and spent time with Bob Estes during 1990's. Bob Estes was the epitome of class and elegance. He was a soft-spoken and gentle soul who raced cars before the onslaught of corporate sponsors and corporate "SPEAK". Bob was the " Gentleman/Sportsman" before the term "privateer" came into vogue. He raced because he loved the sport. "PASSION" not money or greed was his motivation. Everyone who knew him will miss him. He is survived by his wife of 42 years, Joy, and two daughters Antoinette and Sandra, one son and 5 grandchildren.

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