Bert Skidmore is nothing short of a dynamo, whether on track driving his consistently-winning 1976 Lola T-286 or running his Intrepid Motorcar Company vintage restoration and tuning shop in Reno, Nevada. Intrepid fielded no fewer than 10 race ready historic cars for 2010’s inaugural Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion at Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway. True to form, Skidmore drove his 3.0-liter DFV Cosworth-powered T-286 to win the meet’s race for 1970-76 FIA Manufacturer’s Championship cars – same he did the year before in the final edition of Steve Earle’s Monterey Pre-Historic. Top driver, tuner, restorer, all around terrific guy, this Skidmore? You bet.
His Intrepid shop is a multi-marque showroom of vintage racing exotica, except nothing is on static display here. When I arrived with cameras a few minutes past the appointed time, Skidmore, trim as an athlete, met me with a grin and said, “You’re late.” It’s his way, quick-witted, ready to find humor in the moment but always on the ball, designing procedure and thinking outcome. You sense there’s no waste in his path. His immediate response to any given request or idea is frequently one word – “Cool”. Always processing, Skidmore exudes instant perception, and you’d swear he has laser vision.
We walk through the shop. It’s not huge, like several I know, but there’s something going on in every square foot of it. Take the work in progress on this Ferrari, that Chevron, or the Elva over there, the Lister-Jag, Maserati, GT-40, Gurney Eagle F1, Lola, March, Shelby Mustang, Aston Martin, right down to the little blue Deutsch-Bonnet being prepped for paint. It’s like a vintage car museum on steroids. Diligence reigns supreme here; mistakes are indefensible. “These cars are worth so much money,” Skidmore is telling me, “that you really can’t afford not to make them right. My guys have to ask themselves, ‘Is that the best job I could have done?’ The answer better be Yes.” Skidmore’s not a tyrant, he’s just totally dedicated to what’s going on here. Cool.
He bought the shop and business from Lou Sellyei back in 1989 after working here as a mechanic for five years. The business then was in the red. Say’s Skidmore, “I told Lou, “I can’t have this place and lose money’.” Eventually, Skidmore hired a new crew and began making a name for himself and his business on the vintage racing circuit. While still working
for Sellyei, he’d gone to school in Lou’s Lotus 18, got to drive a loaner Bourgeault with twin-cam, bought and Elva MkVI running a Coventry Climax, then a “real race car” 2.0-liter Lola T-210. Both wrench and steering wheel being major strong points, Skidmore went up through the ranks that included racing Sellyei’s pontoon Ferrari Testa Rossa and D-Type Jaguar, and even Brock Yates’ T-Bucket hot rod “Eliminator” fueled by small-block Chevy power.
“We started dead last and stole the show,” says Skidmore about his stint in the Eliminator at Laguna Seca a few years ago. “It was a handful to drive, all the place.” But Skidmore tamed the wacky-looking beast. “Coming through the Corkscrew the crowd was cheering,” he says. “I passed a D-Type, and passed a TR. Brock Yates, who was announcing the race, was saying on the PA, ‘Oh man! Skidmore’s coming up on one of his customers, Lou Sellyei, and he is going to go around him? Yep! He went around him’!”
In 2000, Skidmore traded his T-210 and some cash for the Lola T-286 that required the next five years for him to restore it during off-hours at Intrepid. The car was a patch-job and needed a new tub. Says Skidmore, “It looked like a high school welding project when I got it.” In due time, his T-286 and the vintage wins he’s had with it have been not only great fun, but also visibly convincing advertisement for “Intrepid Racing” – an oft-used moniker for the more formal Intrepid Motorcar Company name.
Young Bert grew up on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains in a little northern California town called Janesville. His father’s hobby was old cars, like the ’31 Chevy and ’50 Mercs Bert recalls. “As far back as I can remember,” he tells me, “I was helping my dad in the garage, and when I got into high school he was buying and restoring Mustangs.” Bert’s own first car was a ’66 Mustang he restored with his dad’s help, before he went to work as a mechanic in an alignment and brake center. “Then I worked at a machine shop,” he says, and “and learned how to do engine machine work, rebuilding, boring, honing and balance, and valve jobs.”
His next career step was walking into Intrepid Motorcars in Reno and going to work there where shop owner Sellyei maintained his Ferraris – 250 LM, TR, F1 – and the little Lotus 18 that Skidmore dreamed he might someday have a chance to drive. Skidmore already had some seat time in race cars driving midgets on paved ovals in places like Madera, California and Meridian, Idaho and Reno. “I got my feet wet in it,” says Skidmore, “and that’s kind of the bug that bit me, and I kept going from there.”
He’s gone all the way from racing in old man Ed Copple’s midget under the oval lights to co-driving his own T-286 in the Le Mans Classic at Circuit de la Sarthe with buddy and fellow shop owner Dave Vegher, where they finished second. Bobby Rahal also co-drove with Skidmore at Le Mans, and Bert has won twice with the Lola at Road America and twice at Watkins Glen. Obvious to all, Skidmore’s track prowess serves well in his supporting and coaching Intrepid’s race car customers. Familiar in the paddocks of major vintage races is the sight of Skidmore’s big white transporter with its “Intrepid Racing” awning shading a flock of customer entries.
Spending the day in Skidmore’s shop, watching the guys work, chatting with them on break, and when everyone else is too busy, talking to the shop canine mascots, Joe and Ruby who don’t know much besides being sweet pups, I got a solid feeling for what goes on here and how difficult the work on these vintage race cars can actually be.
Asking Skidmore about it, he says, “Keeping drum brakes on these old cars can be a challenge. The brake materials are much better than they were back in the day, and they are taking their toll on the old drums. Spoke wheels are tough, too. The disc brake cars with alloy wheels are much easier to take care of. D-Types, for example, are much easier cars to take care of than say a TR or Maserati 200 SI, because the D-Types have disc brakes and alloy wheels.” Other challenges? “The Ferrari Lampredi engines are hard to work on the Colombo engines – the liners in the earlier Lampredis are screwed into the cylinder head and you’re working down in this hole to change valves. I enjoy doing them, but they’re harder than the Colombo engines.”
Right now, Skidmore is working on the engine for customer Nick Colonna’s 1966 Ford GT-40, a 289 block with Gurney Eagle cylinder heads. “Cool stuff,” Bert says while finishing up. “We’ll put this engine in the car, build headers for it, take it out of the car, dyno it, and put it back in.” Two weeks later, Colonna would be driving the GT-40 at Monterey, managing a credible mid-pack finish in a race won by a torrid Porsche 917K.
Cars leaving Intrepid head out to no only U. S. vintage races, but overseas venues as well – Europe and Australis, either by ship or airplane. No news to any of us, it’s a big involvement both in days and dollars, and often multiples thereof. Skidmore has learned the business in all of its parameters, and accomplishes what customers want as results. He tells me the hard reality of it. “Just think that money is no object,” says Skidmore at his desk, after the mechanics have left for the day. “If you have a budget it’s going to make it very difficult. If the guy says, ‘I don’t want to spend much money,’ then you’re staring off already on the wrong foot. You pick a very expensive sport and it’s going to cost a lot. For example, when you have a 2.0-liter car that needs restoration, you can say to the guy, ‘Are you ready to spend a hundred or a hundred-and-fifty grand on this car, because that’s what it’s going to take to restore it?’ If he says, ‘I thought we could do it for fifty,’ then we’re not even on the same end of the ruler. I don’t’ even want to go there because nobody’s going to win.”
As I’m leaving, Bert says to me “Did you do the best job you could have done today?” He’s smiling and so am I, but still the answer better be Yes.
William Edgar- Nov/Dec 2010 Vintage Motorspor