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Restoring vintage cars at Indy calls for skill, precision, artistry

The clouds hang low over Indy, and drizzle spatters a light coating on the world's most famous oval track. A raw wind sweeps over the grandstand. I cruise the underpass beneath the track and into the infield. I've come to visit the man who keeps the antique cars in peak condition - ready to spring out of mothballs and onto the asphalt. But first, a visit inside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum to admire his workmanship. Rows of gleaming paint and shiny chrome testify to this man and his crew's skill.

The museum's collection sprouted from that of Tony Hulman, longtime controlling force behind the ``greatest spectacle in racing.'' It's fair to say Hulman had a bit of the showman in him: He bought a 1955 black Jaguar convertible for Clark Gable to use when he came to town. The sleek Jag is parked in the basement with other treasures because there's simply not enough room on the museum floor.

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The collection is eclectic, and so are the restoration needs. Not only are actual winning race cars represented, spanning the decades, but priceless beauties and one-of-a-kind passenger sedans built in Indiana are on display, too.

It's amazing to realize that, because of the race, quite a few passenger-car companies set up shop in Indiana early in this century. Race-car engineering was a testing ground for innovations that later showed up in private vehicles. The now-standard rearview mirror is one example. Front-wheel drive was developed in Indy machines. Engines moved from the back of the car to the front, and chassis went through many, many alterations.

What mechanic-artist could possibly do justice to these four-wheeled gems?

That man is Bill Spoerle, and you can call him chief restorer and mechanic. In his garage, the frenzy of pre-race preparation is hardly felt. The place is a sanctuary. His work area is tidier than a gourmet's kitchen - every tool in place, no junk pile of car insides, no grease spots.

Spoerle (rhymes with Shirley) has been restoring cars for 25 years. He is a steady, shy man with twinkly eyes and a ready smile; a rich German accent permeates his speech, despite the decades he has lived in this country. He has worked nearly all his life around cars - in his native Germany for a racing team and with a research group for an automaker. His association with the Indy 500 began when he worked as chief mechanic for the racing team of Hulman's son-in-law.

For Spoerle, authenticity is a way of life. To achieve it, he completely overhauls every vehicle. From watching him work, and hearing him talk, one concludes that perhaps restoration is a misnomer for what he does with a vintage automobile. In the early stages, it's more like deconstruction.

``First of all,'' he says, ``I know approximately the era that the car was built. Therefore I know what has been modified. ... Over the years, you acquire a knowledge about the technologies of the different eras.'' It's obvious to Spoerle what belongs in a particular car and what doesn't. He takes out the offending modifications; removes, repairs, and replaces engine and body parts; and spruces up the exterior to its original, authentic state.

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Of course that's oversimplification. And before trying it at home, remember that it's quite expensive. When planning to restore a car, Spoerle has to ensure that the cost in man-hours and materials isn't more than it will be worth. ``You have to find out all the technical aspects of it, like the cost of the paint. And then you repair all the damage.... You have to restore a car from the ground on up, take everything apart, you sandblast every steel part, you chrome-plate all the parts.''

That process, according to Spoerle, can take 1,200 to 1,400 man-hours on a car that is already in fairly decent condition. Spoerle and his crew also make their own parts when they need to.

The important things to Spoerle are the basic principles of engineering and motion. These remain constant in every car ever built. These are what enable him to work on anything from Porsche engines to Duesenbergs to prototype Corvettes. He speaks with reverence of the continuity of car design. ``There's nothing new in the automobile. The ideas, the patterns of it, were all here before. All they've done today is refine it through technology.''

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