Reader Request: The Speedway’s Greatest Cars

Originally published May 25, 2016

I’ll admit it. I am biased on this topic. I love the old front engine cars. Maybe it’s because growing up they were what a race car was. Unlike the rear engine cars, front engine machines came in a variety of shapes and sizes. Most rear engine cars look basically the same to me. I’m not talking about today’s Dallara.  The early rear engine cars were noticeably distinct from one another. A sameness crept into the design, especially after wings were added.

What were the greatest cars? My criteria is part objective and part subjective. Cars that won more than once easily make the cut. Design and livery are a big qualification as well.  I prefer the simpler liveries. Here are my top five greatest cars, front engine division.

5. Belond Exhaust Special.  The car designed by George Salih won back to back to back races in 1957-58. The engine is laid on its side, allowing a lower profile. Note the fin

Note the fin behind the driver’s headrest.Hulmanclubfavcars 006.jpg

4.  Blue Crown Spark Plug Special.  This Offenhauser powered, front wheel drive machine won in 1947 and 1948 with Mauri Rose driving to victory both years. Car owner Lou Moore is second behind Roger Penske in victories by an owner with five.

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3.  Sheraton-Thompson Special. The 1964 winning car is a A. J. Watson built roadster driven by A. J. Foyt to his second 500 win. It was the last front engine car to win the race.Hulmanclubfavcars 011

2.  Fuel Injection Special.  Bill Vukovich dominated in 1953 and 1954 in the original “roadster”. Note the cockpit offset to the right. The car was leading in 1952 when a steering rod broke with eight laps left. Vukovich led 435 laps in this car. Hulmanclubfavcars 008.jpg

  1. Boyle Special (top of story  photo) Another car that dominated the 500. Wilbur Shaw won in this Maserati in 1939 and 1940. He was leading in 1940 when a wheel collapsed late in the race. After the war, Ted Horn drove it from 1946-48  to finishes of third, third, and fourth. Future winner Lee Wallard took the car to the lead in the 1949 race. Bill Vukovich took his 1950 rookie test in the Maserati, but did not attempt to qualify it. This car was truly the chariot of the gods.

The Greatest 33 Non-Winners: Final Grid- A Reader Request Post

Editor’s Note: This is the first reader request; originally published May 9, 2017

What a fun project this turned out to be! It was fascinating seeing how much those who submitted grids both agreed and disagreed. Some drivers got just one mention, while others appeared on every ballot.  There was near unanimous placement for some drivers, and some drivers were near the front on some grids and near the back on others. The driver nearly everyone agreed should be on the pole is Michael Andretti (pictured above, from 1992).

I  noticed the rankings were along age lines. Older fans close to my age seemed to have near identical grids,  and younger fans as a group submitted similar lineups.  Many drivers from long ago in general fared better on the lists from the older group. I was surprised how well the current drivers stacked up against the racers of the past. Another interesting detail is that all 50 driver finalists had at least one mention. I didn’t expect that.

To rank the drivers, I assigned points to the drivers corresponding to their spot on each person’s grid. A driver on pole got 1 point, the last driver got 33. If a driver was listed on pole on five grids, his total was 5. The lowest total won the pole. If a driver did not appear on someone’s grid, he/she was given 34 points. To my shock, there were only two ties. I resolved placement by averaged each driver’s highest and lowest rank of all the grades, with the lowest average getting the higher spot. One of the ties was for 32nd and 33rd. It was just like qualifying for the 1963 500.

The front row- Michael Andretti, Rex Mays, and Ted Horn, is strong. These drivers were in the top 10 on everyone’s grid. Andretti led 431 laps, the most by any non-winning driver. he started on the front row three times and had 5 top 5 finishes.  Rex Mays, in the middle of the front row is the only other driver to lead more than 200 laps and not win. Mays was on the pole four times. Ted Horn, on the outside of the front row, finished in the top five 9 times in 10 starts.

So here they are, the Greatest 33 Non-Winners of the Indianapolis 500:

Row 1

Michael Andretti

Rex Mays

Ted Horn

Row 2

Harry Hartz

Marco Andretti

Lloyd Ruby

Row 3

Gary Bettenhausen

Ralph Hepburn

Roberto Guerrero

Row 4

Scott Goodyear

Carlos Munoz

Robby Gordon

Row 5

Eddie Sachs

Tony Stewart

Jack McGrath

Row 6

Wally Dallenbach

Tomas Sheckter

Will Power

Row 7

Danica Patrick

Tony Bettenhausen

Joe Leonard

Row 8

Jimmy Snyder

Ed Carpenter

Danny Ongais

Row 9

Pancho Carter

Mel Kenyon

Kevin Cogan

Row 10

Vitor Meira

Russ Snowberger

Paul Russo

Row 11

Tom Alley

Johnny Thomson

George Snider

it’s kind of fitting that Snider is last on the grid. his trademark was jumping into a car on Bump Day and getting into the field starting near the back. Thanks to everyone who submitted a grid. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts and reasoning as to how yo put your grids together.

I will be back tomorrow with some 500 news and a report on my visit to the A. J. Foyt exhibit at the Speedway Museum. The cars were great to see, but the memorabilia was even more amazing to me. Thursday I will have my Indianapolis Grand Prix preview with my normally inaccurate winner’s prediction.

 

 

 

 

 

ICON : Mario at the IMS Museum

The photos of a very young Mario Andretti like the one above jolted me back to 1965 when this rookie showed up for the Indianapolis 500. He was fast and became an instant fan favorite. Andretti earned Rookie of the Year honors and won his first Indycar race later that summer.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of his 1969 Indianapolis 500 win, the Mario Andretti ICON exhibit now on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway takes visitors on a tour of Mario’s racing career from sprint cars to his final race. His many stops include Formula 1 and the 1978 World Championship and a victory in the Daytona 500 in 1967.

I really like the special exhibits the IMS Museum has done- A. J. Foyt, the Unsers, and now Mario. One thing that does disturb is how many of the cars on display I saw race.  You’d think I was old or something.

The car that fascinated me the most was the Ted Horn Offenhauser sprint car which Andretti drove in four United Racing Club events in 1961. These races were the beginning of his sprint career. The car’s new owner put a Cadillac engine in it. Andretti had three top 10s in the four races in this car.  The car as seen in the museum is as it was when Horn drove it in the post war forties.

The exhibit recalls what to many was the Golden Age of Racing. Drivers drove any type of car any time. It goes beyond the cold statistics of Andretti’s career and presents us a versatile driver who could win no matter what series he drove in.  I think that is something sorely lacking today.

The room where other exhibits had memorabilia displayed was closed for a private event. I hope there are more items than the dozen or so displayed in the north hall.  Below are a few photos.  This is a must see exhibit which I’m not sure my descriptions have done justice.

Update

I just received this message from the IMS Museum:

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1965 Indianapolis 500 Rookie car
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1964- First Indycar ride
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1970- Dirt car. This was the last season Indycar raced on 1 mile dirt tracks
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1978- Formula 1 World Champion
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1984- Winner of the 500 mile race at Michigan international Speedway
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1994- Andretti’s car in his final Indycar season

IMS Museum Plans Major Renovations- Some Thoughts

The Indianapolis Business Journal reported last week on renovation plans for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum. The full article can be read here:

https://www.ibj.com/articles/71234-getting-up-to-speed?v=preview

Highlights of the project, which at this time has no definite timeline or cost projection, include many interactive displays, virtual reality activities, a 3-D theater, and a racing simulator. Costs could run into the 10s of millions of dollars.The building will be double its current size with two wings and a partial third floor. There is talk of  some glass flooring offering a peek into part of the mysterious basement, which only a few outsiders have been privileged to see. For most race fans, the museum basement has been the IMS equivalent of a pharaoh’s tomb.

I think the museum is long overdue for a change. Up until a few years ago, displays rarely changed. The space had remained pretty much as it was when the first museum opened in the building at the corner of 16th and Georgetown. Even with their new approach of special exhibits and the additional display space in the north part of the building, the museum still is far behind other museums. The additional display space has added some improved experience, but they are still limited in what can be done.

I hope that keeping the current winning cars on display  is still part of the plan. I have always found comfort in seeing the cars when I first enter the museum proper. Several of my favorite cars of all time live there. It’s like visiting old friends. Yes, the museum needs to attract new and hopefully repeat repeat visitors. At the same time, they need to remember their older, frequent visitors like me.

On a snowy, rainy day like Indianapolis is having today, I like to go to the museum just to look at the cars. I’m not sure I’d be as tempted to go out to the new version just to hang out. A peaceful, meditative walk through history suits me just fine.

I celebrate the renovation plans, but I ask the people in charge to please consider retaining some of the current place’s charm.

The Pit Window and Wildfire Sports Going to PRI

The Pit Window and Wildfire Sports will be attending the PRI show the first week in December. Look for daily reports on Wildfire Sports and for commentary on the event here at the end of the week.  I’m excited to finally get to this show.

Book Review: Wilbur Shaw’s Story Continues in Updated Version of His Autobiography- Part II

Photo above: Bill Shaw next to his father’s famous car and the Boyle hauler.

The second part of the updated Wilbur Shaw biography is called ‘The Rest of the Story.” It picks up the last two years of Wilbur’s life through the eyes of his son, Wilbur, Junior, known as Bill. A nice touch is that the chapter numbers in this section continue from the end of Shaw’s autobiography.

Bill Shaw learned a lot from his father in the nine years he knew him. Wilbur taught him by example as his father had taught him. Although Bill and his father worked with Wilbur’s tools, Shaw had made it clear that he wanted Bill to stay away from any involvement with racing. His friends in racing honored Shaw’s request. Car owner J. C. Agajanian talked Bill out of driving a sprint car when Bill inquired about it.

Bill went to a boarding school in Arizona, where he could fuflill his love of horses and the west. But as the son of a racer, racing was in his blood and his soul. He was more interested in road racing than attempting the Indianapolis 500. A chance meeting with road racing champion Bob Bondurant, who had just opened his now well known driving school. Bondurant convinced Bill to take the school’s course.

After he completed the course, Bill returned to Indianapolis and got a job with Stokely Van Camp, a large food processor. Bondurant called to say he needed help running his school. Bill quit his job immediately and left to become an instructor at the Bondurant driving school in Arizona. Teaching allowed bill to sharpen his own driving skills as he pursued his dream to race full time.

Author Brock Yates had been invited to drive in the 1972 Daytona 24 Hour race. A sponsor conflict would not allow him to drive. he told the car owner Bill would drive instead. It would have been nice if he had asked Bill first. Shaw was more than happy to seize the chance. Bill later drove a Ferrari for the North American Racing Team. After an unsuccessful race in japan, Bill decided he couldn’t continue racing.

Like his father, Bill had his own heart attack as well as a stroke and nearly died. He required immediate open heart surgery. he has recovered well.

Bill has spent the last few years preserving his father’s memory and keeping his name in public view. In 2002, he drove the Boyle Maserati around the Speedway on race morning. His son Peter also drove the car on a practice day. Bill continues to keep his father’s memory alive.

In 2014 the Indiana Racing Memorial Association held  a remembrance ceremony at the site of  Shaw’s fatal plane crash. It was the first time Bill had visited the site.

A new organization, the Boyle Racing Headquarters Foundation, began restoring the Boyle Racing hauler, one of the first dedicated race car transport vehicles. they also started salvaging the building in which the cars were housed. The building, located at 1701 Gent Avenue, was slated for demolition. The building will house a brewing company and have an event space when renovated.

The discovery of the hauler is another adventure. After tracking down several leads, it was found near Crawfordsville, Indiana. the hauler was badly deteriorated, sitting upside down. A tree was growing through the middle of it. The group, headed by John Pappas and Jeff Congdon, was determined to have the vehicle fully restored for the 100th running of the 500 in 2016. They achieved their goal.

Gentleman, Start Your Engines, The Rest of the Story may be purchased through the Boyle Racing Headquarters. Email: donate@boyleracingteam.org.

 

 

 

 

The Unsers- Racing’s First Family

Photo above: Bobby Unser’s 1968 500 winning Eagle Mark 4, the first of nine wins by an Unser at Indianapolis. All Photos: Mike Silver

 

Unsers began racing nearly as soon as racing  began. Brothers Jerry, Louis Jr., and Joe first competed at Pike’s Peak in 1926. Louis Unser won the race for the first time in 1934, the first of nine wins for him, and the start of a family tradition that would result in 39 total victories by an Unser. The original Unser brothers- Joe, Louis Jr., and Jerry, planned to enter the 1929 Indianapolis 500.  The plan ended when Joe died from injuries while he was testing the car in Colorado.

The Indianapolis Speedway Museum celebrates the racing history of the Unser family with a special exhibit. The display opened April 9 and continues through October 28. I had a chance to visit in early May. The exhibit chronicles the entire family history, not just the 500. All the cars that won the 500 are on display, as well as dirt cars, a Pike’s Peak racer, and IROC cars.

It would be the second generation of Unsers that would eventually enter the 500 and go on to unprecedented success after a rocky start. The sons of Jerry Unser, Jerry Jr., Bobby, and Al drove in the 500. Bobby won three times and Al won four 500s. Al’s son Al, Jr. would also drive and win twice.

Jerry, Jr. drove in just one race, 1958. He was caught in the first lap accident in which Pat O’Connor was killed. Unser’s car went over the wall in the north short chute, but he escaped injury. He was not so fortunate the next year. On May 2, he was seriously injured in a practice crash and died May 17.

Bobby debuted in 1963 driving the famed Novi. He crashed on lap 3 and finished 33rd. the following year he was involved in the fiery crash on lap 2 and finished 32nd. He would go on to win in 1968 in a Dan Gurney Eagle, above, and also visited Victory Lane in the rain shortened 1975 race and the controversial 1981 500. Bobby also added two poles to his resume in 1972 and 1981.

Al’s rookie year was 1965. He started 32nd and finished 9th. He had a second in 1967, his third start.After missing the 1969 race due to a non racing motorcycle accident, Al came back to win back to back in 1970 and 1971. He also sat on the pole in 1970. Other victories came in 1978 and 1987, making him the second four time 500 winner. His last race was 1993.

Al, Jr. began his 500 career in 1983. he raised the ire of some fans with his blocking of eventual winner Tom Sneva late in the race as his father was leading. He did not complete the 500 miles until 1992, his tenth race, which he won, edging Scott Goodyear. The winning margin was the closest 500 finish at that point. Jr. won again in 1994, driving the powerful Mercedes/Ilmor engine. He did not qualify in 1995 in one of the biggest Bump Day shocks ever.

Link to my May story- https://wordpress.com/post/thefirstfiftyracesarethehardest.wordpress.com/8144

Because of the open wheel split the next year, Unser did not compete in the 500 again until 2000. He was mostly uncompetitve situations, managing a best finish of 9th in 2003. His final 500 was 2007.

The museum display contains a lot of memorabilia in the back room, including some great paintings. The Unser exhibit is included in regular museum admission. Here are some photos of the winning Unser 500 entries.

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Al Unser, Jr.’s 1994 500 winning car.

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Al Unser’s 1970 winner. He won in 1971 in a nearly identical car.

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One of Bobby Unser’s Pike’s Peak cars. Of the Unser family’s 39 wins, Bobby won 13 times.

I have different feelings about each Unser. Bobby was always my favorite of the family.  I loved his aggressive style. Al, Sr. was always steady and calculating. I have come to appreciate how great a driver he was. Al, Jr was never really a favorite of mine, although like his dad, I appreciate him more as I look back on his career.

It was a treat to see Bobby at the track this May. We need to treasure every appearance of these aging legends.

 

 

Dan Gurney, the All American Racer

It’s hard to believe today marks one year since Dan Gurney’s death. Below is my post from last January.

 

Name a racing series, any series past or present. Run your finger down the list of race winners from that series. You are likely to find the name Dan Gurney somewhere in the list.  Gurney died yesterday in California, closing the book on one of the most brilliant drivers and minds to ever set foot on a race track.. He drove anything, anywhere. He won in anything, anywhere. He built his own cars, developed engines, and wrote a white paper outlining what the future of Indycar should be. CART used his ideas to form their series. If Gurney had chosen to run CART, Indycar racing would be on very solid ground today.

I cheered for A.J. Foyt win every race. I loved watching Mario Andretti and Parnelli Jones drive. Bobby Unser’s aggressive driving was beautiful to watch, and his brother Al’s cool, let the race come to him strategy made for some late race intrigue. Then there was Dan Gurney. I loved the five regulars, but I admired and adored Dan Gurney. I liked that he didn’t race exclusively in one series, and that he had success no matter where he raced.

Gurney was the first driver to win races in Indycar, Nascar, and Formula 1. Only Mario Andretti and Juan Pablo Montoya have duplicated that feat.  What Andretti and Montoya didn’t duplicate was building their own car to race and drive to victory. The Eagle Mark I, shown below, is the only American built car to win a Formula 1 race. Gurney won the 1967 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa in it. It remains the only time an American won a Grand Prix in a car they built.    This win came just one week after he and A. J. Foyt won LeMans in a Ford GT40.

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Gurney made nine starts at Indianapolis. He started on the front row twice, second in 1967 and third in 1965.  In his last three 500’s- 1968, 1969, 1970- Gurney finished second, second, and third. His Eagle cars won the race in 1968, 1973, and 1975. He only led two laps, both in 1967. He took the lead when Parnelli Jones took the turbine for short detour through the north short chute grass.

I will not bore you with every statistic of his racing career. I followed him avidly. He was never in any series long enough to win a championship. He would have been a multiple titlist in several series.  After his driving career, Gurney continued to a force in racing with his cars, innovations, and ideas. The Gurney flap, a small tab on the trailing rear wing, is still in use today. His Eagle cars were the dominant chassis in the mid 70s.

I met Gurney after he won a road race at Indianapolis Raceway Park (now Lucas Oil Raceway Park) in 1963. He autographed my event program, and was very gracious to an awkward 16 year old kid. I wish I knew what happened to that program.

All racing is poorer for his passing. I’m thankful I grew up in an era when the sport’s great legends raced and drivers weren’t limited to one series for their entire career. If you see A. J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, or any other driver from that time period at a track, please take a minute to say hello to them. We have no idea how much more time we will have them around.

Photo notes:  The Indy 500 car pictured at the top is on display at the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum at the Barber race track in Birmingham. The Formula 1 Eagle in the lower picture is in the REVS Institute in Naples, Florida.  Top photo captured from internet; bottom photo my own.