Throughout its 100-year history, there have been many great cars that have competed in the Indianapolis 500 – cars that ranged from cutting-edge innovation to legendary performance. But it’s likely the most popular car in Indianapolis 500 history is one that never won the race – the Novi.
Ask any longtime fan that has come to the Indianapolis Motor Speedways in the last 60 years, and they will never forget the Novi. That’s because it was so loud it would leave the spectators ears ringing long after the race had concluded.
“It was a one of a kind car – it had a sound to it that never ended,” said famed Novi car owner Andy Granatelli. “The Novi had such a sound to it that whether there were 32 other cars in the race you could hear it above all the other cars. When the other cars were on the backstretch, you couldn’t hear them at all, but you could hear the Novi. The Novi had a sound to it that you wouldn’t believe. People would hear that car and say the hair on the back of their neck would stand up. It was unbelievable. I was in love with the Novi, which is why I bought them.”
The Novi was ahead of its time in many ways. It was a double-overhead cam V8 with a bigger bore and a shorter stroke that made its first appearance in the 1941 Indy 500 when Ralph Hepburn drove the Bowes Seal Fast Special to a fourth-place finish.
“That was 20 years before Detroit even thought about that and 50 years before they built the double-overhead cam so that was way ahead of its time,” Granatelli said. “The other cars turned 4,000 or 5,000 rpm, and the Novi turned 10,000 rpm.” By 1966, the Novi was about to become extinct – a victim of technology and the rear-engine race car. While some drivers such as Jim Hurtubise would continue to show up at the Speedway with a Novi, 1965 was the last year that it made the race. Bobby Unser finished 19th in a Ferguson/Novi and Hurtubise finished last in the 33-car field in a Kurtis/Novi. Greg Weld failed to qualify in a Novi in 1966 after crashing in practice. But one year prior to that, Granatelli fielded a three-driver Novi team featuring Jim McElreath, Unser and Art Malone.
They all made the starting lineup for the 1964 Indianapolis 500 and will be reunited this weekend for the 100th Anniversary of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Granatelli will be there, too, as the oldest living car owner from the 1946, 1947 and 1948 races. “I loved the Novi,” Granatelli said. “I would still be running them if it were possible, but they changed the rules so it wasn’t allowed to run anymore.
“The reason the car didn’t go to victory lane is everybody else ran the same engines – the Offenhauser. If one driver had a connecting rod problem, Offenhauser would replace them all. It was like passenger cars in a recall. We built the Novi in our shop in Santa Monica, so if there was a problem we had to endure it until the following year. We were pioneering from scratch. If a water pump went out on an Offenhauser, it was one fix for all the cars. If something happened to the Novi, I had to figure it out myself.
“The Novi was very reliable, but it also had fate and bad luck. The car was awful fast, and drivers were afraid of it. The engine would light up the tires at the starting line with a live axle. It would actually burn rubber at the starting line.
“I’ll never forget as long as I live when Ralph Hepburn qualified in 1946 with the Novi, I could see the car right now in Turn 4 coming out of the corner and the tires smoking blue. You couldn’t see the car from all the tire smoke burning rubber. It would burn rubber all the way down the frontstretch. Granatelli ran the Novi engine from 1961 to 1965 but struggled with getting the car into the field. In 1963, three
Novi-powered cars made the race with Hurtubise finishing 22nd, Malone 18th and Unser 33rd. In 1964, Hurtubise was replaced by McElreath, and the three-car team had high-hopes of a successful 500-Mile Race.
“I always liked the Novi before I even got to drive it,” said the 83-year-old McElreath. “I had a deal with Andy to drive it. I ran third in the points the year before, and Andy hired me as the No. 1 driver and I had the best car they had. We put a big No. 3 on it but every time I got going good we would have a problem with it. Art Malone was in one of the cars, and I was afraid I wouldn’t make the race, so I got in his car and qualified the No. 9 car and he qualified the No. 3 car into the race. But we had a problem after that big fire there. It was fun to drive, but it was also a handful. But it all changed when they went to the rear-engine car.
“I had the best car of the deal. We got that Novi, and the car was built in England. I went to warm it up, and something popped on it and it wandered all over the track. It broke something in the hub. I said: `Get that Roadster ready for me. I’m not driven this bleeping thing.’
“Bobby Unser got in that car, but Andy had those polka-dot looking uniforms with STP all over them. I like Andy a lot but I’m not going to wear that uniform. I liked Bobby Unser, but I was never around Art Malone much. Right after that he came up with the turbine car, and Parnelli Jones drove that and had the race won. He had me come up for a tire test and asked me to run the turbine. Granatelli wanted me to run it, and I had some good runs on it but he changed the design of the car after I had run the other one, I told him I would drive for this much money. He wouldn’t do it, and I didn’t do it for what Andy offered. That is when we parted the deal.”
Malone would finish 11th, McElreath 21st and Unser 32nd. Unser was a rookie at Indianapolis in 1963, and said the Novi is what got his career started.
“The Novi to me was the beginning of Indianapolis for me,” Unser said. “Did I think that car was going to finish the race or win the race? Not in my wildest dreams. But take that out of the equation, when a guy comes here in those days there were a lot of race cars and race drivers, and making the show wasn’t easy. Going fast here was really hard. The Novi totally saved Bobby Unser and made Bobby Unser. That was the kick-start that I needed because if you went fast here the world accepted you in auto racing. The Novi was my vehicle to get me to stardom and to fame. It was more than if I had just made the race in an Offy.
“What made the Novi so popular was the noise. That thing had a sound to it that was so much better than all the other cars. It’s competition sound-wise, and that is more important than people think because that is what made the Novi was the Offy. You couldn’t compare the two sound wise. The Offy made a lot of noise. Granatelli angled those pipes right off the fence and it was like a megaphone. NASA put me in the sound chamber one time and made a Novi recording from when I qualified in 1963 and with one microphone you could hear that thing all the way around the racetrack. They got me in the sound chamber and found out I was totally deaf in that frequency because of the noise. The pipe came right out in front of me and hit that fricking wall and came into the cockpit. That doesn’t count the normal noise they made.
“Art Malone’s tailpipe went out the back of the race car but my car and Hurtubise went right into the cockpit.”
Granatelli believes the Novi played a crucial role in Unser’s career. He would go on to win the “500” in 1968, 1975 and 1981.
“He became world famous because of the car,” Granatelli said. “Bobby was a great kid. He was a young, lanky kid with a lot of ambition. He drove the car very well once he got used to it. McElreath was a great, great driver. He was one of all-time favorite drivers. He was very quiet. Art Malone told me after the race that he would win the race for me the next year, but he had no experience driving a race car at all. He had only been driving dragsters. For him to come to Indianapolis as well as he did he thought he could come to Indianapolis and take them all last year. He really meant it.”
While Granatelli was a loyal supporter of the Novi engine, anything that could go wrong would go wrong in the Indy 500 with those cars.
“We had three cars in the race and the first lap I had one car leading the race, one call in the wall and one car in the pits all at one time,” Granatelli said. “Talk about mixed emotions. Bobby Unser passed 13 cars in the first lap and went down to Turn 1 too fast, spun out and crashed. Art Malone slipped the clutch like a hot rod because the transmission wouldn’t take it, but that is how he drove a dragster and the car was stuck in second gear. He came into the pits with the clutch froze and the car stuck in gear. It wasn’t the Novi engine, it was things that happened. Things like that happened all the time.
“The Novi was a very heavy engine. It weighed almost 800 pounds, and the Offys weighed half of that so we had trouble making the cars handle. The other guys raced year round – they raced midgets, stock cars and hot rods. I was a businessman. I only raced once a year at the Speedway. I didn’t know how to make a car handle so it went through the corners properly, and nobody was about to tell me because I would pick up 20 miles per hour. I know now with Bobby Unser’s car was take the right rear radius rod and shorten it a quarter-inch we would gain 20 miles per hour. We didn’t know you had to cock the rear end so that the left-side was shorter and the right side further ahead.
“Instead, we backed off the throttle way early and didn’t get back on the throttle until we were on the straightaway again. It just didn’t handle. If we had gone through the corners as fast as the Offenhauser, we would have 20 miles per hour on everybody. All the other drivers who tried out the Novi for me, including Parnelli Jones before he became my turbine driver, wanted to feel the engine and they felt it was fantastic. But they wouldn’t tell me what I needed to make the car go faster.”
Unser believes the size of the engine meant the cars were simply too heavy to be competitive against the lighter Offenhauser engine.
“That Ferguson car weighed 2,500 pounds, and when you are that heavy, you are in the stock car racing business,” Unser said. “But we had all-wheel drive, which was good. Andy had the foresight to go with all-wheel drive, not four-wheel drive. That’s an Audi running down the street today. It was Ferguson tractors, but Andy built it like a tank. I went through the Eddie Sachs-Dave MacDonald fire and knocked everything out of the way.”
Granatelli and Unser return to the Indianapolis 500 every year. McElreath and Malone will both be attending this year’s race but do not make it an annual pilgrimage to the Speedway.
“I want to do it because it is the 100th Anniversary,” McElreath said. “My wife is in a wheelchair and had a stroke 16 years ago. I’ve had leukemia now since October 2000. I’m right in the middle of my chemo treatments right now. I told my doctor we need to regulate these treatments so I can do to Indianapolis. I have a friend that is going to help me drive and take care of Shirley. I’m taking mine on Monday and going to Indianapolis and come back and get the next one of Tuesday like we are supposed to and then go to the Knoxville, Iowa, to the Sprint Car Hall of Fame Induction and then I go to the big track in Texas on June 11. I’m going to be going up and down the highway.”
The 88-year-old Granatelli will be flying in from Santa Barbara, Calif., and will be bringing 38 guests with him to the this year’s 500 Mile Race. Granatelli is proud that he “works every day” as a philanthropist.
But the self-proclaimed “Mr. 500” is proud to be the last team owner that used the Novi – the most popular engine among the fans in Indy 500 history.