Ask Donald Davidson: Pit stop contest origins and front-engine legends

Published On July 8, 2015 » 1866 Views» By Donald Davidson » Ask Donald Davidson, Blogs, IMS, IMS History

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What year did they start the pit stop contest? – Mark Battershell, via Facebook

It dates all the way back to 1977 when it began life as the Miller Pit Stop contest, and it has been a crowd favorite ever since, although the 2008 finals were washed out by rain.

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Car owner Fred Carrillo (left) is pictured with the winning crew of the first “500” pit stop competition. Chief mechanic Dave Klym is in the center. Miller High Life for everyone!

The original set of regulations, which have remained pretty much unchanged over the years except for some tweaking, were drawn up by the colorful former riding mechanic and crew chief Frankie Del Roy, who since 1969 had been Technical Chairman for the United States Auto Club. One of his stipulations, still enforced, was that the car’s assigned driver had to be in the cockpit for every round. Tragically, Frankie, who was a wonderful story teller and a much treasured link with the past (he rode with Floyd Roberts in 1936 and was on the pole with Bill Cummings in 1937), would not even be around for the second contest in 1978, being one of the eight officials who perished when a chartered aircraft went down near Indianapolis on its way back from a USAC National Championship event at Trenton, New Jersey, on April 23.

During the Miller Brewing days, artist Ron Burton was commissioned each year to produce an oil painting depicting the pit stop finals, the artwork available to race fans in the form of posters and so forth. The first one featured Dave Klym’s Fred Carrillo team crew members in 1977 (driver: Jim McElreath) defeating the George Bignotti-led Patrick Racing team squad with driver Wally Dallenbach.

Who are the drivers still living that drove a front-engined car in the “500”? – Steve P., Evansville

There are only 11 still around who can make that claim, namely Chuck Weyant, Don Edmunds, A.J. Foyt, Paul Goldsmith, Chuck Hulse, Parnelli Jones, Jim McElreath, Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Bob Harkey and Gordon Johncock. There are a few others who drove a front-engined car during practice and so forth, with perhaps the real surprise to many being that Dan Gurney actually took his 1962 “rookie” test in a John Zink Watson/Offy “roadster.”

In 1962, Dan Gurney took his rookie test in this front-engine roadster, though he never drove such a car in the "500."

In 1962, Dan Gurney took his rookie test in this front-engine roadster, though he never drove such a car in the “500.”

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Donald Davidson

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Historian Donald Davidson, based at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, developed a passionate interest in the Indianapolis 500 as a teenager in England. Arriving at IMS in 1964, he delighted the racing community with his ability to recite year-by-year accounts of participants’ careers. Returning permanently in 1965, he was invited by Sid Collins to join the worldwide IMS Radio Network and was hired by Henry Banks as USAC statistician, remaining at USAC for almost 32 years. He was named Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian in 1998. Along with numerous television and radio assignments, raconteur Davidson has played host to the popular call-in radio show “The Talk of Gasoline Alley” on 1070 AM in Indianapolis during the month of May continuously since 1971. His writing credits include countless historical articles and columns, a pair of “500” annuals in 1974 and ‘75 and co-authorship with Rick Shaffer of the acclaimed “Autocourse Official History of the Indianapolis 500,” published in 2006.
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