Ask Donald Davidson: The 1952 Cummins Kurtis Spl., and the last roadster

Published On August 13, 2015 » 4445 Views» By Donald Davidson » Ask Donald Davidson, Blogs, IMS, IMS History, Indy 500

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What ever happened to the 1952 Cummins Kurtis Special?  I would love to see it in action someday. – Glenn Oropeza, via Facebook

That amazing, one-of-a-kind race car has only had one owner and it remains to this day in the possession of the Cummins Engine Company, which commissioned the low-slung beauty from Frank Kurtis back in the winter of 1951-52. Except for rare occasions on which it is displayed elsewhere, it typically sits in the lobby of the Cummins headquarters in downtown Columbus, Indiana, although it is currently off the floor to have some maintenance performed.

It made history on Saturday, May 17, 1952, by winning the pole for the “500” with one- and four-lap track records of 139.104 mph and 138.010 mph, respectively, with its power plant being an enormous 401-cubic-inch six-cylinder Cummins Diesel truck engine, which was laid on its side and boosted by the Speedway’s first-ever turbocharger. The chassis sat so low that the top of the tires sat several inches above the body work, save for the headrest. As driver Freddie Agabashian once told us with that rich, gravelly voice, “Without the headrest, we could have run that car upside down. Now, I never had any intention of actually doing that, you understand, but technically, we could have.”

The great Cummins Kurtis Special featured the first turbocharger ever run at Indy.

The great Cummins Kurtis Special featured the first turbocharger ever run at Indy.

The car had a bit of a sluggish start, but after falling back to fourth at the drop of the green, it proceeded to hold its own from that point on until about the 150-mile mark when it started to overheat. It was finally withdrawn after 71 laps, the history-making turbocharger being the culprit. Not realizing what the ramifications might be, it had been placed down behind the grille in front of the engine, the result being that its inlet eventually became clogged with rubber particles and so forth, causing the engine to overheat.

The car, which was only raced that one time, was also driven during practice by Walt Faulkner, who stood by during the race as a potential relief driver, and by track president and general manager Wilbur Shaw, the retired three-time “500” winner whose curiosity had led to him strapping on Agabashian’s helmet one day and taking the car out for a ride.

It has been run on a handful of occasions in the meantime, quite memorably when Agabashian took a couple of laps at IMS on the evening of the 500 Old Timer’s barbeque in 1969 and then again on the morning of that year’s race. While the race morning “lap of honor” was a fairly leisurely affair, Freddie had opened it up a little for his Old Timer pals as they all watched from the pit lane. Dressed in a white short-sleeved shirt and wearing his red and yellow helmet from 1952, he saluted in military fashion as he went by, the roaring diesel engine sounding just like a semi at speed on the freeway.

The car was on display at the annual bench racing reunion down in Columbus this past March and it even had the side panels removed, something nobody could ever recall having seen before.

We are not aware of any plans to run it anytime soon.

Who ran the last “roadster” and what was the fastest ever official “roadster” lap? – @WeatherWill2 , via Twitter

Assuming you mean front-engined cars in general, the last occasion on which a “roadster” started in a “500” was in 1968 when Jim Hurtubise qualified one of the two Mallard chassis he and his brother Pete had built in an old barn in North Tonawanda, New York. Qualifying in the 30th starting position, he only lasted for nine laps before burning a piston.

Although Hurtubise went out to make a qualifying run in several subsequent years, the last time he actually took the green flag was in 1971. He brushed the outer wall as he came out of Turn 4 on his third lap, causing him to abort the attempt, but he was slightly under “bump” speed anyway. His first lap of 167.910 mph on that run remains the fastest officially-timed lap by a front-engined car at IMS.

The last roadster in the "500."

The last roadster in the “500.”

IUPUI’s “500” HISTORY CLASS UPCOMING AT SHS

The fall version of IUPUI’s very popular twice-a-year Indianapolis 500 history course with instructor Donald Davidson will be held in the Speedway High School’s cafeteria over four Tuesday nights in October. The dates for the four two-hour sessions (7-9 p.m.) are Oct. 6, 13, 20 and 27. The fee is $99. Interested parties may register at http://www.iupui.edu/~solctr/ . For further information please call 317-278-9701 or e-mail sbeeson@iupui.edu.

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About The Author

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.
3 comments
matthewknell
matthewknell

So when are you going to make the Indy 500 History course available online? :) 

BillJohnson6
BillJohnson6

Donald - a little more credit to Freddie Agabashian please.  "It" didn't make history by winning the pole, Freddie Agabashian did.  Freddie won the pole not the car.

dddavi12
dddavi12

Well, the fastest official lap for a front-engined car at the Indianapolis 500 anyway.