Ask Donald Davidson: Transporting cars, evolving pit stops

Published On September 10, 2014 » 2650 Views» By Donald Davidson » Ask Donald Davidson, Blogs, IMS, IMS History, Indy 500

Do you have a question for Indianapolis Motor Speedway Historian Donald Davidson? Ask us on Twitter @IMS with the hashtag #AskDonald or on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Facebook page.

I would like to know how the cars were transported to the IMS in the early years. Was it by rail, towed, driven, or other? — @TreadHeadEd, via Twitter

In the very early days—if we are talking circa 1911—the cars were mostly stripped-down passenger cars, typically entered by the manufacturers themselves. Those from the local companies were pretty much driven out to the track, while those from out of the area would be driven to a local dealer (or agents as they were then called) and prepped there before heading for the Speedway.

The prime example was that of the Pope-Hartford company, which entered two cars in 1911 and drove them across the country from the upper East Coast. I think they made a six-day trip out of it, with all of the tools and spares loaded up on the cars, stopping in New York City for a send-off luncheon and then I believe, stopping overnight in Syracuse and maybe Cleveland and finally Columbus, Ohio, before driving on into Indianapolis on the Old National Road where they were met out on East Washington Street by Frank Fox, a Terre Haute native who was down to drive one of the cars. And after the race was over, they turned around and drove all the way back. Ralph Mulford, who ended up finishing second in a Lozier, drove his car down from Detroit in a single day with his wife sitting in the riding mechanic’s seat. A couple of days after the race, he drove the car back to Detroit, claiming he had never raised the hood.

This remained a fairly standard procedure for several years thereafter and even on into the late 1920s, when Duesenberg team cars would be driven back on forth over the public roads between the track and the factory at Washington and Harding.

In between the early years of driving racecars to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the modern era's gleaming haulers was A.J. Foyt's 1961-winning car arriving on a trailer behind a station wagon.

In between the early years of driving racecars to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the modern era’s gleaming haulers were cars arriving on small trailers — like A.J. Foyt’s 1961 winner, towed with a station wagon.

What made the biggest impact on pit stops? — @kntphegley, via Twitter

One major change would be detachable wheels. For the first few years of the “500,” the crews would actually change the tires, a task which could take quite a while. Another great time-saver, which came much later, were onboard air jacks. Although Roger Penske often gets credit for pioneering these, the first-ever was in a J. C. Agajanian-owned, Eddie Kuzma-built car which did not qualify in 1958. The first time they were in the race was in 1959 when A. J. Watson had them installed in two new cars he built. They finished one-two. By race day, several other teams had installed such units. By 1964, the tires had been improved to the point where it was believed even the front runners would be able to get through the entire race without changing any tires at all. Taking this into consideration, chief mechanic George Bignotti (who ended up winning with A.J. Foyt in a Watson “roadster”) realized he could save about 25 pounds in weight without the jack and so out they came.

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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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