Ask Donald Davidson: What made them ‘Specials’ and big engines

Published On December 3, 2014 » 3557 Views» By Donald Davidson » Ask Donald Davidson, Blogs, IMS, IMS History, Indy 500

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Why were the early cars called “specials?” Who started it and when did it end? – J. Smith, Indianapolis

The term “special” was first applied to cars in the “500” in 1913. While the intent for the early events was that the races would be contested for by stripped-down passenger cars entered by the very companies which had built them, the Contest Board of AAA, which sanctioned the events at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, realized that so many modifications were being made to some of the entries that it was no longer fair to suggest to the public that the cars were “stock.” In the case of the Marmon “Wasp,” which won in 1911, it was basically a purpose-built racing car constructed by the engineering department at Nordyke & Marmon. Thus all of the cars became Stutz “Specials,” Mercer “Specials,” Duesenberg “Specials,” and so on down the line.

By the mid-1920s, the concept of racing cars being built by the companies had progressed to purpose-built racing cars being constructed by racing specialists, in particular Harry Miller. This was apparently agreeable to AAA, because, for instance, the HCS Special, which won with Tommy Milton and Howdy Wilcox in 1923, and the Studebaker Special Earl Cooper drove to second in 1924 had nothing “HCS” or “Studebaker” about them. They were 100 percent Miller racing cars. The next development was to see the emergence of automotive products on cars, thus the Perfect Circle Piston Ring Special, Elgin Piston Pin Special and Thompson Valve Special. That was followed by other automotive-related sponsors, bringing along the State Auto Insurance Special, the Jones & Whittaker Special (a car dealership), Hoosier Pete Special (gas station chain) and Majestic Radio Special.

The first Indianapolis 500-winning car with "Special" on it was Tommy Milton's 1923 H.C.S. Special.

The first Indianapolis 500-winning car with “Special” on it was Tommy Milton’s 1923 H.C.S. Special.

Once the early 1930s rolled around, AAA’s requirements were relaxed still further to give us the Highway Truck Parts Special, Edelweiss Special (beer), Wonder Bread Special, Stokely Food Products Special, Hamilton-Harris Special (tobacco products) and Cocktail Hour Cigarette Special. Other intriguing car names were the Indiana Fur Special, Kay Jewelers Special, Sacks Brothers Special (used car dealership and pawn shop), Kennedy Tank Special, Kraft’s Real Rye Special (bread), Falstaff Special (beer), Kamm’s Special (beer), Hollywood Pay Day Candy Bar Special, Airliner Sandwich Shop Special and the Quillen Bros. Refrigerator Special.

Sponsors got more into the act in the 1930s, like with the 1933 Wonder Bread Special, driven by Joe Russo (note the "Wonder Bread Bakers").

Sponsors got more into the act in the 1930s, like with the 1933 Wonder Bread Special, driven by Joe Russo (note the “Wonder Bread Bakers”).

Sponsor "Specials" are long gone today and especially long gone are sponsors like Cocktail Hour Cigarette, pictured in 1935 with driver Al Gordon.

Sponsor “Specials” are long gone today and especially long gone are sponsors like Cocktail Hour Cigarette, pictured in 1935 with driver Al Gordon.

In 1938, Mike Boyle’s three cars ran as I.B.E.W. Specials, the team underwritten by the electrical union for which Boyle was a powerful leader in Chicago. There was even the Spike Jones Special, in 1946, named for the zany bandleader who was a real race fan. Every car for the next many years was to be known as the “so-and-so” Special, the general departure from that coming shortly after the permanent arrival of the rear-engine car after which it became standard to name cars for the type of chassis, thus Olsonite Eagle and Sunoco McLaren, etc. Next came witty sponsorship tie-ins like The Norton Spirit, Domino’s Pizza “Hot One,” the Travelodge Sleeper, Genesee Beer Wagon and The Gould Charge (for Gould batteries, get it?).  The term “special” had long faded from the scene when in 2009, the late Scott Roembke, an Indianapolis born-and-raised “500” history fanatic, now team manager for Rahal-Letterman Racing strode into the press room and specified with conviction, “The name of our car this year is The Rahal Letterman DAFCA SPECIAL!”

Individuals could also get into the sponsor "Special" act, like famous bandleader Spike Jones on Sam Hanks' 1946 car.

Individuals could also get into the sponsor “Special” act, like famous bandleader Spike Jones on Sam Hanks’ 1946 car.

What was the largest engine to make the starting field? – Lego Mike Orr, via Facebook

With the maximum allowable cubic-inch displacement for the first two “500s” set at a rather generous 600, there were several cars in 1911 and 1912 which measured up in the 590 range. The largest on record was Bob Burman’s Cutting, which crashed out in 12th place after 156 laps in 1912. It displaced 598 cubic inches. The following year, in the first attempt at getting “more out of less,” the maximum allowable was reduced to 450 c.i.d.

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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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