Friday Five: Indy 500 cars tied to Indiana towns

Published On October 2, 2015 » 3395 Views» By John Schwarb » Blogs, Friday Five, IMS, IMS History, Indy 500

Through the years, plenty of Indianapolis 500 cars have been sponsored by blue-chip companies and household-name products. Here on the Blog, however, we love to skim the box scores for the unusual sponsors that have added so much color to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

A number of times, Indiana towns and even groups of Hoosiers have been represented on “500” cars. Here’s Five Indy cars with Indiana sponsors.

Blog-1948-Van-Acker

ONE: 1948 City of South Bend Stevens/Offy, driven by Charlie Van Acker

Van Acker was a South Bend resident and his car owner, Walt Redmer, had a connection with the quarter-mile South Bend Motor Speedway. Perhaps that’s how this one came together? Van Acker finished 11th and the entry earned $3,120.

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TWO: 1968 City of Lebanon Gerhardt/Offy, driven by Mel Kenyon

Mel Kenyon had his share of colorful sponsors in his eight-year “500” career, from a 1973 car bearing the colors of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons to this ride which many folks from Lebanon got behind.

Car builder Fred Gerhardt ran three cars in 1967 with Thermo-King sponsorship, including Kenyon’s 16th-place finisher. He only had enough money for two such cars in 1968, but told the Kenyon family that they could have the third car if they could put a team together. Enter the mayor of Lebanon, a big race fan who had worked on the Kenyons’ crew and said he’d help drum up money at home to put the car on track. Don Kenyon – the only paid employee on the team, making $150 a week as the chief mechanic – was looking for $15,000 and didn’t get quite that much, though dozens of businesses kicked in $25, $50, whatever they could do to help.

Mel Kenyon had no guarantee of getting paid as the driver and engine man, though he would get 40 percent of the prize money if the car made the race. It did and finished a remarkable third behind Bobby Unser and Dan Gurney.

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THREE: 1972 City of Terre Haute Eagle/Offy, driven by Carl Williams

Terre Haute’s ties to IMS run deep with the Hulman family and the fact that so many ticket buyers are residents. Many such buyers were also prominent area retailers, so their money helped get this car on track for what would be a 29th-place finish.

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FOUR: 1974 Peru Circus Kenyon/Foyt, driven by Bob Harkey

The Kenyons were involved with another Indiana-sponsored car, this one by the famous Peru Circus. When Harkey expressed surprise that the circus came on board for the last-minute sponsorship, chief mechanic Mel Kenyon joked “wait ‘til you see the driver’s uniform.”

The effort was no joke though – the Peru Circus car finished eighth after qualifying 31st, arguably Harkey’s best performance in six Indy starts.

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FIVE: 1975 Spirit of Indiana Kingfish/Offy, driven by Sheldon Kinser

Now this was a grassroots sponsorship effort – the sidepods of the car featured boxes and Indiana state outlines with names hand-written by the donors themselves. For just a few dollars you could get on the car, with a bigger donation meaning a bigger space. IMS historian Donald Davidson even bought a space, writing in his family’s names.

“I thought ‘boy, if he crashes this thing, what are they gonna do?’” Davidson said.

No worries though, rookie Kinser ran it cleanly all May and finished 12th in the rain-shortened race. The car came back the following year with rookie Spike Gehlhausen but finished last when a lack of oil pressure kept it from completing a single lap.

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About The Author

John Schwarb

I joined the Indianapolis Motor Speedway communications team in July 2014 and love sharing stories from the World Capital of Racing, particularly its rich history. Most of my professional career has been in racing or golf, so if I'm not in the IMS media center, the office at 16th and Georgetown or milling around Gasoline Alley, maybe I'll be standing over a birdie putt at Brickyard Crossing. Follow us at @IMS or drop me a line at @JohnSchwarb and come back to the blog often for more stories.
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