The weird and wonderful cars of the ‘500,’ part 1

Published On March 29, 2016 » 10045 Views» By Marshall Pruett » Blogs, IMS, IMS History, Indy 500

We’re chronicling 100 days of Indy 500 history on #SpeedRead leading up to the historic 100th Running. With 61 days to go, racing journalist Marshall Pruett continues his look back at milestone cars and technology.

More Pruett: The mighty “Offy” | Penske’s ’94 dominator | The “Fantastic” Turbine | Murphy’s Miller straight-8 | Yunick’s winged Watson More 100 days

We have fallen in love with the Indianapolis 500’s most accomplished designs since the Marmon Wasp won the first race in 1911. Since then, countless favorites have graced Victory Circle—Millers, Kurtis Krafts, Eagles, Penskes—and dozens of other race-winning cars or inspiring machines have enriched the great race.

And then, as history has recorded, we have the cars that reached too far or, in some cases, not far enough in pursuit of glory at the Indy 500. They stand as the weird and the wonderful, and some represent interesting footnotes—or origins—in chassis and engine design.

Here’s Part 1 in our look back at a handful of cars that aren’t household names, yet have become beloved entries in Indy’s technological march to May’s 100th 500.

1: The 1929 C. Cunard-Buckeye Duesenberg wasn’t the first supercharged car to race at the Indy 500, but it did carry one of the most visible examples of early forced induction. Its predecessors, dating to the first supercharged car to win the 500 in 1925, competed with superchargers tucked neatly inside the (extremely hot) engine bay, and were mostly hidden from sight. Once engine builders realized cooling the supercharged air increased horsepower, intercoolers—radiators that cooled the compressed, supercharged air that fed combustion chambers—began to sprout from engine covers. Shown here on Ernie Triplett’s car, the big “accordion” in front of the Duesy’s painted No. 47 is its intercooler. As an interesting sidebar, today’s twin-turbocharged V6 IndyCar engines from Chevy and Honda do not use intercoolers for the sake of simplicity and weight savings.


2: The Tyrrell P34 six-wheeler Formula 1 car from 1976 became one of the most famous race cars the world has seen, but it wasn’t the first open-wheel car to use six wheels. 1948’s wacky Pat Clancy Special was decades ahead in six-wheel design, and unlike the P34, which used four (tiny) front tires, the modified Kurtis chassis, which used two midget rear ends, drove four wheels through a venerable Offenhauser four-cylinder engine.

The concept was sound, although with the added weight—said to be 250 pounds more than its rivals—the Pat Clancy Special’s improved cornering capabilities were mitigated by the extra running gear and wheels. Brave Billy DeVore qualified the hefty chassis a remarkable 20th and raced to an amazing 12th by the finish. Jackie Holmes took his turn in the car in 1949 and, to date, it remains the only six-wheeler to race in the 500.


3: Pardon me, Sir, are you looking for the Baja 500? Unbelievable Bruce Walkup qualified his Mongoose-Offy, complete with off-road-style rollcage and top-mounted rearview mirrors 14th for the 1970 Indy 500. He’d finish a lowly 29th after engine problems intervened. With the aerodynamic drag caused by the prominent rollcage structure, one must assume his turbocharged Offy was wound up to its elastic limit in qualifying, and possibly for the race, to keep pace with the sleek cars that met peacefully with the oncoming air. The No. 97 Wynn’s Spit Fire car lasted 44 laps.



4: Leaving the mid-1920s tiny 91-cubic-inch (1.5-liter) engine formula behind, comparatively huge engines were permitted in 1930, and with all the extra space to use, the Indy 500 had its first V16 engines appear. Three cars carried V16s, with the leading entry driven by legendary Louis Meyer who took the 201-cubic-inch (3.3-liter) Miller V16 in a Stevens chassis to the middle of the front row in qualifying and fourth at the finish.

Here’s Maserati driver Baconin Borzacchini (best driver name ever?) in the Italian chassis bearing its 244-cubic-inch (4.0-liter) V16, and after falling out of favor heading into the 1935 Indy 500, Bob Swanson closed the decade with a return for the V16 in 1939. His 183-cubic-inch (3.0-liter) Sampson V16 engine, fitted to a Stevens chassis, wasn’t particularly successful after starting 22nd and finishing 31st when a rear axle failed 19 laps into the 200-lap race. V16s continued through 1941, and were present in 1946 once the 500 resumed after World War II. (Editor’s note: Borzacchini’s first name was “Baconin” not “Baconi” as in the photo.)

The final V16 to make the great race came in 1947 when Shorty Cantlon qualified a Miller-powered Snowberger chassis fifth. The bizarre front-wheel-drive V16 met its end in a crash on the 40th lap, leaving Cantlon 23rd overall.


5: 1969’s Jack Adams Special was, as its name implies, extremely “special.” Retired airline pilot Adams was an early adopter of USAC’s allowance for turbine engines at the 500, and with Indy’s most optimistic driver—the irrepressible Bill Cheesbourg—strapped into a front-engine turbine-powered roadster, they tried and ultimately failed to make the show in 1966. Undeterred, Adams took a different approach and set about building a new car designed from the ground up to carry a turbine.

The result is what you see here. The new 1969 Jack Adams Special was a front-engine car, long after a rear-engine solution proved to be fastest around the 2.5-mile oval. Adams, taking his cues from streamlined aircraft, fashioned his car with a hilariously long rear fuselage. It must be the longest Indy car ever constructed. Like its predecessor, the latest—and last—Jack Adams Special did not make the show. A down-on-power turbine was blamed for its lack of pace.

Check back next week for Part 2 of our weird and wonderful Indy cars, and if there’s a demand for more, a Part 3 won’t be hard to assemble.


About The Author

Marshall Pruett

Marshall Pruett transitioned from more than 20 years as an open-wheel and sports car mechanic, engineer and team manager into his current role as a writer and reporter in 2006. Follow him @MarshallPruett []

I hope to see innovation like this return to Indy in my lifetime.