We’re chronicling 100 days of Indy 500 history on #SpeedRead leading up to the historic 100th Running. With 33 days to go, racing journalist Marshall Pruett continues his look back at milestone cars and technology.
More Pruett: Weird and wonderful cars: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4| 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.
In Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 of this series, we’ve enjoyed looking back at cars that aren’t household names, yet have become beloved entries in Indy’s technological march to May’s 100th 500. We hope you enjoy Part 5.
1. 1964 “Capsule” Car
Smokey Yunick was of sound physical and mental health in 1964, although the latter was debated after his newest Indy 500 creation was unveiled. Conjured from his shop in Daytona Beach, Florida, Yunick’s Offy-powered “Capsule” car sits atop the Speedway’s throne for truly bizarre creations.
Think back to the other oddball cars, and in almost every instance, those crazy concepts were tried by more than one team, multiple examples were produced, and those machines appeared in a few 500s. Yunick’s Capsule car was so strange, it spawned no copycats and went down in Indy history as the first and last of its kind.
In typical Yunick fashion, the Capsule concept was a result of observation and lateral thinking. The WWII veteran recalled seeing a German plane, the asymmetrical Blohm und Voss 141, flying overhead and took note of the separate cabin for its pilot and fuselage for the engine.
With Indy’s four left turns, Yunick recognized the value in applying the German concept to create a car with a significant weight bias to the left, which would increase cornering speeds.
Envisioned as a turbine-powered car, the cost to acquire a turbine far exceeded Yunick’s budget, which led him to a familiar four-cylinder Offy. With the chassis, radiator, and engine assembled as one unmanned unit, Yunick completed the Blohm und Voss 141 theme by shaping the driver’s capsule from aluminum and hanging it between the left-side tires with only five bolts!
If the tenuous sidecar treatment wasn’t enough of a shock for the Capsule’s drivers, Yunick made sure to incorporate other features that also proved to be completely unfamiliar.
The car’s almost square steering wheel was, according to Yunick, Indy’s first removable wheel due to the tiny cabin and the need for quick egress in the event of a fire or crash. The car had outboard drum brakes up front and inboard drums at the rear instead of modern disc brakes.
The upper front suspension was a single leaf spring that also located and held the uprights. To maintain a narrow, aerodynamic shape at the front of the egg-like capsule, Yunick installed a single pedal that could be used to accelerate or brake; the car’s clutch was integrated into a gated shift lever mechanism he drafted on a three-foot-wide piece of paper.
Duane Carter, father of IndyCar driver “Pancho” Carter, was the first to test Yunick’s Capsule and felt it had promise. A stone-faced Bobby Johns was less charitable in his evaluation of the car, and with Johns’ crash while warming up to qualify, the loony Capsule didn’t make the show.
You could say a variation on the Capsule car emerged in 1968 when Carroll Shelby hired STP Turbine designer Ken Wallis to build two new turbines for Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme to drive, but in reality, Yunick’s concept was nowhere to be found.
The Shelby cars used a central spine, placing its driver on the outside, and the turbine side-by-side on the inside of the spine. From a design standpoint, Wallis stacked three items in parallel—driver+spine+engine, which made for an incredibly wide aerodynamic profile.
For all the visual insanity of Yunick’s Capsule, it was far more advanced than the Shelby cars by concentrating the entire “car” into a single line, and with the aero-friendly capsule affixed to the left, only two parallel items were introduced to the oncoming air.
Like most things Yunick tried at Indy, the Capsule car had great potential and needed more time and money to fully develop its far-reaching technologies.
2. 1913 Anel
Driver Billy Liesaw’s entry for the third Indy 500 looked odd from the outside, thanks to the angular cowling that sat between the hood and the cockpit. But Liesaw’s Anel (the name “Lena” backwards) makes our list for something truly bizarre that is hidden from sight: An engine crankcase made from bronze!
The soft metal enclosure sandwiching the crankshaft and the engine block could have played a part in the loosening of the Anel’s rotating mass. The four-cylinder, 318 cu. in. Buick powerplant lasted 370 miles before rattling connecting rods forced Liesaw’s retirement.
3. 1966 Huffaker Porsche
Bay Area chassis builder Joe Huffaker was a man of many ideas, but even he was surprised by the request made by his Porsche-loving customer Al Stein. Huffaker, a supremely talented designer and fabricator, introduced his MG Liquid Suspension Specials to the Indy 500, and in 1966, he earned another distinction by bringing the first (non-diesel) turbocharged car to the Speedway with a Huffaker-Offy for Bobby Unser.
The transplanted Hoosier also built a second car to spec–wholly unrelated to Unser’s powerful entry–for Stein using a pair of 122-cubic-inch, air-cooled flat-six Porsche engines driven through a gearbox sourced from an Italian Lancia road car. Stein’s Valvoline Twin Special wasn’t the first twin-engine car to enter the Indy 500, but it certainly took the concept to somewhere new.
Thanks to the German firm’s dedication to using large fans to cool its engines, the Twin Special was doubly abnormal: No radiators or water was carried in this Huffaker chassis.
Generating approximately 210 horsepower apiece, Stein’s pair of Porsches made about the same as a single, non-turbo Offy, which saddled the Huffaker chassis with twice the weight. Driver Bill Cheesbourg, who would seemingly drive anything at Indy in the 1960s, did his best to pedal the twin-engine contraption in qualifying, but with an unfavorable power-to-weight ratio, Stein’s machine struggled to crack the 149 mph barrier.
The slowest car in the field was almost 10 mph faster than the Huffaker-Porsche, Cheesbourg failed to qualify, and the Twin Special fell into obscurity as the first Porsche-powered car to appear (and disappear) at the 500.
In a subtle reminder of Huffaker’s design prowess, Unser drove his turbo Offy to a fine eighth-place finish and one of his year-old naturally-aspirated Huffaker Offys finished seventh.
Advancements at the Indy 500 have come in many forms, and Albert Guyot’s English Sunbeam chassis made early strides with engine cooling through a few of the pieces shown in the photos.
The Sunbeam’s 367-cubic-inch, six-cylinder engine pumped oil from the motor out through a loop that ran from the left side of the engine bay to the end of the car, then turned around to made its way back to feed the engine after passing air swept over and cooled those external oil lines.
As simple as it was, the concept worked and served as a predecessor to fitting small oil radiators–miniature versions of water radiators–to achieve the same result.
Guyot’s Sunbeam also made strides in cooling and retaining the six-cylinder’s water supply. The need to add copious amounts of water during pit stops was reduced by adding a condenser atop the radiator cap which prevented water from boiling away and being lost. Along with the skinny, ram-air style nose that concentrated the air hitting the Sunbeam’s radiator, Guyot was able to achieve exceptional reliability in 1913, where he finished fourth.
5. 1923 Change
The birth of the modern-day single-seater Indy car came as a result of a rule change. The requirement for each car to carry a riding mechanic was abandoned after the 1922 race, and with new freedoms for 1923, designers were afforded the opportunity to produce narrower cars with shoulder-hugging cockpits to cheat the wind.
The four-car factory Bugatti team is shown with their diminutive voiturettes featuring tapered bodies and skinny frame rails nestling 121-cubic-inch, inline-eight-cylinder engines. Tommy Milton’s 1923 Indy 500-winning Miller chassis and engine—sporting dapper threads to match his Firestone tires and monochromatic livery—is another example of the giant leap that was made in a 12-month span.
Tracing the Indy 500’s chassis evolution from 2016 back to 1923 reveals the first true inspiration for the standard look and construction philosophies that currently define the sport. Almost 100 years on from the Bugattis, Millers, and other cars that broke free from the riding mechanic era, the formula they authored will be seen again this May when 33 Dallara DW12s carry on the single-seater tradition.
Take five Ferrari Formula 1 cars, enter them in the 1952 Indy 500, and dominate. Or so Enzo Ferrari and the Prancing Horse’s North American distributor believed. Luigi Chinetti and “Il Commendatore” hatched a passionately ambitious plan, recruited American drivers and his Grand Prix pilots to wield the five cars, and had every intention of dominating the Speedway with the glorious V12-powered 375s.
The 271-cubic-inch engines were perfect for road racing, but lacked the necessary torque to launch from Indy’s four corners. Humbled by Offy’s simple, torque-producing four-cylinder engines, all but Ferrari’s Alberto Ascari—who would go on to win the 1952 F1 championship—abandoned the 375s for purebred Indy cars.
Dressed in Ferrari red, Ascari’s lone No. 12 chassis was capable of earning 19th on the grid in the field of 33, but crashed out on Lap 40 when a wire wheel broke free from the hub and sent the car into the wall. It was an ignominious end to a one-off experiment by the famed constructor, but it wasn’t the last time Ferrari set his sights on Indianapolis.
A new Indy car, the Ferrari 637, was commissioned and tested in 1986, but never raced, and barring the brand’s participation in Indy’s F1 events during the 2000s, the Prancing Horse still has unfinished business on the Speedway’s 2.5-mile oval.
7. 1925 Junior 8 Miller
Front-wheel-drive Indy cars? Absolutely, and they were fast.
Harry Miller’s creation for Dave Lewis was another early trend-setter due to its pioneering FWD system and the car’s compact dimensions. Narrow and low, the 121-cubic-inch Miller inline-eight engine fed its front wheels through the complex transmission that sat between its Firestone tires.
With its debut in the hands of Lewis, who led the 1925 race and finished second with Miller’s FWD system, FWD would go on to become the hot technology advantage to have as the decade progressed.
Miller’s ornate FWD system seen in 1928 took machining to a new level by integrating a passage for the car’s front swing axle, and with the technology in the rise, Indy’s first FWD winner finally emerged in 1930 using a Miller engine and FWD system.
8. 1928 Chromolite Special
It raced before he was born, but it’s entirely possible Earl DeVore’s 1928 Indy 500 challenger set the tone for Roger Penske’s cars that followed 40 years later.
Fitting its name to perfection, DeVore’s Chromolite Special stood out from the rest of the field with its polished and shining chrome-plated bodywork and suspension. Like every Team Penske Indy car, the chrome surfaces on this 1928 entry gleamed under the sun and gave DeVore’s entry a distinct visual separation from its rivals.
Its supercharged engine also made use of something different from the norm: An air-to-water intercooler. Most supercharged Indy cars of that era used air-to-air intercoolers that relied on various fins and contraptions to run air over a device containing the hot, compressed “supercharged” air and cool it prior to entering the combustion chamber.
With the Chromolite’s eight-cylinder 90 cu. in. Miller engine, DeVore had a novel solution at his disposal with a secondary water-filled intercooler radiator that wrapped around the engine’s water radiator. This air-to-water intercooler worked by surrounding the hot supercharger air pipework and using the cooled water enveloping the pipe to reduce the air’s temperature on the way to meeting with fuel and spark inside each cylinder.
Beautiful on the outside, ground-breaking on the inside—this Miller was credited with 24th in the race after DeVore clouted the wall and wrinkled the No. 6s pristine form.