We’re chronicling 100 days of Indy 500 history on #SpeedRead leading up to the historic 100th Running. With 12 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, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7 | 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, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6 and Part 7 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 the 100th “500.” This is our final installment before Race Day, but come back in June as we’ll keep exploring. There’s no shortage of material from a century of Indy 500s.
1. 1963 COOPER ASTON MARTIN
Wait, there was an Aston Martin-engined Indy car? Indeed, in 1963, and it was just one of three “firsts” contained within the same entry.
Commissioned by West Coast British car importer Kjell Qvale, local race car designer/constructor Joe Huffaker was tasked with taking an English Cooper chassis and fitting it with an English Aston Martin inline-6 engine. But it wasn’t an ordinary Cooper; this was the T54 chassis Jack Brabham drove at the Speedway in 1961 — the first car credited with starting the rear-engine revolution.
The choice of the Aston Martin motor was also a first, and while it had plenty of grunt to accelerate out of the corners, but struggled to reach the tops speeds necessary to post competitive lap times and did not qualify.
The Cooper-Aston also brought Joe Huffaker to Indianapolis for the first time with a car he put together, and with that introduction, the Hoosier—who make his name in the sport in California—would become one of the great innovators at the 500 in the 1960s as his MG Liquid Suspension Specials and his turbo Offy chassis broke new ground.
And who drove the all-British machine? Mexico’s Pedro Rodriguez, who also started his Formula 1 career in 1963, and was regarded as one of the most naturally talented drivers of any era. It was Pedro’s first Indy 500 attempt, and although he returned for another try in 1967, he was unable to make the show before his untimely death in 1971.
2. 1949 ROUNDS ROCKET
The Rounds Rocket chassis was yet another attempt to usher in a rear-engine revolution before Jack Brabham’s Cooper caught on in 1961.
The exquisite construction and proven Meyer-Drake Offy four-cylinder engine should have given Bill Taylor enough speed to qualify, but it lacked the pace to make the field on its debut in 1949, and even future Indy 500 winners Sam Hanks and Bill Vukovich—both whom sampled the car at the Speedway in 1950—were unable to shape the Rounds Rocket into a potential qualifier.
Long before Justin Wilson was known as this generation’s tallest Indy 500 driver, the distinction went to Chris Kneifel, whose bruised knees and worn shoulders told the tale of a giant crammed into a jockey’s cockpit.
At 6-foot-5, the Chicago native’s size would prove to be his downfall as a burgeoning IndyCar career came to an end thanks to the advance of chassis construction technology. With the top half of the Longhorn-based Primus tailor made to fit Kneifel’s broad shoulders he could turn and shift (but with the period’s relatively short distance between the back of the cockpit to the front of the tub), he was unable to scoot forward and lower his upper torso and head out of the airstream.
With his head well above the cockpit sides (below), Kneifel made his debut at the 1983 Indy 500 (above), and returned in 1984 with external aero modifications to the Primus where he and his car earned an interesting distinction.
Kneifel and the Primus became the final qualifier for the 1984 Indy 500, but he only made the field when Jacques Villeneuve (the 1995 Indy winner’s uncle) crashed and was unable to start the race. With Kneifel’s promotion into 33rd, he and the Primus became the last driver/car to start an Indy 500 with a qualifying speed below 200 mph (199.831).
As 1984 arrived, the widespread use of carbon-fiber in Indy car design significantly changed chassis construction methods, making the Primus a bit of a throwback in only its second season of competition. The former all-aluminum honeycomb tubs were now made as two-part shells with the top halves done in carbon, which removed the easy options to fashion a new chassis around Kneifel’s dimensions.
Although he scraped into the show in 1984 (above), there was little chance the bulky Primus would get the job done in 1985. With his last-to-qualify-below-200 record earned in 1984, it would also hail his final appearance in the 500.
“My size was always an issue,” Kneifel said. “But it wasn’t a huge problem with the aluminum and fiberglass because you could bend it and mold it and make it bigger without any drama. By 1983, carbon fiber had come in, in terms of it was an aluminum monocoque but everything on top of the aluminum was, basically from the hips up, carbon fiber. And at that point the carbon fiber, it’s one piece, it was a single size and you can’t cut and paste that at all. In August of ’84 I got sent over to England to both Lola and March to see if I could fit in the ’85 car. And I did not, it wasn’t even close. It was just prohibitive from a cost standpoint to modify the mold to make it wider. Where I was having problems actually was with my shoulders, with being tall I just sat up higher in the car. My ass got in there, and my hips, but my shoulders didn’t. Basically, August of ’84 was for all intents and purposes the end of my open-wheel career.”
Skip ahead to 2012, and with the design of the Dallara DW12, even Justin Wilson’s 6-foot-4 frame could be squeezed into the car without causing the same kind of pain or outward protrusion.
As an interesting aside, the Primus sits patiently in the basement of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum awaiting its next assignment.
With USAC’s ban on wings at the Indy 500 finally lifted for the 1969 race, teams were given a small amount of freedom to experiment. For the first year, USAC limited wing spans to nine inches, which explains why Mario Andretti’s all-wheel-drive Lotus 64 has four—front and back—of the same approximate size.
The nine-inch rule was also exploited in 1969 as some entries sprouted a wing over the engine. With the rule meant to govern the maximum width of wings protruding outward from the cars, the wider central wing was allowed.
The Brawner/Hawk that Andretti drove to victory that year sported a central wing, as did the car driven by the race’s pole sitter, A.J. Foyt.
5. 1946 FAGEOL TWIN COACH
Say hello to the only twin-engine Indy car that reached its full potential. The unique chassis, which was produced by the Fageol Motors bus and truck company and used a pair of supercharged 90-cubic-inch Offy four-cylinder engines, was relatively light and exceptionally nimble. The Huffaker-built twin-engine Porsche that continued the tradition in 1966 boasted the polar opposites—extreme weight and minimal cornering prowess.
Where Bill Cheesbourg failed to qualify the 12-cylinfer Porsche (using two flat-six air-cooled engines) in 1966, Paul Russo almost captured pole position 20 years earlier in the Twin Coach. Starting second, Russo was running well in the race until he crashed on the 16th lap, destroying the little jewel. The $650 earned for 33rd and last was a pittance compared to the $42,350 George Robson took home for the win.
The Fageol definitely belongs in the Indy 500’s small club for truly odd and ambitious designs, and even among those members—from Smokey Yunick’s sidecar to Pat Clancy’s six-wheel car—it belongs in an incredibly tiny class of outside-the-box vehicles that ran with the leaders.
6. 1970 JACK ADAMS GERHARDT TURBINE
The man, the myth, the unrivaled king of Indy 500 futility. Leon “Jigger” Sirois made a half-dozen attempts to qualify for his home state race and came up short on every occasion. If there was a gift he left behind, it was the turbine-powered Gerhardt chassis that looked like it was inspired by an aluminum anteater. Turbine-loving Jack Adams, who kept returning to the Speedway with nutty new versions of non-cylindered engines, tabbed Sirois to wheel his latest creation.
USAC’s turbine restrictive rules choked its power levels to a point of futility, and through no fault of his own—other than accepting to drive a turbine-powered car in 1970—Sirois earned his second DNQ.
More “weird” than “wonderful,” this wingless creation would make a fine addition to a “Car That Failed To Qualify” vintage race at IMS.
7. UNHINGED 1972
Pardon my French, but with the Parnelli VPJ-1 as a prime example (see Part 7), the Indy 500 lost its *!$%^&*# mind in 1972, and it’s here where we’ll close our celebration of the unforgettable cars that have brought so much character to the Speedway.
In 1972, cars that doubled as snow plows, gape-mouthed machines, cars with wings sprouting from amidships, basking sharks … there was no end to the creativity. It was as if aerodynamics were invented just prior to the race in ’72 and designers ran amok with anything that came to mind.
Mark Donohue won Roger Penske’s first Indy 500 in 1972 using the stunning (and conventional) McLaren M16B-Offy with relatively normal cars following him home. Behind the top finishers, there was an assembly of insane and plain silly products that also managed to find their way to the finish line, and in some cases below, a few watched the race from the sidelines after failing to earn one of the 33 starting positions.