Regular #SpeedRead readers will recall Marshall Pruett’s eight-part series on “Weird and Wonderful Cars of the ‘500’” that appeared in the weeks leading up to the 100th Running of the Indy 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Now, the feature continues with one car featured regularly.
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Hurley Haywood’s name tends to conjure thoughts of sports car racing and major endurance competition achievements by one of America’s most prolific drivers. Three overall victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and five at the 24 Hours of Daytona and—all while driving Porsches—made the Chicago native an international star. It also made his one start at the Indy 500 one of the lesser known entries on a racing resume that spanned six decades a delightful topic to explore.
Despite his heavy association with the renowned German auto manufacturer, Haywood’s run at Indy in 1980 came with the most American of powerplants—a turbocharged Chevy V6—in the back of an innovating American chassis—the Lightning—while driving for colorful team owner Lindsey Hopkins.
The patriotic combination held promise, but in a field filled with proven Cosworth and Offenhauser turbos, the new Bowtie-badged motor in the No. 99 Lightning was always going to be a question mark when it came to lasting 500 miles.
“Well, the car was super quick,” said Haywood, who will serve as the starter for this weekend’s Rolex 24 at Daytona. “They had all the Chevrolet brass and because it was their first entry into Indy with that motor, there was a lot of pressure on Lindsay Hopkins and the whole team to produce… “It had power, but it proved it wasn’t a reliable piece at that point, but it was super quick, for a while anyway. That was my first adventure at Indy.”
By the time Haywood arrived at the 500, he’d earned a reputation for taming some of the fiercest cars on the planet. Porsche 917 Can Am prototypes with more than 1000 hp, and whistling down Le Mans’ perilous Mulsanne Straight at 230 mph—all while dodging wandering GT cars—was the norm for Haywood…but the hallowed Indianapolis Motor Speedway proved to be a different animal for the 500 rookie.
“I mean, to be honest with you, I was really intimidated by that place,” he said. “With the caliber of drivers that I had read about and I idolized as a kid, I was on the same racetrack as they were. Back then the cars were dangerous, if you had a bad wreck you would probably hurt yourself. It required an enormous amount of total, total concentration. If you were just a few inches off your mark, you were in trouble.”
Qualifying 25th, Haywood and the Hopkins team moved forward in the race until the Chevy turbo caught fire. With underbody aerodynamics taking hold of the great race, Haywood recalls making use of the downforce generated by the Lightning’s underwing until its sidepod skirts wore down and bled off a significant amount of aerodynamic grip.
“Those were skirted cars, articulating skirts, and so when you had news skirts on it was pretty good,” he said. “But then as the race wore on, your skirts would shave themselves down and cornering really got unpredictable. My heart was in my mouth almost every single lap, to be honest with you.”
Finishing 18th left Haywood with mixed feelings, and while he made additional starts on the CART IndyCar trail, 1980 stands as his one and only participation at the Indy 500.
“Well, it is surprising how many people know about that,” he said. “I get lots of fan mail from the Midwest, nice people sending me pictures that bring back great memories of Indy. It’s surprising to me people still remember that.”
Considering the risks involved and his primary role in sports cars, Haywood was satisfied with what he and the team achieved with the Lightning-Chevy.
“And Lindsey was such a great car owner,” he added. “He was a really colorful guy and he was at the front of the private individuals that field the teams. He was a really charming, wonderful gentleman of racing. But it was enough for me.”