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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Days before the latest running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January, we featured the relatively unknown Lightning-Chevy V6 turbo Indy 500 car driven by sports car legend Hurley Haywood during his lone run at the Speedway in 1980, and with the Daytona 500 rapidly approaching on Sunday, we’ll reverse the trend and look at some of the lesser known Indy 500 cars raced by NASCAR stars.
As part of the Lotus team in 1965, NASCAR front-runner Bobby Johns was teammate to all-time great Jimmy Clark who drove the sublime No. 82 Lotus 38 into Victory Lane. Johns, who made more than 140 NASCAR starts and placed third in the 1960 championship, finished seventh in his No. 83 Lotus 38 (below).
After sampling the best car in the field, he would spend his other six visits to Indy dreaming of cars that were half as good as Colin Chapman’s Ford V8-powered creation. The Lotus 38, considered one of the most iconic Indy 500 cars ever made, was a small blip on Bobby’s radar. His introduction to Indianapolis came in the downright strange sidecar built by the irascible Smokey Yunick in 1964.
Despite their shared ties to NASCAR, the pairing of Johns and the unhinged Yunick were unable to make a statement for the stock car contingent with the Offy-powered sidecar.
An overall lack of speed and stability undermined their efforts to make the field of 33, but Johns’ talent…or lack of fear…was obviously rewarded the following year by Lotus. After his career-best run to seventh in 1965, Johns would attempt to qualify five more times through 1971, but only made it through a second time when he climbed behind the wheel of a slippery Shrike-Offy turbo in 1969.
The little streamliner made great power, but it was also one of many Indy 500 cars that failed to take advantage of new rules that allowed the usage of small wings.
Mario Andretti’s Brawner Hawk, dressed with a left-front wing attached to the nose and three wings sprouting from behind the cockpit, demonstrated the benefit of downforce as vanquished the field. Johns finished 29 laps behind Andretti, claiming 10th in the Shrike.
NASCAR legend LeeRoy Yarbrough spent all three of his Indy 500 appearances driving a Ford-powered Vollstedt chassis that went through significant aerodynamic changes.
Although turbocharging was on its way to becoming the norm on Yarbrough’s debut in 1967, his Vollstedt made use of the proven naturally-aspirated Ford V8 and suffered at the hands of the forced-induction cars.
On his return to the show in 1969—the same year he won the Daytona 500—his chassis was fitted with the turbocharged version of the same Ford engine and, thanks to the new wing-friendly rules, the Vollstedt also had some extra coachwork to settle the spike in power being sent to the ground.
With the rules limiting wing widths to nine inches (if located outside the body—on the sides of the nose, for example), Yarbrough’s updated car had two front wings and two of the longest, narrowest rear wings ever seen at the Indy 500.
While the Vollstedt’s rear wings—easily mistaken for Skee Ball ramps—were fed by clean air, the relatively limited understanding of downforce and drag in 1969 meant decisions like the one to place an oil cooler directly behind the left-front wing greatly reduced its effectiveness and generated unnecessary turbulence.
For 1970, in what would serve as Yarbrough’s final Indy 500 run, the same Vollstedt-Ford turbo appeared with yet another stab at winning the aerodynamic game. Gone were the wings—and the unsightly exposed oil cooler—and in their place, a chin spoiler at the base of the nose and something close to sports car fenders and bodywork was installed at the rear.
Minus the wings, the ramp concept was retained and the general seen here was to shroud the engine and create a smooth flow path for air to travel up and over the back of the car.
A cute ducktail flip was even built into the back of the bodywork to provide a token amount of downforce. Yarbrough took the No. 27 home to 19th place in 1970, which stands as his top result at the Speedway.
A number of other NASCAR stars took on the Indy 500 and had greater success than Johns and Yarbrough; Donnie Allison, part of the famed “Alabama Gang,” came close to capturing open-wheel’s biggest race after placing fourth in 1970, but it was earned while driving a cutting-edge Eagle-Ford V8 turbo run by A.J. Foyt.
Taking nothing away from Allison, the feats by Johns to survive in Yunick’s sidecar and later, by Yarbrough to manhandle an increasingly weird Vollstedt to three Indy 500 finishes, might command just as much respect from NASCAR and IndyCar fans.