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 biweekly.
Before Indy car fans were presented with the unforgettable “Yellow Submarine” in 1979, Jim Hall’s Chaparral Racing team made its first serious entry into the open-wheel history books with 1978’s Lola T500.
Dressed in the patriotic colors of sponsor First National City Travelers Checks, Al Unser captured Chaparral’s first Indianapolis 500 victory and the second for the famed British constructor Lola after Graham Hill make history for the marque with his rookie win in 1966.
And in a nod to the changing times, Unser’s win also marked the first of 10 consecutive Indy triumphs for the 2.65-liter V8 Cosworth DFX engine that was developed into a turbocharged Indy car beast by 1963 Indy 500 winner Parnelli Jones in California.
Nestled into a chassis that tapered to a remarkably narrow point in the footwell, the T-500 used impressively long upper rocker arms for the front suspension and a more custom trailing link suspension at the rear. Combined with low sidepods and a tidy engine cover, the Lola made plenty of room for air to flow freely across the front and rear wings,
Noted for its efficient and effective package, the T-500 put all of the Cosworth’s prodigious power and exceptional fuel mileage to great use as Unser started fifth, took the lead on Lap 76, overcame front wing damage incurred during his final stop, and led 121 laps on the way to joining the three-time winner’s club.
The Chaparral Lola would carry over to early 1979 as the team’s first Yellow Submarine—the John Barnard-designed 2K chassis—was finished. The Chaparral 2K is best remembered with its iconic Pennzoil livery, but the Indy 500-winning Chaparral Lola T-500 was the first to use the colors before it was replaced with Barnard’s ground-effects masterpiece.
Unser wasn’t able to join the four-time club in 1979 with the 2K—that would have to wait until 1987—but the following year, and in the hands of Johnny Rutherford, Chaparral’s pride and joy broke through to win the manufacturer its first and only Indy 500.
Thanks to the brilliance of the 2K it’s easy to forget the Lola T-500, entered by a team from Texas, with a driver from New Mexico, in an English chassis, using an engine from the U.K. that was originally created for Formula 1, put Chaparral on the open-wheel map.