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.
Before March and Lola took over IndyCar racing in the mid-1980s, boutique American chassis constructors like Wildcat still posed a serious threat to reach Victory Lane at the Indianapolis 500.
The last win came in 1982 with Gordon Johncock behind the wheel of a Patrick Racing-built Wildcat-Cosworth (above), and the following year, with a fresh chassis penned by Gordon Kimball, it’s believed the last brand-new, Indiana-built Indy car was pressed into service at the Brickyard.
Commissioned by legendary entrant Pat Patrick, the Wildcat name appeared for the first time at the Indy 500 in 1975, and despite several solid runs, a win at “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” had to wait until 1982, when Johncock beat Rick Mears to the finish line by a then-record of .16 of a second.
Kimball, the father of Chip Ganassi Racing driver Charlie Kimball, was initially drafted in to assist with the 1982 car after the car’s suspension and downforce-generating ground effects tunnels were shown to work in a rather disconnected manner.
“That ’82 Wildcat was mostly a John Thompson design, and I believe he did most of it in 1981,” said Kimball, who is often credited for the complete 1982 Wildcat chassis. “When I started with Patrick, the cars weren’t bad, they were reasonable in that ground effects time, but the suspension geometry was wrong and the ride height was wrong, and the big contribution I made was making some changes so we could run the car a lot lower than it was previously capable of doing to maximize the aero on the superspeedway. Once we got it low and at the right ride height, it performed quite well.”
After playing an important part in Johncock’s Indy 500 win, Kimball was asked to create a brand-new Wildcat for 1983 (below). In an odd twist, the mechanical and aerodynamic expertise that transformed Thompson’s Wildcat into an Indy winner was slightly lacking in the final Wildcat.
Patrick Racing’s 1983 Indy 500 lineup, with Johncock, Johnny Rutherford and Chip Ganassi, would struggle—at least in comparison to the previous year—with Kimball’s creation. With a greater reliance on downforce from the underwings, cornering proved to be the one area where the new chassis surrendered an advantage.
A pair of crashes by Rutherford in practice left “Lone Star JR” with broken bones, and with the three-time Indy winner ruled out of the race, Patrick Racing had two serious contenders left to defending its victory. Transmission woes parked Johncock on Lap 163, leaving Ganassi to salvage a decent result during the Wildcat’s swansong. Tom Sneva, the “Gas Man,” would go on to deliver the first win for March driving a Cosworth-powered entry for Bignotti-Cotter Racing.
In Kimball’s 1983 Wildcat, Ganassi recorded a career-best Indy 500 finish with an eighth-place performance, and went on to impress throughout the season with an eighth at the Michigan superspeedway, a sixth on CART’s return to Michigan later in the year, a pair of podiums with third at Las Vegas and Laguna Seca, and a fifth at Phoenix. Despite missing three rounds, Ganassi and the No. 60 car earned ninth in the championship on the strength of what they accomplished in the final Wildcat.
“It was fast in a straight line, but we missed on downforce,” Ganassi said. “It was a great car, a great design, had a great gearbox, and had everything you needed, but was a little bit light on downforce to get through the corners. But it came at a time when March was coming onto the scene and was mass-producing cars. Around ’83, you could buy one from them cheaper than it would cost to develop one of your own.”
Kimball admits to loving some of his other designs a lot more than the 1983 Wildcat.
“It was good mechanically, but I got caught out when [CART] wanted to reduce downforce so they raised the skirts for ’83 to be an inch above the bottom of the chassis, and we struggled with the car on the superspeedways,” he said. “There was a problem there we couldn’t find. It was great on the bumps; Gordy won at [the heavily banked] Atlanta Motor Speedway with it and Chip finished third at Laguna, so it was good on road courses, too, but there was something off on the big ovals. At Indy, everybody but Chip crashed. I’m not very proud of it …”
With Kimball’s urging, the Patrick team took an interesting approach to searching for fixes to the Wildcat’s speedway aero limitations.
“We spent days at Atlanta with all kinds of floor shapes trying to make it work…it was living proof I wasn’t an aerodynamicist … ,” Kimball said with a laugh. “We spent days in the freezing cold there, burning 55-gallon drums of methanol to keep warm. I can still feel that cold in my bones.
“We didn’t have wind tunnel access for the car (during its development), but we did eventually ended up taking it to the Lockheed wind tunnel in Georgia to see if we could determine the underlying issue, but without a rolling road, we couldn’t even find it there.
“Finally, towards the end of the season, we took the bodywork off of Danny Ongais’s Interscope March and put it on our car, and it cured whatever the aerodynamic problem was.”
Decades later, Kimball’s 1983 Wildcat would play an interesting role in his son’s arrival at Chip Ganassi Racing.
“That car would, of course, be the car Chip has his best Indy finish in,” he said. “And then, when Charlie went to drive for Chip, they gave him the choice of car numbers 38 or 83, and he chose 83 because that’s the year Chip drove his dad’s car to his best finish at Indy … so I’ve been bearing this cross for years (laughs).”
Fabricated at Patrick Racing’s Indianapolis shop, Kimball says the one undeniably proud takeaway from the 1983 Wildcat is its birthplace.
“Just about every Indy car at that time, the Marchs, Lolas, and even the Penskes were made in England,” he said. “Dan Gurney was still making Indy cars in California in ’83, but that Wildcat would have been one of the last—possibly the final—Indy 500 cars made in the state of Indiana. I don’t know if the [Patrick] mechanics were all that enthused with the car when they were building it, but it has great heritage like so many other Indy cars made in Indiana.”