This year when I made my annual pilgrimage to Indianapolis, I found a handful of race cars that I had never expected to see. Between the contemporary Indy cars, the cars on display in the museum, the seventy plus privately owned Indy cars on exhibit in tents next door, etc. I inspected literally hundreds of race cars. Of all the cars I looked at, these were my Five Favorite.
The Cummins Diesel Company based in nearby Columbus, Indiana entered diesel powered racers in the 500 on five different occasions. Their entry in 1931 was the first car to cover the distance without A SINGLE STOP (placing 13th). The early diesels tended to by heavy and boxy looking but not their final entry in 1952. Cummins spent over a half million dollars building this low, streamlined roadster for Freddie Agabashian to pilot and he stuck it on the pole. The six cylinder was slow coming up to speed but it’s four lap average was 138 mph; a new track record. On Memorial Day it fell back when its supercharger became clogged with hot dog wrappers and crap it picked up off the track. At seventy laps it was belching black smoke and withdrawn from competition. Ironically “Fast Freddie” had predicted this and suggested the engineers create another air intake in the hood. Not wanting to disturb the aesthetics of their design, Team Cummins had refused.
Ken Wallis had nearly won the 1967 Indy 500 with his original turbine car design, penned for STP president Andy Granatelli. His services were retained by Carroll Shelby in 1968 and with funding provided by clothier Botany 500, the next evolution of his side by side layout became a reality. In an attempt to reign in the turbine, USAC had put new restrictions on the size of its intake and Wallis had gotten around that by designing an annulus that opened at speed like the aperture of a camera. This of course was illegal and when Shelby chief engineer Phil Remington saw what Wallis had in mind, he resigned on the spot. Can Am racing champions Denny Hulme and Bruce McLaren were hired to drive but were unable to attain a competitive speed. When Mike Spence was killed practicing in one of Granatelli’s new Lotus Turbines, Shelby saw a way to save face. He called a press conference an announced that he was withdrawing his entries for “safety reasons”. Both cars disappeared for the next fifty years- It’s amazing to me that they still exist.
Meanwhile a few garages over, hot rodder Mickey Thompson was preparing for his final assault on the Brickyard. It had been four years since a Thompson entry had made the show and he was no longer building his own cars. Instead the “City of Long Beach Special” was constructed by San Franciscan Joe Huffaker who had a solid history of putting cars in the lineup. Actually the number #63 was the more conventional of two Huffaker “Wynn’s Specials” that Thompson had entered in ’67. Drag racer Danny Ongais was to make his rookie debut in the mount but it was fellow rookie Bill Puterbaugh that eventually strapped in. Sadly, the car which featured a small block Chevrolet with multi-valve heads of Thompson’s manufacture never ran well enough to make a qualifying attempt. Today, I am pleased to report, that current owner George Lyons appears to have the Huffaker fully sorted and running fine.
Aforementioned Kiwi’s Denny Hulme and Bruce McLaren were the dominate force in Can Am racing in 1969 but it wasn’t like the other guys weren’t trying. With support from Dearborn, Holman Moody stuffed a 500 cubic inch Ford monster into a two year old McLaren and strapped Mario Andretti in the cockpit. As per usual the diminutive Italian/American rose to the occasion and qualified third fast in his initial outing. After a little R and D the team reappeared for the last three events of the season. At Laguna Seca Andretti qualified seventh and finished fourth. At Riverside he started sixth and finished third and at Texas he split Team McLaren and qualified in the front row. At the drop of the green flag Andretti blasted into the lead and led for four laps before genading the engine. Clearly the car had potential, only the commitment was lacking. The “429er” (as it was referred to) was a no-show at the thirty and fifty year Can Am reunions and my assumption was that it no longer existed. Imagine my delight when I found it in the Mario Andretti-ICON exhibit held at the Speedway museum.
Another of Indy’s chosen sons was Jim “Herk” Hurtubise. He qualified for the 500 ten times and became a sentimental favorite of the fans. He promoted the front engine roadsters long after that technology had become obsolete. Hurtubise was a natural choice to pilot Andy Granatelli’s supercharged Novi and in 1963 he qualified it in the front row. Starting alongside was his friend Parnelli Jones and in the race they had a tremendous battle until the Novi was sidelined with an oil leak. Hurtubise watched Jones go on to win his only 500 and was among the first to congratulate him. In ’64 Herk was back in a traditional roadster but the following year he couldn’t get his entry up to speed and returned to Granatelli’s Novi. On the final weekend of time trials he put the day-glo rocket in the show with a solid qualifying effort. Unfortunately on race day he was the first retirement when his transmission failed. Knowing the Novi’s snake-bitten past and the ups and downs of Hurtubise’s career, it seems appropriate that the two be forever linked. Seeing the racer in person was an emotional experience.