My Vintage Vantage

At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway you are in constant search of the next good vantage point. There isn’t one spot from which you can view the entire 2.5 mile oval but there are countless positions to observe from and there is always much to see.

This morning my perch is among the seventy five privately owned vintage Indy cars that are participating in the weekend’s festivities. I am an interested bystander as Greg Wilke prepares to take the family’s 1968 Eagle out for the morning session. Wilke is struggling and his female companion seems more intent on documenting the occasion on her cell phone, than assisting him. When his new carbon fiber helmet topples free and begins sliding down the nose of the race car, I can no longer stay behind the barrier. I snatch the helmet just before it hits the blacktop and with that, I have become “a crew member”. Wilke is wondering out loud where the hell his teenage son is and fussing with his belts. Ultimately I get him to stand up in the cockpit. I unsnap some of the upholstery and lengthen the lap belts a bit. As we get the five point buckle fastened, Junior arrives with the starter. The engine shrieks to life and away Wilke goes. I scramble to the closest vantage point; the grassy knolls inside turn two but the Eagle fails to appear. Apparently Wilke stalled the racer somewhere on his way to the track. They got it re-fired but it wouldn’t go in gear. Back in their pit stall, Wilke handles the disappointment of not getting to run much better than I would have. “I’m an owner, not a driver.” He says. Mostly he is pissed at his son who talked him into taking the racer out in the first place. He is grateful for my help and gives me the history of his car.

This Eagle is a sister car to the one in which Bobby Unser won his first Indy 500 (1968). The Wilke family (Leader Cards, Inc.) has owned it since it was new. It has participated in four 500’s always piloted by hard charger, Mike Mosley. It has carried Bardahl livery, Zecol/Lubaid, Murphy’s dept. store and in its final season; Vivitar Cameras. It has been propelled by various power plants: turbo charged Offenhausers, four cam Fords and Chevrolets.

In my fantasy I own a vintage Indy car with a small block Chevrolet engine- Just because they’re somewhat familiar to me, affordable and I want to be able to drive it! Not even in my fantasy world do I own an Indy car with an engine valued at twice the cost of my house.

I think the Klingerman brothers have the right perspective on this. They located a couple authentic one off Indy Specials from 1969 and ’70 and built their own engines for them. Though their Cecil and Morris Marauder chassis originally cradled exotic Offys and Fords they replaced them with production based units. The Cecil carries an injected Chevy Sprint Car mill; the Marauder rocks a Ford which they turbo charged for fun. These alternatives make perfect sense to me particularly if you plan to take the cars out and play with them (which the Klingermans do).

Steve Francis of New Milford, CT appreciates what the Klingermans have done but was fortunate enough to locate an Indy car in Australia that was powered by a Chevrolet engine since day one. His Cheetah is one of two cars built by Howard Gilbert for the 1967 season. The companion car to Francis’s in fact, was the surprise winner of the ’69 season opener in Phoenix driven by George Follmer. So the classic “cigar-era” Cheetah is not only historically correct but inexpensive to maintain.

Others will say: “As long as we’re fantasizing, why not go for broke?” Okay, if money is no object, I want the 1946 Novi.

When racing resumed at Indianapolis after World War II, Frank Kurtis introduced a new profile to the Speedway. Piloted by Ralph Hepburn his supercharged, V8 powered, front wheel drive monster broke the track record in qualifying. Though it was a full five miles per hour faster than its closest competitor, the Novi balked during the race. In 1947 team owner W.C. Winfield brought two cars to the contest and by driving with a light foot, Herb Ardinger managed to start and finish the 500 in the fourth position. His teammate Cliff Bergere meanwhile barfed the engine in the second Novi after starting on the front row. By its third appearance the Kurtis Novi’s reputation preceded it. Bergere abandon his seat declaring that the car was too dangerous to drive. ’46 pilot Hepburn climbed in and promptly hammered the wall, killing himself. Duke Nalon now assigned to the former Ardinger ride, qualified easily in the eleventh spot and brought his Novi home third. Though the Novis would continue to compete for many years and typically qualify among the fastest, they would never place any higher than third.

So which of the two team cars is this #15 Kurtis Novi? It hardly matters but I would put its value at well into the millions. If you were to take this specimen out for leisurely cruise and hurt the engine, where you gonna find another one? Unfortunately some toys are too valuable to play with.

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