Friday, February 16, 2018

Clare Lawicki – “Little 500” standout

Several weeks ago, Roger Zellner posted this photograph on Facebook of Steve Benovich’s beautiful upright sprint car at the Dayton Speedway.  Clare Lawicki who hailed from the Northern Detroit suburbs crashed and destroyed this car which had originally been owned by Bud Tingelstad in a United States Auto Club (USAC) race at Dayton in April 1970.  
Photo courtesy of Roger Zellner

Clare Lawicki first became known while racing “hot rod” roadsters at the ¼-mile dirt Motor City Speedway in Warren Township of Detroit. It’s unclear when he started racing but on May 7 1950 he was involved when tragedy struck on the fourth lap of the day’s 20-lap feature race.  Lawicki’s roadster “locked wheels” with Louis Smith Jr.’s machine and both cars flipped over the retaining wall. Because he had the presence of mind to duck under the cowling of his car at the beginning of the crash, Clare escaped with only cuts and bruises.

Unfortunately, Louis Smith fared much worse in the accident and though newspapers initially reported that the 33-year old driver had suffered a broken arm and internal injuries, doctors at Detroit’s Holy Cross Hospital found Smith had suffered a severe spinal injury and was paralyzed. Tragically, Smith passed away the next day from his injuries just five minutes before his parents arrived from their home in Waukegan Illinois.

Many of the highlights of Lawicki’s racing career came at the high-banked ¼-mile asphalt Sun Valley Speedway in Anderson Indiana, home of the annual 500-lap “Little 500” race. Lawicki first competed in the “Little 500” in 1954 when he drove the #57 Mercury V8-powered “hot rod” roadster owned by Birmingham Michigan’s Harold Thomas. Lawicki qualified with a single lap of 15.06 seconds, far off Tom Cherry’s new track record of 14.340 seconds, to start 17th in the field.

The 33-car field was paced to the start by cowboy star Roy Rogers in Dodge Royal 500 convertible.  Lawicki’s rookie finish in the race is lost to history (as only the top ten finishers were reported) in a race that was marred by two separate incidents in which axles broke on race cars and sent errant wheels went into the grandstands which injured nine fans.  1950 and 1952 winner Tom Cherry led an amazing 495 laps to win his third “Little 500” crown.

On July 11 1954 Clare took part in a National Association of Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) event held at the ½-mile dirt Grand Rapids Speedrome, and finished 11th driving a 1949 Ford. Lawicki finished 25 laps behind the winning 1954 Chrysler driven by Randleman North Carolina’s Lee Petty and won $25 in prize money. 

The following year, with the race again sanctioned by the Mutual Racing Association (MRA) for the “roaring roadsters,” Lawicki again drove Thomas’ roadster. After 30-year old singer Mel “the Velvet Fog” Torme paced the field in a 1955 Ford convertible before the start, Clare who had qualified seventh ran in third place at the 100-, 200-, and 300- lap points of the race but apparently had mechanical problems later as he was credited with a 14th place finish with 375 laps completed behind 4-time winner Tom Cherry who led an amazing 450 of the 500 laps.  
A photo of the 1956 Desoto Indy 500 Pace Car
Photo courtesy of the IUPUI University Library
Center for Digital Studies Indianapolis Motor
Speedway Collection
In 1956, the “Little 500” sanctioned by the All-American Racing Club (AARC) was postponed from Saturday night May 26 to May 29 by rain, and Lawicki who qualified 22nd in the Harold Thomas machine. The start of the “Little 500” was paced by the same gold and white 1956 Desoto “Pacesetter” Fireflite convertible coupe driven by L. Irving “Irv” Woolson the Desoto division president the same pairing that paced the start of the next day’s Indianapolis 500.  
Lawicki’s was the first car that retired from the 500-lap race with mechanical failure and he was credited with one completed lap. Later in 1956, Clare notched two “outlaw” sprint car feature wins at the familiar confines of Motor City Speedway in July and August in fields that also featured Al Miller, Richard ‘Red” Amick and Ronnie Duman.     

Clare Lawicki was absent from the 1957 “Little 500” (the running of which was delayed by weather until July 6), but he did race in a sprint car race held August 25 1957 at the high-banked ¼-mile paved Cincinnati Race Bowl. Five cars broke the track record, led by Leon Clum’s 12.708 second lap. Clare won the first heat race and then finished the 35-lap feature race in fifth place behind Al Miller, Pete Allen, Johnny White, and Duman.

Lawicki missed the 1958 and 1959 running of the 500-lap “Little 500” classic at Sun Valley Speedway as the cars transitioned into what we today recognize as sprint cars. Clare returned in May 1960 behind the wheel of John Bennett’s #66 sprint car and qualified at 58.350 seconds for his four-lap run to start ninth on the outside of the third row.

After the start paced by actor James Garner behind the wheel of a 1960 Chevrolet convertible outfitted with rear fender skirts, Parnelli Jones surged into the lead in the Fike Plumbing sprinter from his front row starting position and led 102 laps.
The 1959 winner Ronnie Duman sailed past Jones into the lead on lap 371 and never looked back and defeated Parnelli by two laps. Lawicki finished sixth, 79 laps behind Duman who drove Hoy Stevens’ GMC-powered machine which had won the “Little 500” in 1957 and 1959 and finished third in 1958.

Hoy Stevens was a Pontiac/GMC dealer from Fredericktown Ohio who owned the #37 black and white trimmed sprint car powered by a 12-port cylinder head fitted to a 306-cubic inch GMC inline six-cylinder engine. In 1959 Stevens bought the patterns and drawings for the Horning-Fisher 12-port heads form California and had four new aluminum heads cast in a foundry in nearby Columbus Ohio.     

For the 1961 “Little 500” Lawicki moved into the seat of Stevens’ three-time winning GMC-powered machine and won the pole position with a four-lap run of 55.79 seconds. Pre-race activities included the arrival of the pace car driver, cowboy star Clint Walker in the infield via helicopter as only hours earlier he had appeared in the ‘500’ festival parade in Indianapolis.

Clare led the race’s first nine laps and finished the race in second place, fifteen laps behind rookie race winner Jim McElreath and seven laps ahead of the third place car driven by the 1951 winner Marlin “Red” Renner. Later in the 1961 racing season Clare appeared at three USAC sprint car races at Indianapolis Raceway Park (IRP) and New Bremen with the Stevens’ GMC sprint car but failed to qualify for the 15-car starting fields.

In 1962 Lawicki started the season with a non-qualifying effort at Salem Speedway as the GMC powered car timed in the slowest of the 22 cars entered, but he rebounded in early May with a 12th place finish at New Bremen after starting shotgun on the field. The International Motor Contest Association (IMCA) was in its first year of sanctioning the “Little 500” at Sun Valley Speedway, and IMCA brought out its roster of stars that included young Texan Johnny Rutherford, who won the pole, Gordon Wooley, Johnny White, and Pete Folse.

1962 “Little 500” pre-race activities featured as the pace car driver actor Vincent Edwards (aka Dr. Ben Casey) who received protection from local National Guard troops to prevent a reoccurrence of the mob scene that had occurred days earlier in Indianapolis.  Lawicki started the race in eleventh place and ran strongly most of the race in the top five, and held the lead from lap 438 to lap 481, when Arnie Knepper of Bellville Illinois passed him for the lead and held on to win over Clare by half a lap.

Five days later, Lawicki and the Stevens GMC qualified for the fifteenth and last starting position for the USAC feature at the ½-mile dirt New Bremen Speedway and after the 30-lap race marked by high attrition, finished in ninth place. Unfortunately Clare’s subsequent attempts to qualify for five other 1962 USAC sprint car races fell short at IRP, Reading Pennsylvania, New Bremen, and Salem Speedway.

In early 1963, Lawicki and the GMC-powered car failed to qualify for the twin 50-lap feature program at the brutal 1-mile circular Langhorne Speedway in Pennsylvania as he timed 28th fastest out of the 29 cars entered. AJ Foyt won the first 50-lap race ahead of Roger McCluskey, but during the second feature tragedy struck on the 41st lap. Bobby Marvin a rising star on the USAC racing scene in 1962 drifted too high in turn two hooked the outside guardrail and flipped. The car came to rest in flames and the race was stopped with leader Roger McCluskey declared the winner.

Lawicki failed to qualify the Hoy Stevens GMC machine for the 1963 “Little 500” starting field but still competed in the race. Bud Randall had qualified one two cars entered by Hoosier sprint car legend Ennis “Dizz” Wilson for the eighteenth starting spot, but Clare started the car instead and though the car retired with overheating problems on the 452nd lap, Lawicki was placed in the twelfth finishing position.

Similar circumstances again resulted in Clare running the “Little 500” in 1964. After Dick Gaines qualified the “Dizz” Wilson Chevy sprinter in 32nd starting spot, Lawicki replaced him at the last minute.  Indianapolis television show host Don Melvoin drove the 1964 ½ Ford Mustang convertible pace car to start the race, then Clare drove the #72 car up through the field to finish tenth with 442 laps completed in an event which was won by surprise winner Dick Good who drove a Indianapolis roadster style machine to victory with an eight-lap margin.

In February 1966 Lawicki debuted with the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) stock cars at the 2-1/2 mile high-banked Daytona International Speedway. He finished 10th in his 25-mile qualifying race but for the ‘ARCA Daytona 250’ itself, the #23 1966 Dodge Charger entry was driven by long-time ARCA competitor Jack Shanklin.  

After not competing in the 1965 “Little 500,” Clare Lawicki returned in 1966 behind the wheel of a familiar car, the ex-Hoy Stevens GMC-powered sprint car owned by Avery Adams of Belleville Ohio. The best time that Lawicki could coax out of the old two-time winner was 26th starting place. The fastest qualifier, Dean Mast in a caged supermodified fitted with a roof panel set a pair of new track records, four laps at 53.13 seconds and his fastest single lap timed at 13.09 seconds.
On May 28 front row starter Rollie Beale won as he drove the ‘Don-Ken Special,’ owned by Toledo transmission shop owner Kenny Lay, to victory  before a crowd of 14,500 spectators reportedly the largest crowd in the history of the event. Lawicki finished eighteenth in the six-cylinder GMC powered car, 65 laps behind the winner.

Lawicki’s tenth and final “Little 500”appearance came in 1967 behind the wheel of former driver Don Friend’s machine. Friend, a two-time “Little 500” starter in 1961 and 1963, had crashed Ted Helke’s yellow roadster in turn one at Winchester Speedway during an IMCA sprint car race on the third lap of the May 10 1964 feature. Friend’s driving career ended when the car “submarined” under the steel guardrail and Don suffered a skull fracture and his left arm was severed at the elbow.

Lawicki qualified Friend’s # 74 sprint car in 25th place for the 1967 race and then dropped out of the race on lap 255 with unspecified mechanical problems. The race’s pole-sitter Darl Harrisons won the race by three laps over Jerry Reichert with relief from Cy Fairchild over the last 115 laps.

In 1969, Lawicki drove the Benovich sprint car shown in the lead photograph at eight USAC paved track events, and the author strongly suspects that Clare tried to qualify for the “Little 500” but did not make the starting field. At June 1 at Dayton Speedway Lawicki failed to finish the 30-lap feature due to his involvement in an accident with Jim Smith, who retired after flipping out of the track.

Clare posted an eighth place finish at Toledo Speedway in the red and gold leaf trimmed sprinter, and then failed to finish at Heidelberg, New Bremen and Michigan’s 3/8-mile Berlin Speedway.   In September Clare finished fifth in the 50 lap feature behind Gary Bettenhausen Rollie Beale, Cy Fairchild and Larry Dickson, and the following month finished ninth at Salem Speedway after 30 laps of the Joe James/Pat O’Connor Memorial.

The USAC sprint cars made their 1970 season debut on the high-banked half-mile Dayton Speedway on Sunday April 12. In just the season’s fourth race it was already shaping up to be a continuation of “the Larry and Gary Show,” as Larry Dickson, the 1968 USAC sprint car series champion, had won the 1970 season’s first two sprint car races in Florida, while the 1969 USAC sprint car series champion Gary Bettenhausen had won the week before at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg Ohio.

In addition to Bettenhausen and Dickson, the field of entries featured 1966 “Little 500” winner Rollie Beale, Greg Weld, 1968 “Little 500” champion Karl Busson and a local 22-year old hydroplane racer named David “Salt” Walther. In qualifying Bettenhausen set the pace for the 20-car field and slotted in sixth for the feature start, while Clare Lawicki was set the start 14th on the outside of the seventh row.

After several failed attempts to start the scheduled 40-lap race, the green flag flew and Lee Kunzman charged into the lead from his pole position starting position. As the field streamed into the first turn, Lawicki attempted an outside pass for position but instead ran nearly head-on into the two-tier Armco steel outer guardrail.  The resulting impact sheared off the front of the car; a pair of photographers shooting from an unauthorized area where struck by debris and injured.  

Clare was trapped in the mangled wreckage for 15 minutes but once he was cut free and out of the remains of the Benovich sprinter, emergency personnel found that miraculously he had suffered multiple contusions on his legs and a broken wrist. When the racing resumed, Beale took the lead and led late into the race before his car’s engine failed and Dickson inherited the win. The crash apparently ended Clare Lawicki’s racing career and the Benovich car was a total loss.

Steve Benovich told observers at Dayton that day that he was out of money and that he was done with racing but he was premature in his statement.   Three years later in 1973 Benovich entered another #54 sprint car for the April 29 USAC feature at Eldora for the 1967 and 1970 “Little 500” winner and 1971 USAC rookie of the year Darl Harrison.

As reported in the following day’s Kokomo (Indiana) Tribune reported that during the feature Harrison’s car hit the outside rail coming out of the first turn on the 28th lap and flipped six times. Harrison was described as “severely shaken but otherwise unhurt” and the second Benovich sprint car was destroyed.  Sammy Sessions, the series’ defending champion grabbed the lead after the re-start in Mauri Amerling’s #1 car and held on to win the crash-filled 40-lap feature.

For his outstanding record in the “Little 500” with 3,366 laps completed, his pole position start in 1961, back-to-back runner-up finishes in 1961 and 1962, and two other top ten finishes in 1960 and 1964, Clare Lawicki was inducted into the “Little 500” Hall of Fame in 2009.  

The author is interested in learning more about driver Clare Lawicki – contact the author at








Friday, February 9, 2018

Tony Hulman’s Beechcraft 18 airplane

While researching the recent “500” Platolene gasoline story, the author found an interesting letter written in February 1972 by the company’s general manager, J.W. Connelly, to the chairman of the Carmi Illinois airport expansion committee. Originally based in Hulman’s hometown of Terre Haute Indiana, at the time Platolene 500 headquarters was based in Carmi a small Illinois town 125 miles southeast Terre Haute.

Platolene 500 Inc. was one of many local businesses that supported the long-overdue extension of the city’s airport runway to 4,000 feet. Mr. Connelly’s comment was “two of our partners in this company, Henry Smith and Tony Hulman of Terre Haute Indiana, each have Beechcraft 18 airplanes. In the past they have used our present runway but they are very reluctant to do so because of only 2,700 feet of pavement.” It is worth noting that the recommended ground roll landing distance for a Beechcraft 18 was 2,800 feet. So what is the story behind Tony Hulman’s airplane?

The Beechcraft 18

The Beech Aircraft Company of Wichita Kansas began to produce the Beechcraft Model 18 in 1937, a “tail-dragger” design all-metal semi-monocoque construction and twin tail fins similar in appearance to the larger Lockheed Electra powered by that used twin radial engines.
Beech advertised to businessmen
Intended for use as a small airliner or as an executive aircraft, sales were slow and at the time of the United States’ entry into World War II in December 1941, only 39 Model 18's had been sold. As part of the war effort, more than 4,500 military versions of the Beechcraft 18 were built during WW II. Some sources state that over 90% of United States Army Air Force (USAAF) bombardiers and navigators during World War II were trained in Beech 18-type aircraft.

Tony Hulman’s plane

A typical Beech D18S cabin

Tony Hulman’s plane was a Beechcraft Model D18S, the first post-World War II version that debuted in October 1945 and featured seating for two pilots and six passengers with 5 feet of headroom in the cabin. The plane was powered by twin Pratt & Whitney 985 “Wasp Junior” nine-cylinder radial engines with gear-driven single-speed centrifugal type superchargers. The engines were rated at 450 horsepower each and used 99-inch constant speed propellers. The Beechcraft Model 18 typically cruised at 170 MPH, with a ceiling of 20,000 feet and a range of over 500 miles.
A Pratt & Whitney 985 in a Beech 18
A Pratt & Whitney 985 data plate

There were 1,035 Beech D18S planes built; the plane which would become Hulman’s was serial number A-223 completed on May 29 1946, the day before the first Indianapolis 500-mile race under Tony Hulman’s ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The mirror-like polished aluminum bodied plane was sold through dealer Interstate Airmotive to the Trailmobile Company of Cincinnati Ohio.  The company which built over-the-road semi-truck trailers since 1915 kept the Beechcraft in the company’s hangar at Cincinnati’s historic Lunken Field until 1954.  

During July 1954 the Beech 18 A-223 was sold to the Electric Auto-Lite division of Willys Corporation which manufactured 400 different automotive parts, including generators, lamps, horns, hubcaps, wiring, and seat adjustors. Electric Auto-Lite based in Toledo, Ohio the largest independent manufacturer of automotive electrical equipment was purchased by Ford Motor Company in 1961 after which Ford changed the division name to simply “Autolite.”

Under Ford’s ownership, the Autolite division expanded into auto racing particularly with spark plugs.  Lloyd Ruby drove Lindsey Hopkins’ “Autolite Special” Offenhauser powered Epperly laydown roadster to an eighth place finish in the 1961 Indianapolis ‘500.’  In 1962, Autolite spark plugs won the Daytona GT Continental, the Daytona ‘500,’ and then swept the top three finishing positions in the Indianapolis ‘500’ as Rodger Ward and Len Sutton finished one-two for Bob Wilke with Eddie Sachs in third place in Al Dean’s ‘Autolite Special.’
Tony's plane restored

The Willys Electric Auto-Lite division sold Beechcraft D18S tail number N80242 to the Mead Corporation of Dayton Ohio in October 1954. Pilot Lloyd Fuller went along with the plane, just as he had with the previous owner as he had flown Beech A-223 since it was completed in 1946 at the Wichita factory. During Mead’s ownership, Tony Hulman flew on the plane, although according to an article in the October 1971 issue of Flying magazine, Fuller said Hulman “really didn’t care for flying.”  
The tail of Tony's plane

In December 1963 the Mead Corporation sold the plane to Hulman & Company, pilot Fuller relocated to Terre Haute, and Hulman & Company built a new hangar on Hunt Road adjacent to Hulman Field (now known as Terre Haute International Airport). Under Hulman’s ownership, the tail number of the Beech was changed to N500 which remained until 1973 when it was predesignated N5QQ. Hulman & Company sold the highly-polished Beech D18S with blue trim in the fall of 1989. The plane’s current owner keeps the restored plane in Henderson Nevada.  

Friday, February 2, 2018

“No one ever regretted buying quality”
the Hinchman story
Hinchman Racing Uniforms started the race suit industry in 1925 when  Peter DePaolo wore the first Hinchman uniform as he drove the winning Duesenberg in the 1925 Indianapolis 500-mile race .
This photo from the author's collection shows
Peter DePaolo is his Hinchman suit

Over the following  90+ years, Hinchman innovations have included:
The wrap around buttoned collar, first used by Hinchman, was developed after Eddie Sachs complained that the wind made the collars flap. Later  buttons were replaced by Velcro®

In 1966 Hinchman became the first racing suit manufacturer to use Nomex® in their suits, and In 1999 Hinchman was the first company to use the new fire resistant material called Carbon-X®.

 In 2004 Hinchman introduced their new lining called “Comfort Tech” which creates a 3-layer suit that is lighter, thinner, comfortable and more protective than most 2-layer suits.

In 2011, a Hinchman Racing Suit that was worn by actor Steve McQueen in the classic racing film LeMans fetched $984,000 at auction.

In 2013, Hinchman introduced its new 'Hinchman Performance' liner in its new HTO line of racing uniforms, and included it in the new "HP Series" in 2015.

Hinchman believes customer support after the sale is vital and is committed to customer satisfaction, just ask any racer wearing a Hinchman driving suit.

For more details visit their website at
Information for this article provided by Hinchman

Friday, January 26, 2018

“500” Platolene gasoline

Several  years ago an episode of the History Channel "reality" television program 'American Pickers,' made a visit to Southern Indiana. At one site, one of the show's two protagonists bought a large old porcelain service station sign that read “500 Platolene” which used a checkered flag. The owner of the sign mumbled something about the people that ran the Indianapolis ‘500’ had owned this service station chain. Was this truth or reality show fiction?

Anton “Tony” Hulman Junior, who bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from Eddie Rickenbacker in 1945, was born in Terre Haute Indiana the only child of grocery magnate Anton Hulman and his second wife Ada Grace Smith Hulman.  Ada’s family owned the Princeton Mining Company and the Deep-Vein Coal Company both bituminous coal mining operation as well as Princeton Farms all in the vicinity of Princeton Indiana about 80 miles due south of Terre Haute.

Henry P. Smith Junior operated those businesses after the death of his father as well as the RJ Oil and Refining Company which in addition to its refinery RJ operated 100 service stations in Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. Henry’s cousin, Tony Hulman was a partner in RJ Oil and Henry’s son, Donald Smith (later a Hall of Fame racing promoter) was RJ Oil’s sales manager.

In 1953 RJ Oil undertook a one million dollar expansion of its refinery that was completed in August 1953. The refinery was the first such plant in the area that used a new process developed by Universal Oil Products of Des Plaines Illinois known as “platforming”

In an article published in the Terre Haute Tribune,  Smith promised motorists that the company '500' service stations  will have “the most powerful, cleanest burning, most economical gasoline that has even been refined” because of “the specially developed catalyst in this secret new process.” The process used “precious platinum, a metal more costly than gold;” in 1953 an ounce of platinum cost $70 compared to $40 for an ounce of gold.  The name of the new gasoline was “Platolene” - the “gasoline made with platinum.” The name and logo ‘500 Platolene’ was trademarked in 1953.   
A matchbook from the author's collection combines two
Tony Hulman businesses - 500 Platolene and the
Meadows Shopping Center (Terre Haute's first mall)
Today the Smith and Hulman family business interests remained intertwined. Tony George, Tony Hulman's only grandson, recently re-installed as chairman of Hulman & Company currently sits on the board of directors of First Financial Bank N.A. (once run by the late Don Smith), Deep Vein Coal Company, Princeton Mining Company, and R.J. Oil Company.  

There is one final racing connection to this story. In the early nineteen seventies Universal Oil Products (UOP) developed a new process known as ‘CCR platforming’ that allowed refineries to produce high-octane lead-free gasoline. To help promote their new process, in August 1971, UOP signed a sponsorship deal with Don Nichols’ Advanced Vehicle Systems.
The series of sinister black race cars in the SCCA Can-Am and Formula One series were known as “UOP Shadows.” The UOP Shadow DN4A driven by Jackie Oliver and powered by a 494-cubic inch Chevrolet engine powered by lead-free gasoline won the 1974 SCCA Can-Am championship.   

Postscript 2

Tony Hulman became a partner with RJ Smith in the Princeton Farms the primary product of which was popcorn. Around 1940 Smith and Hulman hired the former Vigo County Farm Bureau extension agent to run the Princeton Farms. The agent who ran the Farms for 12 years later became world-famous for marketing his own brand of popcorn: Orville Redenbacher.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Cunningham C-3 Continental Coupe at SEMA 2017

While the Cunningham C-3 Continental Coupe displayed at the 2017 SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) show was not a race car the marque has a fascinating racing lineage.   


Briggs Swift Cunningham II was born in in 1907 in Cincinnati Ohio the scion of an extremely wealthy family which had built its fortune in the pork packing industry, and later expanded into banking, street car lines, railroads, banking, and the start-up funding for the Proctor & Gamble Company.

After two years at Yale University, Briggs left to marry a Standard Oil Company heiress and became what was described as a “gentleman sportsman” who participated in sports car racing and competitive sailing as he won the 1958 America’s Cup as the skipper of the 12-meter yacht Columbia which he co-owned as part of a syndicate.  

Briggs started automobile racing around 1939 with his friends Miles and Samuel Collier, heirs to the publishing and real estate fortune, but he made his big mark in sports car racing in 1950. Briggs bought two new Cadillac Series 61 Coupe de Ville cars to race in the 24 Hours of LeMans in France under the banner of the B. S. Cunningham Company.  Cunningham found long-distance races much more interesting than short races because of the strategy, preparation and endurance required of both man and machine.

One of the Cadillacs remained stock appearing, but the other had its body stripped and was fitted with an aerodynamic aluminum roadster body built by Grumman Aircraft. Upon arrival in France, the French fans fell in love with the Cadillacs - they nicknamed the stock car “Petit Pataud,” (Little Clumsy) and nicknamed the roadster “Le Monstre” (The Monster).  At the finish of the 1950 LeMans 24 hour race, the regular Cadillac driven by the Collier brothers finished tenth and “Le Monstre” driven by Cunningham and Phil Walters (aka Ted Tappett) placed eleventh one lap behind.

The following year, Cunningham returned to LeMans with a team of three purpose-built Cunningham C2-R racers powered by 331-cubic inch Chrysler “Hemi” engines. Walters set the fastest lap speed in practice, but two of the C2-Rs were eliminated by accidents. The third C2-R ran in second place through the 18th hour but shortly after the car was slowed with engine problems and it failed to complete enough laps to be classified at the finish.

In 1952 Briggs established a factory and race shop at 1402 Elizabeth Street in West Palm Beach Florida to produce the Cunningham C-3, a Grand Touring style sports car built on the C2-R chassis design.

The first two C-3’s were entirely built in the Florida shop, but the B.S. Cunningham Company later sub-contracted the body construction to the Italian coachbuilder Carrozzeria Alfredo Vignale (Vignale), and the company advertised the C-3 as the combination of “American Engineering with Italian Artistry.” Cunningham crews built the running chassis which was shipped to Turin for installation of the body styled by Giovanni Michelotti then shipped back to Florida for final completion.


Equipped with a 331-cubic inch Chrysler “Hemi” V-8 engine fitted with four Zenith downdraft single-barrel carbs atop a custom intake manifold was connected to a Cadillac three-speed transmission that fed a Chrysler rear end, the C-3 in the coupe body style sold for a base price of $9,000, which by comparison was more than double the price of a 1953 Cadillac Series 62 Coupe de Ville. 

The C-3 roadster body style cost $1,000 less, but with a variety of optional racing parts such as polished connecting rods and high-compression cylinder heads, the price of a Cunningham C-3 could approach $12,000 or even if the customer wanted the car equipped with a Chrysler Fluid-Torque semi-automatic transmission. Even with the high price, reportedly, each C-3 cost the B.S. Cunningham Company more than $15,000 to build.

The manual transmission 220-horsepower Cunningham C-3 was capable of reaching 60 miles per hour (MPH) from a standing start in less than seven seconds and could hit a top speed of 150 MPH.  Expert opinions on how many C-3’s were built vary – some claim just 25 (the minimum required for homologation to compete at LeMans) while other list the number of car built as high as 30. The Revs Institute documented production at 27- 18 coupes and 9 roadsters. Cunningham customers reportedly included Nelson Rockefeller, duPont heir Charles Moran and Mercury Marine and Chrysler stock car racing team owner Carl Kiekhaefer.

Some Cunningham C-3’s were raced but not as part of the factory-supported effort; those later Cunningham team race cars were identified as the C-4R, C-5R, and C-6R.A Cunningham built car never won the Le Mans race though the team placed fourth in 1952 and third in 1953 and 1954. Briggs was on the cover of the April 26, 1954 issue of Time magazine under the headline: “Road Racer Briggs Cunningham: Horsepower, Endurance, and Sportsmanship.”

 In 1955 at LeMans, the new Cunningham C-6R fitted with a Weber carbureted Offenhauser engine modified to run on gasoline was a disappointment as it posted slower lap time than its predecessor. Never competitive in the race the C-6R engine burnt one of its four pistons in the 19th hour with 202 laps completed.  1955 marked the first and only time that at least one Cunningham entry had failed to finish the 24-hour grind.     

1955 marked the last year for production of the Cunningham marque of passenger cars, as the United States Internal Revenue Service (IRS) regulations only allowed low-volume automobile manufacturers a period of five years to reach profitability; after that the IRS classified the expenses as a non-deductible hobby.

The Cunningham West Palm Beach shop was closed and forty men lost their jobs but not before SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) President and former Indianapolis 500 riding mechanic Charles Moran won the SCCA with B-Modified championship in 1955 driving at various times the C-4R, the C-4RK (an aerodynamic Kamm-back coupe) and the C-5R.

Briggs Cunningham continued to participate in SCCA amateur racing with cars that included the C-6R refitted with a Jaguar engine, a Jaguar D-type and XK-150, a Maserati Type 60 and a Porsche 550.  In an era when race cars were towed to the track on an open trailer, the Cunningham team was a forerunner of modern racing operations that arrived trackside with a tractor-trailer rig stocked with spare parts and equipment and the cars serviced by a squad of professional mechanics.

Briggs returned to LeMans with a Chevrolet Corvette in 1960 teamed with Kimberly-Clark Paper Company heir Bill Kimberly but failed to finish, then the pair returned in 1961 with a Maserati type 60 Birdcage and finished eighth. In 1962 Briggs now the New England Jaguar distributor teamed with 1959 LeMans winner Roy Salvadori in a Jaguar E-type and finished third, then in his final LeMans appearance in 1963 he teamed with Bob Grossman in a lightweight Jaguar E-type and finished ninth.  

After he married his second wife, Briggs retired from race driving and established the Briggs Cunningham Automotive Museum in Costa Mesa, California which opened February 8 1966. An eponymous car museum was an obvious move as Briggs had kept almost all of the significant cars he had ever owned. Briggs’ car collection included the first Ferrari sold in the United States, a 1948 166 Spyder Corsa sold to him by Ferrari’s United States distributor Luigi Chinetti, and the 1930 Bugatti Type 41 Royale Kellner Coach that Cunningham purchased directly from the Bugatti family in 1950.

The Museum closed on December 31, 1986 and the collection was sold to Cunningham’s life-long friend Miles Collier who moved the collection to Naples Florida; the museum is today known as the Revs Institute.  Briggs Cunningham died at age 96 in Las Vegas on July 2, 2003.

The Cunningham C-3 shown at SEMA 2017 is chassis #5207 the second car built which was used as a media car and was featured in numerous period road test articles finished in an attractive tri-tone combination of dark green, medium green and cream.  The car now finished in matte black is unrestored aside from mechanical restorations to make it safe to drive. The car’s owner, the famed Barn Find book series author Tom Cotter has no intention to restore the car as he says it is “perfect as is.”

To learn more about the fascinating life of Briggs Cunningham visit
All Photos by the author

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Challenger 2

Danny Thompson broke 400 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 2016 as he set a class record with his 5,000-hp Challenger 2, a restored refined version of the streamliner originally built by late father the legendary Mickey Thompson in 1968. Danny set the overall AA/FS record as he averaged 406.769 miles per hour (MPH) over a measured mile.

In September 1960 Mickey broke the magical 400 MPH barrier as he ran 406.6 MPH in his Challenger 1 powered by four supercharged Pontiac engines, but it was not recognized as an official record as he was unable to complete the required return run.

The slimmer, sleeker “Autolite Special” Challenger 2 built in 1968 by automotive fabricating legends Quin Epperly, John Buttera, Tom Jobe, and Nye Frank was intended to finally get Mickey Thompson officially over 400 MPH, but bad weather foiled the attempt and the project was set aside for two decades. In 1988, Mickey planned to renovate the Challenger 2 for his son Danny to drive.

That plan was interrupted when Mickey and his wife Trudy were murdered in their driveway by two unknown assailants. Years after his father’s tragic murder and the conviction of Mickey's business partner Mike Goodwin of the crime, Danny got Challenger 2 out of storage and spent a reported $2 million to rebuild it to modern SCTA (Southern California Timing Association) safety standards.


When the author chatted with Danny Thompson at the 2017 SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) show in Las Vegas, he shared that in 2018, to mark five decades after Challenger 2 first touched salt, he will try to best his previous top speed of 435 MPH. Danny's goal is to set the piston engine-driven world record, unseating George Poteet’s “Speed Demon,” which holds a 437.183 MPH SCTA  national record and a 439 MPH world record.

Instead of the original Ford  SOHC (single overhead camshaft) 427-cubic inch engines, the Challenger 2 is now powered by a pair nitro-fueled 2500-horsepower non-supercharged Brad Anderson “Hemi” V-8 engines which uses an all-wheel drive configuration.
Twin three-speed gear boxes link the two engines together and counterbalance the power output, while the front of the car houses two 30-gallon aluminum fuel tanks that hold just enough nitromethane fuel for one full speed pass. Challenger 2 uses Optima batteries, which explains the car’s presence in the Optima booth at the 2017 SEMA show in Las Vegas.

The Challenger 2 measures 32 feet in length, with a height of 27 inches at the tip and 37 inches at the canopy, and is 34 inches wide and weighs 5700 pounds ready to run.

All photos by the author