Thursday, May 17, 2018

Indoor hardtop racing in San Francisco

Part two

In early 1955, the Crown American Racing Club of San Francisco sponsored the Northern California Indoor Hardtop Championship (NCIHTC) races indoors at the Cow Palace sanctioned by the Oakland Racing Association.

While pre-race publicity billed the Cow Palace events as “the national debut of indoor stock car racing;” the author’s research suggests that this might not have been an outlandish claim.  There were indoor stock car races held over the winter of 1951-2 inside the cavernous Cincinnati Gardens in Ohio, but those were small cars, makes such as Crosley, Renault 4CV and Peugeot 203 stripped down and raced on a 1/10-mile oval, whereas the races on the Cow Palace 1/5-mile oval were for full-size stock cars.   

Interestingly, the Cow Palace’s opening night was scheduled against the final night of the Bay Cities Racing Association (BCRA) 6-week indoor midget car racing series held across San Francisco Bay inside the Oakland Exposition Building.
While the hardtops were racing inside the Cow Palace, the victory in the final 14-lap race in the Pacific Coast Indoor Auto Racing Championship was captured by San Francisco’s Dave Holliday (who had started his racing career racing under his given name Dave Steele) in Vic Gotelli’s #154 as Johnny Baldwin won his third consecutive BCRA indoor title.

The inaugural night of indoor hardtop racing on Saturday night, February 12, 1955 featured qualifying, heat races, a 15-lap semi-main race and a 30-lap feature. Victory in the first race of the hardtop series was captured by Max (sometimes erroneously called “Mac”) McCord of Alameda, trailed by Henry “Cowboy” Alves in second. Carmel Fernandez Jr. won the semi-main and finished third in the feature, while roadster racer George “Blonde” Pacheco won the trophy dash for the four fastest qualified cars.       

It appears that the Oakland Racing Association (ORA) which sanctioned the races patterned themselves after the BCRA indoor races and awarded points by results from races throughout the night, not just the feature results.  
At the end of the first night of racing, Pacheco and Alves were tied for the points lead with 48 markers apiece trailed by McCord with 43 points, then Fernandez Sr. in fourth. Fifth through tenth in the “Big Ten,” were in order Bob Anderson, Richard Fishburn, Dick Smith, George Lawrence, Walt Moniz and Tom Olives. 

The author has been thus far unable to uncover the complete racing results from the second week’s results from February 19 program, but the fragments found list Carmel Fernandez Jr as the winner of the second heat race and Walt Moniz the trophy dash winner. “Cowboy” Alves padded his points lead as the winner of the night’s feature race in car #666 with only 2,500 fans reportedly in attendance. 

There was a two-week break due to other events at the Cow Palace, which included a musical concert by Liberace on the afternoon of Sunday February 27 which drew 13,000 fans.  Prior to the March 5, 1955 third round of races, Henry Alves from Oakland was listed as the points leader with 103 markers and he held a lead of 32 points over second place driver Lou Phillips from San Francisco.  Hot rod roadster racer George Pacheco was in third place in the points chase, followed by Fishburn, McCord and  Bob Anderson who worked as a typesetter for the Hayward Daily Review newspaper, in sixth place.   

Heat race winners for the March 5 program included Pacheco, George Hanson, Moniz, Fishburn, and Earl ‘Doc’ Sadler who also won the trophy dash. Chet Thompson in the #999 machine who sometimes raced under the moniker “Johnny Comet” won the semi-main, and Hanson took the victory in the 30-lap feature event. 

Beginning with the March 12, 1955 fourth round of racing inside the Cow Palace, the racing was “dual sanctioned” by BCRA and NASCAR (the National Association of Stock Car Racing) with the races described as “mixed company” with NASCAR modified stock cars equipped with racing engines and the BCRA hardtops racing alongside the ORA stock hardtops.
The addition of NASCAR sanction to the program brought along drivers Gene Dudley, Johnny Franklin, Vern Fry and Dwight Palmer for the scheduled 15-lap semi-main and the 30-lap feature while the BCRA contributed their two-time hardtop champion Lou Bernardoni and Ted Montague.

Dan Regan won the trophy dash, with the heat race wins garnered by Montague, Anderson, Alves, Roletto and Dan O’Connell of San Leandro.  Bernardoni won the semi-main trailed by Montague with Anderson fourth. The win in the crash-filled feature went to McCord, followed by Bob Burdock, Olives and Roletto. 

The faster modified stock cars dominated the March 19th fifth round of indoor racing at the Cow Palace, as ORA regulars Dick Anderson in the Hayward Printers Special and father and son Fernandez Sr and Jr were unable to qualify for the program. The victory in the night’s first race, the four-lap trophy dash victory went to Palo Alto’s Dick Seyler, while ‘Doc’ Sadler won both the first and second ten-lap heat races behind the wheel of his “stock” 1934 Plymouth coupe.

Joe ‘Rollover’ Roletto won the third heat race, while Burdock and Olives won the fourth and fifth heat races respectively. The seventh event of the evening, the 15-lap semi-main was captured by Marty Flores of San Leandro followed by Leroy Davies.
Chuck Webb, the 1953 track champion at Sacramento’s West Capitol Speedway won the night’s featured 30-lap main event as he battled through heavy traffic.  San Francisco’s Lou Bernardoni who set the track record for qualifying around the Cow Palace 1/5-mile oval at 11.2 seconds finished second and Joe Nault was third. 

The final race of the six-week North California Indoor Hardtop Championship (NCIHTC) winter program concluded on Saturday night March 26, 1955. The first 10-lap heat race was captured by future BCRA midget champion Dick Atkins of Hayward, while Ned Mosely and Joe Diaz won the second and third heat races. Joe Justie, from Stockton earlier the winner of the trophy dash, won both the fourth and fifth heat races.

Jimmy Stewart (not the actor) won the semi-main as he edged Max McCord who had entered the night’s racing leading by 11 points, with Anderson in third. ORA regular Henry ‘Cowboy” Alves won the 30-lap feature over BCRA regular George Hansen, with Diaz in third place. With his victory Alves overtook McCord’s slim points lead and won the NCIHTC title as he tallied 230 points to McCord’s 212 with ‘big car’ veteran Joe Roletto placed third.

The two top drivers, Henry “Cowboy” Alves, and Max McCord, were the only drivers to win more than once in the series’ six races, with George Hanson of San Francisco and Chuck Webb of Sacramento single race winners. Although the BCRA outdoor racing season kicked off the week following the NCIHTC finale, promoter Marc Mott scheduled a Spring series of indoor stock car races to launch on May 7 1955 to run through the month of June.  

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Indoor hardtop racing
in San Francisco

Part one


The Cow Palace shown during the nineteen fifties 

on a postcard from the author's collection

In early January 1955, multiple newspapers in the Oakland/San Francisco Bay Area began to publish articles about an upcoming series of indoor full-size stock automobile races to be held in the Cow Palace in San Francisco.  

The Cow Palace (known officially as the California State Livestock Pavilion), located seven miles south of downtown San Francisco in the Bayshore District, was first proposed based on success of the livestock pavilion at the 1915 Panama–Pacific International Exposition (World’s Fair).

After many years of planning, the final site near the San Francisco and San Mateo county boundary was selected and purchased in 1935. Construction began in the summer 1936 with funding from San Francisco and San Mateo counties supplemented with federal Public Works Administration (New Deal) funding.   
Photo of the interior of the Cow Palace shortly after completion from the book Public Buildings: A Survey of Architecture of Projects Constructed by Federal and Other Governmental Bodies Between the Years 1933 and 1939 with the Assistance of the Public Works Administration by C.W. Short and R. Stanley-Brown. Photo appears courtesy of the Living New Deal program in the Department of Geography at the University of California.

The main structure, the Livestock Exhibition Building, was a reinforced concrete arena with a 6-acre steel arched truss roof designed by San Francisco architect Wilbur Peugh. With permanent seating for 12,000 visitors, construction of the arena was completed in February 1938 at a cost of $700,000. However, the complex, with a final project cost to $2.5 million, was not completed for several years and the first event in the Cow Palace, the Western Classic Holstein Show was held in the new arena on April 20th and 21st 1941.  

The Cow Palace complex was formally dedicated by Governor Culbert Olson during the opening ceremonies for the first Grand National Livestock Exposition on November 15 1941. The initial Grand National exposition was a huge success, with over 142,000 attendees, but three weeks later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States government requisitioned the Cow Palace.

Beginning in January 1942, for a rental cost of $1.00 a year, the Army used the Cow Palace as a processing center for troops prior to their deployment to the Pacific Theatre. Later in the war the Ordnance Corps used the facility as a vehicle repair center through 1946, with the second Grand National Livestock Exposition held in November 1946.
The Cow Palace arena shortly after completion in 1938 from the book Public Buildings: A Survey of Architecture of Projects Constructed by Federal and Other Governmental Bodies Between the Years 1933 and 1939 with the Assistance of the Public Works Administration by C.W. Short and R. Stanley-Brown.
Photo appears courtesy of the Living New Deal  Program in the Department of Geography at the University of California.

The Cow Palace, owned and managed by the 1-A District Agricultural Association, a California State agency regularly held rodeos, horse and livestock shows, concerts, consumer shows and sporting events such as roller derbies, basketball games and boxing and wrestling matches.

The idea of indoor hardtop, or stock car, races was novel, and public interest was piqued on January 13 1955 when several Bay Area newspapers carried the announcement of the North California Indoor Hardtop Championships.

The races were scheduled be held every Saturday night for two months beginning February 12 1955 -  each night would feature qualifying and the 11-race program, scheduled for 50 cars each night, was sponsored by the Crown American Racing Club of San Francisco.

On February 2 1955 an article in the Oakland Tribune newspaper reported that an all-steel guardrail was being erected inside the Cow Palace “to afford greater safety for spectators” during the upcoming races, and noted that “more than 200 drivers have applied for entry for the national debut of indoor stock car racing.”

As the college basketball regular season wound down (the University of San Francisco used the Cow Palace as a home court for its biggest opponents), on Sunday February 6, the Oakland Tribune published an interview with Jack Smith managing director of the Oakland Racing Association (ORA), the group that would sanction the races. ORA appeared to have started during the 1954 season to sanction "stock hard top" racing. 
Smith revealed the roster of officials for the Cow Palace races, which was headed by Hillary Govia of Hayward as the referee, with Frank Vogel as the starter and the legendary BCRA Jack Carmedy the public address announcer while Mack (Mac) McGrete of Concord worked the timing clocks.

In the pit area, George Sweeney was the technical inspector with Bob Moss the pit marshal assisted by Steward Manuel Picanco and course clerks Harry Schilling, Tim Ahern and Bill Evans.  McGrete and Schilling had served of co-promoters of Oakland Speedway located near San Leandro during the 1954 season.

The article in the February 6th edition of the Oakland Tribune claimed that the 1/5-mile Cow Palace oval would be “the world’s fastest indoor paved speedway” and that “tests are being run to ascertain the best type of asphalt that will be applied in special areas on the paved speedway.”  The field of over 200 entries received would be winnowed “down to the fastest 50 cars" after a rigid screening and qualifying process by the Oakland Racing Association (ORA) board.”

During the week before the February 12 1955 inaugural race, the ORA released a partial list of entrants for the first night of the Cow Palace hardtop races. The list was topped by Ben Gregory of Crockett California whose given name was Gordon Campbell, raced under a nom de guerre to hide his racing activities from his employer, the California Highway Patrol.
In 1952, Gregory won $2,500 (equivalent to $23,000 today) for his victory in the 250-mile stock car race held on the Bay Meadows one-mile thoroughbred race track.  Gregory the day’s fastest qualifier took the lead with three laps to go in his 1950 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 coupe.

Other entries for the first Cow Palace race included noted sports car racer Jack Flaherty of San Francisco, Joe Roletto, the 1954 American Racing Association (ARA) ‘big car’ champion, veteran San Jose Speedway hardtop racer Carmel Fernandez, and hot rod roadster racer George “Blonde” Pacheco, as well as drivers Dan Regan of Palo Alto, Joe Cairate from San Bruno, Glen Jensen of Menlo Park and Ted Hanning, Orval Rose, and Dave Davies, all of San Francisco.  
In our next installment we will reveal the results of the 1955 wintertime races in the Cow Palace.



Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Sauter Porsche – one of one

One car on display as part of the special single-marque exhibit at the Petersen Automotive Museum entitled ‘The Porsche Effect’ is this modified 1951 Porsche 356 known as the “Sauter Porsche.” While the car’s history does not include any major racing victories, it is a remarkable story and the significance of its impact on Porsche design is undeniable.

In 1951, Heinrich Sauter, the young heir of the German Hahn + Kolb toolmaking firm based in Stuttgart, purchased Porsche 356 cabriolet chassis #10359. The rear-engine, rear-wheel drive 356 powered by an air-cooled flat four-cylinder engine was Porsche’s first post-war production car. Sauter’s car was powered by a 1300 cubic centimeter (CC) (79 cubic inch) engine advertised to develop 44 horsepower, plenty of power to push along the lightweight 1290-pound machine.

Sauter was a racer who competed mainly in hill climbs and rallies, and he wanted more performance so he contacted Karosserie (coachbuilder) Klenk in Frankfurt Germany to modify his 356. Klenk had close ties to the Porsche factory and installed a new larger Porsche 1500S (1500 CC or 91 cubic inches) engine which developed 55 horsepower, but the important change was the new steel low-profile bodywork.
With input from the factory, Klenk built a body with “suicide” (front opening) doors, a new panel to fill in for the missing convertible top, air ducts to cool the front brakes, small competition windscreens, ducts at the rear to allow air out of the engine compartment and an external fuel tank filler.      

Records indicate that Sauter raced the car sparingly before his sold it back to the Porsche factory and during 1952 it was raced across Europe by Frenchman Francois Picard, before it was sold to American Jack Armstrong. Armstrong shipped the car to the Unified States and it was raced on the West Coast in 1953 by Stan Mullin in SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) events at Santa Barbara and Long Beach. Armstrong himself drove the Sauter 356 at the August 1953 races held at Moffett Field Naval Air Station near Mountain View California.

By the time of the SCCA Orange Empire National Sports Car Races held at March Air Field in November 1953, Mullin and Armstrong were listed as partners in the ownership of the special-bodied Porsche. Mullin became the owner/driver in 1954, and after a single appearance at the March races held at Minter Field in Shafter California, the Sauter Porsche dropped from sight.
Porsche factory photo of a 356 America

While not a great success on the racetrack, the ground-breaking styling of the Sauter Porsche inspired three subsequent Porsche 356 designs. In 1952, Porsche built a small series (less than 25) of cars destined for the North American market known as the “356 America Roadster.” Clad with an aluminum body built by Dresden-based Gläser-Karosserie with cut-down doors and a removable windshield, the “America” a true roadster with no permanent top or roll-up windows weighed 1330 pounds. However, the cost of production was higher than expected and reportedly coachbuilder Glaser lost money on each body. In the end the high-priced stripped down racing “America” sports car was a dismal commercial failure.  

In late 1954 in his New York City showroom designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Porsche importer/dealer Max Hoffman unveiled the iconic “356 Speedster” which featured the design elements shown in the Sauter Porsche, namely a 1500 CC engine, a stripped down interior with no roll-up side windows and a cut-down windshield. Equipped with a minimal convertible top,  the “Speedster” was an immediate hit with over 4,100 Porsche 356 and 356A Speedsters built before production ended in 1959.

The Speedster appealed particularly to Hollywood celebrities. Before he traded it in on his Porsche 550 Spyder death car, actor James Dean owned and raced a white 1955 Porsche 1500 Super Speedster, chassis # 80126, and won one race at Palm Springs in March of 1955. “The King of Cool” Steve McQueen owned and raced a black 1959 Porsche 1600 Super Speedster serial number 84855 equipped with Rudge alloy knock-off wheels and won a SCCA novice race at the Goleta airport course on Memorial Day 1959.

The final Porsche production car that can trace its origins back to the Sauter Porsche is the 1955 Porsche Continental, the brainchild of North American Porsche importer Max Hoffman who thought that a plusher Porsche would appeal to the American market. In addition to a plusher interior and high-quality convertible top, the bodywork of the Continental, built by Stuttgart’s’ Karosserie Reutter, was accented by “Continental” in gold script on the front fenders, “turbine style” wheel covers and whitewall tires.  Within the first year however, the name of the car was changed to “European” reportedly after the Ford Motor Company explained that they held the rights to the “Continental” trademark for automobiles.    

The history of the Sauter Porsche itself fast forwards to 1982 when an Indianapolis physician Dr. Ray Knight bought a strange “Porsche/Volkswagen hybrid” from a rural eastern Indiana junkyard. Reportedly the car had been stored outside since 1958 and was fitted with an incorrect albeit blown engine, but Knight paid $4,500 for the car and then set out to research its history and restore the car.

Knight tracked down the car’s provenance through interviews with Sauter, Klenk and Mullin and spent nearly 4,000 man-hours to bring the car up to the level of finish we see today. Several years ago Knight sold the car to collector Phil White, and Dr. Knight donated half of the “high six figure” proceeds to his alma mater Wabash College. Under Mr. White’s ownership the Sauter Porsche won an award as the “best open 356” at the Porsche Club of America 2017 Werks Reunion in Monterey California.  

Color photographs by the author

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

IndyCar racing after reunification
Author's note: This article previously appeared in print in The Classic Racing Times. Subscribe to this fine auto racing history journal at

After the final Champ Car World Series (CCWS) event was held at Long Beach in April 2008, the 2008 major league American open-wheel racing season was held under the banner of the Indy Racing League. Big league open-wheel racing achieved peace after twenty-nine years of turmoil which began with the initial CART (Championship Auto Racing teams) split away from the United States Auto Club (USAC) in 1979.

One key factor in the successful reunification was the establishment of the TEAM (Team Enhancement and Allocation Matrix) system which encouraged race team’s full-time series participation.  Aside from the jewel of the series, the Indianapolis 500, individual race purses were eliminated and teams were scheduled to receive a minimum of $1.2 million for each car that completed the full IRL season schedule, supplement by “special cash bonuses” for the top five finishers in each race. 

One immediate improvement with the TEAM program for the reunited series was the increased car count. In 2007, the year prior to reunification, the Champ Car World Series (CCWS) and Indy Racing League (IRL) had averaged 17 cars at each event, but for 2008 the IRL series averaged over 27 cars at each of the fourteen North America venues except for the Indianapolis 500-mile race.

The 2008 IRL schedule was predominantly was dominated by oval track venue, a stark change from the 2007 CCWS schedule which had been comprised entirely of road and street courses. The 2008 IRL champion was Ganassi/Target Racing’s Scott Dixon who had started in the CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) series in 2001, but who had competed in the IRL series since 2003.

Dixon was the fastest qualifier at seven races won four of those races from the pole position with a total of six wins on the season including the Indianapolis 500-mile race. The 2008 IRL championship runner-up Helio Castroneves from the other series powerhouse, Team Penske, had a remarkably consistent season with eight second-place finishes and five top-five finishes to go along with two wins.

The April 19-20 2008 “split weekend” occurred as the former CCWS teams raced at Long Beach in order to complete the CCWS series contract with the Long Beach Grand Prix organizers. Meanwhile the IRL teams raced at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan and history was made when a woman, Danica Patrick, won the first ever championship car race for her gender.

The 2009 IRL series schedule was largely unchanged with the loss of one venue, the street course on Belle Isle in Detroit, and Long Beach came into the IRL fold.   During the 2009 season there was final surprising victim of the second open wheel racing sanctioning civil war - Tony George the IRL ‘s founder.   In late June 2009 the Hulman & Company board that controls the IRL and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway) largely comprised of his sisters and mother removed Tony George from his leadership roles at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy Racing League. 

During the early years of IRL, series sponsorship did not appear to be a pressing priority and there was the public perception that due to the massive income derived from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the deep financial pockets of the family-controlled Hulman & Company provided an income cushion.  During the IRL series’ 1996 and 1997 seasons, the IRL had no presenting sponsor, then for the 1998 and 1999 seasons the series was known as the “Pep Boys Indy Racing League,” with sponsorship from the national auto parts and service chain. For the 2000 season, the series naming rights were sold to Northern Light, an internet search engine.

Although the Northern Light, agreement was set to run for five years, after two years Northern Light discontinued the public side of its business and dropped the sponsorship.  The IRL continued to operate without a presenting sponsor through the 2009 season, but in July 2009 the Hulman & Company board members’ reached the end of their rope regarding the ongoing losses which press reports later claimed totaled $600 million over 13 years. 

"Our board had asked Tony to structure our executive staff to create efficiencies in our business structure and to concentrate his leadership efforts in the Indy Racing League," said Mari Hulman George, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) chairman of the board and Tony’s mother, stated in a press release.  "He (Tony) has decided that with the recent unification of open-wheel racing and the experienced management team IMS has cultivated over the years, now would be the time for him to concentrate on his team ownership of Vision Racing with his family and other personal business interests he and his family share.” 

With Tony George removed from his leadership positions, he was replaced by Jeff G. Belskus as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Speedway while Terry Angstadt was promoted to head the commercial division of the IRL with Brian Barnhardt in charge of the competition division. 

The 2009 IRL racing season was again dominated by the Ganassi and Penske teams as between them the teams won 16 of the series’ 17 races. Ganassi captured the championship with driver Dario Franchitti followed by his teammate Scott Dixon, with Penske drivers Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves.

The 2010 IRL season saw four remarkable changes. First while the Indy Racing League continued as the name of the sanctioning body the series began to be called the IndyCar series.   In November 2009, it was announced that the men’s clothier brand IZOD would be the series' title sponsor for a five-year term beginning in 2010 with the IZOD title sponsorship deal worth $10 million per year according to journalist Robin Miller. The IZOD sponsorship the third title sponsor in the series' history, and the first since the departure of Northern Light in 2001 reportedly included the addition of $100,000 per car, per year for teams on the TEAM revenue-sharing program. 

The 2010 IRL season schedule began to shift away from the oval heavy mix off IRL’s early years, as the traditional post-Indianapolis date at the Milwaukee Mile was dropped along after years of problems with the promoter as well as the ¾-mile Richmond International Raceway date after the loss of SunTrust bank as the sponsor.  In addition to an overall series champion, IRL announced the establishment of the AJ Foyt Oval Championship and the Mario Andretti Road Course Champion. Unfortunately after several years these two championships which provided a connection to our sport’s history, but which the series never properly promoted faded from view.  

In the place of the two short ovals dropped from the 2010 schedule were new dates at the permanent road course at Barber Motorsports Park and a temporary street course in Sao Paulo Brazil.  IRL Commercial division chief Angstadt claimed that each participating team for Sao Paulo would receive a six-figure sum from the event promoters in addition to having all their expenses paid. Unfortunately after three years the Sao Paulo dropped from the schedule, although there were several failed later efforts to resuscitate the promotion. 

A major controversy erupted after the February 2010 hiring of Randy Bernard as the CEO of IndyCar with a five-year contract. Bernard, the former CEO of the Professional Bull Riders Inc. was tasked by the Hulman & Company to lead the series into the future, most notably the selection of a new chassis design, new engine suppliers and possibly new tire manufacturers. The man with no experience in motorsports faced an uphill fight to win over drivers, teams and fans before he could complete his goals.

In the meantime the 2010 IRL series was contested by all drivers in cars which used Dallara Chassis, Honda power and Firestone tires. Franchitti repeated as the series champion, with the top five finishers in the championship members of the Ganassi and Penske teams.

On January 1, 2011, the Indy Racing League LLC officially adopted the trade name INDYCAR while all legal and official documents to this day still list the series operator as “Indy Racing League LLC d/b/a INDYCAR." For 2011 the INDYCAR series again changed up the schedule mix as four tracks owned by the International Speedway Corporation (controlled by the France family) were dropped from the schedule - ovals at Joliet Illinois, Homestead Florida and Kansas City Kansas and the permanent road course at Watkins Glen New York.

In place of those four tracks, INDYCAR added a second 275-mile back-to-back race date at Texas Motor Speedway, with new dates added for the New Hampshire Motor Speedway oval in Loudon, New Hampshire, and a street course date at Baltimore Maryland. The 2011 series was scheduled to end with the IZOD IndyCar World Championships presented by Honda at the other schedule addition the high-banked 1-1/2 mile oval Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

One of the advertised features of the World Championship race was Bernard’s offer of a $5,000,000 prize for any  driver “outside of the IZOD IndyCar Series” to start the race from the back of the pack and win the race.  His remarkable offer was intended to attract interest from drivers that regularly competed on the Formula 1 or NASCAR circuits, but responses from drivers in those series came with conditions such as a demand to drive for only either the competitive Ganassi or Penske teams. Faced with a lack of expected responses to his original offer, Bernard later revised the challenge to include drivers who had only competed in IndyCar part-time during the 2011 season and the 2011 Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon accepted the challenge.

The IZOD INDYCAR series during 2011 had again been dominated by the Ganassi and Penske teams as between them they won 12 of the seventeen races before the finale at Las Vegas.  Ganassi’s Dario Franchitti led the points with Penske’s Will Power trailing but still in contention for the championship.  During the season, Benard had overseen the INDYCAR ICONIC (Innovative, Competitive, Open-wheel, New, Industry-relevant, Cost-effective) program to select the suppliers for the new chassis/engine packages to replace the 2003 INDYCAR Dallara chassis scheduled to debut with the 2012 season. 

The ICONIC committee requested designs from automobile manufacturers as well as non-automotive companies such as Lockheed Martin and General Electric. In the end Dallara’s chassis design was selected over the radical 'Deltawing' concept, and turbocharged V-6 engine proposals were accepted from Chevrolet, Honda and Lotus.

34 cars qualified for the IZOD IndyCar World Championship race scheduled for 200 laps, and  the first twenty cars in the field posted an average lap speed of over 220 miles per hour (MPH), and the slowest car over 218 MPH. The race’s pole sitter, Brazilian Tony Kanaan led the first ten laps with the field tightly bunched in his wake. As the field entered turn one on the eleventh lap, the car piloted by rookie Wade Cunningham touched wheels with the car of fellow rookie James Hinchcliffe.  

Drivers in the tightly bunched pack of cars behind this initial incident had little time to react and nowhere to escape.  The crash eventually involved fifteen cars, which included Wheldon’s machine which launched into the air, inverted and struck the second turn outer fence on the cockpit side. The remaining cars completed one additional lap before INDYCAR officials stopped the race with the track was littered with debris and the catch fencing badly damaged.    

Wheldon, Power, Hildebrand, and Pippa Mann were all injured in the crash; Wheldon suffered fatal head injuries and was pronounced dead on arrival via helicopter at the University Medical Center of Southern Nevada. Mann and Hildebrand were kept overnight for treatment while Power was evaluated and released. Mann later underwent several surgeries to repair her hand injury. Wheldon’s death was the first in INDYCAR since Paul Dana’s accident at Homestead in March 2006

Hours after the accident an emergency drivers' meeting was held which followed by Benard’s brief statement broadcast live on ESPN sports television, Bernard revealed Wheldon's death and stated that the remaining drivers and teams agreed not to continue the race but would  pay tribute to Wheldon with  a five-lap salute.

The IZOD IndyCar World Championships presented by Honda is considered as abandoned or cancelled by INDYCAR after twelve laps and is not recorded as an official race and no points were awarded.  Dario Franchitti received his third straight INDYCAR championship trophy in February 2012 after the planned awards ceremony following the Las Vegas race was cancelled.

INDYCAR completed an investigation of the Las Vegas accident in an attempt to stem criticism that the track was too steeply banked (18 to 20 degrees) for the tightly bunched field of high-speed open wheel cars. Several drivers admitted that they had been uneasy before the event; Oriel Servia stated “we all had a bad feeling about this place.”  Driver Will Power was quoted that the Wheldon tragedy was "an accident waiting to happen," and Dario Franchitti told ABC News that Las Vegas “was not a suitable track” as it offered “nowhere to get away from anybody."

The Las Vegas tragedy resulted in massive changes in INDYCAR.  Benard stated in December 2011 that INDYCAR felt “we need to give our technical team ample time to conduct thorough testing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, once we complete our ongoing investigation.” It is widely believed that driver objections are the primary reason for the cancellation and the reason that INDYCAR has never raced again at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. 

Five drivers that were entered that tragic day- Davey Hamilton, Alex Lloyd, Vitor Meira, Buddy Rice, Tomas Scheckter, and Paul Tracy- never drove in INDYCAR again after the Las Vegas race. The new ICONIC car with many new safety features was renamed the “DW12” in honor of Wheldon who had been intimately involved with the testing and development of the new much safer machine.  

The 2012 season schedule saw the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix return to schedule, and in place of the finale at Las Vegas, the season concluded with a 500-mile race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. The series did not return to the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Motegi Twin-Ring in Japan or the Kentucky Speedway.

With much fanfare, the INDYCAR series was scheduled to visit the huge potential market of China for the first time in 2012. The ‘Indy Qingdao 600’ was to be held on a 3.87-mile street circuit in the eastern coastal city of 9 million people on August 20. With little fanfare, the race was cancelled by the promoter on June 13 2012 and was not replaced on the schedule.

The new DW-12 chassis was quite successful in its inaugural season, and the Chevrolet and Honda engines proved reliable and racy. The same could not be said for the ill-fated Lotus engine program, which started late,  arrived at the first race in St. Petersburg with little testing and proved to lack power and reliability. Of the five drivers that began the 2012 season with Lotus power, only one – Simona de Silvestro - completed a trying season with the hapless Lotus engine.  

In April 2012 Honda and Chevrolet engaged in a rules dispute that came to be known as “turbogate.”  Despite that fact that Chevrolet had won all the 2012 INDYCAR races to that point, claimed that Honda had illegally switched turbocharger housing designs after the start of the season. Following the protracted protest and appeal process Honda eventually prevailed in early May as retired Indiana Supreme Court Justice Theodore Boehm denied the Chevrolet claim following the final appeal hearing.  

In the end, it was a moot point as Chevrolet powered driver Ryan Hunter-Reay who drove for Michael Andretti’s team won the 2012 IZOD championship as he edged out fellow Chevrolet driver Will Power. Since the end of the end of the 2012 INDYCAR season, all races have featured only two engine manufacturers- Chevrolet and Honda.

After the 2012 season ended, the INDYCAR world faced another shock, as INDYCAR CEO Randy Benard either quit under pressure or was fired with two years remaining on his contract during an emergency meeting of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway board of directors.  Benard was thought to have mishandled “turbogate,” and had come under increasing criticism for his proposal to introduce differentiating DW-12 bodywork kits for the competing engine manufacturers. 

The INDYCAR owners group opposed Benard’s idea and also complained that Dallara replacement parts were too expensive. Benard have never escaped the criticisms from members of the INDYCAR community for the Las Vegas tragedy, but in end the unraveling of the China race which meant INDYCAR lost a potential cash source to offset the ongoing series financial deficits appeared to cost Benard his job.

After his departure Benard issued a statement through the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that noted that “we created a foundation for IndyCar that positions it to grow over the next several years”.  With the foundation established by Benard and under the steady guidance of Hulman & Company CEO Mark Miles and his leadership team, INDYCAR added a new title sponsor, the telecommunications giant Verizon in 2014 that replaced the departing IZOD sponsorship. 

Through the years since its introduction the DW-12 chassis has proved to be a safe stable predictable race car, despite the ill-fated engine manufacturer body kits in use for the last three seasons. Through recent testing, the new universal 2018 INDYCAR body kit has proven to be very popular with both drivers and teams alike and promises a new era of exciting INDYCAR racing. The DW-12 chassis is scheduled to remain in service through the 2020 season when it will replaced by a new chassis developed and built by the series current chassis supplier, Dallara Automobili, in its Speedway Indiana factory. 

Which is not to say that INDYCAR does not face challenges in the future; namely the aging of the sport’s biggest names, the replacement of Verizon as the title sponsor for 2019, additional engine suppliers, and securing broadcast rights for digital and television platforms in the future, but for now the future appears bright.

Sixteen of the 17 races from the 2017 INDYCAR schedule return in 2018, with the newcomer to the schedule Portland International Raceway, which hosted races under CART and CCWS sanction from 1984 through 2007, with the Portland race set for Labor Day weekend.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The 1979 LeMans winner

Beginning in 1963, Porsche built and sold the rear-mounted  air-cooled flat-six powered 911 model until 1998 and many were raced. In 1976, the racing governing body the FIA opened up the rules for Group 5 sports car,  In response Porsche introduced the ultimate 911 race car, the 935, a  development of the 1974 Carrera RSR turbo. The FIA rules required only the race car’s roof, door and hood remain stock, so the 935 with its tube-frame was a silhouette of a 911 passenger car.  

In addition to 935s built by Porsche, independent builders such as Joest Racing and Kremer Brothers Racing built their own developed versions of the 935. Kremer, based in Cologne Germany run by brothers Erwin and Manfred developed their own series of 935 “K” variants with the K3 introduced for the 1979 racing season.


This 935 K3, chassis serial number 009 00015, was entered for the 1979 24 hours of LeMans as race number #41 by the Kremer Brothers with their lead driver German Klaus Ludwig. Little known at the time was the fact the $200,000 racer was owned by a pair of American brothers, Reginald “Don” and William “Bill” Whittington who would co-drive in the race.  


The 935 K3 featured a wider track and advanced aerodynamics with power supplied by a twin-turbocharged intercooled Porsche 3.0 liter (183 cubic inch) air-cooled flat-six engine. The engine could develop up to 800 horsepower in qualifying trim and pushed the 935 K3 to a trap speed of 217 miles per hour (MPH) on the 3-1/2 mile long LeMans Mulsanne straightaway.

In qualifying for the LeMans 24 hour grind, the Kremer #41 935 K3 qualified third fastest overall and was the the fastest of the Group 5 entries. During the race, #41  ran near the front of the field until the leading sports prototypes, Porsche 936s, ran into trouble.

The #41 "Numero Reserve" car inherited the race lead with the 936's misfortune,  but then it too suffered mechanical troubles with three hours to go in the race,  but hung on to win by eight laps over another Porsche 935 driven by Rolf Stommelen, Dick Barbour and actor/race driver Paul Newman.

In the years after their 1979 LeMans victory, the Whittington brothers went on to race in Indianapolis 500-mile race five times until they were convicted in 1986 of charges of money laundering, income tax evasion and conspiracy to smuggle cocaine and each served eighteen months in federal prison.

The 1979 LeMans winning car meanwhile was first displayed inside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame and Museum  around 1982. In 2009, Don Whittington sued the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Foundation regarding the ownership of chassis #009 00015.
Whittington claimed that the car was on loan and wanted to reclaim possession, while the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Foundation maintained it was a donation. In April 2010, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago sided with the museum and ruled that the car was a donation.
After 2011 the car was sold to car collector Bruce Meyer who commissioned the nuts and bolts restoration by Canepa Racing of Scotts Valley California. This immaculate car was featured in “The Porsche Effect” exhibit at the Petersen Automotive Museum.

Photos by the author

Friday, April 6, 2018

A historic Porsche 917K

For the 1970 season, the world motorsports governing body the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) designated that Group 4 Sports Cars with maximum engine capacity of 5 liters (305 cubic inches) would contest the FIA's International Championship for Makes in 1970 & 1971.
Author's copy of an original 917 brochure

The Porsche racing department designed and built the 917 in just nine months and on March 12, 1969, a 917 was displayed to the public at the Geneva Motor Show. Qualifying  manufacturers had to build 25 examples (down from the original 50), and on April 20 1969 Porsche displayed a line of 25 completed 917s which met the new FIA regulations with two seats, a luggage compartment, spare tire, turn signals, turn-key ignition, and a horn.

The 917 was designed by Porsche chief engineer Hans Mezger using a lightweight aluminum spaceframe chassis which weighs less than 100 pounds. Power came from a new 4.5-liter (274 cubic inch) air-cooled engine featured a 180° flat-12 cylinder layout, with twin overhead camshafts and two spark plugs per cylinder fed from twin distributors. The large horizontally mounted cooling fan was driven from centrally mounted gears.

Porsche’s first 12-cylinder engine produced 520 horsepower at 8000 revolutions per minute and used and aluminum crankcase and cylinder heads along with the use of such exotic materials as titanium (for the connecting rods) and magnesium. To keep the car compact despite the large engine and longitudinal transmission, the driver’s position is so far forward that the driver’s feet are ahead of the front axle. The entire machine fueled and ready to race weighs less than 1800 pounds.
Details of the original 917 tail designs

In testing the original design of the 917 proved to be, at least according to test driver Brian Redman "incredibly unstable, using all the road at speed,” while fellow test driver Jo Siffert reported that the car “is not only unstable, but it is frankly dangerous.” The 917’s results during the 1969 racing season were disappointing so for 1970 J.W. Automotive Engineering (JWA) became the Porsche factory racing and development team.

Run by John Willment and his partner John Wyer who had won the 24 hours of LeMans as a team manager three times in 1959, 1968, and 1969 the team had sponsorship from the Gulf Oil Company.  In early testing of the unstable 917, the JWA engineers created a new wedge shaped tail, called the ‘kurzer shwanz‘ or ‘short tail’ which transformed the car’s handling and this revised car became known as the 917K.  

The new Porsche 917K raced for the first time at the 1970 24 Hours of Daytona held on the 3.8-mile Daytona International Speedway road course. This car, chassis 917-015 (race number 2) assigned to Mexican driver Pedro Rodriquez and Finnish driver Leo Kinnunen, qualified third behind their JWA team car (race number 1) driven by Jo Siffert and Brian Redman.   

The blue and orange #2 Porsche 917K took the race lead 2 hours and 35 minutes into the event and never relinquished the lead, and completed 724 laps (a new record) 45 laps ahead of the #1 Porsche 917K. In an interesting twist, Redman wound up driving both the first and second place cars, as he drove one stint in place of Kinnunen.   

The Gulf Porsche 917Ks dominated the 1970 International Championship for Makes, as they won six of the ten rounds; Rodriquez and Kinnunen won four races, while Siffert and Redman won two rounds. At the crown jewel of the series, the 24 hours of LeMans, while the JW team did not win, but a 917K won, entered by the Porsche racing department and driven by Richard Attwood and Hans Hermann.  

Porsche 917Ks returned for 1971, the second and final year of the FIA rules package, and one again were dominant, as they won six of the eleven races and were again crowned the International Makes champion. The JW Gulf Porsches won five 1971 rounds, but fell short again at LeMans and finished second to a similar Porsche 917K entered by Martini & Rossi Racing.  

The 1970 Daytona 24-hour winner chassis 917-015 shown as part of ‘The Porsche Effect’ exhibit at the Petersen Automotive Museum was restored and is owned by Bruce Canepa of Scotts Valley California.   For more detailed photographs of this immaculate machine visit

Color photographs by the author