Saturday, January 23, 2016

The 1975 Silver Floss Sauerkraut Special

The United States of America was in a state of turmoil in 1975 – Gerald Ford had replaced the disgraced Richard Nixon as President in August 1974 and presided over the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression. Our nation experienced 10-12% price inflation, driven by high gasoline prices (then 57 cents a gallon) and the Midwest drought of 1974 which pushed up food prices.

Automobile racing teams suffered as all their costs increased and many of the long-time automotive-related sponsors pulled back or dropped out altogether. Compounding the economic situation was Firestone Tire and Rubber’s abandonment of racing at the end of the 1974 season which signaled the end of the huge stipends that teams had received from Firestone and its competitor Goodyear Tire and Rubber for years.

These tight economic conditions brought some new and unusual new sponsors into the United States Auto Club (USAC) championship series, which included Jorgenson (steel distributors), Sinmast (concrete chemicals), Shurfine (food distributors), The Bottom Half (denim clothing stores), and the most unusual, Silver Floss Sauerkraut.

The Silver Floss Sauerkraut brand of fermented shredded cabbage was originally the product of the Empire State Pickling Company since the turn of twentieth century in the small town of Phelps in western New York State.  In September 1965, Curtice-Burns Foods Inc. purchased the Empire State Pickling Company and continued to produce Silver Floss in Phelps. By 1975, nationwide sales had grown such that Silver Floss Sauerkraut was also produced in facilities in nearby Shortsville and Gorham New York.

Several historic Indianapolis car owners traced their source of income to Coca-Cola bottling fortunes; these included Sumar Racing’s Chapman Root, J. Frank Harrison, and Lindsey Hopkins Junior all of whom were accurately described as ‘sportsmen,’ in the days before racing because a business. Hopkins, a successful AAA (American Automobile Association) midget race car owner purchased the assets of the Lou Moore team and first fielded his entry in the Indianapolis ‘500’ in 1951 with driver Henry Banks.

Lindsey Hopkins in 1974
photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the IUPUI University Library 
Center for Digital Studies 

Through the years, Hopkins’s entries did not always carry sponsorship nor did they need to as he was purported to be the second largest Coca-Cola stockholder but as costs of racing increased through the years, Hopkins found sponsors. Hopkin’s cars carried Simoniz, Econo Car Rentals, Pure Oil, G.C. Murphy’s department stores, Dow, the Atlanta Falcons football team, and American Marine Underwriters, on their flanks.  Sponsored or not, Hopkins’ cars always featured the logo of a top hat and ‘Thurston’ the rabbit, a nod to Lindsey’s hobby as an amateur magician.  

author photo

Roger McCluskey, a long-time racing veteran who began racing in 1947 and started his first USAC championship race in 1960, had driven several times for Lindsey Hopkins through the years, and most recently since 1971.  In 1971 the Hopkins team used a Kuzma rear engine chassis modified by the Kenyon brothers powered by a turbocharged Ford engine.

 Lindsey Hopkins was not afraid to spend his money as he financed the development of three “clean sheet” designs during the decade of the nineteen seventies, the first in 1972 as Hopkins financed the development of the first “computer designed” Indianapolis car, the Antares. After the Hopkins team struggled mightily with the Antares, the tub of which resembled an upside-down canoe throughout the month of May 1972, after the Indianapolis ‘500,’ Hopkins admitted failure and purchased the McLaren M16A in which Peter Revson had qualified for the Indianapolis ‘500’ pole position to replace the Antares.

Roger McCluskey then won two races behind the wheel of the McLaren, the 500-mile race at Ontario Motor Speedway in 1972, and a 200-mile race at Michigan International Speedway in 1973.  McCluskey captured the 1973 USAC season championship, not through great finishes but principally because he was the only driver to compete in all 14 races on the 1973 USAC schedule.  The Hopkins team continued to use the McLaren, updated to M16B specifications, as a backup car and occasional primary car through the 1975 season.   

For the 1974 season Hopkins commissioned the design and construction of another exclusive all-new car from designer Bob Riley. The new car appeared visually similar to the Coyote chassis that Riley had designed for A.J. Foyt in 1973.  Powered by a 159-cubic inch turbocharged Offenhauser engine, the Hopkins Riley chassis carried English Leather men’s cologne sponsorship in its seven appearances during the 1974 USAC season, but never worked very well, with a best finish of tenth place at Trenton New Jersey. The defending USAC national champion finished a disappointing 17th place in the 1974 USAC standings. 

The history behind the 1975 Silver Floss Sauerkraut sponsorship is not well documented. One period newspaper story suggested that Hopkins’ revamped Riley/Offenhauser 1975 USAC entry carried Silver Floss sponsorship in part because 1975 was Hopkins’ twenty-fifth (or silver) anniversary at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which seems unlikely. The more likely story came to light when Alan Garlock, executive vice president at Curtice-Burns Foods Inc. told reporters in May 1975 that “we were looking for a way to reach a younger market and we thought racing was the way to go.”

Roger McCluskey's 1975 Indy 500 photo
courtesy of INDYCAR 

The 1975 USAC championship season opened at Ontario Motor Speedway with two 100-mile qualifications heat races held on March 2, a week before the fifth annual California ‘500.’ In a pre-race column, sportswriter Rich Roberts identified McCluskey as the driver of “one of the more interesting if slowest cars the ghostly gray ski-nosed Silver Floss Special.” McCluskey and the ‘Silver Floss Special’ did not fare well in the first heat race, as the car retired after 34 of the scheduled 40 laps with a blown engine. 

In the California ‘500’ itself, McCluskey started and finished in 13th positon, as he dropped out after 134 laps completed when the Offenhauser engine failed again. Blown up power plants were not unusual, as the level of mechanical attrition during this era of USAC championship racing was high. Despite the fact that this was the start of the second year of turbocharger boost limits, only eleven of the 33 starters of the California ‘500’ were still running when Foyt crossed the finish line for the win.

In an article entitled “Brother, can you spare a car?” published in the March 17 1975 issue of Sports Illustrated, Robert F.  Jones wrote “Not since the dreary depths of the Great Depression has American oval-track racing been in quite so sad a state. The 33-car field for last Sunday's California 500—first of the U.S. Auto Club's Triple Crown races—had to be filled by invitation. A tour of the garage area at the Ontario Motor Speedway provoked the same grim sense of penury that often accompanies a stroll through a used-car lot. There stood Roger McCluskey, the fine old USAC veteran, beside his mount, the—what's this?—Silver Floss Sauerkraut Special.”

A week after the Ontario race,  the USAC teams reconvened at Phoenix International Raceway for the Bricklin 150, but out of just 21 entries, the ‘Silver Floss Special’ was one of two cars that failed to qualify for the starting field. 

Roger McCluskey drove the team’s trusty McLaren M16B in the next two races, both held at the kidney-bean shaped 1-1/2 mile Trenton Speedway in New Jersey. In the first race held on April 6, Roger qualified 11th and finished seventh when the Offenhauser engine blew up six laps short of the finish. Three weeks later in the special non-championship ‘World Series of Auto Racing,’ the ‘Silver Floss Special’ finished sixth out of twelve invited entries.

In April, in the time between the two Trenton races, McCluskey visited the Silver Floss processing plant in Phelps New York with the show car and signed autographs for excited employees. In an interview with a local newspaper, Roger pointed out that the racing suffered from inflations problems more than many other businesses, so “people in auto racing started beating the bushes and as result many non-automotive businesses, like Silver Floss, for example have gotten involved.”

Despite the media’s amusement over an Indianapolis car sponsored by a sauerkraut manufacturer, officials at Curtice-Burns Foods were fully engaged to exploit this opportunity to promote their product, particularly with extensive nationwide newspaper advertisements.

One series of ads frequently seen during May 1975 urged readers to “Save labels from Silver Floss, the delicious low-calorie change-of-pace food to get exciting racing items.” Two Silver Floss labels enclosed with the coupon got a fan a free package of Goodyear, Valvoline and Silver Floss racing stickers, while one label and 95 cents bought a Silver Floss Racing patch. The top item came with the submission of one label and $6.50; then a fan would receive a machine-washable red-and-white racing jacket complete with a silver stripe and the Silver Floss Racing patch in their choice of size.

Silver Floss also bought a second series of newspaper advertisements which primarily appeared in the newspaper’s ‘lifestyle’ (or women’s) section. In the ad copy, Roger McCluskey related that as a veteran of the USAC racing circuit he knew that “speed can also be important in the kitchen in both my home as well as the motor home we use to travel from track to track. That’s one reason my wife always keeps Silver Floss Sauerkraut on hand. It’s the fast way to go at meal time and also helps stretch a family budget.” The advertisement featured the recipe for “Mexican Style Kraut and Franks.”  An interested reader could send a self-addressed stamped envelope (eight cents in those days) to receive by return mail a Silver Floss cookbook with nine of Roger McCluskey’s favorite sauerkraut recipes.  

The team’s struggles during the month of May 1975 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, probably made McCluskey recall 1972 when the Hopkins team struggled with the unique Antares chassis. McCluskey qualified on Sunday, May 18, the second day of time trials with a four-lap average of  183.964 MPH, for 22nd starting position, to start on the inside of the eighth of eleven rows.  

On the final weekend of qualifying, New Zealand’s Graham McRae, the 1973 Indianapolis ‘500’ Stark-Wetzel Rookie of the Year, unsuccessfully attempted to qualify Hopkins’ #75 backup Silver Floss McLaren M16B.  During the latter stages of the ‘500,’ run on Sunday May 25th, McCluskey and the Riley ran in fifth place, albeit seven laps behind the leader Bobby Unser when the skies suddenly opened up and starter Pat Vidan’s red flag stopped the race on the leader’s 174th lap.

At the traditional race date folowing Indianapolis, the Rex Mays 150 at the one-mile Milwaukee State Fairgrounds track, the ‘Silver Floss Special’ Riley finished 8th four laps behind winner A.J. Foyt.  Three weeks later at the third of three 500-mile races on the 1975 USAC schedule, the ‘Schaefer 500’ at Pocono Raceway in the Pennsylvania mountains, McCluskey overcame a 13th fastest qualifying run and finished fourth, one lap behind repeat winner Foyt.  

Over the July fourth holiday, Roger and the ‘Silver Floss Special’ appeared in a parade held in Shortsville New York, site of one of the three Silver Floss processing plants. On July 20, during the Norton 200, at the two-mile high-banked Michigan International Speedway, the Riley suffered a broken suspension part on the 70th of 100 laps and placed twelfth.  Before the next race, Roger appeared at the 9th annual Sauerkraut Festival in Silver Floss’ hometown of Phelps New York, where he shared Grand Marshal duties with the Sauerkraut Princess, a third-grade student.

In Milwaukee for the Tony Bettenhausen Memorial race on August 20 Roger posted the Riley’s best qualifying effort of 1975 and started in seventh positon but was out after just six laps with a blown Offenhauser engine.  The team then returned to Michigan for the Michigan Grand Prix, where the ‘Silver Floss Special’ finished in fifth position, three laps behind first-time race winner Tom Sneva, with the winner covering the 150-mile race distance in just 51 minutes.

In the championship trail’s third 1975 visit to Trenton New Jersey, McCluskey finished sixth behind winner Gordon Johncock who drove the ‘Sinmast Wildcat,’ a new-for-1975 Bob Riley designed car that resembled both the Riley and the Coyote. The Wildcat maintained by George Bignotti was powered by a DGS (Drake-Goosen-Sparks) engine the last development of the fabled Harry Miller design. 

The ‘Silver Floss Special’ closed out the disappointing 1975 USAC season at Phoenix where the turbocharged Offenhauser engine burned a piston after just lap 66 of the scheduled 150 laps. Roger McCluskey ended the 1975 USAC season in seventh place in the USAC national championship driver standings. 

For 1976, Lindsey Hopkins hired Roman Slobodynskyj to design another all-new car, known alternately as a "Hopkins" or as the "Lightning Mark I"  built by Don Edmunds' Edmunds Autoresearch for Roger McCluskey, albeit without ‘Silver Floss Sauerkraut’ sponsorship.  Although the car was not hugely successful with four top ten finishes, during the winter of 1976-1977, Hopkins contracted Edmunds to build eight more Lightning chassis which he sold to Bob Fletcher, Jerry O'Connell, Alex Morales and Rolla Vollstedt.

McCluskey struggled through another season with the Lightning chassis with five top ten finishes in 1977 before he left Lindsey Hopkins’s racing team at the end of that season. Beginning in 1978, Roger, then 47 years old, cut back his racing schedule, and following his victory in the Tony Bettenhausen 200 in August 1979, retired from driving.

Roger McCluskey joined the United States Auto Club (USAC) shortly thereafter as the Director of Competition and later he rose to fill the role of USAC Executive Vice-president and eventually USAC Chief Operating Officer. In 1989, Roger was diagnosed with cancer and bravely battled the disease for many years, but succumbed five days after his 63rd birthday on August 29, 1993.  

Lindsey Hopkins continued to live up to his role as a gentleman sportsman as he entered cars in the Indianapolis 500 up until his death in February 1986. Through the years, Hopkins never won the ‘500,’ and was touched by tragedy several times, first when Bill Vukovich died in 1955 behind the wheel of the Hopkins Special while leading the Indianapolis ‘500.’  

In 1961 veteran Tony Bettenhausen was entered at Indianapolis in a Hopkins entry but died in practice while testing another car and then finally young Bobby Marshman died just six days after a fiery crash during a 1964 post-season tire test in the Hopkins Lotus.

During his many years of race car ownership, with many talented drivers, only four drivers won a USAC race for Lindsey Hopkins: Tony Bettenhausen (1) Jim Rathman (2 wins), Bobby Marshman (1 win), and Roger McCluskey, who scored four wins. Both McCluskey and Hopkins are members of the USAC Hall of Fame.

Curtice-Burns Food Inc. the parent company of Silver Floss Sauerkraut restructured and spun off subsidiaries during the nineteen nineties, until in 1997 the company merged with Flanagan Brothers, makers of the Krrrisp Kraut brand to create Great Lakes Kraut (GLK) LLC. The original Silver Floss plant location on Eagle Street in Phelps was closed in 1985, but the GLK plant in Shortsville still produces Silver Floss sauerkraut.  Although Phelps New York is no longer the sauerkraut processing capital of the world it continues with its annual Sauerkraut festival, with the 50th annual festival scheduled for August 5-7 2016. 

NOTE: The author is seeks one of the Silver Floss racing patches or a copy of the McCluskey Silver Floss recipe booklet sold by mail order during the 1975 racing season to add to his collection. If one of our readers has one or both of these items and wishes to sell, please contact the author at

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

1967 Brawner Hawk Mark II at PRI 2015
photos by the author

The 2015 PRI (Performance Racing Industry) trade show in Indianapolis featured a special display devoted to the innovations and evolution of the IndyCar. Previous postings on this site have examined the history of the ‘Sampson “16” Special’ and the 1931 ‘Cummins Diesel Special’ which were part of the display.

Today we close out our three-part series with a look back at the history of the Brawner Hawk Mark II “Dean Van Lines Special” driven in 1967 by Mario Andretti. The Brawner Hawk is an example of the early rear-engine IndyCar evolutionary process during a very exciting period of change in IndyCar racing.

In 1961 Australian Jack Brabham, then a two-time World Driving Champion (he would capture a third in 1966) came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and qualified a rear-engine Cooper-Climax race car for the starting field of the 1961 Indianapolis ‘500.’ Brabham’s tiny machine, the first rear engine car to make it into the ‘500’ starting field since 1947, qualified fourteenth and finished the 500-mile grind in ninth place.

Unlike previous rear engine entries in the Indianapolis ‘500’ which were considered oddities, the underpowered Cooper while slower on the straightaways was noticeably faster through the corners. The Cooper’s success ushered in the beginning of acceptance of rear engine IndyCar design, which quickly revolutionized the sport.  When Brabham returned to Indianapolis three years later for his second attempt at the great race in his own car, there were eleven other rear engine cars qualified into the starting field. In  1969, when Brabham returned for his third and final try at the Indy ‘500,’ there were no front -engine cars in the ‘500’ starting field. 

According to racing historians Allen Brown and Michael Ferner, the car that Jack drove in the 1964 Indianapolis ‘500,’ known as the Braham BT12, was a product of his company Motor Racing Development (MRD) built as modified version of the company’s BT11 Formula One car as a customer car for Tulsa sportsmen Jack Zink and Charles F. Urschel Junior.

The BT12’s mild steel tube frame “semi-monocoque” chassis (according to designer Ron Tauranac, a steel sheet was welded across the bottom of the frame for additional rigidity) was longer than the BT11 to accept the 255-cubic inch Offenhauser engine. After Brabham retired early from the 1964 Indianapolis 500 with a leaking fuel tank, Jim McElreath drove the “Zink-Urschel Trackburner” in four races during the balance of the 1964 USAC season and qualified on the pole position at Trenton New Jersey.

In the fall of 1964, the Zink-Urschel Brabham BT12 was hired for use by Firestone Tire and Rubber Company for tire testing and crashed heavily twice, the second time at Indianapolis which seriously damaged the car with McElreath receiving serious burns on his arms.  With MRD’s permission and armed with the design drawings, Zink’s chief mechanic, Dennie Moore, hired Clint Brawner and metalsmith Eddie Kuzma to build four improved chrome moly versions of the BT12 for the 1965 season, one for Zink to be powered by an Offenhauser engine and three others, with low side mounted fuel cells powered by the Ford DOHC engine which became the original Brawner Hawks.

The 1965 Brawner Hawk driven by young Mario Andretti was very successful with four top five qualifying runs and one pole position start to go along with five top five finishes and Andretti’s first USAC (United States Auto Club) win at the Hoosier Grand Prix held on the Indianapolis Raceway Park road course.  Andretti was crowned USAC’s 1965 season champion and the 1965 Indianapolis ‘500’ Stark-Wetzel Rookie of the Year after arriving at Indianapolis with no previous experience in rear engine cars.  

The 1966 Brawner Hawk Mark I was a refinement of the original Hawk with the most obvious visual change the “duck tail” rear section beneath the exhausts of the DOHC Ford engine.  With this version of the “Dean Van Lines Special” Mario Andretti dominated the 1966 USAC season with ten pole position starts (including a new track record at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway) and eight victories to capture his second straight USAC season championship.

The 1967 Brawner Hawk Mark II was a further development of the original tube frame semi-monocoque chassis with the DOHC Ford engine as a stressed member in the rear of the car, but as is evident in the photographs, aerodynamics began to creep in the picture with the addition of winglets and air ducts on either side on the nose. 

Andretti started the 1967 USAC season by crashing the new Hawk in practice before the season’s first race at Phoenix International Raceway. Clint Brawner rebuilt the Hawk in two weeks and Andretti won the 150-mile race at the Trenton New Jersey one-mile oval from the pole position. At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Andretti and Hawk Mark II posted the fastest lap in practice and then on ‘Pole Day’ reset the single lap track record at nearly 170 MPH and captured his second straight pole position start.  

Andretti crashed again in practice at Milwaukee and after a second round of repairs the team struggled for several races.  Andretti and the Dean Van Lines Hawk then went on a real tear, as they captured five straight race wins at five diverse race tracks - the narrow Indianapolis Raceway Park road course, the circular one-mile Speedway in Langhorne Pennsylvania, both the 36-lap races at the Saint Jovite road course in Canada and the Tony Bettenhausen Memorial 200-mile race at Milwaukee’s flat State Fairgrounds one-mile oval  

Andretti and the Hawk crashed out of the next two races at the one mile oval tracks at Trenton Speedway in New Jersey and Hanford California, but Andretti rebounded to win the penultimate round at Phoenix's dogleg one-mile semi-oval track.

As he entered the 1967 USAC season finale, the Rex May 300, at the Riverside International Raceway road course, Andretti trailed point leader AJ Foyt by 500 points, with 600 points awarded to the race winner. Foyt crashed out on lap 50 of the 116-lap race, which opened the door for a third straight Dean Van Lines team USAC championship.  Andretti led 38 laps over the last half of the race but faded over the final six circuits and the Hawk finished third, which left Mario 80 points behind Foyt in second place for the season championship.

Sadly team owner Al Dean passed away just 12 days after the Rex May 300, but Mario Andretti bought the team’s equipment and secured sponsorship for the 1968 season from Overseas National Airlines, the story of which was published in this blog on November 8 2015 (please see the archive). 

Although the Brawner Hawk Mark III used during the 1968 season appeared similar to previous Hawk designs, it was not a further development of the original tube-frame Brabham BT12 design, but instead was an all-new full monocoque design.  The Brawner Hawk Mark II on display at PRI 2015 was the restored example of the ultimate evolution of the tube-frame rear-engine race car design and construction. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The 1931 Cummins Diesel Special 

photo by the author 

The 2015 Performance Racing Industry (PRI) show in Indianapolis featured a special exhibit of racing history entitled “The Evolution of the IndyCar – an Exhibition of Speed” co-sponsored by PRI and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame and Museum.  We featured one of the significant cars displayed – the Sampson “16” Special - last month. 

1931 Cummins Diesel photo by the author

Today we share the story behind another IndyCar on display at PRI 2015 - the 1931 Cummins Diesel Special.  This car is an example from the bygone era of racing when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a proving ground for automotive innovation as its founders intended instead of the site of single chassis/rental engine “spec” racing.  

The most significant day in the history of the Cummins Engine Company occurred on Christmas Day 1929, when Clessie Lyle Cummins took company financial patron William Irwin for a ride around Columbus Indiana in a used 1925 Auburn Sedan fitted with a Cummins model ‘U’ marine engine. 

Until then, diesel (or oil engines) which used compression ignition rather than spark ignition, were large and bulky and mainly used for stationary or ocean-going power plants.  The diesel-powered Auburn is regarded as the first diesel-powered automobile in the United States.  To promote the durability of the company’s newest line of diesel engines designed for use in boats, automobiles, tractors, and trucks Clessie took the Auburn on tour.

Clessie Cummins drove the Auburn powered by the  model “U” engine which featured enclosed valves, pressurized lubrication and disc type fuel injection to the New York Auto Show, and then after the show put the Cummins engine into a 1925 Packard roadster and drove it to to Daytona Beach Florida.

After removing the fenders headlights and windshield, the Packard roadster set an 80.389 mile-per hour (MPH) world speed record for diesel powered cars on the sandy ocean side course.  

Despite this success, Cummins knew he needed a real race car to demonstrate his  Model U “oil engine,” which made extensive use of lightweight ‘Duralumin,’ an alloy of aluminum, copper, magnesium and manganese, and produced a reported 10 horsepower per pound.      

Clessie talked his friend August Duesenberg into modifying a Duesenberg Model A pressed steel ladder-style frame to accept the Cummins Model ‘U’ 360 cubic inch 4-cylinder engine which was cloaked in a stripped down Model A race car type body.   On February 7 1931, Clessie in the new Cummins creation set a new land speed record of 100.75 MPH for diesel powered cars at Daytona Beach. Now Clessie set his sights on a return to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway after 20 years  as legend has it that Clessie had served on the crew of Ray Harroun’s 1911 ‘500’ winner as an employee for Nordyke Marmon & Company.   

In 1929 the new owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Eddie Rickenbacker had devised instituted a new rules package for the 1930 Indianapolis ‘500’ which was to quote the rules “for cars susceptible of adaption from production car chassis,” or “development cars that embody new engineering principles or adaptions as contrasted against what may be termed "normal" cars.”

Although 85 years later, contemporary historians derisively refer to the Rickenbacker/AAA (American Automobile Association) 1930 rules package as the “junk formula,” as it primarily meant conversions of passenger cars. However, the development provision in the rules package meant Speedway officials could make provisions for Cummins “oil burner” entry.  But before it could make the Indianapolis 500-mile race starting field, the Cummins had to be fitted with a two-man race car body, as  the Junk Formula  required riding mechanics, and then the Cummins had to be approved as a ‘special engineering entry’ by the AAA Race Technical Committee. The committee ruled that in order to compete in the Indianapolis ‘500,’the Cummins diesel racer had to average over 80 MPH over its 10-mile 4-lap time trial run and was not eligible to receive any prize money.

1931 photo of Dave Evans courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection 
in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies 

On Saturday May 23 1931, 32-year old driver Dave Evans of Evansville Indiana with his 39-year old riding mechanic, Thane Houser of Honey Creek Indiana, drove the #8 Cummins Diesel onto the course, the first car to test the uneven brick 2-1/2-mile course for the 1931 ‘500’ time trials. Evans had been racing since 1925, with most of his early years spent driving for the Duesenberg team on the horrifically dangerous high-banked board tracks of the nineteen twenties.  Houser started as riding mechanic then graduated to driving but drove but only in five races in six years before he returned to a riding mechanic role with Dave Evans in the 1930 Indianapolis ‘500’ when the pair finished sixth.  

The pair surprised many observers as the 3389-pound Cummins machine (only Cliff Bergere’s Elco Royale Reo-based monstrous machine was heavier) posted a 96.871 MPH average, fast enough to satisfy the technical committee’s requirement but the which proved to be the eighteenth and slowest time of the day.  

Unfortunately for the day’s final and fastest qualifier, defending race winner Billy Arnold, a brake control rod had fallen loose during his time trial run in the Miller-Hartz Special, and the Chief Steward, supported by the Technical Committee, disqualified Arnold’s apparent pole position winning run, citing the rule that cars “must be completely assembled.”    Arnold’s disqualification moved the Cummins Special up to 17th starting position in the 40-car field for the 1931 Decoration Day Classic.

1931 photo of the pre-race pit area courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection 
in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies 

The start of May 30 1931 International  500-mile Sweepstakes  saw the slowest car in the field, the Cummins with a 96 MPH qualifying run, start side-by-side in the sixth row next to the fastest car in the field, Arnold’s Miller-Hartz which has posted a 116.08 MPH 4-lap average speed. The strategy of the two teams at the drop of the green flag could not have been different - the Cummins team intended to complete the 500-mile test without making a pit stop, while Arnold wanted to get to the front of the field as fast as possible lead as many laps as he could and post a second consecutive victory.  In 1930, Arnold had dominated the ‘500’, as he led 198 laps and became the first driver to win the ‘500’ at an average speed of over 100 MPH. 
At the drop of the green flag, Arnold in the Miller-Hartz charged and seized the lead by lap seven then proceeded to build up a five-lap lead before an axle snapped on lap 161 and the Miller-Hartz crashed heavily in turn four. Arnold suffered a broken pelvis, his riding mechanic Spider Matlock suffered a broken shoulder and a loose wheel from the Miller-Hartz rolled off the Speedway grounds and killed 12 year old Wilbur Brink who playing in the yard of his parents’ home at 2316 Georgetown Road.

Meanwhile, Evans and Houser had stuffed extra padding into the cockpit of the Cummins Diesel and settled into a steady pace and finished the race without a pit stop in a respectable 13th place, just 37 minutes and 41 seconds behind winner Louis Schneider in the Bowes Seal Fast Special. Although it started the race as the slowest qualifier, it finished the 500-mile grind with an average speed of 86 MPH ahead of two other finishers. 

The purpose of Cummins’ participation was not to demonstrate absolute speed, but reliability and economy. Those points were well proven as post-race inspection found that the Cummins engine consumed just $1.40 of ‘furnace oil’ fuel and one quart of lubricating oil to complete its non-stop 500-mile run.      

Clessie Cummins was ecstatic at the performance of the #8 Cummins Diesel, and had the car fitted with lights, a windshield, canvas top, and side-mounted trunk for a triumphant tour of Europe to drum up business. The Cummins car was shipped to Cherbourg France via the US Lines’ SS Leviathan and visited England, France, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, and Germany on its 1931 Summer/Fall tour. 

1969 photo of the freshly restored 1931 Cummins #8  courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies 

The #8 Cummins Diesel was eventually restored in 1969 to its as-raced 1931 appearance and is on permanent loan to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame and Museum which provided the car for the PRI 2015 display.

Clessie Cummins returned in time to return to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to attempt an audacious non-stop truck record run. With a truck fitted with an 8000-gallon fuel tank and powered by the new 125 horsepower Cummins model ‘H’ six cylinder 382-cubic inch diesel engine Cummins intended to drive non-stop around the 2-1/2-mile Speedway and set another record.  

This photo of the record-breaking Cummins Deisel truck 
appeared in The Diesel Odyssey of Clessie Cumminsby Lyle Cummins,

With a team of three drivers- Clessie, Dave Evans and Ford Moyer, the first record attempt began at 2 PM local time on December 12, 1931, but came to a premature end two days later when a wheel bearing failed with just 1035 miles completed.   A second run began on December 14, and ended two weeks later after a total of 13,535 miles or 5,414 laps around the Speedway completed non-stop at an average speed of 43.97 MPH.  

The non-stop run of the #8 Cummins or the record-setting endurance truck run did not end the company’s involvement at the world’s greatest race course, as the Cummins Engine Company returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway three more times with diesel-powered ‘500’ entries. 

In 1934, Cummins entered two cars that used Duesenberg chassis and which appeared the same but which had distinctly different engines. One entry that carried race number 5 was powered by a two-cycle diesel and the other which carried race number 6 was a conventional four-cycle diesel engine driven by Dave Evans with John ‘Jigger’ Johnson alongside. The torque of the four-cycle engine broke the #6 car’s transmission on the first pit stop on lap 81. The two-cycle powered car #5 driven by Harwell “Stubby” Stubblefield and mechanic Bert Lustig finished twelfth.

Advertising photo of the 1950 Cummins entry  courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies 

Cummins entered a green-colored upright style car powered by a supercharged 345 horsepower aluminum Model JS-600 engine for the 1950 500-mile race, but the car suffered a broken vibration dampener and finished 29th, but later set six land speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Photo of the 1952 Cummins entry in the old IMS musuem in 1955 courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies 

In 1952, Cummins entered a radical racer with the turbocharged 401 cubic inch diesel engine laid on its side in a Frank Kurtis built chassis. Former Bay Area midget champion Fred Agabashian qualified the red and yellow ‘Cummins Diesel Special’ for the coveted pole position and briefly held the track’s one and four lap qualifying records.  Although it was a sensation in qualifying, and its design inspired later roadster creations at the Speedway, the Cummins Diesel entry proven uncompetitive in the race on Memorial Day largely due to turbocharger lag and was retired after 71 laps.  

Cummins reached Victory Lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1987 albeit not with a diesel powered entry, but as a sponsor which is part of an improbable story.  Three-time ‘500’ winner Al Unser started out the month of May 1987 without a car to drive, and only got his chance to qualify for the Indianapolis ‘500’ after Danny Ongais destroyed his ‘Panavision/Interscope/Holset’ Penske PC-16/Chevrolet entry in practice, suffered a concussion and was not medically cleared to drive.

After just three days of practice, Unser qualified for the 20th starting position in the 1987 Indianapolis ’500’ in the Cummins/Holset Turbo sponsored 1986 March chassis powered by a Cosworth engine which began the month of May in a hotel lobby as a show car.  On May 24, Al Unser dodged a first lap first turn spin by Josele Garza, ran a steady race with the leaders, then after Mario Andretti, then Roberto Guererro suffered problems, Unser moved in the lead for the last 18 laps to win his fourth Indianapolis ‘500,’ and Cummins’ first.