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 kevracer@aol.com

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