Thursday, August 4, 2016

Chris Amon at Indianapolis
Chris Amon's official IMS 1967  photo
courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection
in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies

Chris Amon who died this week from cancer at age 73 in his native New Zealand was widely regarded as one of the best drivers never to win a Formula One Grand Prix race although he won the non-championship 1970 Silverstone British Racing Driver’s Club (BRDC) Trophy race. During his early career, Amon was a distinguished sports car racer and won both the major 24-hour endurance races - LeMans in 1966 and Daytona in 1967.
For those of us who follow open-wheel racing in the United States, Amon is ranked as of the best drivers ever to appear at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway yet he never made a qualifying run.
Chris Amon attended the 1966 Indianapolis 500-mile race as a spectator with his countryman Bruce McLaren, and later that season drove seat belt manufacturer Jim Robbins’ double overhead camshaft Ford-powered Vollstedt chassis in the “Fuji 200” United States Auto Club (USAC) Japanese road race in October 1966. 
Amon paired with teammate Billy Foster was the driver of Robbins’ deep red #66 car which had been driven (and crashed) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis Raceway Park road course by NASCAR stock car star Caleb ‘Cale” Yarborough. Amon, one of the three Formula One stars entered along with Graham Hill and Jimmy Clark (both former ‘500’ winners), qualified the #66 car in fifth positon in the starting grid, but crashed out of the race on lap 56.

Amon was entered at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1967 a member of the George R. Bryant racing team and lapped the Speedway extensively during Firestone tire tests held during March 1967. Post-testing evaluations heralded Amon as “perhaps the best foreign driver to arrive at Indianapolis since Jimmy Clark.”

In an interview in May 1967 with the Indianapolis Star Amon said “I think it will help me to run at Indianapolis. It's such a precise course with so little margin for error that I think it will help sharpen up my driving. In Europe, if you make a mistake on one turn, you have 10 or 11 others to get back what you've lost. Here, there is so little room for room for error with those walls around the track, too. They're always in your mind. Each turn is different that's the first thing you find out here. You have to learn how deep you can drive before feathering off and when to come back on the throttle."
Chris Amon waits while the crew adjusts the 1967 BRP entry
courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection
in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies

The car that Amon drove at Indianapolis in 1967 was one of three Ford-powered George R. Bryant entries owned by driver Masten Gregory’s stepfather whose Indianapolis car owner history dated back to 1962 with driver Bobby Marshaman.  Amon’s #28 car, painted yellow with red trim was BRP (British Racing Partnership) chassis 5/65, and had been driven in 1965 and 1966 500-mile races by Johnny Boyd. Amon completed his four phase 40-lap rookie test on April 30 1967 and became only the second man to complete his rookie test before the month of May began.

On May 10, 1967 as he drove through turn one, Amon’s BRP car broke a left rear magnesium hub carrier (suspension upright) and he crashed heavily but was uninjured. After the Lotus 38 entries also suffered cracked magnesium uprights, Bryant team crew chief Howard Gilbert replaced the BRP cast magnesium carriers with fabricated chrome molybdenum steel alloy uprights in the remaining Bryant cars driven by Bobby Johns and Carl Williams.

Days after his crash, in an Indianapolis Star interview Amon called his 1967 Indianapolis experience "not the greatest." Amon told the paper “at the time I signed with Ferrari (for Formula One), I had three offers for Indianapolis.  I signed the Indianapolis contract with the understanding I would be the top driver, but there is no number one driver. It looks like I might have made the wrong choice.” His Bryant team status did not matter, as after Johns crashed on the first day of time trials Amon’s BRP chassis was not repaired which left him without a car with which to make a qualifying attempt.

Two years later, Amon and fellow Formula One driver Jackie Stewart were contacted by car owner Parnelli Jones to replace Al Unser after a non-racing accident. Unser broke his lower left leg in a motorcycle crash in the Speedway’s infield on Saturday May 17 after the first day of time trials for the 1969 '500’ had been rained out. Amon declined Jones’ offer due to a European racing commitment, and Unser was eventually replaced in the “Vel’s Parnelli Jones Special” by (USAC) regular Melvin “Bud” Tingelstad.

Chris Amon in the McLaren M15A
courtesy of Stuart Dent

In November 1969 Amon was named to the 1970 McLaren Indianapolis effort and he tested at the Speedway in the new McLaren M15A over the winter. In February 1970 Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Limited formally entered three cars with its two New Zealand drivers – Amon and 1967 World Driving Champion and three-time ‘500’ competitor Denis Hulme. Team owner Bruce McLaren who had been entered in the 1968 ‘500’ as a driver for Carroll Shelby and Al Dowd’s ill-fated “Botany 500” turbine entry, tested the M15A but would not publicly commit to driving one of his own cars in the 1970 ‘500.’  

Disaster struck during a practice run on May 12 when a fuel leak on Hulme’s #73 pumpkin orange McLaren erupted into a fire and Hulme received third degree burns on his hands.  Denis was replaced by Peter Revson and around that same Bruce McLaren formally withdrew his #5 entry. Amon meantime had easily passed his refresher rookie test on May 2, but never was comfortable or fast, apparently troubled by “those walls” with best lap for the month of 163 MPH.
Amon tried both the turbocharged Offenhauser-powered McLaren entries and even Rolla Vollstedt’s backup car to no avail. At one point Amon was warned by Chief Steward Harlan Fengler to stay low out of the racing groove when he was running slowly, and Amon responded “any lower and I’ll be on the golf course.”  

Apparently frustrated by his lack of speed and upset by the severity and extent of Hulme's burns Amon left Indianapolis on Saturday May 16 and returned to Europe. Amon was replaced as the driver of the #75 McLaren M15A entry by Missouri journeyman driver Carl Williams who qualified nineteenth the following day at 166.950 MPH and then went on to finish the 1970 ‘500’ in ninth place.  In the 1971 ‘500’ this same car driven by Gordon Johncock famously ran over Mel Kenyon’s disabled entry in a lap 11 crash in turn three. 
The cover of Mel Kenyon's biography that depicts Gordon
Johncock in the former Amon McLaren M15A running over Mel Kenyon
during the 1971 Indianapolis 500

Chris Amon never appeared in an Indianapolis type car again as he mainly concentrated on Formula One racing until his retirement in 1976.

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