Jerry Unser’s contributions to safety
Jeremy Michael “Jerry” Unser Junior was the first member of the Unser family to compete at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1958. Jerry had a younger (by ten minutes) twin brother Louie, who worked as Jerry’s crew chief and brothers Al and Bobby who would be rookies at the Speedway in 1963 and 1965 respectively. Though his two younger brothers would score seven Indianapolis ‘500’ wins between them, Jerry contributed to the safety of future race drivers.
Jerry was born in Colorado in 1932 the son of a race car driver and grew up Albuquerque New Mexico but in 1958 lived in Lakewood California. After he won the 1956 stock car race on the family’s playground, the Pike’s Peak Hill Climb, he joined Peter DePaolo Engineering’s United States Auto Club (USAC) stock car racing team. In 1957 driving a factory supplied Ford Unser won the USAC stock car championship.
The bespectacled 25-year rookie had anything but an easy time to make the 1958 Indianapolis 500-mile race starting field, as the car that Jerry finally qualified, the “McKay Special” Kurtis Kraft 500 G was his third car of the month. Jerry was originally nominated as the driver for Southern California building contractor Harry V Duncan Junior’s Kurtis Kraft 500 A. In an era when Indianapolis was dominated by the four-cylinder Offenhauser engine the Duncan entry was powered by a DeSoto stock block hemispherical (hemi) head V-8 engine built by dry lakes racer Tony Capanna.
Capanna who with his partner, Guy “Red” Wilson ran Wilcap a machine and engine shop in Los Angeles built several Dodge and DeSoto engines with Duncan’s financial support used to set records at Bonneville in 1954. Tony focused on Indianapolis in 1955 and built a 270-cubic inch Dodge Red Ram “hemi” engine that was fitted into Al Dean’s Kuzma upright which had won the 1954 American Automobile Association (AAA) season title.
Encouraged by Jimmy Bryan’s practice laps timed at over 140 miles per hour, the team put rookie Bob “Caveman” Christie in the car to make a qualifying attempt on May 22 the last day of time trials. As Christie headed the backstretch on his last warm-up lap, the Dodge engine’s crankshaft broke and the Kuzma crashed.
For 1958, Capanna and Duncan bought a Kurtis Kraft 500A, built in 1953 specifically to use a Chrysler “hemi” V-8 stock block engine. There is some dispute whether this car was originally built for Roger Wolcott or Murrell Belanger. Both of those cars were tested extensively at the Speedway during 1953 powered by Chrysler factory built 335 cubic inch engine that reputedly produced 400 horsepower.
After a United States Auto Club (USAC) rule change reduced the allowable displacement of “stock block” engines to only 271 cubic inches both teams found the car uncompetitive and later sold to other car owners. Wilcap employee Dean Murray modified the KK 500A chassis so that the DeSoto engine was mounted so far to the left side of the #51 Duncan Special chassis that the left cylinder head actually extended past the Kurtis’ left side frame rail.
Capanna built up the 255 cubic inch DeSoto “hemi” engine in 1958 with a number of custom made parts made at Wilcap. Capanna machined his own 3-inch stroke crankshaft from a billet of 4340 steel, while the connecting rods were crafted from 6145 steel. The engine used needle bearings for the camshaft and rocker arms, and Forgedtrue pistons supplied by 1946 Indianapolis ‘500’ winning crew chief Art Sparks.
The DeSoto heads were fitted with larger valves and re-worked achieve a 14:1 compression ratio. In dynamometer testing with straight methanol run through the Hilborn ram-air injectors, Capanna reported 340 horsepower at 6500 revolutions per minute (RPM) as compared to the typical Offenhauser engine that developed at 360 horsepower at 6000 RPM on straight methanol.
Jerry arrived at the Speedway recovered from a broken collar bone that he suffered in January after his midget flipped on the eighth lap of the race at Riverside International Raceway. Unser was one of nine raw rookies entered for the 42nd annual 500-mile race, a list that included AJ Foyt, Paul Goldsmith, 51 year-old local sports car dealer Jack Ensley, Carroll Shelby, and Len Sutton. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened on Thursday May 1 and by May 10 the Long Beach Independent Telegraph reported that Unser who lived in nearby Lakewood California was “working on the final phase of his driving test.”
On Sunday May 19 while Jerry practiced on the Indianapolis 2-1/2 mile oval the DeSoto engine broke a connecting rod, and the catastrophic damage sidelined the Duncan entry for the rest of the month. Tony Capanna never returned to Indianapolis and according to Richard Parks, Tony would later remark that it was too costly a proposition to do that kind of racing.
On Monday, Jerry was one of several drivers along with Eddie Sachs and Dick Rathmann that changed rides. Sachs moved into the seat of Peter Schmidt’s bright red Kuzma creation, while Rathmann moved into Lee Elkins’ newly purchased “McNamara Motor Freight” Watson chassis. Jerry became the third driver for Chapman Root’s Sumar Racing team assigned to the team’s backup #48 Kurtis Kraft 500C chassis. The Sumar KK 500 C had made the ‘500’ four straight years
However, Unser did not find the speed needed in the Sumar entry and after the Offenhauser engine had problems, he moved to Youngstown Ohio building contractor Roy H McKay’s Kurtis Kraft 500G2. The McKay KK500G2 was the car in which California standout Don Edmunds had driven to 1957 ‘500’ Rookie of the Year of the honors then crashed in practice earlier in the month in 1959. Unser qualified the repaired #92 “McKay Special” for the 1958 ‘500’ starting field on Saturday May 24 at 142.775 MPH to start 24th in the 33-car field. Unser was one of eight rookies to make the field along with Foyt, Goldsmith, Sutton Jud Larson, Art Bisch, George Amick, and Dempsey Wilson who bumped his way into the field on Sunday May 25.
The start of the 1958 ‘500’ was a mess. Instead of starting from the main straightaway, for the second year in a row officials decided to start the cars in single file from the new concrete pit lane and for the second year the start was a disaster. In 1957, as Elmer George (track owner Tony Hulman’s son-in-law) tried to cut through the field to reach his ninth starting spot on the pace lap he rammed into the tail of Eddie Russo’s Sclavi & Amos entry and knocked both cars from the race.
In the confusion of the 1958 start, the three front row starters Dick Rathmann, Ed Elisian, and Jimmy Reece let pit lane early and were half a lap ahead of the Mercury pace car driven by 1957 ‘500’ winner Sam Hanks. An extra pace lap was required to straighten the order as the three front row starters caught the tail of the field and then sliced through traffic and reached the head of the field as the field rolled through the fourth turn. The start was ragged with the front row single file and cars four abreast further back.
Jerry Unser took flight over the turn three wall
At the drop of the green flag, pole sitter Rathmann took the lead with Elisian in close pursuit. After they raced through the second turn nose to tail, Elisian dove low to take the lead as he entered turn three but he was traveling far too fast. Ed’s Zink #5 spun and collected Rathmann and both cars hit the outside retaining wall. Behind them thirteen other cars became involved in the crash, among them Unser. Jerry’s #92 McKay Special ran over the tail of Paul Goldsmith’s 16th place starter and used Goldsmith as a ramp, as the “McKay Special” flew over the third turn retaining wall.
The McKay KK 500G2 after the first lap crash
Notice the shoulder harnesses
While Pat O’Connor lost his life in the crash, Unser was fortunate in that there were no vehicles parked below turn three outside the track. Reportedly the McKay Special flipped end over end eight times and the Kurtis 500G chassis was seriously bent, but Jerry Unser suffered only a dislocated shoulder which was popped into joint at the infield Medical Center. Certainly Unser could credit his lack of serious injury to his use of a relatively new innovation in 1958, shoulder harnesses in addition to his seat belt.
In August 1958 Jerry attempted to qualify the Sumar Blough-built chassis entry for the one-mile dirt races at Springfield and DuQuoin Illinois and Milwaukee without success.All the photographs that accompany this article appear courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies