Saturday, November 26, 2016

Two works by the master - Emil Diedt

color photos by the author
black & white photos appear courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the IUPUI University Library Center of Digital Studies

During a recent visit to the World of Speed museum to view the special Indianapolis ‘500’ exhibit, the author photographed two automotive works of art built by one of the sport’s master metal craftsmen. Emil Diedt, born in Germany in 1897 worked out of a shop in Culver City California  and was best known as the builder of the identical pair of 270-cubic inch Offenhauser powered front wheel drive cigar-shaped ‘Blue Crown Spark Plug Specials’ owned by retired driver Lou Moore, but Diedt built two more similar cars later. 

A brief history of the Blue Crowns



Mauri Rose tries out his new Blue Crown in 1947

Reputedly the advantage of the front wheel drive at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was due to more weight centered over the driving wheels which helped to “pull” the car through the corners and reduced the car’s tires sliding once the track surface got slippery with oil during the race. This proved to be correct, as front wheel drive cars led every lap of the 1947 500-mile race.

The new Blue Crown cars debuted at the 1947 Indianapolis 500-mile race, qualified in third and eighth positions and then dominated the race, leading 177 laps.  With 100 miles to go and his cars running in first and second positions, Moore signaled to the drivers of his cars via the pit board “EZY” the signal for the pair to take it easy. With just eight laps to go the race leader 39-year old rookie Bill Holland waved his teammate, Mauri Rose past him as Holland thought he held a one-lap lead.  Holland was mistaken and Rose raced away to score his second (and first solo) Indianapolis victory as the angry Holland finished 32 seconds behind Rose.   


1949 '500' winner Bill Holland


In 1948, the ‘Blue Crowns’ repeated their domination, with Rose and Holland again finishing one-two over two minutes ahead of the third place finisher, the front wheel drive Novi driven by Dennis ‘Duke’ Nalon. In 1949, Holland finally won the ‘500’ as Mauri Rose’s car broke a magneto strap while he ran in second place with eight laps to go. After a month of ongoing disputes with car owner Moore, the outspoken Rose angrily quit the team, or was fired, depending on whose version one chose to believe.  

The Keck car



The immediate success of the Diedt-built front wheel drive ‘Blue Crowns’ led to other car owners looking for their own versions. One such car owner was Southern Californian Howard B. Keck, heir to the Superior Oil fortune. Keck earlier purchased John Balch’s Offenhauser powered midget racing operation together with the services of co-chief mechanics Jim Travers and Frank Coon and their friend fuel injection pioneer Stuart Hilborn. After dominating in United Racing Association (URA) ‘red’ circuit for Offenhasuer powered cars, the Keck team and was ready to conquer Indianapolis.

With Keck’s backing, Travers and Coon ordered a new front wheel drive chassis from Emil Diedt for the 1948 Indianapolis ‘500.’ Indianapolis native son Jimmy Jackson who scored  two top-five finishes in the 1946 and 1947 500-mile races, qualified the new #61 ‘Howard Keck Special’ at 127.51 miles per hour (MPH) for the fourth positon. After he started the race on the inside the second row behind Rex Mays, Rose and Holland,  Jackson ran just outside the top five for most of the race, but his good finish was spoiled when a wheel spindle broke on the maroon colored machine with six laps to go and he spun into the infield.

Jackson and the Keck team returned to Indianapolis in 1949; Jackson wanted to paint the car green but Keck refused so Jackson wore green gloves. The ground-breaking Hilborn fuel-injected ‘Howard Keck Special’ started seventh after Jackson qualified with a four-lap average of 128.023 MPH. At the end of the 500-mile test, the #61 Diedt front wheel drive machine finished sixth, seven minutes behind winner Hollard’s similar machine.



Mauri Rose adds Pennzoil in this 1951 publicity shot


For the 1950 Indianapolis 500-mile race, former ‘Blue Crown’ pilot Rose was the new driver of the Keck/Offenhauser front wheel drive Diedt machine and Mauri qualified with a  four-lap average of 132.319 MPH to start on the outside of the front row. Rose earned a measure of revenge as he out-qualified both of the Moore ‘Blue Crowns;’ Holland was tenth fastest and Rose’s replacement, Tony Bettenhausen timed in eighth fastest.

Rose and the Keck entry led the race on three occasions for a total of 15 laps, but Rose was slowed when he was briefly forced out of the cockpit by a pit fire on his only stop on lap 109.  Rose had pitted from the lead and once the fire was extinguished Mauri was back underway and he recovered to finish third behind Holland in a controversial rain-shortened 138-lap race. The deluge lasted just 60 seconds, but Speedway officials stopped the race and initially scoring was very confused, with Rose originally unofficially scored in fifth place. The #31 Keck entry’s appearance in race footage of the 1950 Metro-Goldywn-Mayer film ‘To Please a Lady’ was little satisfaction for Rose who lost his chance to become the first Indianapolis 4-time winner.   




       
For the 1951 Indianapolis 500-mile race the Emil Diedt bodywork was painted black with yellow and red trim and the #16 car carried Pennzoil sponsorship. Mauri Rose, who turned 45 years old four days before the race, qualified fifth fastest at 133.422 MPH to start from the middle of the second of eleven rows of three. In his 15th Indianapolis ‘500’ on his 127th lap, while Rose ran in third place, the right rear wire wheel of the ‘Pennzoil Special’ collapsed. Rose fought for control as the car slid into the infield off turn two and into a drainage ditch where it overturned and momentarily trapped Mauri underneath. 


The aftermath of the 1951 flip



Legend has it that Rose retired from racing on the spot, but in actuality, it was the death of Rose’s first wife and mother of his two young children Mauri Junior and Dory who both were polio survivors during the winter of 1951 that lead Mauri to formally announce his retirement.  On January 30 1952, from his home in Van Nuys California, Rose told reporters that after 24 years, he could no longer risk his life racing.



The 1951 Indianapolis ‘500’ marked the final race appearance of the Howard Keck owned Emil Diedt front wheel drive machine, as the following year the Keck team entered a 270-cubic inch Ferrari 375 and a new Offenhauser-powered creation from Frank Kurtis known as the 500A but nicknamed the “roadster.” The Diedt car as displayed at the Museum of Speed is expertly restored as how the car appeared in the 1951 Indianapolis ‘500.’  

The Tuffanelli-Derrico car



Babe Tuffanelli

Reputed Chicago suburban south side organized crime figure Carmine George “Babe” Tuffanelli became interested in automobile racing and owned several  beautifully maintained  ‘big cars’ and midgets which raced in events across the country. The team of cars, each fielded as ‘Tuffy’s Offy’ were maintained by experienced mechanic Charles Pritchard from a garage on Vincennes Avenue in the Chicago suburb of Rock Island Illinois assisted by a young mechanic named Ray Nichels.



From 1948 through 1950 Pritchard and Tuffanelli entered Kurtis-Kraft 2000 upright dirt cars in the Indianapolis 500-mile race, but for the 1950 running of the International Classic, the team entered their new Emil Diedt built front wheel drive chassis dubbed the ‘Tuffanelli-Derrico Special’. The second name car on the car was one of Carmine’s alleged underworld business associates, Jimmy Derrico, who became part-owner of the ¼-mile Raceway Park in Blue Island in 1952.




For Tuffanelli’ s car Diedt make extensive use of aluminum including the oil and fuel tanks to make the new front wheel drive car 350 pounds lighter than previous versions. For the driver of the new maroon and gold Diedt creation for the 1951 ‘500’ Pritchard and Tuffanelli selected their 1950 driver, the mustachioed California midget racing standout Ronald “Mack” Hellings.  Mack originally a motorcycle racer came up through the URA midget ranks with such future Indianapolis stars as Bill Vukovich and Sam Hanks and was crowned the 1948 champion of the URA ‘Blue’ Circuit for non-Offenhauser powered machines.



Mack Hellings official IMS head shot

Hellings graduated to championship cars during 1948 and drove for two seasons for the Los Angeles–based Don Lee racing team before he jumped to the “Tuffy’s Offy” team for 1950 and he scored five top ten finishes in nine starts in a K-K 2000 during the 1950 AAA (American Automobile Association) racing season  . When not racing, Hellings ran an automotive and motorcycle speed shop first located in North Hollywood and later Burbank California 


Helling's company logo


At Indianapolis in 1951, two days before the first weekend of time trials, the ‘Tuffanelli-Derrico Special’ lost a camshaft bearing.  On the third day of time trials, Hellings could only record a four-lap average speed of 123.925 MPH, which held up although his speed was nearly seven-and- a-half miles per hour slower than the next slowest qualifier. On race day, Hellings and the new Diedt creation started from the middle of the eight row, but only completed eighteen laps before the car was retired with a broken piston in the 270-cubic inch Offenhauser engine.




Hellings did not get a second chance to drive the ‘Tuffanelli-Derrico Special’ at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  On Sunday, November 11 1951, Hellings, fellow URA racer and engine builder Bob Baker, and URA photographer George “Lee” Harvey left Brackett Field near LaVerne in a rented plane piloted by Robert Harris. The quartet were headed north for the ‘Bay Meadows 150’ the final 1951 season championship car race scheduled for that evening at Bay Meadows race track in San Mateo.



A typical Piper Pacer


The cream-colored single-engine Piper PA-20 Pacer tail number N74568K was overdue for their mid-day fuel stop in Fresno and after the plane failed to arrive overnight, search parties were dispatched. On November 15 the wreckage of the plane and the four deceased passengers was found near the 4000-foot elevation on the south slope of the Tehachapi Mountains near Gorman California.    

Contemporary legend has it that Tuffanelli was so devastated over Hellings’ death that the car never raced again  but the ‘Tuffanelli-Derrico Special’ was entered for the 1952 Indianapolis ‘500.’ The 1951 driver was Chicago journeyman midget racer Danny Kladis (sometimes spelled Cladis) who had started racing ‘big cars’ before World War Two.  Kladis was the Mississippi Valley Midget Racing Association (MVMRA) driving champion three consecutive seasons from 1946 through 1948. Despite his Hall of Fame midget career, Danny experienced tough times at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and only qualified for the ‘500’ once in seven years of trying.  



It is unclear whether Kladis made a qualifying attempt after he spun the car out of turn two on May 15, and the ‘Tuffanelli-Derrico Special’ never appeared again for competition at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The beautiful #19 Emil Diedt-built ‘Tuffanelli-Derrico Special’ on display at the World of Speed museum appeared to be in original unrestored condition sporting its striking trademark gold-leaf nose scallop and numbers outlined in red pinstriping.

Although they scored three consecutive 500-mile race victories and three runner-up finishes in four years, the reign of the Emil Diedt built front drive race cars at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was over after just five years.  With the early retirement of the ‘Blue Crown Special’ driven by Tony Bettenhausen from the 1952 ‘500,’ the front wheel drive concept was replaced by the next generation of Indianapolis race cars, the lighter weight “roadsters.”  


The World of Speed museum located at 27490 SW 95th Avenue in Wilsonville Oregon will feature their “Celebration of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500-mile race” exhibit through April 2017.  

Wednesday, November 16, 2016


Historic fiberglass drag racers at SEMA

The 2016 Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) show featured a couple of historic fiberglass drag racing cars which the author photographed.
 
 

The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Museum booth featured the 1970 “LA Challenger” a restored example of the AA/FC “Funny Car” class from the era when fans could easily recognize the manufacturer and model of the various entries. This car was originally part of the 1969 “Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Funny Cars” tour driven by Fred Goeske with a replica Plymouth Road Runner body. At the end of the season the car was sold less engine and transmission to the owner of the Fiberglass Trends ‘Funny Car’ body manufacturer Marvin Eldridge, who built this 1970 fiberglass Dodge Challenger replica body.

In 1965 Eldridge built a A/MSP (modified sports production) Cheetah sports car for the drag strip known as “Instant Motion” powered by a twin four-barrel carbureted 426-cubic inch ‘wedge” engine supplied by the Ramchargers team. Later Eldridge’s stable included a pair of candy-apple red ‘Funny Cars’ - a roadster Corvette and a Javelin

The 392-cubic inch supercharged “LA Challenger” was part of the eight-car 1970 “Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Funny Cars” tour. To include each of the manufacturer, the field included Goeske’s 1970 Plymouth Roadrunner, Bobby Wood’s Chevy II, Kelly Chadwick’s Chevrolet Camaro and Dick Bourgeois in the ‘Doug’s Headers’ American Motors Javelin.

To round out the field there were two Ford Mustang ‘Funny Cars,’ the first, owned by the legendary team of Stone Woods & Cook was driven by Dee Keaton and the other owned by Mickey Thompson was driven by Texan Johnny Wright. The eight-car field was completed with header manufacturer Jess Tyree’s Pontiac Firebird-bodied Funny Car.

 In late 1970, Eldridge died following a little-publicized drag racing accident in Hawaii while driving an Anglia ‘gasser’ and the “LA Challenger” was sold to Bob Taylor who renamed it the “Time Machine.”  After many different owners and guises through the years, the car was purchased and restored by John Robertson who donated it to the NHRA Museum in Pomona California.      



The Quarter Mile Foundation booth in Las Vegas displayed a good example of a classic Fuel Altered car which harkened back to the glory days of the sport.  With names such as ‘Nanook,’ ‘Pure Heaven,’ ’Havoc,’  ‘Pure Hell’ and ‘Winged Express’ the cars in the short-lived  NHRA  Fuel Altered (AA/FA)  class were high-horsepower (supercharged with nitromethane fuel) short wheelbase (approximately 90 inches) unpredictable racing machines. Initially a California phenomenon the Fuel Altered class eventually became overshadowed by ‘Funny Cars’ and the NHRA eventually dropped the class from event competition in 1976.

The car displayed known as the “Rat Trap” is represented as an exact reproduction (with safety upgrades) of the third “Rat Trap” machine built in 1968 and first raced in 1969. The car powered by a supercharged, nitromethane-fueled Chrysler 392 cubic inch engine and cloaked in a fiberglass replica of a nineteen thirties Austin Bantam roadster body shell is owned and driven in exhibitions by Ron Hope.

Monday, November 14, 2016


The 1916 Jovian Trophy race

In late August this site featured an article about the 1970 Shriner’s race and that article noted that unlike today when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosts multiple races and events during the year, from 1919 until 1994, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosted just one sanctioned race each year.
 
 

Prior to the cessation of racing at the big brick oval from 1917 to 1919, in 1916 the Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosted four races – the ‘International 300-mile Sweepstakes’ on Memorial Day, May 30, and three short races, of 20, 50 and 100 miles all dubbed the ‘Harvest Auto Classic’ which were held on Saturday September 9. The Speedway founders decided that the 500-mile race, which took six hours to run, was too long and decided to schedule several shorter races to attract more spectators.
 
 

A fourth, little-known 1916 race, for the Jovian Trophy was scheduled for October 18, held in conjunction with the 14th annual convention of the Jovian Order held in Indianapolis. The motto of the Jovian Order, formed around 1900 as a social and business fraternity to promote electricity was “All together - All the time - for Electrical Interests.” In 1916 there were 60 to 70 local Jovian Order chapters known as “leagues,” across the United States with the home office in St Louis Missouri.

Members of the local Jovian leagues met for weekly or bi-weekly luncheons to discuss important electrical industry topics and socialize. The leagues worked to educate the public through public display rooms, teach school students the basics of electricity, and to educate architects. Jovians campaigned for efficient and uniform electrical inspections and contractor licensing, maintained an employment bureau and even had a benevolent fund for needy members of their community. Delegates reported that the leagues generated and fostered the "all together" doctrine, and stopped, or at least abated destructive competition and price cutting by bringing men of the same industry together socially.

The organization which was apparently governed based on ancient beliefs about mythological gods, elected officers that were named after Roman mythological gods; the group’s top position was Jupiter (also known as Jove) the Roman god of thunder and lightning as “the father of electricity” with the lesser officers named after Jupiter’s children and siblings with titles such as Neptune, Vulcan and Mars.

The base of operations for the three-day 14th annual Jovian convention was the Hotel Severin located across the street from the Union Station, a location very convenient for out of town visitors who arrived on one of the more than 300 trains that arrived in Indianapolis daily. Interspersed with the Jovian annual business meeting and election of new officers, there were social activities which included a 100-mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway scheduled to start at 2 PM on Thursday October 19 2016.

 Drivers advertised as entrants for the Jovian Trophy race included John Aitken, Charles Merz, Dave Lewis, Howard Wilcox, and Gil Andersen, which makes sense since all were drivers of cars owned during the 1916 season by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) Team.  The IMS team, formed and funded by James Allison supplemented the short fields during the 1916 season caused by a lack of foreign entries due to the conflict in Europe, provided seven cars for the 21-car 1916 Indianapolis 300-mile race.   It is unclear what if any other cars were planned for the Jovian Trophy race.
 

Johnny Aitken


Aitken, a hometown driver had a spectacular season in 1916 in the IMS Peugeot, as he started from the pole for the Indianapolis ‘300’ and scored five consecutive American Automobile Association (AAA) race victories that included a clean sweep of the three-race ‘Harvest Auto Classic.’ Aitken is credited with 15 victories in 41 starts at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. 1916 would prove to be the 31-year old Aitken’s last full racing season as he died during the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Charles Merz


Merz another hometown driver raced also extensively at the Speedway in the early days, and had business ties to Arthur Newby, James Allison, and Carl Fisher, three of the four founders of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Merz was unfortunately involved in one of the Speedway’s first fatal crashes in August 1909 when his riding mechanic and two spectators died after Merz’ National blew a tire and crashed. Merz’ three career AAA wins all came on road courses, although he notched two top-four finishes in his four starts at the Speedway.  

1916 was Merz’ last season as a race car driver; during the war years of 1917 to 1919 he served with the U.S. Army Air Corps in Washington DC. Merz entered the signal corps industrial department as a Captain, was later promoted to Major; after the war he served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Air Corps reserve at Fort Benjamin Harrison and was recalled to active duty in 1940.

Merz succeeded W D “Eddie” Edenburn as the ‘500’ Chief Steward beginning with the 1935 ‘500’ and served in that role through the 1939 race. In January 1940, Merz was named by Theodore E “Pop” Myers to role of assistant to the General Manager at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Charles a prolific engineer and inventor founded Merz Engineering in 1927 to manufacture of aircraft parts and machine tools in its plant located north of downtown Indianapolis. He ran the eponymous company until his death at his home in 1952, four days after he celebrated his 64th birthday.
 
A photo of the 1923 HCS team
Milton left, Stutz center and Wilcox to the right
 

Howard Wilcox, Dave Lewis and Gil Andersen all drove “Premiers” for the racing team owned by the Speedway which were in effect copies of the Peugeots built in Indianapolis   Wilcox, another Hoosier driver, qualified for the pole position for the 1915 Indy 500 and won the 1919 ‘Liberty 500-mile Sweepstakes’ after he led the final 98 laps. In 1923 Wilcox drove 46 laps during the 500’ in relief of his HCS teammate Tommy Milton to help Milton become the first two-time 500-mile race winner.  

Four months after the 1923 “500,’ Wilcox died in a crash on Labor Day at Altoona Pennsylvania after his Duesenberg blew a tire and crashed on the high-banked 1-1/4-mile board track. A second race driver of the same name, known as Howdy Wilcox II, was not related. Wilcox’ son, Howard Wilcox Junior four years old at the time of his father’s death, served on the United States Auto Club (USAC) board of directors.  
Dave Lewis
 

New Yorker Dave Lewis debuted as a member of the Stutz racing team in 1911, and had a long racing career that stretched into the late nineteen twenties. Lewis drove the first front wheel drive entry in the Indianapolis ‘500’ in 1925 and finished second in the Miller ‘122,’ his best finish in the ‘500.’ In his mid-40’s Lewis proved to be a steady top-five finisher on the brutally fast board tracks.

In early May 1927, Lewis set a new world’s record as he won the 200 mile race on the high-banked 1-1/2 mile Atlantic City wooden oval at an average speed of 130 miles per hour (MPH).  The following month he crashed in spectacular fashion at Altoona Pennsylvania after his car hit a hole in the wooden racing surface.  Dave was thrown from the car when it “turned turtle” (rolled over) but he was unhurt and returned from the hospital in time to see the end of the race, but his front-drive Miller was destroyed which ended his 1927 AAA season.

Less than a year after the accident, on Sunday  May 13 1928 Southern California fire wardens responded to a grass fire four miles above the site of the failed St. Francis Dam and found Lewis, a newlywed who had just turned 47 years old, dead from a gunshot in his mountain cabin. Days later a coroner’s jury ruled that Lewis had died by his own hand after he panicked when a fire he had set got out of control. His widow Laura rejected the jury’s finding as she claimed Dave planned to leave for Indianapolis the following day to drive a new Miller race car.  

In the days after the suicide ruling, a woman named Margaret Hixson came forward and filed a claim on Lewis’ estate as she claimed that she and Lewis had a 16-year relationship and a 14-year old daughter. This claim was filed although they had never married, and paternity could not be proven. Hixson said she traveled with Lewis as his wife though he was already married but he later divorced his first wife. After a few months, this controversial story faded from the headlines with the final outcome of the claim unknown.   
 
Gil Andersen
 

Gulbrand “Gil” Andersen a Norwegian emigre was an early star driving for Harry Stutz; it was Andersen’s performance in the inaugural Indianapolis ‘500’ which led to the Stutz advertising slogan “the car that made good in a day.” Andersen started his “White Squadron” Stutz from the pole for the 1912 ‘500’ not due to his driving prowess but because his entry was the first one received at the Speedway office on North Capitol Avenue.   

Gil became a member of the Premier IMS team after the Stutz factory team’s withdrawal from AAA racing in 1915. Andersen retired from open-wheel competition at the end of the 1917 season, but returned to racing during 1927 as a member of the Stutz factory stock car racing team. Andersen died at age 50 on September 20 1930 from tuberculosis at his home in Indianapolis.  

On October 19 1916 the Indianapolis area dawned warm and the temperature reached 65 degrees at noon but soon after, a cold front arrived; it began to rain and the temperature dropped 20 degrees. The scheduled 100-mile race for the Jovian Trophy was called off due to the cold and rain and the conventioneers moved to a reception at the Indianapolis Athletic and Canoe Club located on the banks of the White River.        

Events far from Indianapolis conspired to make the September 1916 ‘Harvest Auto Classic’ the last race held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway until 1919. In the early months of the 1917, the Speedway staged a battle with hotel managers over high room rates; Allison threatened to move the 500-mile race to other speedways. The hotel acquiesced to Allison’s demands for regular room rates to be charged.

On March 23 1917 days after the entry blanks for the race were mailed out, Speedway President James Allison canceled the 500-mile race. Allison stated that “racing means taking away from the government the services of skilled mechanics whose services can be used by the government to better advantage in time of war than by the Speedway Corporation as a means of entertainment” and he noted that “many materials and accessories used in racing will become absolute necessities in times of conflict.”
 
The cancellation came days after President Wilson’s cabinet had voted to go to war, but a full two weeks before the United States Congress authorized the declaration of war on the German Empire.The facility that Allison had built on Main Street in Speedway as the headquarters for the IMS racing team was converted to make parts for Liberty aircraft engines, and the use of the Speedway grounds was offered to the government for free. In May 1917 Allison announced that the government had not selected the Speedway as a site for an aviation training school and that the Speedway was released from all obligations to the government.   
 
821st Squadron group photo
 

It was not until March 1918 that the government announced the formation of the 150-man 821st Aero Squadron Signal Corps under the command of Captain Edwin Webb with the Speedway’s 250-acre infield converted for use as an aviation repair and refueling depot. Sadly Captain Webb as a passenger on his first airplane flight lost his life in a June 2 1918 plane crash during a flying/bombing exhibition prior to a fund-raising baseball game at Washington Baseball Park.

Less than a month after the armistice was signed that ended World War One, on December 6, 1918, Speedway General Manager "Pop" Myers announced that the ‘Liberty  500-mile Sweepstakes’ would be held on May 30 1919.  Racing on the bricks continued through 1941 including a special match race held in September 1941 as a feature of another convention. On December 29, 1941 Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner and World War One flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker announced that the 1942 Indianapolis 500 was canceled.
 
All the black & white period photographs that accompany this article appear courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies

      

 

 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Bill Young’s Can-Am Lola T70

This blog does not typically dip into sports car racing, but today we will as 2016 marks the 50th anniversary origination of the fabled Johnson Wax Canadian-American Challenge Cup. The “Can-Am” series as it quickly came to be known was for Group 7 sports cars featured very few rules initially, so long as the car had two seats with the wheels and tires cloaked in bodywork.
 
A 1968 J-Wax Can-Am sticker from the author's collection


SC Johnson & Son’s backing of the Can-Am series through its ‘J-Wax’ brand of automotive paste waxes meant the series had the level of purses and publicity required to succeed. For the 6-race 1968 season, in addition to an average purse of $35,000 per race, Johnson Wax offered a $126,000 series points fund supplemented by $200,000 in other contingency prize money. These massive prizes attracted top-name international drivers and major sponsors, as well participation by both the major tire companies and camouflaged interest from several automobile manufacturers.

After its first year with the Can-Am championship won by 1964 Formula One champion John Surtees the series co-sanctioned by the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) and the CASC (Canadian Auto Sports Club)  was dominated by McLaren. Although innovation was the name of the Can-Am game, during the 1969 Can-Am season no other marque besides McLaren won any of the eleven Can-Am races. Over the course of the series’ eight year run, some truly innovative machines were built, but many racers used customer cars, either copies of McLarens built by Trojan or Lolas built by Eric Broadley’s Lola Cars International.
 
Click to enlarge Bill Young's logo 


Right up until the end of the original Can-Am series in 1974, it constantly attracted amateur sports car drivers who wanted to become professional racers, such as the subject of this article.  Bill Young of LaCanada California was a well-known sports car racer and dealer with an eponymous dealership located at 2100 West Verdugo Blvd in the San Gabriel Valley community of Montrose north of Los Angeles that sold Lotus, MG and Austin cars which Young advertised as “Fun-tastic cars.”

Young began racing in SCCA regional events in a 1961 MG Midget mark I in G-production events in 1960, and by 1963 the Midget fitted with the larger mark II 1098 cubic centimeter (CC) (67 cubic inch) engine became a consistent front-runner. Young scored three class victories during the 1963 SCCA season on temporary courses on the parking lots at the Del Mar Fairgrounds and Dodger Stadium at Chavez Ravine and the Riverside International Raceway. In 1964 Young in his MG Midget was crowned the SCCA G-Production Pacific Coast regional champion.     

 

A photo of Bill Young in his Lotus Elan GT
 

For the 1965 racing season, Young obtained a Lotus Elan GT roadster from the factory which featured a thinner fiberglass body shell, aluminum transmission bell housing and magnesium wheels that reduced the car’s weight to 1250 pounds, or 250 pounds lighter than a regular Elan. In addition its lighter weight, the Elan GT was equipped with a Cosworth-tuned Ford twin-cam engine that displaced 1557 CC (95 cubic inches) fed by twin side-draft Weber carburetors. The combination of 140 horsepower on tap and its light weight made Bill Young and his Elan GT immediate threats to win in West Coast SCCA C-Production racing.
 
 
 
The program for the 1965 ARRC race


In 1965, by winning the February SCCA national race at the Tucson (Arizona) Municipal airport temporary road course, Bill qualified to race in the American Road Race of Champions (ARRC) the forerunner of the modern-day SCCA Runoffs. In 1965, the ARRC was held on the Daytona International Speedway’s 3.1-mile infield road course at the end of November.



 
The layout of the Daytona 1965 road course
run counter clockwise


 

While in Daytona Bill and his good friend Jerry Titus then still a car magazine editor and part-time racer stayed at the Carnival Motor Inn which overlooked the Atlantic Ocean 5 miles from the Speedway. At the conclusion the 45-minute C-production national championship race, held late in the morning on Sunday November 28, it was a Lotus Elan GT 1-2-3 sweep as Young triumphed over Phil Groggins of Schenectady New York and Joe Ward of Riverside California.
   
For the 1966 season, the SCCA moved the Lotus Elan GT into the B-Production class which was dominated by the Shelby American built Ford Mustang GT350. Young’s Lotus won the February SCCA National race held on the Phoenix International Raceway road course which qualified Bill  to race in the ARRC held at Riverside at the end of November 1966.

Early in the Riverside ARRC race on November 27, Young unavoidably collided with the GT350 of Dan Gerber who had tangled with Frank Search’s Corvette as the pair exited turn nine and ran head-on into the end of the pit wall.  The debris from Gerber’s destroyed Mustang was scattered everywhere which necessitated a red flag as Gerber a Ford dealer and heir to the baby food fortune was transported to the hospital with serious injuries that included two broken legs and spinal injuries.  

Bill Young, Cobra racer Mel Wetzel, and a young Ford Mustang GT350 driver named Mark Donohue were all disqualified from the race because their crews worked on the cars during the delay. Once the race resumed, Pennsylvania car dealer Don Yenko in his Chevy Corvette jumped the restart and ignored the black flag for the rest of the race. Although he crossed the finish line first, Yenko was disqualified and the win was awarded to Ed Lowther’s Cobra    

On April 25 1968, an article in the Glendale News-Press newspaper announced that Bill Young, then 45 years old, would make the leap into the professional racing ranks with a planned start on April 28 at Riverside International Raceway in a Lola T70 Mark 3B. The car Young purchased, Lola chassis SL73/107, was originally sold by Lola Cars’ United States distributor John Mecom to a Southern California stockbroker named Dick Maxwell whose plan was to enlist several investors. Maxwell hired former Shelby employee “Ole” Olsen to prepare the car which was to be driven by John Morton, but only one investor signed up.

Months later the car’s lone investor an older lady got nervous and sold the complete operation - the completed Lola T70 with two complete Ryan Falconer built 359-cubic inch fuel-injected Chevrolet engines, new enclosed trailer and pickup truck – at a loss to southern California racing entrepreneur Chuck Jones. Jones entered the Lola for Southern California driver Rick Muther in the fifth round of the Can-Am series at Riverside at the end of October 1967.  Muther, a regular sports car racer through the 1966 season, had embarked on a United States Auto Club (USAC) championship (Indy) car career during the 1967 season with car owner George Walther.    

Muther qualified for the 10th annual ‘Los Angeles Times Grand Prix for Sports Cars’ with a best lap of one minute 49 seconds, nearly 10 seconds slower than pole winner Dan Gurney in Ford-powered Lola to start 28th in the 36-car field. Muther and the yellow with red trim “J.A.P. Enterprises” #46 Lola retired after 19 circuits around the Riverside 3-1/4 mile course with a broken gearbox as Bruce McLaren edged out Jim Hall’s Chaparral  2G to score his second consecutive series win.        

Two weeks later, at the third annual ‘Stardust Grand Prix’ on the Stardust road course in the Las Vegas suburb of Spring Valley, Muther qualified the Lola in 15th place in the 24-car starting field with his fastest lap just 4 seconds slower than pole winner Bruce McLaren’s best lap. At the conclusion of the race marked by a high attrition rate, Muther brought the “J.A.P.” Lola home in sixth place out of ten finishers albeit five laps in arrears to winner John Surtees.

In early 1968, Chuck Jones sold the car to Bill Young who kept the car in its yellow livery but re-numbered it #99 (his regular racing number) for his entry in the second round of the United States Road Racing Championship (USRRC) held at Riverside at the end of April 1968 in conjunction with a slate of SCCA Regional races. Young started thirteenth in the 22-car field but the Lola fell out after eleven laps with a broken shifter linkage and Young finished twentieth.

The following week at Laguna Seca Raceway Young qualified 18th at the third USRRC round with a best lap of 1 minute and 9.9 seconds compared to Jim Hall’s pole winning time of 1 minute and 2.9 seconds in the winged Chaparral 2G. At the conclusion of the 90-lap race around the Laguna Seca 1.9-mile course, Bill finished 9th, seven laps behind winner Mark Donohue and just behind under two-liter class winner Scooter Patrick’s Porsche.     

At the end of June, Young rejoined the USRRC series for the sixth round at Pacific Raceway in Kent Washington. With a small entry list, Bill and the #99 Lola finished fourth two laps behind the Carl Hass-owned Lola team cars of Robert ‘Skip’ Scott and Chuck Parsons after mechanical troubles eliminated front runners Donohue, Lothar Motschenbacher, and John Cannon.

Bill Young returned to his amateur racing roots on September 1 as he took part in the 16-car class A & B/Sports Racing event at the SCCA regional races held on a temporary course at the Santa Barbara Airport in Goleta and took the overall victory.  Three weeks later, flush with his regional success, Young hauled his Lola north to the Golden Gate Road Course in Cotati built on an abandoned airfield 45 miles north of San Francisco where he scored another victory in the A/SR race.

A week later found Young entered in the ‘Klondike Trail 200,’ the third round of the 1968 SCCA Can-Am series held on the Edmonton International Raceway in western Canada.  The Agapiou Brothers a pair of Southern California racing mechanics hauled the #99 Lola north of the border along with the #45 entry for driver/owner Jef Stevens. Young qualified in 22nd place, 12 ½ seconds behind top qualifiers Hulme and McLaren, but then the Lola retired with just 18 of the scheduled 80 laps completed after the Chevrolet engine blew a sump gasket.
 


Young had entered his Lola for the ‘Monterey Grand Prix’ at Laguna Seca Raceway the fourth round of the 1968 Can-Am series but the car did not appear.  Prior to his next race, Bill Young landed a sponsorship deal with Mac’s Super Gloss Company Incorporated, an automotive chemical company founded by Robinson MacIssac of Pasadena California in 1955. 

An early bottle of Mac's Super Gloss Wax
 

Based in Los Angeles, ‘Mac’s’ also owned a 30,000 square foot manufacturing plant and warehouse in the Mount Lookout neighborhood in Cincinnati Ohio. ‘Mac’s’ catalog featured over 30 automotive chemicals as well as charcoal lighter fluid, and during the nineteen sixties the company adopted its trademark “flying V” logo with the phrase ‘Don’t wax it - Mac’s it.”

Bill Young's Lola T70 Mark 3B at the 1968 Stardust Grand Prix
photo by Ken Eastman 

Bill Young showed up at Riverside at the end of October with the Lola carrying the “Mac’s Super Gloss” logo on its flanks for the eleventh annual ‘Los Angeles Times Grand Prix for Sports Cars’ which offered racers an incredible total purse of $101,230.  On the familiar Riverside course, Bill qualified nineteenth out of 40 cars but lost many laps in the pits with unspecified mechanical problems and had completed just 40 of the scheduled 62 laps when Bruce McLaren took the checkered flag.  

Young joined the Can-Am regulars for the final race of the 1968 season at Stardust International Raceway for the ‘Stardust Grand Prix’ where the car was photographed by Ken Eastman. Young qualified 28th in the 35-car field led to the green flag by pole sitter Bruce McLaren, but the #99 yellow Lola retired on lap 30 of the 70-lap race with a broken gearbox.
 
An AP press photo of Jim Hall's flip at Stardust


Denis Hulme won the race which was highlighted by Jim Hall’s spectacular flip and fire in his Chaparral 2G after contact with second place Lothar Motschenbacher’s crippled McLaren on lap 59. Hall suffered two broken legs, a broken jaw, and burns; he returned to the SCCA Trans-Am sedan series in 1970 but never drove in the Can-Am series again. 
      
After the 1968 season, Young sold his Lola T70 to San Diego racer George Hollinger who intended to use the car to replace his aged Lola T70 Mark II chassis. Unfortunately Hollinger flipped the car while testing it at Road Atlanta in March 1969 and the remains were in storage for many years before it was restored to its original condition by Lilo Zircon.

While Bill Young never raced in the Can-Am series after 1968, Mac’s Automotive Chemicals returned to the series in 1970 as the sponsor of the bizarre four-engine machine built by former Shelby American employee Jack Hoare.  The “Mac’s It” entry was powered by four Rotax 800 CC two-stroke engines that each reportedly produced 110 horsepower and were connected to a central driveshaft via centrifugal clutches and belt pulleys.  The noisy, smoking car, piloted by Japanese driver Hiroshi Fushida, appeared at  the Laguna Seca Can-Am round but its best lap was nearly thirty seconds slower than the pole winning Chaparral 2J “sucker car” and Fushida did not start the feature race.  




There are some excellent color photographs of the LolaT70 as built by Olsen and Morton in John Morton’s excellent book entitled Inside Shelby American: Wrenching and Racing with Carroll Shelby in the 1960s


Sunday, November 6, 2016


Jerry Unser’s contributions to safety
Part two

  


Jerry Unser the Unser to race in the Indianapolis “500;” had a rough time of it in 1958. He qualified for the race in his third different car of the month, but then he failed to complete a lap due to the multi-car pileup on the first lap as his ‘McKay Special’ flew over the third turn wall.
Jerry flew over the third turn wall in 1958
For his attempt to start his second Indianapolis‘500’ Unser drove California home builder and developer  Herb H “HH” Johnson’s Offenhauser powered Kuzma roadster, the “Helse Special” named after Johnson’s wife Else

Johnson operated Hobart Homes (“Your key to better living”) with partners Robert E Tyson and Arthur L Lynds, and built nearly 40 subdivisions in the southern San Diego suburb of Chula Vista an area which boomed in the post-war era. Johnson’s first entry at Indianapolis came in 1956 with the former Jack Hinkle owned Indianapolis track record holding Kurtis Kraft 500C for rookie Bob Christie. In 1957 veteran driver Jimmy Daywalt drove the Helse 500C which was reportedly the only car in the field that year that used carburetors.   
Car owner HH Johnson sits in the Helse Special on '500' race morning 1956

The crew chief on the Helse entries was Southern California drag and salt flats racer Bruce Crower who first visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1954 with the Dean’s Van Lines team that finished second with driver Jimmy Bryan. Crower was an innovator with non-traditional ideas and in addition to being the Helse team crew chief Crower was a partner with Dave Schneider in a short-lived camshaft business.


These two photos show Crower's innovations on the 1957 version of the Helse Special


For 1957 Crower reversed the Offenhauser engine cylinder head so that instead of the typical long single exhaust on the right side, the ‘Helse Special’ featured four separate exhaust pipes that exited on the left side of the car.  In addition to being part of the 1960, 1966 and 1967 ‘500’ winning teams, Crower would experiment with stock-block engines at the Speedway which culminated in 1977 as he built his own flat-eight engine which used Chevrolet Cosworth Vega 16-valve cylinder heads. Although the car that used the engine did not qualify, Crower and a partner won the Louis Schwitzer Award for engineering excellence.

The 1959 “Helse Special” that Unser drove was one of three new cars built in 1958 by El Segundo California car builder Eddie Kuzma which used front independent suspension instead of the traditional solid front axle and one piece tails with integral fuel tanks. In addition to the Helse entry, one car went to JC Agajanian for Troy Ruttman, and another to William Ansted for Eddie Sachs. All three teams struggled with the new lightweight roadster design, with the fastest laps posted in the 139 MPH range

An article in the May 21 1958 issue of the Indianapolis Star revealed that “just about everything has been tried by builder Eddie Kuzma and the mechanics, even stuffing inner tubes in the fuel tanks and inflating them to keep the fuel from swishing around too much and finally even cutting off some of the fuel tanks,” In addition to cutting off the fuel tank, Crower and his crew “rebuilt the Helse car virtually from the ground up” according to the Star.  

The new 1958 Helse Kuzma entry was originally assigned to second-year team driver Jimmy Daywalt who left the team in frustration after suitable speed could not be found.  Fred Agabashian was testing the car and crashed in turn two on May 21, his first crash in his twelve year career at the Speedway. Initially Fred was entered to drive a Kurtis-Kraft 500G chassis for Bignotti-Bowes racing for the 1958 ‘500,’ but in early April, he resigned after he accepted a large retainer from trucking magnate Pat Clancy to drive the "City of Memphis Special." Agabashian was testing the Helse car as a favor to Crower. Fred a former Bay Area midget standout suffered minor injuries to his left leg and hand in the crash and stayed overnight at Methodist Hospital.  

After his brushed the wall in his first attempt, Fred qualified the ‘City of Memphis’ Kurtis Kraft 500G on May 24 the third day of time trials at a relatively slow 142.135 MPH which bumped Dempsey Wilson from the field. Wilson then climbed into the ‘Sorenson Special’ and bumped Agabashian from the starting field.  Fred climbed into the D-A Lubricants Racing Associates Kuzma backup car but his four-lap average was not fast enough to bump back in and ended Agabashian’s string of consecutive Indianapolis ‘500’ starts at eleven.   

Meanwhile the Helse crew defied the “railbird’s” prediction and worked day and night to rebuild the badly damaged front end of the Kuzma in time to qualify.  All their work paid off as rookie driver Art Bisch bumped his way into the starting field on the third day of time trials May 24th with startling run of 142.631 MPH.  Bisch started 28th and like 12 others, was involved the first lap third turn melee and the ‘Helse Special’ finished 33rd but the other two new independent suspension Kuzma cars failed to qualify for the 1958 ‘500.’

HH Johnson’s 1959 entry of the ‘Helse Special’ Kuzma was received by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on February 26 with no driver assigned.  Unser was not formally announced as the driver until April 10th a week after Jerry had crashed the Bob Wilke owned AJ Watson built ‘Leader Card’ dirt car in practice at the Daytona International Speedway the day before the 100-mile race. Unser’s car spun and hit the fence in the 31-degree banked turn three but remained upright, but Unser spent the night in a local Daytona hospital after he complained of back pain.  

Unser was one of several drivers including Rathmann the winner of the Daytona race at an average speed of 170 MPH that stated they would not race at the 2-1/2 mile Daytona Speedway again. Jim Rathmann told the Lima News that Unser explained to him that as he was “going down the backstretch just before the turn, the front end got light and washed out. There just wasn’t any control.” Rathmann explained that while he could find nothing wrong with the track itself that with straightaway trap speeds touching 195 MPH there was “no margin for error at Daytona.”

Unser later told his hometown Long Beach Press-Telegram newspaper that “running 150 MPH isn’t so bad but when you get up around 170 MPH as you do at Daytona, you can lose it before you know what happened. “ In response to the driver concerns and the deaths of both George Amick and Marshall Teague in Daytona crashes, USAC cancelled the scheduled July 4 1959 250-mile race at Daytona.

On Saturday May 2 the first day of 1959 practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Unser turned several relatively slow warmup laps at 133 mph before the bluish silver ‘Helse Special’ spun backwards in the fourth turn, slid 580 feet and hit the inside wall. That contact punctured the fuel tank and fuel splashed over Jerry. As the car slid across the track and hit the outside retaining wall broadside it caught fire.

Still conscious Jerry was trapped in the crumpled Kuzma by the bent steering wheel as rescuers fought to extinguish the flames before they could extract Unser from the car. Jerry reportedly told rescuers “My legs are on fire. Call my wife.” Jerry was transported to Methodist Hospital and admitted in critical condition with third degree burns on his legs, left arm and right hand which was also broken.  The burns covered approximately 35 to 40% of Unser’s body.

In those days the USAC only “recommended” that driver’s uniforms be fireproofed and Jerry's clothing had not been fireproofed.  A driver’s uniform in those days was not all that different than a jumpsuit or coveralls that a typical worker might wear to work. Made of a very flimsy material with no cuffs on the arms or legs the manufacturer’s tag stated “Untreated will burn, must be dipped.”

“Dipping” was a method to fire-proof the material by soaking the uniform in a solution of six ounces of boric acid and nine ounces of Borax dissolved in a gallon of water. After the uniform was saturated, it was hung to dry. The inorganic salts left the uniform crusty, stiff and abrasive to the skin, but would provide a driver a few valuable seconds of protection before the material would catch fire.

Some drivers dipped their uniforms in a solution of the newly-introduced DuPont X-12 anhydrous ammonia salt formula instead of the Borax /boric acid/water solution. The use of 2-1/2 tablespoons of X-12 per pound of treated typically cotton material and was considered more effective. The problem with both solutions was that “dipping” only rendered the coveralls resistant to an open flame for a few seconds and did not block the transfer of heat to the wearer’s skin. Another problem with a “dipped” uniform was that as the race progressed sweat from the driver’s body would dissolve the salts which reduced the effectiveness of the fireproofing.

According to Speedway Medical Director Dr. Caryle Bohner all the drivers in the 1958 ‘500’ had dipped their uniforms for the race, but that reaching such a percentage in pre-race practice was “impossible.” Dr. Bohner in charge of medical operations since 1951 had long advocated the fireproofing of uniforms.  Dr. Bohner remarked that had Unser worn a fireproofed uniform “a tremendous amount of skin damage would have been prevented.”  In the wake of Unser’s accident, Dr. Bohner reported that many drivers visited the infield hospital the next day to get their uniforms” dipped.”

Dr. Bohner reported two days after the accident that Unser’s condition had been upgraded to “serious” and that Jerry had asked for food, but he stated that Jerry would definitely miss the 1959 Indianapolis 500 on May 30. The same day, driver Tony Bettenhausen and mechanic Jack Beckley stated that as representatives to the 17-member USAC Board they would start action for the fireproofing of driver uniforms to be made mandatory.  

An Indianapolis Star article dated May 6 1959 reported that doctors estimated that Unser would need 50 pints of blood during the forthcoming skin grafts and later that day most of the racers and crews lined up in Gasoline Alley to donate blood. Later that week, the Long Beach Press-Telegram reported that Jerry would be hospitalized for at least six months and that his wife Jeanne and two young sons would live in Indianapolis until Jerry was released from the hospital. 

The damaged ‘Helse Special’ Kuzma was officially withdrawn, and crew chief Crower and car owner HH Johnson negotiated with Art Lathrop of Racing Associates (comprised of Lathrop, Nelson G. Johnson and D. Coleman Glover) to purchase Racing Associates’ rolling 1956 Kuzma roadster. Bob Sweikert drove this older Kuzma chassis to a 6th place finish in its debut 1956, and then Johnny Thomson drove it in 1957 and finished in 12th place.

The D-A Lubricant sponsored Kuzma had become a team backup car in 1958 and as previously mentioned failed to make the 1958 ‘500’ despite a last day qualifying effort by Fred Agabashian. Al Keller who was named to drive the “new” Helse Special #57 on May 15 qualified for the 33-car starting field at 142.057 MPH to start 28th but dropped out on lap 163 with burnt piston.  

On the morning of Wednesday May 13 USAC Competition Director Henry Banks posted notice that effective immediately USAC required fireproofing of long-sleeved treated uniforms at all times. While Pat Flaherty was the last driver to win the ‘500’ while wearing t-shirt some drivers still wore short-sleeved t-shirts during practice runs. Unfortunately the new USAC uniform rule came too late to help Jerry Unser.

On Friday May 15 Robert Long Hospital on the IUPUI Medical Center campus announced that Jerry Unser’s condition was downgraded to “critical and poor.”  Unser had been transferred to Robert Long from Methodist to so he could receive dialysis. Late Friday Jerry fell into a coma then passed away from “blood poisoning” (uremia infection from his burns) at 10:15 Sunday morning May 17. On Monday May 18, fan and teams paused at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for an hour in Unser’s memory. Jerry’s body was returned to Albuquerque for burial on May 20 in Sunset Memorial Park.   

On Tuesday afternoon two days after Jerry Unser’s death, tragedy struck again at the Speedway as rookie Bob Cortner crashed in the north short chute and died a few hours later at Methodist Hospital from head injuries. 1959 was Cortner’s second try at the Speedway, the previous year a burned piston in the ‘McKay Special’ ended his rookie test with seven laps of the 10-lap 125 MPH phase completed.

Cortner who completed his 1959 rookie test the previous day before might have survived the crash had he worn USAC-recommended shoulder harnesses. Jerry Unser had certainly demonstrated the value of shoulder restraints in his wild flip the year before at the Speedway. In the wake of Pat O’Connor’s death the United States Auto Club (USAC) required roll bars and lap belts effective January 1 1959 but USAC did not mandate double over the shoulder harnesses until January 1963. 

On Memorial Day during the 43rd running of the Indianapolis 500, two drivers escaped fiery accidents without burns which Dr. Bohner credited to the new USAC rule that required “dipping.”   Mike Magill suffered a broken neck with in the first crash of the race when the Dayton Steel Foundry #77 flipped in turn three on his 46th lap and Ray Crawford suffered broken ribs and internal injuries but no burns when he  crashed his Edgar Elder built machine in the same corner 70 laps later.

There were no real advancements in driver uniforms for many years, and there were exceptions to the “dipping” rule particularly in National Association of Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) stock car racing. Stock car star Edward Glenn Roberts, ironically nicknamed “Fireball” was burned over 80% of body in a crash during the 1964 World 600. Roberts raced in an untreated cotton uniform as he had a doctor’s note that exempted him from “dipping” as the boric acid/ borax mixture triggered asthma attacks. Roberts’ survived the fire but passed away from pneumonia 39 days later.

In the aftermath of the deaths of Roberts, Dave MacDonald and Bobby Marshman during the 1964 season the racing industry began to work for a better solution to protect drivers from fire. There were some aluminized driver uniforms which provided eight seconds of protection but were very hot and too uncomfortable for anything other than a short-duration drag race. Fiberglass uniforms (similar to astronaut suits) were also sold but they were extremely bulky and uncomfortable and rarely lasted long (a few races) before they fell apart at the seams.

Beginning in the late nineteen fifties DuPont Chemical teams researched and developed a fiber which would add thermal resistance to the physical properties of nylon, originally known as HT-1. Trademarked as NOMEX®, a pilot production facility was built in 1963 and testing with driver’s uniforms made with the woven fabric began during 1965.

Competition Press reported in January 1966 that “during the past season, experimental driving suits were worn by Walt Hansgen, Masten Gregory, Marvin Panch, and Bob Tullius.  The goal was to get information on the comfort and laundering characteristics of NOMEX®.” The Competition Press article reveled that testing found the “wearing NOMEX® underwear is essential. A single layer of NOMEX® is no good. The only significant protection is provided by two layers of material. In U.S. Navy tests, two layers of 3-oz. NOMEX® remained physically intact after flame contact for over four minutes, whereas a single layer of 6-oz. fabric burned through in 7-1/2 seconds."

Uniforms woven with NOMEX® fibers were the breakthrough racers needed - a light, comfortable fabric which was easy to clean and provided better protection but they were expensive, as a full set of coveralls and the required underwear sold for $75.00.  J.B. Hinchman Incorporated of Indianapolis which made driver overalls worn at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 1925 was the first company in the United States to make and sell NOMEX® driver uniforms. The modern age of race uniform construction began in March of 1966 when Hinchman Racing Uniforms made the first race suit utilizing NOMEX® fabric for driver Mel Kenyon, who had been critically burned and lost the fingers on his left hand in an accident at the USAC Milwaukee race in June 1965. 

Hill in his NOMEX uniform in 1966 Victory Lane



Led by STP Corporation’s Andy Granatelli and the two tire companies who paid for the uniforms (with sponsorship identification of course) acceptance came quickly and all the drivers in the 1966 Indianapolis ‘500’ including wore NOMEX® uniforms. That was a minor miracle, as full-scale commercial manufacture of the NOMEX® fabric did not begin until 1967.  Rookie driver Graham Hill was the last driver to receive his  1966 ‘500’ uniform;  the final shipment of fabric to Hinchman was lost in transit, and only after a search of DuPont headquarters was enough the material found to make that final uniform which Hill wore into Victory Lane.  

As we watch drivers accept accolades in their colorful uniforms which have been become wearable advertising it is easy to forget the uniforms real purpose. In the years that have followed DuPont developed other more advanced NOMEX® fibers and competing manufacturers have emerged such as Carbon-X® which combined with modern multi-layer uniforms provide drivers today with the highest degree of safety from fire.
The photos that accompany this article appear courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies