Monday, January 2, 2017

Fred Agabashian
from the Bay Area to Indianapolis glory
Part two from 1952 to 1957 

Fred with his wife Mabel daughter Joanne and son Fred Junior posed in front of the 1949 Indianapolis 500 pace car. Photo appears courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies

In 1952, Fred Agabashian took on his ultimate “research and development” project as his drove the “Cummins Diesel Special.”  Rumors about the car began in November 1951 as news reports claimed that the Cummins Engine Company had invested over $150,000 (nearly $1-1/2 million today) on their entry which some reporters predicted “could revolutionize racing.” Don Cummins formally announced the entry in a press conference at company headquarters in Columbus Indiana on January 19. Later in the month, photographs emerged which showed Agabashian seated in the cockpit of the still-unpainted low-slung Kurtis chassis that was less than two feet high at the cowl.

Cummins press photo from the authors' collection

The Cummins entry powered by an Elliott turbocharged fuel-injected 6-cylinder 400-cubic inch ‘JBS’ diesel engine that was laid on its right side 5 degrees off horizontal in the chassis made its first practice laps at the Speedway on April 19 1952. While the ground-breaking engine configuration lowered the car’s center of gravity and provided less drag through the air, even with extensive use of aluminum and magnesium the car was heavy at over 2100 pounds, but with a factory claimed 380 horsepower on tap it proved fast. The Cummins machine featured dual shock absorbers and two brakes per wheel.

Agabashian admitted later that he “sandbagged” during practice runs early in the month of May, and on Pole Day, May 17, Fred shocked the crowd with a one–lap track record of 139.104 MPH and a four-lap average speed of 138.01 MPH.  Agabashian and the Cummins Diesel grabbed the pole position and the track record away from Andy Linden who had set a new four-lap record of 137.002 MPH earlier in the day.

By the end of the time trial run the Cummins’ overheated Firestone tires were beginning to shred their tread, which raised concerns about the race, but Fred’s startling record run and pole starting position made him and the Cummins Diesel nationally recognized names overnight. The following weekend, first Bill Vukovich in Howard Keck’s new Kurtis 500A roadster and then veteran Chet Miller in the front-wheel drive Novi supercharged V-8 eclipsed the Cummins’ record speed, as Miller finally set the new one-lap standard of 139.6 MPH.

The mighty Cummins Diesel on display inside the company museum
Author's photo

On race day, the slow pace of the start allowed the field to get away from Agabashian before the diesel’s turbocharger built up boost pressure to allow maximum power. While running in fifth place the car began to trail black smoke, and a couple of long pit stops, the Cummins was retired with 71 laps completed without explanation, but company officials later claimed the car suffered a clogged turbocharger inlet which caused the engine to overheat. The following day Cummins officials announced that the car would not return for the 1953 ‘500’ but the attendant publicity paid dividends, as Cummins introduced the diesel fuel injection system tested on the race car in production models on July 1, 1954.  

Although the Cummins Diesel Special only held the Speedway track record for a week, and had a less-than stellar race performance in its only race, the unlikely story of a diesel engine car that won the pole at Indianapolis made the car (and its driver) an iconic part of Speedway history.   In January 1953, Fred Agabashian now nearly 40 years old was named by Chicago speed shop owner Anthony “Andy” Granatelli as the drive of a “special new” $25,000 Kurtis-Kraft 500B chassis.

Granatelli, one of Fred’s 1951 AAA season car owners, went the conventional route, as  the car sponsored by Martin Skok’s Elgin Piston Pin Company of Elgin Illinois was powered by a 270-cubic inch Offenhauser engine. The blue and red-trimmed #59 roadster was one of the fastest cars on track during practice early in the month, and Fred posted the second fastest average speed in qualifying, 137.546 MPH, and earned his third straight front row start in the Memorial Day Classic.   

The 1953 Indianapolis 500-mile race is frequently remembered for its intense heat, with the air temperature that reached 91 degrees Fahrenheit (at the time it tied with 1919 as the second hottest race on record) and the track temperature which reportedly topped 130 degrees Fahrenheit. The intense heat and humidity caused many drivers to request a relief driver. Six drivers required medical treatment but driver Carl Scarborough waited too long, collapsed after he climbed out of the ‘McNamara Special’ on lap 70 and later died in the infield hospital.

Fred Agabashian led his first lap at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when leader Bill Vukovich pitted on lap 49, but Vukovich retook the lead when Fred pitted the next lap. Agabashian requested relief during his pit stop on lap 105 and veteran midget driver Paul Russo whose own entry fell out earlier drove the #59 entry the rest of the way to the finish.  

At the drop of the checkered flag, the Elgin/Grancor Special was initially reported to have finished in second place behind winner Vukovich one of only two drivers who finished the race without relief. Reporter Harold McClelland wrote that late in the race the Granatelli crew believed their car was a lap ahead of Art Cross and ordered Russo to slow. The team later realized that Cross’ “Springfield Welding Special” was on the same lap as Russo apparently finished just a car length ahead of Cross.

Initial news reports stated that the Agabashian/Russo combination completed the 500-mile distance in 3:56:32.25 at an average speed of 126.830 MPH while Art Cross finished with an elapsed time of 3:56:32.56 to average 126.827 MPH. When the official results were posted by AAA officials the next day, after a “electric time recheck” by Clifford Rigsbee the director of timing and scoring the Elgin/Grancor Special dropped to fourth behind Cross and Sam Hanks.  Granatelli immediately protested the finish and this initial protest was denied.

The two-position change cost car owner Granatelli $14,350 who continued to contend that his car finished second, and he was granted an appeal hearing by “500-mile motor speedway officials” on June 11 with “a decision to announced later” according to a United Press (UP) wire report.   There was “no indication when a final decision would be reached” according to a report from the Associated Press (AP) which noted that “the mix-up resulted from the complicated system used in checking the number of laps made by each car.  During the 200 turns of the 2-1/2 mile track, a lap is sometimes missed by the checkers.” The author did not find any follow-up stories on the Granatelli protest, and the AAA historical records list Agabashian and Russo as the fourth place finishers.   

In the meantime Agabashian took part in a ten-week tour with the “Irish Horan Hell Drivers” automobile thrill show which began June 2. Fred performed primarily public relations work, although he also reportedly put on several “precision driving exhibitions.” 

For the 1954 Indianapolis ‘500’ Agabashian was nominated to drive the ‘Merz Engineering Special’ a brand new Kurtis Kraft 500C roadster with 270-cubic inches of Offenhauser power that was “tilted 36 degrees.” The car was owned by Indianapolis businessman and Democratic Party political boss Miklos Sperling. Several years earlier, Sperling purchased Merz Engineering from founder Fred Merz who drove at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the earliest day including four of the first six International 500-mile sweepstakes races.  The new maroon and white car arrived at Indianapolis late, only a few days before the first weekend of time trials, but while he waited Fred test-drove the Chinetti Ferrari V-12 assigned to Danny Oakes.

The Kurtis cars assigned to Fred and defending ‘500’ champion Bill Vukovich were not ready to qualify the first weekend, and after it arrived Agabashian called and asked his friend and former car owner George Bignotti to come to Indianapolis and help out the short-handed Sperling crew. This marked the beginning of Bignotti’s magical 29-year career at the Speedway that earned him seven ‘500’ wins.

Fred qualified the “Merz Engineering Special” on Sunday May 23rd with the fourth slowest average speed of 137.746 MPH and started from the 24th positon. Fred drove a smart race on Memorial Day and finished in sixth position, completing the 500 miles distance three and half minutes behind repeat winner Bill Vukovich. As he completed the entire 500-mile distance without relief with an average speed of 128.771 MPH, Fred Agabashian earned his membership in the exclusive Champion Spark Plug Company 100-MPH hour club and its treasured leather jacket.   After the race, mechanic Frankie DelRoy found the Kurtis chassis cracked in two places.

Once again the Indianapolis Motor Speedway suffered timing and scoring problems during the 500-mile race.  At the Victory banquet the night following the race Tony Hulman was unable to present the check for $500 to the driver with the fastest lap during the race because the “timing crew had not figured that one out in time.”

A Champion Spark Plug matchbook from the author's collection
shows Agabashian's 1955 entry

Agabashian drove in the 1955 and 1956 Indianapolis 500-mile races for car owner Dan Levine of Detroit in the ‘Federal Engineering Special’ named after the Levine family’s Detroit-based fixture and die-making company. The team was managed by Indianapolis Motor Speedway legend Russell Snowberger who been at the Speedway since 1927 as a driver, car builder, and mechanic, assisted by veteran mechanic and car builder Francis “Frank” Bardazon.

In 1955 Agabashian was the replacement for Larry “Crash” Crockett was killed in an AAA Eastern Division ‘big car’ crash in March 1955 at Langhorne Pennsylvania.  Agabashian was assigned to drive the team’s new Kurtis 500D chassis while rookie Chuck Weyant drew the Kurtis 3000 upright chassis which had been driven to Stark-Wetzel Rookie-of-the-Year honors the previous year by former track roadster racer Crockett. At Snowberger’s direction, Kurtis-Kraft Inc. had built the 500D with a wheelbase four inches longer in the cockpit area to accommodate Crockett’s height.

On the second day of the 1955 time trials, Agabashian put the #14 yellow with blue trim Kurtis into the starting field on the inside of the second row. 1955 was the year that “Pole Day” was windy and the drivers allegedly agreed that no one would make a qualifying run, until Jerry Hoyt went out near closing time in the “Jim Robbins Special.” Tony Bettenhausen was the only other driver to complete his timed run on the first day.

With his own car in the field Fred turned to help his teammate. Fred was helpful to rookie drivers, as remembered by Rodger Ward in 1989. "He wouldn't force things on you, but if you asked him, he would always help you. His philosophy was: If you make a mistake on the race track, I might be behind you. He recognized it was a dangerous sport, and there was quite a transition in those days between what we normally raced and going to Indianapolis."

Rookie Weyant made his first qualifying attempt in the yellow and blue #41 on the third day of time trials and the second-year 32-year old rookie spun in the fourth turn on his fourth and final lap. The car spun several times but did not hit anything and came to a stop pointed the right direction, so Weyant drove into the pits, the crew changed the tires and he want back out and qualified 25th.  On Race Day 1955, Freddie spun two full revolutions and into the infield off the two turn in the oil dropped by the surprise pole siting car, the “Jim Robbins Special.” 

Fred's 1956 '500 qualifying photo  appears courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies

In 1956, the environment was different at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as the AAA Contest Board announced it would quit sanctioning races in August 1955 and had been replaced by a new organization, the United States Auto Club (USAC). Agabashian was joined on the 1956 Federal Engineering team by a driver he knew well; Speedway rookie and future BCRA champion Bob Veith, who had committed to drive the entire season for Federal Engineering and thus was assigned Levine’s newest car, a Kurtis 500E, the only one ever built by Kurtis-Kraft.

Fred easily qualified for the 1956 ‘500’ and started from the seventh position. Qualifying the first day freed Agabashian’s time so he could help Snowberger and Veith sort out the handling problems with the new car and Veith eventually qualified 23rd.  Freddie was in eighth place when he had to pit for the first time on lap 15, and he continued to make a number of pit stops for various mechanical problems and Agabashian lost four laps and he finished the 1956 ‘500 in twelfth place.     

For the 1957 Indianapolis 500-mile race Agabashian was reunited with his old midget car owner and friend George Bignotti with fellow Californian Johnny Boyd in a pair of new Kurtis-Kraft 500G models powered by 270-cubic inch Offenhauser engines sponsored by the Bowes Seal Fast Company of Indianapolis.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway facility much changed from the 1956 running of the ‘500,’ with a new concrete pit lane separated from the racing surface by a concrete wall, a new eight-story control tower that replaced the ancient Pagoda, and new grandstands. The track was completed paved with asphalt except for 650 yards of the main straightaway. With this new configuration the cars could be lighter as they did not have to be built as ruggedly as years past to withstand the pounding of the uneven track surfaces.

There was a new car at the Speedway in 1957 the Belond Exhaust Special built and owned by long-time crew chiefs George Salih and Howard Gilbert, who gambled everything they had on their new car, as they mortgaged their homes to get the money to complete the car and pay Quinn Epperly to build the aluminum body. Their new car used a design concept with which Agabashian was intimately familiar - its four-cylinder Offenhauser engine was laid nearly on its side only 18 degrees from horizontal.

Salih and Gilbert had closely studied the 1952 Cummins Diesel Special and together they worked out a way to get the oil to properly circulate in the Offenhauser engine in the nearly flat positon. Like the Cummins Diesel, the “laydown” engine lowered the car’s center of gravity and allowed a smaller profile to face the wind, but unlike the diesel, the “Belond sidewinder” was lightweight. 

After practically ruling the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the middle of the decade of the nineteen fifties, by 1957 Frank Kurtis’ latest designs faced competition from new lighter cars built by AJ Watson. The 500G was designed by Frank Kurtis as a “dual purpose” roadster that could be raced on the 2-1/2-mile oval in Indianapolis as well as the shorter one-mile paved and dirt ovals. As with most compromise designs the Kurtis 500G fell short of expectations. With the opening of practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the design proved to be handful to drive and worse yet, not immediately fast. 

The Bowes Seal Fast team worked together and solved the Kurtis 500G’s handling quirks in time to qualify well on the first day of time trials   Freddie qualified fourth with a four-lap average of 142.557 MPH, while Johnny Boyd was just a tick slower at 142.102 MPH to start alongside Agabashian in the second row of the eleven rows of three.

On race day, apparently in an effort to focus attention on the new pit lane, the field started single file from pit lane, which created chaos. In the confusion, as Elmer George, the track owner’s son-in-law maneuvered through the field to reach his ninth starting sport, he rear-ended Eddie Russo’s car and knocked both cars from the race before the green flag flew. Once the race started, both the “Bowes Seal Fast Specials” ran near the front of the field until they both suffered problems in the pit area. 

Johnny Boyd ran in third place as he made his first pit stop, but the stop took over two minutes, which dropped him far back in the running order, although he was able to recover to sixth place by the time the checkered flag fell.  Freddie Agabashian likewise was scored in third place when he made a pit stop on lap 100 and a fire erupted.

The fire was extinguished, but the fuel tank had split from the sudden internal pressure and Fred’s car was eventually retired on lap 107. Veteran Sam Hanks in the radical “Belond Exhaust Special” took the race lead the first time on lap 36 and led a total of 136 laps including the last 65 to win the 1957 ‘500’ in dominant fashion.

Coming up in the final installment we will take a look at the last year of Fred Agabashian’s Indianapolis career and his busy retirement.

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