Thursday, January 5, 2017

Fred Agabashian
from the Bay Area to Indianapolis glory
Part three -1958 and a busy retirement 

Fred's 1958 IMS portrait in his
Champion Spark Plug 100 MPH club leather jacket
courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection
in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies

Bignotti-Bowes Racing Associates entered their pair of Kurtis-Kraft 500G chassis for the 1958 Indianapolis '500' with Fred Agabashian and Johnnie Parsons set to return as the drivers, but in early April, they had to quickly find a driver. Agabashian resigned from the Bowes team in mid-April and accepted a large retainer from trucking magnate Pat Clancy to drive the "City of Memphis Special" another Kurtis Kraft 500G with Danny Quella as chief mechanic.  As Agabashian’s replacement Bowes and Bignotti chose his teammate from the 1956 Federal Engineering team, Bob Veith.

Agabashian came to Indianapolis in May 1958 fully expecting to start his 12th consecutive Indianapolis ‘500’ but the month proved to be a painful experience. Fred made an aborted qualifying attempt on May 17 the first day of qualifying. During a “test hop” in the “Helse Special” during practice on Wednesday May 21 he turned a lap at 143.9 MPH then spun and crashed in turn two.

This accident marked the first time in his twelve-year career that the 44-year old Agabashian crashed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Fred suffered minor injuries to his left leg and hand in the crash and he also complained of pain in his mid-section. Fred took a private car, not an ambulance, to Methodist Hospital where he stayed overnight. 

The new Helse Kuzma chassis was one of three built for 1958 with independent front suspension and was originally assigned to second-year team driver Jimmy Daywalt who left the team in frustration after suitable speed could not be found.  Apparently the handling problems were not traced to the front suspension, but rather the new one-piece fuel tank design. In retrospect, it appears as though the frame was too flexible.  

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, prior to Agajanian’s crash crew chief Bruce Crower and his crew “rebuilt the Helse car virtually from the ground up” according to the Star. 

Fred's 1958 '500' qualifying photo
Author's collection

Three days after the crash on May 24 the third day of time trials Fred spun in the southeast turn on the second lap of his second qualifying attempt and brushed the wall which damaged the car’s front axle. After repairs Fred qualified the ‘City of Memphis’ Kurtis Kraft 500G at a relatively slow 142.135 MPH which bumped Dempsey Wilson from the field and placed Fred at the tail of the field.

On the windy final day of time trials, Wilson climbed into the ‘Sorenson Special’ and bumped Agabashian from the starting field.  Fred completed a four-lap run into the Racing Associates “D-A Lubricants Special” Kuzma backup car but his four-lap average was not fast enough to bump back in and Agabashian’s string of consecutive Indianapolis ‘500’ starts ended at eleven.  

Agabashian and the "City of Memphis Special" wound up as the 34th fastest qualifier and won $500 from the Speedway as the first alternate. In the third turn of the first lap of the 1958 ‘500’ Ed Elisian and Jim Rathmann tangled as they foolishly fought to lead the first lap.

Bob Veith who had replaced Agabashian in the second Bowes KK 500G was run over by Pat O’Connor’s 'Sumar Special' which flipped and O’Connor was killed instantly. In reaction to this accident, for the 1959 season USAC required that all cars have roll bars behind the driver.  In an interview after the race, Freddie told news reporters that "he wasn't too upset to have been bumped" as he had had a premonition of disaster. 

Fred never officially announced his retirement as a race car driver, he simply moved on to the phase of his life for which he had preparing for years.  According to automobile racing historian Chris Economkai, “Agabashian was one of the first racers to realize the value of public relations” and Fred began making public speeches about racing around 1950.

Fred's image appeared in Champion Spark Plug ads like this one for years

 early in his racing career Fred worked in sales at Bob Phillipi’s Lincoln Mercury dealership in Oakland but at the time of his retirement from driving in 1958, Fred was the senior member of the Champion Spark Plug Highway Safety Team, a group of 100 MPH club members who toured the country to speak to high school students about driving safety.  Fred worked for the Champion Spark Plug Company until he retired 1978 and was succeeded by Jerry Grant.  

In 1959, Fred joined the Indianapolis Motor Speedway radio network as the driver expert on the annual 500-mile race broadcast hosted by Sid Collins, and Agabashian’s gravelly voice was heard nationwide providing expert insight on the Memorial Day broadcast through 1965, and again from 1973 to 1977.

Agabashian worked as an USAC observer and later the chief steward of the Mobilgas Economy Run in 1967 and 1968. In the final  Run held in 1968, Fred dropped the checkered flag on contestants as they crossed the finish line at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway after the original finish in New York City was abandoned after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.  

Fred remained active and regularly visited local Bay Area tracks and was an annual visitor to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway until he passed away in October 1989 at his home in Alamo California.  His daughter reportedly still lives in the home and his office  remains just as it was when Fred was alive.  
For his career accomplishments Fred Agabashian is an inductee into the Bay Cities Racing  Association (BCRA) Hall of Fame, the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame, the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association (AARWBA) Hall of Fame and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Auto Racing Hall of Fame. 


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