Thursday, March 2, 2017

The 1935 Pirrung Special
On display at the Museum of Speed of Wilsonville Oregon was the 1935 ‘Pirrung Special’ a front-wheel drive machine powered by one of the earliest 220-cubic inch inline four-cylinder Offenhauser racing engines. The car was designed by Wilbur Shaw and Offenhauser associate Leo Goossen a master draftsman and engineer. The machine was built during late 1934 in the Los Angeles area by master metal craftsman Myron Stevens and longtime Shaw associate and veteran ‘500’ chief mechanic, Roscoe E. Dunning.

The ‘Pirrung Special’ debuted at Indianapolis in 1935, as shown was driven by Shaw with Dunning as crew chief and former driver Stevens as his riding mechanic. This was perhaps a unique circumstance in Indianapolis ‘500’ history as a car builder Stevens competed on course against no less than six other cars which he had built.  Shaw and Stevens finished in second place, just 40 seconds behind winner "Kelly" Petillo for the the first Offenhauser-powered one-two finish at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. 

The owner of the light blue #14 ‘Pirrung Special’ was young sportsman Gilbert “Gil” PIrrung, of Clayton Missouri a 1934 graduate of Yale with a Bachelor of Science degree. Gil heir to the Gaylord Container fortune was accomplished squash player and golfer.  Pirrung was born on July 12 1911 near Columbus Ohio, and after his father died when Gil was just a year old, his mother married Robert Gaylord. Mr. Gaylord was the multi-millionaire president of the Gaylord Container Company of Saint Louis Missouri the innovator of the corrugated fiberboard pallet mounted “bulk box.”

The racing press understandably had a field day with such a young man as a race car owner and newspaper articles featured a posed photo of Gil “tuning” his car before the 1935 race. In addition to the second place finisher, Gil Pirrung owned a second car in the 1935 ‘500,’ a conventional rear-drive Miller-powered Miller ‘122’ chassis and bodywork modified by former Duesenberg employee Herman Rigling to comply with the two-man rules.

The #8 rear-drive Yale Blue “Pirrung Special” finished ninth in 1935,  driven by George ‘Doc’ McKenzie with riding mechanic Billy Devore, the son of race driver Earl Devore, would later participate as a driver in the ‘500’ seven times beginning in 1937.

After achieving such success during their rookie year at Indianapolis in 1935, the Pirrung team struggled during May 1936. 

Our featured car carried number #21 and started the race in the middle of the front row for the 1936 Indianapolis 500-mile race driven West Coast ‘big car’ graduate Elbert ‘Babe’ Stapp and his riding mechanic, Indianapolis native John Apple.

On May 15, the day before Stapp qualified the Pirrung front-drive car for the middle of the front row, teammate Tony Gullotta destroyed the second rear-drive Pirrung entry in a practice crash past the exit of turn four which injured Tony and his long-time riding mechanic Carl Riscigno “painfully but not seriously” according to the Indianapolis Star 

Pirrung, a vice-president at Gaylord Container, then purchased a similar replacement car from Michael de Baets but Gullotta was unable to find the necessary speed in the replacement entry to qualify for the 33-car starting field.

During the running 1936 Indianapolis ‘500,’  Stapp and Apple led twice for a total of 35 laps before the Offenhauser engine in the 'Pirrung Special'  broke a crankshaft while the pair were leading on lap 89, placed 24th in the final standings and won $1,585.

The front-wheel drive car and the rest of the Pirrung racing operation which also included a DOHC (double overhead camshaft) Frontenac powered ‘big car’  was later purchased by another heir, the notorious Joel Thorne. Thorne had the Shaw & Goossen designed front wheel drive machine’s body revised to a single cockpit design and he personally drove the car as the 'Thorne Engineering Special' to a ninth place finish in the 1938 Indianapolis 500.

In 1939, midget standout and ‘500’ rookie Mel Hansen was racing in the top ten positions behind the wheel of the former ‘Pirrung Special’ until he hit the pit wall on lap 113 which the author believes was its last race appearance. It was owned during the nineteen seventies and eighties by 1957 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the year Don Edmunds who sold the car around 1995.   

Gil Pirrung remained as a vice-president and board member at Gaylord Container through 1956 except for the period of time that he served in World War 2 as a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel with an engineering battalion and earned the Silver Star. During 1956, Pirrung retired from Gaylord and purchased Aragaon Farm in Bainbridge Georgia where he lived until his passing March 1986.  

The “Pirrung Special”  was driven in pre-race activities before the 2016 100th running of the Indianapolis 500-mile race by 1992 ‘500’ rookie of the year and 7-time 500-mile race starter Lyn St. James.
Photos by the author

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