Presented by Racemaker Press

"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Dawn of the Indy 500's roadster era

by Gordon Kirby
Back in 1945 after the end of WWII three-time Indy 500 winner Wilbur Shaw went to work looking for a new owner toe buy the derelict Indianapolis Motor Speedway from Eddie Rickenbacker. Through four years of disuse the Speedway had fallen into disrepair. The old wooden grandstands were on the verge of collapse and thick patches of weeds had grown between the track's bricks

In November of 1945, Shaw was able to engineer a meeting between Eddie Rickenbacker and Terre Haute businessman Tony Hulman and they struck a deal. Hulman bought the track for a reputed $750,000 and appointed Shaw president and general manager.

Over the winter and early spring of 1946 many of the old grandstands were rebuilt and new grandstands were built behind the pits. By the middle of May the refurbished Speedway was ready to open its gates with the public paying 50 cents admission for a practice day.

© Racemaker Press ~ Ted Horn in 1947
Fifty-six cars were entered for the 1946 Indy 500. Most of them had raced in the years before the war but among the three new cars was a remarkable, supercharged Novi V-8-powered car built by Frank Kurtis. Driven by veteran Ralph Hepburn the Novi set a new track record in qualifying and led the race for 44 laps before hitting trouble and dropping out after 300 miles.

Each of Mauri Rose and Rex Mays led the race, but after Hepburn's Novi faltered George Robson took command of the race aboard Joel Thorne's Sparks 'Little Six' to win by 44 seconds from Jimmy Jackson's aging Miller-Offy. Sadly, Robson died a few months later in September at Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta amid an accident that also killed George Barringer.

The 1946 AAA Championship was won by Ted Horn who went on to become the first man to win three championships in a row, winning the AAA title in 1946, '47 and '48. Horn drove Mike Boyle's supercharged Maserati at Indianapolis in 1946, finishing third, and drove the Peters Wetteroth-Offy in that year's five other AAA Championship races, finishing third at Langhorne, fourth at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, second at Milwaukee and second at Goshen to beat Emil Andres to the championship.

Horn qualified at Indianapolis for the first time in 1935 aboard one of Harry Miller's unsuccessful fleet of Miller-Ford V-8s, but dropped out of the race with steering problems. But former driver and successful team owner Harry Hartz was impressed with Horn and Hartz hired Ted to drive his Wetteroth-Miller at Indianapolis in 1936.

Horn repaid Hartz by finishing a fine second to Louis Meyer in the 500 and followed that up by taking third in the 1937 500 and fourth in 1938. He continued to build a remarkable record at Indianapolis, finishing fourth again in the 1939 and 1940 500s aboard a Boyle Miller and third in 1941 driving one of Art Spark's 'Little Sixes'.

In 1946 Horn finished third yet again at Indianapolis driving the ex-Shaw Maserati now owned by the Bennett Brothers. For the rest of the season he drove his own Horn-Offy, winning three races, finishing second twice and adding three more top six finishes to wrap-up his second championship.

Horn took his third title in a row in 1948 by winning the season-opener at Dallas and at Springfield in August with his Horn-Offy, finishing fourth at Indianapolis aboard the Bennett Brothers Maserati, and adding five more third places in his own car.

© Racemaker Press ~ Lou Moore's Blue Crowns in 1950
But Horn was killed on the second lap of the last AAA Championship race of 1948 at DuQuoin when a steering knuckle broke in his Horn-Offy. Horn was never fortunate enough to win the Indy 500 but he built a remarkable record of nine consecutive top four finishes at Indianapolis from 1936-1948.

Meanwhile, Mauri Rose joined Louis Meyer as the Indy 500's second three-time winner when he won the big race in 1947 and 1948, driving one of Lou Moore's low slung, front wheel drive Blue Crown Deidt-Offies. Rose made his first start at Indianapolis in 1933 and scored his first Indy win in 1941 after taking over Floyd Davis's car for the second half of the race.

Rose led home teammate Bill Holland in 1947 and 1948 in a pair of Blue Crown one-twos. The following year the Blue Crowns were again running one-two late in the 500 with Holland leading Rose who again, as he had in 1947, ignored car owner Moore's signs to settle for second. Rose went after Holland but with eight laps to go a magneto strap broke and Rose was out. Holland cruised home to a comfortable victory over Johnnie Parsons while Moore fired Rose after the race for disobeying team orders.

The 1949 season finished sadly with the death of two-time champion Rex Mays at Del Mar, California in the year's last AAA race in November. Mays crashed early in the race, was thrown out of his wrecked car and hit by another car. It was a terrible end for one of America's greatest drivers.

After winning three Championship races in 1946, Mays was unable to win over the next three years. The Bowes Seal Fast team replaced his aging Stevens chassis with a new Kurtis in 1947 and Mays raced the Kurtis with the Winfield straight-eight engine in 1947 and 1948. He was on the pole at Indianapolis in 1948 and led the opening laps but didn't finish the 500 because of a leaking fuel tank. He took two more poles later that year on the dirt at DuQuoin but the best results he could muster in 1948 were a trio of fourths.

At Indianapolis in 1949 Mays drove one of Lew Welch's spectacular front-drive Kurtis-Novis. He qualified second to teammate Duke Nalon and led a dozen laps after Nalon crashed before encountering terminal transmission and engine problems.

For the rest of the year Mays drove the Wolfe Kurtis-Offy, taking three poles and four other front row starts. He also finished second no fewer than five times, including Springfield in September and Sacramento at the end of October. At Del Mar the following weekend May qualified Wolfe's Kurtis second and was in the thick of the battle when his fatal accident occurred.

The AAA Champion in 1949 was Johnnie Parsons who had won the west coast's United Midget Association championship in 1942. Parsons broke into Championship cars in 1948 driving for car builder Frank Kurtis and scored his first win in the 1948 season-closer at DuQuoin.

The following year Parsons was the man to beat, winning the season-opener in Texas and finishing second to Bill Holland at Indianapolis before winning five of the year's last eight races. Parsons beat Myron Fohr and Indy winner Holland to the AAA title. In 1950, he won the Indy 500 with Kurtis's car after battling with Holland and Mauri Rose.

© Racemaker Press ~ Parsons at Langhorne, 1947
The 1950 AAA Championship was taken by Henry Banks who won at Detroit in September and added two seconds and thirds and one fourth place to his tally to beat Walt Faulkner and Indy winner Parsons to the championship.

In 1951 the AAA title was taken by Tony Bettenhausen who made his rookie start at Indianapolis in 1946 and scored his first AAA Championship win at the end of that year on a one-mile dirt track in Goshen, Indiana. Over the next few years Bettenhausen established himself as a regular winner in Championship cars and he dominated the 1951 championship driving Murrell Belanger's Kurtis-Offy dirt car. He won a record eight races on one-mile dirt tracks and led 640 of a possible 650 laps through a stretch of seven races, handily beating Henry Banks to the title.

A remarkable sidebar to Bettenhausen's dominant 1951 season was that he stepped out of Belanger's car at Indianapolis, preferring to race one of Lou Moore's Blue Crown cars which he felt was more likely than Belanger's dirt car to win at the big speedway. Ironically, Bettenhausen recommended veteran Lee Wallard to Belanger and Wallard came through to win the 500, leading 159 laps, including the last 120. Meanwhile, Bettenhausen qualified Moore's car ninth and never led the race, finally spinning out with twenty laps to go.

Wallard was a AAA regular from 1948 through 1950, scoring his only other Championship win at DuQuoin in 1948. He was 40 when he won the 500 in 1951 and it turned out to be his last AAA race. He would come back to try to qualify at Indianapolis in 1954 but retired after failing to make the race.

In 1952, Troy Ruttman earned a place in history as the Indy 500's youngest winner. Ruttman made his rookie start at Indianapolis in 1949 when he was 19, finishing twelfth. He joined J.C. Agajanian's team in 1951 and qualified on the second row at Indianapolis but blew an engine in the race. In 1952 Ruttman qualified Aggie's Kuzma-Offy dirt car on the third row and ran well in the race, leading a handful of laps as he chased leader Bill Vukovich's new Kurtis roadster.

Vukovich dominated the race in Harold Keck's trend-setting new car, leading 150 laps, but with only nine laps to go Vukovich's steering broke. Ruttman was chasing along only nineteen seconds behind Vukovich so he came through to become the youngest winner in Indy 500 history at 22 years and 80 days old. Ruttman's Kuzma also earned a place in the history books as the last dirt car to win the 500.

In July, Ruttman scored his second AAA Championship win aboard Agajanian's Kuzma on the one-mile paved Raleigh, NC oval, but in August he broke an arm in a sprint car crash. The accident sidelined Ruttman for more than a year and led to his downfall. He allowed himself to get badly out of shape and also, by his own admission, he indulged in too much wine, women and song. Ruttman came back in 1954 and continued racing into the sixties but he was never the same.

Meanwhile, Chuck Stevenson won the 1952 AAA Championship. Stevenson qualified eleventh and finished eighteenth at Indianapolis but he won later in the year at Milwaukee and DuQuoin and finished in the first six places in another half-dozen races. Those results enabled Stevenson to accumulate 1,440 points and edge Ruttman for the Championship by just thirty points.

© Racemaker Press ~ Tony Bettenhausen at Milwaukee, 1951
The big story of 1952 and '53 however was the emergence of Bill Vukovich and Frank Kurtis's new low-line 'roadster', known as the 'Fuel Injection Special'. Vukovich was the man to beat at Indianapolis in 1952, '53, '54 and '55, winning consecutive races in 1953 and '54 before losing his life in an accident while seemingly on the way his third 500 win in a row in 1955.

Jim Travers and Frank Coon, known as 'The Whiz Kids', were chief mechanics for wealthy oilman Howard Keck's team. Mauri Rose had driven Keck's car in 1950 and 1951 and Rose's retirement resulted in Keck hiring Vukovich for the 1952 500.

Travis and Coon asked Frank Kurtis to build a brand new car designed specifically for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Kurtis's cars dominated at Indianapolis through most of the fifties, providing half or more of the field with chassis most years and winning five of six 500s between 1950 and 1955. Later, Kurtis's cars were superseded by more refined and effective roadsters built by A.J. Watson, George Salih, Quin Epperly, Floyd Trevis, Eddie Kuzma and others, but Kurtis was the man who brought the roadster era to Indianapolis.

Travis and Coon's goal was to reduce the center of gravity by reducing the height of as much of the car's mass as possible and also produce a lower, sleeker car with the driver offset to the right to put him lower in the car. The engine, transmission and driveshaft were moved to the left to put as much weight as possible on the left side of the car and the engine was laid at a 36 degree angle. The aim was to take advantage of the continual right-hand weight transfer on a big speedway with four, left-hand turns, and to reduce tire wear, particularly on the heavily-loaded right side tires.

The new car, type-numbered K500A, was referred to by Vukovich as 'a roadster' because it resembled a low-slung modified he'd driven many years before. Thus did Kurtis's 500A introduce the great roadster era to Indianapolis. Considered by many to be the most beautiful Indy cars of all-time they were defined by Kurtis's svelte, torsion bar-suspended cars and specifically Vukovich's 'Fuel Injection Special'.

Kurtis also built another new, roadster-like car that winter for the Cummins Engine Company. Cummins had raced its diesel engines at Indianapolis in the nineteen-thirties and entered the 500 again in 1950. The AAA rules allowed diesel engines more than twice the swept volume than gasoline engines and for 1952 Cummins commissioned Kurtis to build a new car powered by a supercharged 401 cubic inch six-cylinder diesel laid flat on its side. The Cummins Diesel not only looked even sleeker and lower than the 'Fuel Injection Special' but it also enjoyed a tremendous power advantage as driver Freddie Agabashian would demonstrate at Indianapolis in 1952.

The big excitement in qualifying that year came from Agabashian in the Cummins Diesel and Chet Miller in one of Lew Welch's Kurtis-Novis. The 48-year Miller was the favorite to take pole position but Miller was beaten to the pole by Agabashian who surprised most people with the power and speed of his diesel-powered car.

On raceday however, neither Agabashian nor Miller were factors as Vukovich rocketed to the front, taking the lead on lap seven and pulling away on his own after a brief battle with Troy Ruttman. But with twenty laps to go he felt the steering tighten-up. The car became harder and harder to turn until the steering linkage broke with just eight laps to go leaving Ruttman to win easily from Jim Rathmann and Sam Hanks.

The following year, 1953, is renowned as the hottest 500 ever run. Most drivers pulled in asking for relief and an exhausted Carl Scarborough died in the pits after scrambling out of his parked car. But Vukovich drove all day without any thought of relief to score a dominant victory. He led all the way, save for five laps during the first round of pitstops, and won by more than three minutes in one of the most dominant performances in Indy history, rivaled only by Billy Arnold's winning drive in 1930.

© Racemaker Press ~ Vukovich in 1953
Vukovich didn't run any more races that year leaving Sam Hanks to win the 1953 championship from Jack McGrath. Hanks took the 1953 AAA title with victories at Springfield and DuQuoin plus seven other top five finishes, handily beating Jack McGrath to the championship. Hanks would go on to win the Indy 500 in 1957 and announce his retirement in victory circle.

In 1954 Vukovich drove unchallenged to win his second 500 in a row, lapping second-placed Jimmy Bryan as he took the checkered flag. Bryan ran the AAA Championship circuit for the first time in 1953 and landed a top ride for the following season with the Dean Van Lines team.

After finishing second to Vukovich at Indianapolis, Bryan went on to win five races in 1954, including the season's last four. He also finished second or third in five more races and easily won the championship from Manuel Ayulo and Jack McGrath. Bryan would go on to win two more national championships in 1956 and '57 as well as the 1958 Indy 500, making a bold mark as one of the sport's greatest drivers of that era.

Howard Keck asked Travers and Coon to design and build a revolutionary streamlined car for 1955 but the project proved overly ambitious and the car was never completed. Vukovich therefore drove Lindsey Hopkins's Kurtis 500C at Indianapolis in 1955 with Travers and Coon preparing the car.

In his pursuit to become the first man to win three consecutive 500s Vukovich qualified in the middle of the second row. But when the race started he immediately moved to the front, engaging in a fierce duel for the lead with his friend Jack McGrath before taking control and pulling away much as he had in previous years. Then, on the 57th lap, disaster struck.

As Vukovich powered off the second turn he saw a mess of spinning cars ahead. Rodger Ward lost control of his ill-handling car coming off turn two. Ward spun, hit the wall, and then rolled down the track. Al Keller and Johnny Boyd got involved in Ward's accident and so did Vukovich.

In an instant his car was flying, then flipping through a violent serious of rollovers ending up outside the track after crashing into a couple of parked cars. The wreckage burst into flames but Vukovich was already dead from a basal skull fracture.

© Racemaker Press ~ Vukovich & team in 1954
Vukovich started five Indy 500s and led 485 of the 676 laps he completed at the Speedway over five races from 1951-'55. He was revered at the time as one of America's greatest sportsmen and the loss of the sport's biggest star triggered the AAA to think about pulling out of racing.

The AAA's primary business of course was in the ever-growing insurance industry, far removed from the fearsome dangers of automobile racing in those days. In addition to Vukovich the 1955 season also witnessed the deaths of Manuel Aluyo, Mike Nazaruk, Larry Crockett, Jack McGrath and Jerry Hoyt. In Europe, two-time Formula 1 champion Alberto Ascari was killed testing a Ferrari sports car at Monza and when 82 spectators were killed at Le Mans the month after the Indy 500 the AAA decided to cut all ties with racing. In August, the AAA announced that 1955 would be its last year running automobile races.

In the middle of September a new sanctioning body called the United States Auto Club (USAC) was incorporated to run American open-wheel racing in 1956. USAC was created primarily by Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman and at the end of the year USAC took over from the AAA's Contest Board which was disbanded, concluding half a century as the dominant force in American motor racing.

Through the opening years of USAC's reign the roadster era reached its height as new cars builders like A.J. Watson, George Salih and Quin Epperly began constructing more sophisticated versions of Frank Kurtis's theme. Next week, I'll tell the story of the crescendo of the roadster era through the late fifties and early sixties.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright ~ All Rights Reserved