By Leigh Dorrington
The history of the Indianapolis 500 fills one of the most remarkable galleries in all of racing.
Dan Weldon‘s 2011 race-winning car soon will join this collection—the most exclusive in racing—a collection of Indianapolis 500-winning automobiles. Other significant automobiles are displayed separately.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum is located in the Speedway infield between Turns One and Two and attracts visitors from around the world throughout the year. Exhibits change and a special exhibition was staged during the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500. But a visit to the museum shortly before the 2011 500 revealed the extraordinary attraction of this very special place.
Visitors enter the museum and turn left—of course—entering a room comparable to a Crown Room, where the jewel-like creations of Harry Miller are displayed. Miller-designed cars and engines traded 500 victories with Duesenberg in the 1920s, but absolutely dominated the race in the 1930s. Historian Griffith Borgeson described Miller’s ‘preoccupation’ with esthetics, which are displayed in the extraordinary machines created by Miller and built by long-time Miller superintendent Fred Offenhauser.
A.J. Foyt’s 1967 and 1977 Indianapolis 500-winning Coyote-Fords share this gallery against a backdrop of original Gasoline Alley garages, saved when new concrete garages were built. Inside one of the original garages is the George Silah’s ‘lay-down’ Offy Roadster with its engine placed on its side to cheat the wind with a lower profile, driven to back-to-back 500 victories in 1956 and 1957 by Sam Hanks and Jimmy Bryan. Nearby are the Kuzma and Watson Offy Roadsters driven to victory by Bryan and Jim Rathmann in the 1957-58 “Race of Two Worlds” at Monza.
Turning around, visitors stand face-to-face with a legendary supercharged Novi V-8 powered racer—the loudest, fastest in its day and arguably most popular car in Speedway history. Early Novi V-8s were mounted in chassis created by Frank Kurtis, who is credited with designing the first Indy Roadster driven by Bill Vukovich in 1953. Beside the Novi is a Cummins diesel; also in a Kurtis chassis and looking not a little like a Ferrari 500, one of four successful Cummins-powered entries in 1931, 1934, 1950 and in 1952 when the Cummins diesel entry was the fastest car in the 500.
The little-known history of the inconspicuous looking yellow car nearby is hidden under its seldom-opened hood. The Sampson ‘16’ Special was built by Myron Stevens to be driven by Bob Swanson in 1939-40. The car’s true significance is that it was built around the unique 183 cu. in. 16-cylinder Miller engine designed and built by Frank Lockhart for the Stutz Blackhawk Special and his fatal attempt on the Land Speed Record at Daytona Beach in 1927.
Stepping through a doorway, a glance to the right reveals both the 1961 and 1964 Watson-Offy Roadsters that carried A. J. Foyt to the first two of his record four Indianapolis 500 victories. But a glance in the other direction is heart stopping. There, a line of early race cars illustrates every era in front-engine history at the Speedway.
Ray Harroun’s 1911 race-winning Marmon Wasp, built in Indianapolis just a few miles away from the Speedway, typically enjoys pride of place. The National driven to victory by Joe Dawson in 1912 remained the last American-built car to win the 500 until 1920, and the last stock-chassis car ever to win at the Speedway.
Advances at the Speedway are traced through the silent line. A 1914 Delage driven to victory by René Thomas represents an era bracketing WWI when French-built cars dominated the Speedway. Duesenberg and Miller traded victories throughout the 1920s, including Jimmy Murphy’s 1922-winning Duesenberg powered by a Miller 8-cylinder engine. The front-drive 1932 Miller-Hartz is typical of a decade when Miller-engine cars continued to dominate but a proliferation of new chassis emerged from builders like Harry Hartz, Myron Stevens, ‘Curley’ Wetroth and others.
American-built cars won the 500 for nineteen-straight years from 1920-1938 before Wilbur Shaw won back-to-back victories in the Mike Boyle-entered Maserati 8CTF in 1939-40. Shaw was also leading the race convincingly in 1941 when a wheel broke. Shaw’s success drew a large number of pre-war grand prix cars to the first post-war 500 in 1946, but none were remotely as successful.
The Novi, front-drive Blue Crown Specials and Cummins diesels were typical of new thinking that dominated the 500 from 1946-1964. The Belanger #99 that won the 1951 500 also represents the old-style ‘dirt cars’ from a time when the Speedway was the only paved track on the Championship Trail. Following Lee Wallard’s victory in the 500, Tony Bettenhausen drove the car to eight wins in the remaining twelve races of 1951. But it was the newer Kurtis-Kraft, Watson and other Roadster chassis powered by the venerable Offenhauser engine—descended from Harry Miller’s original design—that won the 500 year after year.
The Speedway collection includes the Kurtis-Offy Fuel Injection Special driven by Bill Vukovich to 500 victories in 1953-54. Other race-winning Roadsters on display include the 1955 John Zink Special Kurtis-Offy driven by Bob Sweikert for crew chief A.J. Watson, whose own cars won six of the next nine Indianapolis 500s. Parnelli Jones’ #98, ‘Old Calhoun’, set the first 150mph lap in Speedway history in 1962 and won the 1963 500 by beating Jim Clark’s Lotus-Ford.