The Car Up On The Roof

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If you’re a regular listener to Donald Davidson and The Talk of Gasoline Alley, chances are you’ve heard some discussion about “the car up on the roof” in Indianapolis. Apparently, locals who are not even race fans are very familiar with the rusted out shell of a car that sits atop the one-story Safety Auto Glass building on Southeastern Avenue near downtown Indianapolis.

At least once a year, a caller will phone Donald and ask him the history of the car. After hearing the story over the last several years, I vowed to someday go by and check it out for myself if I ever found myself in Indianapolis sometime other than the month of May. Such a time finally arose a few weeks back as I found myself near the area, so I budgeted time to go by and see the landmark.

As you can see in the pictures I took, it is very visible from the street so I can understand why all the locals know about it. What is also quite apparent is that the car is in deplorable condition. It’s really sad to see this car in such bad shape – especially when you know the history of it.

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The car is a Kurtis KK500C, built by Frank Kurtis and was brand new in 1954. Car dealers Al and John Jones took delivery of the car that began life as the Jones & Maley Special – representing their local car dealership. George Salih, who would later design and build the famous Belond Special, was the Chief Mechanic. Midget driver Bill Homeier was the driver, but was having trouble getting the car up to speed as a rookie at Indianapolis.

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It was quite common in those days for drivers to “test-hop”; which meant a driver from a competing team would hop in the car to see if they could help with the set-up. Salih turned to defending 500 champion Bill Vukovich to see if he could lend his expertise in getting the Jones & Maley Special up to speed. Vuky obliged and also gave some invaluable advise to the rookie on how to get around the massive 2.5-mile oval. Supposedly, this was the only car that Vukovich ever test-hopped in and it would be one of only five cars that the legendary driver ever drove at Indianapolis.

Although he started eighteenth as a second-day qualifier, Homeier was the eleventh quickest in qualifying at a very respectable 138.000 mph. Inexperience bit Homeier in the race, however. During a pit stop on Lap 74, Homeier’s foot slipped off the clutch and the car slammed into the pit wall, smashing the radiator and thereby ending his day. Homeier and the Jones & Maley Special finished a disappointing thirty-third.

The following year, Salih turned to capable veteran Sam Hanks to pilot the year-old Jones & Maley Special. Hanks started outside the second row, next to Bill Vukovich, who would lose his life on Lap 56. Unfortunately, transmission problems sidelined Hanks after 134 laps and he finished nineteenth. Hanks returned to the Jones & Maley Special in 1956. Hanks started thirteenth and finished second, just twenty-one seconds behind winner Pat Flaherty. This would be the best finish for the car up on the roof.

Jones & Maley Special

In 1957, Salih lured Hanks away to drive his beautiful creation – the Belond Exhaust Special. Hanks won the race that year and immediately retired from champ car competition. Salih’s car would go on to win in 1958 as well, with driver Jimmy Bryan at the controls. In the meantime, driver Bob Christie was hired to replace Hanks in the Jones & Maley Special for 1957. He qualified dead-last at 139.770 mph but crawled his way up to finish thirteenth and was still running three laps down at the finish.

By 1958, the old Kurtis KK500C was outdated and showing its age. It was sold to a local group of Indianapolis businessmen who owned several businesses in the area. One of their concerns was the Safety Auto Glass Company, which ended up as the sponsor of the car.

Accomplished midget car driver Leroy Warriner, who had been trying unsuccessfully to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 for years, was chosen to drive the newly re-named Safety Auto Glass Special. His record would remain intact as he could not get the car qualified. On the last day of qualifications, the owners turned to an old friend of the car – Bill Homeier, who had only driven in relief once since he drove the car in the 1954 race. Unfortunately, there was no fairy tale ending. Homeier could do no better and the car missed the 1958 race.

In 1959, drivers Jack Ensley, Johnny Kay and Shorty Templeman all took their turns in getting the old car up to speed. Each one fell short and the Safety Auto Glass Special failed to make the show for the second year in a row.

The following year brought more frustration. The owners tried to hire young drivers Bruce Jacobi and Leon Clum – neither of which would ever go on to become household names. Both were turned down by USAC for lack of experience. Then a young Bob Wente and a very old Duke Dinsmore were both tasked to getting the over-aged car competitive, but to no avail. Finally, Bill Randall got his turn but could not work any magic either. The old car sat idle on race day for the third consecutive year.

1961 was the last year that the car on the roof made an appearance at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Bill Randall was charged with the unlikely task of getting the car going. Randall backed the car into the Turn Four wall and mercifully ended its run at the track. The car ran in four Indianapolis 500’s; finishing as low as last and as high as second. It practiced for four more, but never made it after 1957.

Knowing the car had no future as a race car, the ownership group decided to get the most exposure out of their investment by putting the car on the roof after the 1961 race. It had one brief excursion off of the roof in 1964, when a large gale from a storm one night, blew it off the roof and it fell to the sidewalk – tail first. The damaged car was lifted back to the roof with the aid of a “cherry-picker”. This time, it was anchored securely and has apparently been there ever since.

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Considering the history behind the car, it’s sad to see the car in such a dilapidated state. Legendary driver Bill Vukovich drove the car. Future race winner Sam Hanks drove it to a second-place finish. Veteran-to-be Bob Christie had his turn with the car. One would think that with such a storied past, the car would deserve to be in a museum or making appearances in vintage car shows. Instead, there it sits; exposed to the elements without an engine and with steel rods running through the car to serve as axles with regular automobile wheels attached at some points. The paint is virtually gone and it begs to be saved.

Yet legend has it that the owner of the shop would never consider selling the old relic. I’ve read where exorbitant amounts of money have been offered, but never even considered by the owner. The old Jones & Maley Special is now far removed from its glory days of Bill Vukovich and Sam Hanks. It seems destined to spend it’s waning days atop the Safety Auto Glass Company until time eventually does it in completely.

George Phillips

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17 Responses to “The Car Up On The Roof”

  1. Great article, George. Donald Davidson would be proud. :)

  2. Tom G. Says:

    Terrific writing George.

    Maybe they can bring it down this year, and stick a Lotus engine in it for Alesi.

    (Dear Legion’s of the miserable. I’m kidding. Go back to your regularly scheduled lamentations about how you’ve given up on the sport you spend all day surfing blogs, and commenting about.)

  3. Better off as it is than the victim of a torch or muncher 40 years ago.

  4. JohnMc Says:

    I am with JB. I feel that in the end, it is where this generation of Indy 500 fans can get a kick out of seeing it up on the roof and knowing that she was a hot car with one cool history. I am sure that there are many that did see her run who drive by Safety Auto Glass and cast there eyes their way to her.

  5. redcar Says:

    good one, george.

  6. JohnMc Says:

    By the way, I grew up with Jack Ensley’s son, Jack, and he was my best friend. Mr. and Mrs. Ensley were awesome and so were Jack’s two sisters. Jack and the sisters joined the Gordon Pipers and I know that Jack stayed with the Pipers for a good while or until he moved to Florida. I knew that Mr. Ensley drove sports cars, but I was super impressed that he drove at Indianapolis even though he never made the grid. He had a miniture golf park and driving range not to far from the track.

  7. Don’t know that every car that ever ran in a race is neccessarily “worthy” of enshrinement in a museum somewhere, perhaps the pedigree for this car is, perhaps not. If owned by IMS, would it ever make it’s way out of the basement? Sitting on top of the safety glass building it has become its own little bit of priceless, if irreverent, bit of Indy 500 lore…and has touched many more fans that it would in the basement or a private collection.

  8. elmondohummus Says:

    1. Excellent story, George. This is the sort of historical backstory that gets missed by the bigger, professional press. George, it’s stuff like this where you and other bloggers – PopoffValve, Pressdog, etc. – beat out the professional media in spades. I love this stuff.

    2. I wonder if the current owner will let someone fund a restoration of the vehicle, even if it’s eventually just lifted back into its current place. That’s not the same as sticking it in a museum or a collection somewhere, but at the same time sheer longevity has given it a sort of time-earned dignity in its present location. I’d love to see it restored, then displayed in a way that would protect it, even if it were to be simply put back in the same spot.

  9. Ron Ford Says:

    Nice story George. You are a veritable fountain of fun facts. It has occurred to me that those two antique appraiser brothers on Antiques Roadshow would marvel at the car’s fine “patina” as well as your provenance.

  10. JHall14 Says:

    amen George. Nice story. I know more about it now than I did. I work a few blocks from this location, and my smile will be even bigger each time I drive by it.

  11. Herman Flowers Says:

    Interesting story,I saw many of the indy roadsters race in New York State as super modifieds

  12. As of Monday, September 17th 2012, this car has been sold and removed for restoration. The project will likely take upwards of two years. The car will be restored as Hanks drove it to second place in 1956. One interesting note is that the car almost won in 1956.

    Pat Flaherty, the actual winner, suffered a broken throttle linkage just as he took the checkered flag. One more lap and Hanks would have won!

  13. Scott Balch Says:

    Love this story! This was my Uncle Johnny’s car. Would love to know who bought it so I could follow the restoration process.

  14. Vuky never drove this car. Total BS.

  15. Jones and Maley was a car dealer on East Washington Street and was our local drivers license testing place. When I went for my first test in early 1968, this car was in the showroom. You could walk right up to it, touch it, look inside, etc. My main impression was that the roadsters were a lot smaller than they looked from a distance.

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