The Junk Formula
By Tom Gahr
Note From George: After about seven months since his last appearance on this site, I am pleased to welcome back guest-blogger Tom Gahr. This is Tom’s third article he has done at Oilpressure.com. This topic is most appropriate with the news that longtime chassis builder Lola has entered the picture, Dallara and Swift has releaesed their respective drawings and the Delta Wing chassis is scheduled to be unveiled today at the Chicago Auto Show. Tom looks at another time in history when the Indy car chassis specs were drastically changed. I will return on Friday, Feb 12 with my take on the Delta Wing. In the meantime, enjoy Tom’s fascinating look back – GP.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… – Charles Dickens
In the crucible of opinion that is the internet comment box, it has been an eventful offseason for the Izod IndyCar series. Changes in management, changes in sponsorship, changes in drivers, and rampant speculation about top secret chassis development programs have whipped the IndyCar blogosphere into a froth. If you read blogs like this it is easy to get sucked into believing that 2010 is the most dire, and critical year in the history of American open wheel racing. But if you take a deep breath, and stand back and look at the 100 year history of our sport, a different picture emerges. It is a picture of evolution, and revolution occurring about once every few decades since Carl Fisher and a group of entrepreneurial investors took a gamble on building a large brick speedway in the middle of the Indiana countryside. If you look close enough, you begin to realize that while the specific issues have changed over time, many things have remain the same.
Nowhere was this more in evidence than the end of the 1920’s, when championship racing underwent a radical spec change that many agree saved the sport from financial ruin during the great depression. To understand the landscape of American racing at the time, and reason behind the changes that occurred, you need to travel back to the very beginnings.
While the first closed circuit automobile race in the United States was in September 1896, at Narragansett Park, Rhode Island, the sport of automobile racing in America truly began on the international level with the Vanderbilt Cup race of 1904. Prior to then, automobile races had been point to point races, hill climbs, and endurance events testing the durability and limits of automotive technology. It was a sport of rich men, with aristocrats, and heirs of industrial fortunes trying their hand at racing on an amateur level. At the turn of the 20th century the superiority of European automotive technology overshadowed America’s car industry. To encourage American automobile manufacturers to challenge European quality, William K. Vanderbilt Jr., (great grandson of Commodore Vanderbilt) and one time holder of the land speed record, organized America’s first international road race.
Over the course of the next few years racing would move from an amateur sport, where rich men raced their own cars, to a professional sport with hired drivers. And true to the vision of Vanderbilt, and gentlemen like Carl Fisher, American automotive technology began to catch up to the Europeans. Still, when Europeans finally arrived to contest the 1913 Indianapolis 500 Mile race, it was won by Jules Goux in his Grand Prix Peugeot. For the remainder of the 1910’s, a succession of European built automobiles would win at Indianapolis, but that was all about to change.
When the 1915 season began, American race car driver Bob Burman was racing Goux’s 1913 Peugeot, which he had bought in 1914. In the Point Loma Road Race on January 9th, he blew the engine. When he wired the Peugeot factory back in France that he needed a new racing engine for the season ahead, they wired back that they were at war and no longer in the racing business. Burman needed help, so he turned to the California shop of Harry A. Miller. Miller started off manufacturing carburetors, but his involvement with the racing side of his business led to repairing and later building race cars. Burman needed a complete engine. The AAA contest board was reducing the maximum displacement to 300 cu. inches, to bring Indianapolis into conformance with European regulations.
There was little that could be salvaged from the Peugeot, and Miller only had 4 months to produce an engine from scratch. Miller’s shop foreman, Fred Offenhauser studied the problem, and told Miller that he could do it, but only by working his team around the clock. Miller charged Burman $4,000 and took on the project. Miller, Offenhauser, and Leo Goosen designed their engine around the original Peugeot 4 cylinder design, but brought in innovations of their own, like a double overhead camshaft, and lightweight aluminum alloy pistons. Offenhauser did most of the machine work himself, and the engine was delivered to Burman in early April. Burman won his first race in the rebuilt Peugeot, a 200 mile road race in Oklahoma City, and estimated that he had gained 10 hp over the old engine. He went on to finish 6th at the Indy 500, his best finish there.
Word of Miller’s magical work on Burman’s engine spread throughout the field. Soon orders began to pour in.
And so began a thoroughbred line of race motors that brought American automotive technology on par with, and even surpassed the best of Europe. By the 1920’s, Indianapolis had been reduced to a showcase battle between the two biggest marquee names in American racing, Miller & Duesenberg. From 1922 to 1929, a Miller or a Duesenberg finished first at Indianapolis every year. These two car builders dominated the sport during the 20’s, and brought American racing technology into its golden age. The AAA contest board sanctioned a National Championship, and throughout the season the best names in American racing battled it out across the country on purpose built board tracks, and of course, the bricks at Indianapolis. Drivers like Jimmy Murphy, Tommy Milton, Ralph DePalma, Peter DePaolo, and Frank Lockhart, set records year after year. American racing technology reached its apogee with the 91 cu in, single seat racers of Miller in the late 20’s. These sleek, lightweight machines sported front wheel drive, and intercooled superchargers, and remain prized works of art to this day.
But all was not well with Championship racing. The technical advancements of the purpose built racing machines had driven automakers away from the sport, and raised the price of competing. A competitive car for the 500 would cost upwards of $25,000, a huge sum at the time. The number of entries at Indy began to dwindle. Finally, Eddie Rickenbacker, the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, decided that something needed to be done to reduce costs and level the playing field. In 1927, he convinced the AAA contest board to change the engine regulations for the 1930 season. Instead of continuing with expensive, super-charged, 91.5 inch Miller eights, the 1930 Speedway entries were encouraged, to bring forward engines with Four, Six, Eight, and even Sixteen cylinders with piston displacements ranging from 100 to 366 cubic inches. Superchargers were outlawed, and other regulations specific to valves, carburetors, and weights were put in place to open up competition. These new specs would be known to history as the “Junk Formula”.
The 1930 race drew entries representing each and every legal specification. However, Miller powered cars still finished 1-2 in 1930. The derisive nickname for the “Junk” formula is misleading. Some of the new engines were still purpose built, custom racing engines. Some were highly tuned stock block engines. Some were truly stock autos, only slightly modified. While stock blocks were not winning races, the formula succeeded in increasing the car counts at Indy (as many as 42 took the start in 1933). They brought new engines into racing, opened up competition, stimulated the return of major automakers to championship racing, and are credited by many with saving the sport during the great depression.
The face of Championship racing was changing. By the end of 1931, only the Altoona board track was left. High maintenance costs had doomed the rest of the wooden tracks to extinction, and Altoona would soon follow. The final championship race on a board track was run on Sept 7, 1931. Five of the six races in the shortened 1932 season were on dirt ovals at Syracuse, Detroit, Oakland, and Roby Indiana. Miller engines won them all, with stock block cars generally bringing up the rear. The Junk formula would remain until 1937, but the depression had its’ effects. Poor business decisions, and the tough economy led Miller to go bankrupt in 1933. His shop foreman Fed Offenhauser bought Miller’s patterns and molds, and Miller left for Detroit.
Offenhauser, would continue the American racing tradition. He created his own engine based on the basic Miller design, and the “Offy” became the dominant Indy engine, winning 24 times in 27 years. His shop also built the immortal Novi V8 engines, a star crossed competitor of the “Offy” designed by Bud Winfield and another former Miller employee, Leo Goosen. The Miller and Offenhauser legacy lasted until 1980, when the last Offy to finish a race at Indianapolis powered Gary Bettenhausen to a 3rd place finish in 1980.
What has happened to American racing since 1980, is well known, and much debated, and I won’t try to recap the last 30 years here. But this story begs the question, is this juncture in IndyCar racing similar to the one that Eddie Rickenbacker faced in the late 20’s? Has the sport once again become a story of the haves and have nots? Does the new spec represent a way to save the sport during a period of economic upheaval? Whether or not there are lessons to be learned in this history, is ours to debate.
Griffith Borgeson, Miller (Motorbooks International, Osceola, 1993)
Griffith Borgeson, The Golden Age of the American Racing Car (Bonanza, New York, 1966; second edition SAE Warrendale, 1998)
Ralph Kramer, Indianapolis Motor Speedway: 100 Years of Racing (Krause Publications, 2009)
Terry Reed, Indy: The Race and Ritual of the Indianapolis 500 (Potomac Books Inc.; 2nd edition, 2005)