My Favorite All-Time Cars Of Indy
Whenever the Month of May rolls around, I tend to get very nostalgic – even more so than usuaal. I grew up completely enamored with the Indianapolis 500. The 1960’s were probably the most intriguing time to be in attendance at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Innovation was at its peak and there were more different types of cars at the track, than you could imagine.
There were several cars that I identified as “favorites” when I was young. Childhood exuberance doesn’t go away easily. Most of the cars I drooled over as a kid are still my all-time favorites many, many years later. As I grew older, I began to understand and appreciate the history of the Speedway. I even found some favorites among cars that ran before I was born.
As I slid into adulthood, the cars seemed to all look alike and they weren’t as captivating. Perhaps, it was because I was not as impressed or maybe they actually weren’t all that interesting. Whatever the case, most of my favorites came from yesteryear. So, if you’re expecting to see a Dallara or a Panoz among my all-time favorites, you’ll be disappointed. But if you share my appreciation for the cars that are part of the heritage of the Indianapolis 500, please read on.
With that said, I’d like to present my list, in chronological order, of my top-twelve cars that raced in the Indianapolis 500 (all photos courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway):
The Boyle Maserati:
Had I listed the cars in order of my very favorites, this car might still be listed first. This single car was undoubtedly the most beautiful car to ever run at the Speedway. It was also one of the most successful. The car made its Indianapolis debut in 1939 and ended the day in Victory Lane, giving Wilbur Shaw his second victory. The same car and driver combined the following year with the same results. In 1941, Shaw and the Maserati were leading when a wheel collapsed on lap 152, sending Shaw to the hospital with a broken back.
When racing resumed at the Speedway after the war, Shaw had retired. In fact, it was Shaw that convinced Terre Haute businessman Tony Hulman to step in and save the Speedway. But with Shaw serving as President of the Speedway, the great Ted Horn slipped into the cockpit of the Maserati and took it to two third place finishes and a fourth. The car continued to see service into the 1950’s. In fact, Bill Vukovich took his rookie test in the Maserati in 1951. The car now sits in the Speedway Museum.
The Fuel Injection Special:
Bill Vukovich piloted his Kurtis-Offy to consecutive victories in 1953 and 1954. The car was painted gun-metal gray for the 1953 race and then white for 1954. I much prefer the gray livery. The car is so simple and clean in design, but was surely an imposing site filling the mirrors of the other drivers.
Vukovich was driving a newer and different Kurtis in 1955, when he crashed while leading on lap 56 and was fatally injured. The two-time winning car now sits in the Speedway Museum in its dark gray livery and is one of the most revered cars there.
The Belond Special:
This car was as radical in the fifties as the DeltaWing strives to be today – just better looking. Designer George Salih got the idea of turning the Offenhauser engine on its side. This would make the car much lower, giving it a lower center of gravity and also making it much more streamlined than anything else on the track.
The Belond Special was driven to victory by Sam Hanks in 1957. After Hanks retired, Jimmy Bryan took the same car to Victory Lane in 1958. The car is low and sleek with a futuristic dorsal fin in the rear. The yellow car still stands out in the Speedway Museum today.
AJ Foyt’s Bowes Seal Fast Special:
The Watson roadster that carried AJ Foyt to his first victory at Indianapolis in 1961 was in my opinion the best looking one as well. The front-end of the ‘61 car was a lot cleaner and less convoluted looking than the ‘64 car. While the ‘64 car may have been more functional and faster, the ‘61 car was much more pleasing to the eye.
The car that took Parnelli Jones to victory in 1963, wore several different liveries in the early sixties. None were as striking and beautiful as the deep azure blue and white livery of the 1963 winner. When my brothers returned from the 1964 race, I tore into the program that had pictures of the ‘63 winner. As a five year-old – I was completely enthralled with the car and Parnelli Jones instantly became my first favorite driver.
Parnelli’s 1965 Lotus:
When Parnelli Jones finally retired Ol’ Calhoun, he also retired his standard livery for his front-engine roadster. As I mentioned earlier, Parnelli had already been established as my favorite by the time I arrived for my first race at the Speedway in 1965. Although I was disappointed to find out that Parnelli would not be in the car I had identified with him, I loved his new car. It was a very unique metallic gold Lotus with white trim – still carrying the familiar No. 98 of car owner JC Agajanian. You don’t see that color on many racecars. Some of Smokey Yunick’s cars carried that color, along with Danny Sullivan’s gold Miller High Life car in 1988 – but other than those, I can’t think of many more. But it sure looked good to a wide-eyed six year-old kid watching his first Indy 500.
Jim Clark’s 1965 Lotus:
Although my support was squarely behind Parnelli Jones that day, I came to appreciate what Jim Clark’s victory meant. Clark dominated the race, but my guy came in second. But it didn’t take long to realize what a good-looking car the winner was. The Lotus-Ford of Jim Clark was striking in the British racing green with yellow trim. It is strictly a classic paint job. It is the inspiration for the Lotus livery on Takuma Sato’s car. That is why I could not take my eye off of that car at Barber.
Dan Gurney’s 1967 Eagle:
Not only was this car in the classic All-American Racers livery, but the distinctive nose of the Eagle chassis is what stands out. The nose inlet was designed to actually resemble the beak of an eagle. I’m not sure how aerodynamic that was, but to an eight year-old kid – it was certainly memorable.
Dan Gurney was not only a great driver, but he was a brilliant car designer. His Eagle chassis would eventually dominate Indy car racing in the coming years.
Bobby Unser’s 1968 Eagle:
By 1968 – maybe the lack of aerodynamics of the eagle beak dawned on Gurney, because it was not near as pronounced on the newer version. But what makes this car so attractive to me is the distinctive paint job of the Rislone Special. It sits in the Speedway Museum and I always find myself gawking at it a little longer than usual.
Joe Leonard’s 1968 Lotus Turbine:
Most people were enthralled with Parnelli’s 1967 turbine car. It was unique, but I wouldn’t apply the terms beautiful or sleek to it. It was more of a beast.
The three turbines that Andy Granatelli ran in 1968, were much more pleasing to the eye. We didn’t know it at the time, but this car design was the future. Not because of its turbine power plant, rather because of its wedge shaped design. This was the precursor of things to come. If you look at cars from the following year going forward, you’ll see designs inspired by the 1968 turbine powered Lotus.
Of course, Joe Leonard’s was my favorite. Why? Because he was the pole sitter, that’s why. Does a nine year-old need a better reason? Leonard came to Indy in 1965 as a champion motorcycle rider. He had finished third the previous year as a teammate to AJ Foyt. But being a kid – I never paid him much mind until I saw him win the pole in that sleek and silent machine.
Al Unser’s 1970 Johnny Lightning Special:
When Al Unser heard that his car in 1970 was to be sponsored by a toy company, he thought it was a joke. When he saw the car painted up for the first time, he changed his mind. The royal blue Colt chassis garnished with yellow lightning bolts looked fast even while sitting still. But it was fast. Fast enough to completely dominate the field in 1970, en route to his first victory.
Unser teamed again with Chief Mechanic George Bignotti to win the race for a second consecutive time in 1971, in a very similar looking car. But since it was the first win and he won in such dominating fashion – I’ll go with the 1970 car.
Mark Donohue’s 1972 McLaren:
The last Indy 500 I attended for quite a while was in 1972. Mark Donohue had been driving there for Roger Penske since 1969, and had quickly become one of my favorites. He was fast, seemed very modest and I simply liked the way he carried himself. It was only a matter of time before his face was on the Borg-Warner trophy. On top of all that – his cars were always beautiful. I wasn’t aware of Roger Penske’s immaculate attention to detail back then, but I was aware that Donohue’s blue Sunoco Specials were always sparkling.
Donohue drove Lola’s the first couple of years, but then switched over to the sleek McLaren in 1971 before finally earning the win in 1972. All of the McLarens were great looking cars, but donned in the Sunoco blue and yellow along with the Penske touch – none were better looking than Donohue’s
The 1994 Lola:
I’m sure I will be alone in this assessment. Practically half the field was driving the ‘94 Lola and it was probably one of Lola’s worst cars, up to that point in their history (the 1997 Lola was much worse). But on looks alone, the 1994 Lola was one of the prettiest cars they ever made. They went to great lengths to clean it up aerodynamically. The lines of the profile are classically simple and pure. This car was the beginning of Lola’s downfall in the nineties. It was receiving a major challenge from the upstart Reynard, and failed. The Reynard was hideous to look at, but apparently a joy to drive – and most importantly, it was fast. And it’s important to remember – that is the primary goal; to go fast.
So, there you have it – my all-time favorite cars to race in the Indianapolis 500. The criteria is a little vague; I just need to like it – that’s all. Like any subjective list like this, there will be wide and vast differences in opinion. For what it’s worth, there were several cars that I had on the list, but had to trim it down. Some that made the original list were; The Novi’s of the late forties and the Blue Crown Specials of the same era, the Pink Zink (1955), AJ Foyt’s Coyote (1967) and the Yellow Submarine Chaparral (1980). I welcome your comments and suggestions of cars I may have overlooked.