A Fan Remembers George Bignotti
Friday afternoon brought a flurry of news in the IndyCar world. There was the confirmation that IZOD would terminate their title sponsorship with the series. Then there were the reports and denials that Tony Kanaan had inked a deal with Chip Ganassi Racing. The one news item that caught me totally off-guard was the death of legendary Chief Mechanic George Bignotti.
When someone passes away at the age of ninety-seven, you can’t really say it was a surprise. But it was sad, nonetheless, to admit to myself that another icon of my childhood and early adulthood was gone.
As I watched my Twitter account late Friday afternoon, I was disappointed in the lack of acknowledgment of the passing of one of the great names in the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Everyone seemed more concerned with bashing IZOD, debating the validity of the Kanaan news or discussing Rush, the new Ron Howard movie on Formula One.
Curt Cavin finally tweeted that everyone needed to keep things in perspective and remember the passing of such a great man. I tweeted my thoughts on his passing saying that the word “legendary” didn’t begin to describe him. It was acknowledged by a total of two followers. It then dawned on me that unless you were over the age of forty, there was a very good chance you had never heard the name of George Bignotti – or if you had, you really didn’t know who he was.
Whether it’s due to my advanced age or that I appreciate the history of this sport, I certainly knew who George Bignotti was. We’ve now read several accounts this weekend from his former drivers, co-owners and from professional journalists. I felt compelled to offer something simply from a fan’s perspective.
I don’t consider it a stretch to say that without George Bignotti, AJ Foyt and Al Unser would not be four-time winners of the Indianapolis 500. Altogether, George Bignotti was the Chief Mechanic on a record seven Indianapolis 500 winning cars; AJ Foyt (1961 & 1964), Graham Hill (1966). Al Unser (1970 & 1971), Gordon Johncock (1973) and Tom Sneva (1983).
On Friday, after hearing of Bignotti’s death, AJ Foyt said “As far as I’m concerned, no mechanic back then or now could hold a candle to George Bignotti." Foyt does not pass out compliments very easily – especially for those he had such a fiery relationship with during their time together. The arguments and fights between those two strong-minded men are as legendary as the results they produced on the track.
Bignotti hired the young Texan for his Bowes Seal Fast team in 1960. Between the two of them, neither had experienced much success in Champ cars – Bignotti had one win, Foyt none. But the combination of the two men produced magic. In 1961, Foyt won the Indianapolis 500 for both. Three years later, the duo produced one of the most unbelievable seasons that will probably never be duplicated. They won ten of thirteen races, including their second Indianapolis 500. Altogether, they won twenty-seven races over five seasons.
But their personalities could not maintain their relationships. Each willingly went their separate ways. In 1966, Bignotti moved on to the “super team” of John Mecom, which consisted of Rodger Ward, Jackie Stewart and that year’s winner Graham Hill. Later, Bignotti joined the Vel’s Parnelli Jones Ford Racing Team, where he was the mastermind behind two more Indianapolis 500 victories with Al Unser and three straight USAC National championships.
George Bignotti hailed from an era where the Chief Mechanic wore multiple hats. That’s what is so impressive about Foyt’s comment that Bignotti would be just as successful today. Not only was Bignotti a successful car-builder and engineer, he was an outstanding engine man. It is said that no one outside of the Ford facility in Dearborn, MI spent more time on the development of the Ford-Turbocharged Indy engine than Bignotti.
For 1973, Bignotti moved to Pat Patrick’s team, which fielded cars in that year’s Indianapolis 500 for Graham McRae, Swede Savage and Gordon Johncock. Although it was a tragedy-filled and rain-shortened race that was run over three days, Bignotti pulled off his sixth Indianapolis 500 victory when Johncock won the race. The team ran Eagle chassis built by Dan Gurney’s All-American Racers. Bignotti noticed a small detail in the design of the front suspension under braking that he improved by inverting some of the suspension pieces. It made a noticeable difference in lap times and Dan Gurney’s own team couldn’t understand why the Bignotti engineered cars were faster than their own.
If you’ve watched some of the “Legacy” series of DVD’s of the Indianapolis 500, you’ve seen the pain in which Bignotti describes the mood on the team after that race. There was no celebrating, because Johncock’s teammate, Swede Savage, had been seriously injured earlier that day. There was no Victory Banquet that night. Bignotti and Johncock spent the evening at Methodist Hospital with their injured teammate and friend, who would succumb to his injuries thirty-three days later. Instead of a celebratory dinner for his win that day, Bignotti and Johncock ate dinner at a Burger King on 16th Street near The Speedway.
Ten years later, Bignotti was again in Victory Lane at Indianapolis. This time, with Tom Sneva as the driver and Bignotti was co-owner with Dan Cotter in Bignotti-Cotter Racing. Sneva had found success earlier in his career while driving for Roger Penske, when he was known as “the gas man” for becoming the first driver to qualify at over 200 mph in 1977, and three runner-up finishes in the 500. However, the No. 5 Texaco Star was not among those favored to win in 1983. But Bignotti was known for preparing his cars to last the distance, and Sneva’s car was fastest on this day that saw only twelve cars running at the end of the race.
George Bignotti held many jobs in his home area of San Francisco early in his career. He was a florist, a shipyard worker and even a big-band dance entrepreneur. But he discovered his first love, while in shop class in high school. He and his brothers worked on race cars in the late forties as a hobby. His first exposure to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in 1954, when he was recruited to work on the Kurtis/Offy of Freddie Agabashian by Agabashian himself, who finished sixth.
By the time he retired, Bignotti was credited with serving as Chief Mechanic on eighty-nine open wheel winning cars, including seven Indianapolis 500 winners. Both are records that will probably never be broken.
The accolades for George Bignotti flowed throughout the weekend. Terms like “innovative”, “detail oriented”, “prepared” and “legend” were sprinkled throughout all of the tributes. The one that seemed to be used the most, however, was “friend”.
I never had the honor of meeting George Bignotti, or even spotting him in Gasoline Alley. However, one of my Indianapolis friends, Ed Pickard, posted on Facebook that he spotted Bignotti at a local Marsh store on 38th Street. Ed spoke to him and said Bignotti treated him like they had known each other for years.
George Bignotti was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1993 at the age of seventy-seven. My question at the time was what took so long? I then found out that The Hall had only existed since 1990. That explains that, but I feel that Bignotti should have been a charter member.
George Bignotti was blessed with a good long life. He reportedly played golf well into his nineties. According to AJ Foyt, who spoke to him about a month ago – his mind was still clear right up until the end. His legacy is secure in a sport that is rich with history. It is my hope that those too young to remember George Bignotti, have earned an appreciation for him this past weekend.