A Resurgence Of Interest In The Turbine Era

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There is an odd phenomenon going on, but I’m not complaining. In fact, I welcome it. It’s been going on for a couple of years, but it has really been gathering momentum in the last few months. There has been a resurgence of interest in the turbine era In Indy car racing.

Although the turbine era at Indianapolis lasted a good part of the sixties; there were only two years, 1967-68, that turbine powered cars qualified and started the race.

It’s very tempting to get into the history of the failed attempts to qualify turbine powered cars in the early sixties, but most that come here know about the John Zink Trackburner and others that graced the Hall of Fame Museum this past May. But I’m curious as to why there has been this sudden up-tick in fascination with these cars that never won a single race.

For years, I scoffed and laughed at grown adults that had Facebook accounts. I considered it some pathetic attempt for people my age to try and relate to their teenagers and be the “cool” parent. I had no interest in pursuing what I considered to be a fad until Susan finally convinced me to get on Facebook in 2011. My most pleasant surprise about Facebook was the plethora of racing related sites that were all within Facebook. One of the many benefits has been the pictures that are posted. Many are rare photos that I’ve never seen before.

It seems that within the past four to five months, I’m seeing more and more pictures of the STP Oil Treatment Specials of 1967-68. Of course, a lot of these are the stock IMS photos that we’ve all seen for decades, but many of them are new to me. Some are from back in the sixties when the cars were racing, while many are present day from the Goodwood Festival of Speed.

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The Lotus 56-3 that was driven by Graham Hill in 1968 is headed for the auction block this Saturday, so there has been lots of interest on it lately. It was recently photographed taking laps at Fontana. (Photos: Hot Rod Network)

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Personally, I’m glad to see the increased interest, especially in the 1968 version of the turbine. For years, the 1967 STP-Paxton Turbocar driven by the great Parnelli Jones seemed to garner most of the attention whenever the turbine cars were brought up. It’s understandable. It was the first to qualify and it had one of the very best drivers behind the wheel to give the car instant credibility. It was known as the Whooshmobile and Silent Sam, although not affectionately. The raw power and the controversial design was looked upon with disdain by the other drivers, who claimed it was an unfair advantage.

I saw the car practice, qualify and race in 1967. When they wheeled it out of Gasoline Alley and into the pits on that cold gray morning of Pole Day, I had never seen a color like that. The day-glo did just that – it glowed and seem to light up the pits on an otherwise overcast day. On the qualifying run, it sounded eerie being the only car out there and hardly making a sound as it whooshed by our seats. I was eight years old at the time and didn’t care about tradition, like my older brothers and father did. I wanted this car to win, because it was the most incredible looking and sounding car I had ever witnessed.

Of course, we all know how the car dominated the race, but failed three laps from the finish – allowing AJ Foyt to join Louis Meyer, Wilbur Shaw and Mauri Rose as the only three-time winners at that time. If I thought that car was incredible, you can imagine my excitement to see three of them qualify the next year.

1966 winner Graham Hill was in one of the three Lotus 56’s and he proceeded to set a new track record as the first qualifier of the day at 171.208 mph. His record didn’t last too long, however. Teammate Joe Leonard went out a little later and set a new track record at 171.559 mph. To this day, I can still hear Tom Carnegie belting out that speed as everyone cheered. Two of the three turbines would occupy the first two spots on the grid, with Art Pollard starting eleventh.

Joe Leonard was my new hero. The Californian motorcycle champion driving the sleek wedge turbine was about as cool as it got for this nine year-old. We took The Indianapolis Star by mail each month of May when I was growing up. When the edition with the Pole Day photos came, I grabbed it and never let go. I stared at those photos until Race Day, when we went back. It wouldn’t surprise me if those old papers are still in my mother’s house somewhere.

Of course, all three turbines failed to finish – with Leonard leading before his turbine flamed out on a restart on Lap 191. They all joined Silent Sam from the year before as cars that came close, but did not even finish. I remember watching in disbelief as Leonard coasted to a stop in Turn One, while Bobby Unser took the lead and the win. I also remember being furious watching my brothers jumping up and down in celebration, since they were totally opposed to the unconventional turbine winning the race. I now understand their reluctance to the cars, but as a kid I did not.

I sometimes wonder what the impact would be had one of the turbines won. If Parnelli hadn’t broken a bearing on Lap 197 in 1967 and Joe Leonard had won in 1968, how many turbines would have shown up in 1969? Would USAC officials have been so quick to legislate the turbines ineffective and make them only a footnote in history? Had the turbines won in either of those years, I often ponder if the field of thirty-three would have been an all-turbine grid by 1975, just as the rear-engine revolution pushed the roadsters out to pasture.

Nowadays, in this era of rigid rulebooks and spec chassis – fans wax poetically about the days of innovation at the Indianapolis 500. The Lotus 56 was about as innovative as you could get. As other cars were starting to play around with wings, spoilers and other aerodynamic tweaks, the Lotus 56 was a wedge design that cut through the air. With the wedge design, the power of the turbine and four wheel drive to make it hug through the turns – it was practically unbeatable on the track. Add to that the spectacular day-glo paint scheme – and it was awfully hard for fans not to love it. To this day, Joe Leonard’s No.60 is still one of my all-time favorite cars to ever race at Indianapolis.

I will say that after staring at those photos for almost two weeks leading up to the race, I was very disappointed to see them wheel those cars out and see that their Race Day appearance had been altered, so that the crews, fans and officials could tell the cars apart at a glance. Art Pollard’s car had a matte black finish on the nose. Graham Hill’s car had white on his nose.

But the worst was what they did to Joe Leonard’s pole-sitting car. First they reversed to numbers to be black numbers on a white field. Then they used garish lime-green paint all over the nose of the car and even the left front wheel and tire. They had taken one of the best-looking cars and tried their best to ruin it. Butchering up the Race Day paint scheme aside, it was still a great looking car and one that I remember vividly forty-seven years later.

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But regardless of the reason, it’s good that there is still enough interest in cars that ran almost a half-century ago. I can remember showing pictures of the Lotus 56 to my son about ten years ago. He thought it looked way more exotic than the Dallara that was running at the time. He was right.

I understand that the rulebook on innovation is curtailed to prevent the Penske and Ganassi team from blowing their budgets, while leaving the smaller teams in their dust. Otherwise, we would have an Indianapolis 500 and a Verizon IndyCar Series campaigned by only about two to three teams with about fifteen cars total. That would be the death of the series. Fortunately, the upcoming aero-kits will allow some flexibility even within the kits for teams to experiment and stay within the rules. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

So if you’re like I was and think that Facebook is a lot of selfies, pictures of your friend’s kids that you really don’t want to see and high-school acquaintances that you purposely lost touch with – give it a try. If you want, just lurk around in the background. Otherwise, you are missing out on a lot of racing news, photos and trends. And one of those trends is the resurgence of interest in the turbine era at Indianapolis. It’s kind of nice to see.

George Phillips

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16 Responses to “A Resurgence Of Interest In The Turbine Era”

  1. Jack In Virginia Says:

    George, if you like “Indy Cars from the 60’s ” on FaceBook, you should try “Airplanes with Round Engines”. Great site with cool pictures and videos.

  2. Doug gardner Says:

    67 was my first experience at the Speedway and like you the Turbine captured me. I remember those two races like it was yesterday. For all the same reasons you describe.

  3. Phil Kaiser Says:

    Ahh, 1967, whatta year! That May was the first I really remember as I was almost five years old. The day-glo STP Turbine blew me away… until I saw that incredible Poppy-Red Sheraton-Thompson #14 being pushed to the pits by those little red tractors they used to use at IMS in those days! To me there was nothing like that Poppy-Red Foyt color (an original Ford Mustang color from 1965) and to this day my house is filled with it! But THEN, right after the Race, The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on June 1 and… WOW! 1967 just went off the charts for me!

    George, have you looked into the Shelby Turbine? Fascinating story, it looked very similar to the Paxton except that (unknown to Goodyear, its major sponsor) the air intake could be opened and shut like the shutter of a still camera! Completely illegal! See, USAC didn’t like the way the Paxton dominated the 1967 Race so they did what they always do and tried to legislate the Turbines out of existence by severely limiting the diameter of its “annulus” (the air intake). Shelby thought it would be cool to have his Turbine pass inspection with its annulus set at the required smaller setting and once it was on the track it could be opened up by the driver (like a camera shutter) to the larger intake like the ’67 version! Goodyear didn’t want any part of cheating and although three or four of them were built they never appeared at IMS to qualify. AJ Foyt in his autobiography said at least one became the “world’s largest planter.” Hot Wheels even released a (now much sought-after) “Shelby Turbine” in 1968, before Shelby had withdrawn them from competition.

    Now those were the days, eh?

    Phil Kaiser
    Indianapolis

    • billytheskink Says:

      My first experience learning about the turbine cars at Indy were those Hot Wheels turbine car models.

      In addition to the Shelby Turbine, they also released a Lotus Turbine and an “Indy Eagle” that looked great. These were among my favorite Hot Wheels to race across the floor because they were much lighter and quicker than the fendered cars or even later open-wheel models like the Turbostreak and Hot Wheels 500.

      • Phil Kaiser Says:

        Indeed, and I have all three. BUT I just recently found out Hot Wheels put out the 1967 Ford Mk IV AJ and Gurney drove to victory at Le Mans in 1968 as well! I’ve been collecting AJ stuff for near 45 years and just found out about this car in the middle of this past December. It’s red with the twin white stripes and the number one. It even has the “Gurney bubble” Ford had to manufacture on the fly over the driver’s head because Gurney was so much taller than most at the time. I cannot believe these do not show up on a “Foyt” search on eBay! I already got a beautiful one last week….

        Phil Kaiser
        Indianapolis

  4. Foyt said before the ’67 race that the Turbine would eventually have gear box problems and the $6 ball bearing in the gear box did it in. Still, one of my favorite cars to ever run at Indianapolis.

  5. With the intent to cut the costs of racing, I don’t understand why another look isn’t given to turbine engines. These engines could, and can, run an entire season without overhauls. They can run on a variety of fuels, and with a bit of design work to be able to deflect the exhaust down, they can double as track driers.

    I was looking at the photos of the #70 car a few days ago and noticed one caption which said the car dropped out of the race with a mechanical problem. Some of us know that, in fact, Graham Hill crashed the car in Turn 2.

    I vividly remember the turbine cars in both ’67 and ’68.
    In ’67 I was sitting in J Stand and as the field approached Turn 1 to start the race, even through all the dust and turbulence which affected the view from Turn 4, I could see that car of Parnelli’s go wide into the turn. I fully expected his race to end right then. When the yellow light didn’t come on, and unable to hear Tom Carnegie over the roar of the crowd, I focused on the end of the back stretch andcwaited for the cars to come into view. I was amazed to see the turbine appear well ahead of Mario, who had started from the pole.

    Given that the turbine failed three laps from the finish and that four extra laps were run due to the stop and restart because of the rain, I still wonder, “What if…?”

    I spent most of the ’68 race in the infield at the exit of Turn 2. For much of the race Leonard and Bobby Unser were running nose to tail. The turbine was noticeably faster theoug the turn, but agonizingly slower on the backstretch. The turbines were at a disadvantage on horsepower, but the four wheel drive was proving its’ effectiveness through the turns.

  6. Those were great years, I was 12 years old in 67. What I can’t remember is did the turbine run any other races on the schedule that year. If not, I wonder why?

  7. I hope not to leave this as an ‘I miss the old days ‘ comment but REALLY”………

    It did and still does get the old blood boiling. Fans were interested withna capital ‘I’. Where are we going? what’s gonna happen ,What’s gonna HAPPEN!!!!!!!

    Now we have a spec car series and it’s ‘yawn, which Penske car will win it?’ zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.”…………..

    Wish I were more eloquent , but ” who has the best front wing” just ain’t gonna cut it.

    When the big money leaves, we’ll be back to the glory days.

  8. Chris Lukens Says:

    I think the interest in the Turbines comes from the fact that they are the ultimate in “NON” spec race cars. Also they remind people of when open wheeled race cars actually had wheels out in the open.

    About Facebook, I don’t like the fact that they collect and analyze all of your personal info and then sell it to advertisers.

  9. Like Chris, I don’t like the fact that personal info. is collected and sold on Facebook. At the urging of my daughter I finally set up a Facebook account just to grab photos of my grandchildren. However, I did not use my real name or put up any personal information. (Actually, at my age I can’t always remember my real name anyway.)

  10. Petr Sedina Says:

    Hi ,

    I am not on Facebook, however these turbine cars have ever been my favorites , fast, aerodynamic and futuristic. It is a pity that turbines lost their chance in sixties. The turbine concept was great, thanks to Mr. STP .

    Petr

  11. I suppose I need to Google “Turbine Engine” to know what it is you are really talking about.

    • Phil Kaiser Says:

      Google “Pratt Whitney Turbine Engine” I believe it was a helicopter engine….

      Phil Kaiser
      Indianapolis

  12. Just a couple of points.
    1. On Facebook: I can dig what George thinks about the Book. Fact is if you run a website or brand that you want to promote in a relatively inexpensive way, you gotta be on it. Another fact, George is 100% correct in saying that it’s people his, (our) age posting pictures of kids and reliving teenage years. Didn’t start out that way but the shift has happened where the 18-24s are gone because they aren’t going to hang out where the rents do.
    2. On photos in groups on Facebook: I’d say nearly 90% of them that are posted are in violation of the Facebook ToS and US copyright laws. If you are in one of the groups there. click the share button off of a website and share it to the group. Don’t download it, save it, then re-post it and whatever you do-PLEASE don’t try to crop out a watermark. The guys that took the pictures spent a lot of time and money documenting history and to essentially steal them and re-post them in a public arena, (especially if you aren’t even going to ask permission or give accreditation), isn’t cool-it’s theft.
    3. On the Turbines-Like Phil said, the Shelby’s were probably the most incredibly sexy versions of the silent cars. Simply beautifully crafted and had Shelby not lost face and pulled out, I betcha they would have been just as successful as Andy’s almost were. Also, you guys that were there, is it me or is this resurgence that George talks about one of those deals where “History is best remembered embellished?” Seems to me that I’ve read in Granatelli’s and Parnelli’s books as well as heard AJ and Mario say how the crowd hated the cars and cheered enthusiastically when they broke. Is that true?

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