A Resurgence Of Interest In The Turbine Era
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.
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)
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.
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.