Celebrating The Roadster On Legends Day

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Earlier this week, we learned that this year’s Legends Day will honor the legacy of the famous roadsters at Indianapolis. I always enjoy Legends Day. It’s a low-key affair held on the Saturday, just a little more than twenty-four hours before the Indianapolis 500. It’s a relatively new thing that they’ve been doing for the last decade or so. Vintage cars take to the track around 9:00 that morning. The stands behind the pits are open.

I’m always very happy just sitting in the stands watching race cars go by. When they are cars from a bygone era, I’m just that much happier.

Afterwards, there are lots of static displays of vintage cars, an autograph session, the ceremonial driver’s meeting along with the giant memorabilia show in the Pagoda Pavilion; where you can browse and buy anything from new books, old programs, driver’s suits from year’s past, die-cast models, old crew shirts, etc. You name it, they’ll have it.

Of course, the Saturday before the race is the day we all make a point to go to the museum. Last year, I went during the Grand Prix weekend also, but with my brother(s) in town for race weekend, that is our traditional time to make out annual pilgrimage to the museum.

There is also a Legends Day concert. We went a couple of years ago, when Blake Shelton performed. It was fun, but unless it’s someone I really care about – we’ll usually pass.

But I always like seeing the old cars. With the roadsters being honored this year, I’m especially looking forward to Legends Day.

Most people know that I cherish the rich history of Indy car racing and the Indianapolis 500 in particular. Part of that rich history is the roadster. There is much debate on what classifies a race car as a roadster. I’ve heard many people call practically any front-engine car a roadster. Well, that’s certainly not the case.

I consider myself a die-hard fan, but even I’m a little hazy on what differentiates a roadster from other race cars. Some credit Bill Vukovich with coining the term. Legend has it that when he first saw his new Kurtis Kraft KK500A, Fuel Injection Special in 1952; Vukovich supposedly said “Why that looks like my old roadster”, in reference to his Track Roadster he raced in California years earlier. The term stuck.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I consider a roadster to have the driver offset to one side, with the driveshaft and transaxle offset to the other. Some might say that the front-drive Novis were roadsters, but if you’re going by the definition of a roadster as having the driver offset, which many people do – then they would not be.

Since the term roadster is more of a slang term and not an official type of car, IMS Historian Donald Davidson says it should not be capitalized. Who am I to argue with the great Donald Davidson? Therefore, I will not capitalize the word either.

Vukovich and his roadster nearly won the Indianapolis 500 that year. He was comfortably leading and had led a total of 150 laps, when his steering failed and he helplessly drifted into the wall on Lap 192. Troy Ruttman went on to win in 1952 as the race’s youngest winner – a record that still stands today. Ruttman was driving what looked like an upright dirt car. It was the last year an upright car would win the Indianapolis 500.

Vukovich’s roadster went on to win the next two Indianapolis 500’s. In 1955, Bob Sweikert won in the Pink Zink, another Kurtis roadster painted in tropical rose.

Another John Zink car won in 1956 with Pat Flaherty at the wheel, but this one was built by Sweikert’s Chief Mechanic the previous year, AJ Watson – known simply as a Watson. The term “Watson” gets used a little incorrectly at times, but I’ll get into that later.

One of the most famous roadsters won the next two “500s” – the revolutionary George Salih laydown Belond Exhaust Special, built by Quin Epperly. With the Offenhauser engine tilted 72°, the car was able to have a much lower front-end. Sam Hanks drove the car to victory in 1957 and retired from racing in Victory Lane. Jimmy Bryan left the Dean Van Lines Special in 1958 to drive the same Salih car to a second consecutive victory in 1958. Donald Davidson says the Belond Special of 1957-58 is his favorite car in the IMS Museum. I won’t go that far, but it is one of my favorites and a truly iconic car.

1959 started a string of Watson victories. By now, AJ Watson had left John Zink to work for Bob Wilke’s Leader Card team. The main reason he left Zink was because Zink did not care for Watson building cars for other teams to buy. Wilke had no such problem with it. Leader Card Watson roadsters won the 1959 Indianapolis 500 as well as the 1962 race, both with Rodger Ward behind the wheel.

Another Watson roadster won in 1960, when Jim Rathmann won in an epic battle over Ward.

Remember when I said that some use the term Watson incorrectly? That’s because AJ Watson would gladly sell his plans to other car builders, who would copy them with much success. I’ve heard many knowledgeable people incorrectly refer to AJ Foyt’s 1961 winner as a Watson. Well, that’s not really accurate. The car was built by Floyd Trevis from Watson plans, but the car was not built by AJ Watson. Some still call it a Watson, but I call it a Trevis. Several other builders had Watson copies, but the Trevis was the only one that won at Indianapolis.

Ol’ Calhoun driven to victory by Parnelli Jones in 1963 was an authentic Watson, as well as the 1964 winner driven by Foyt.

When Jim Clark won the 1965 Indianapolis 500, it ended the streak of front-engine cars winning at Indianapolis. Never again would a front-engine car win at the famed oval (before some smart-aleck points out that NASCAR races there with front-engine cars – I know that. I’m talking about the “500”). It also ended the streak of wins by the roadsters. Altogether, every Indianapolis 500 from 1953 to 1964 was won by a roadster.

I feel very fortunate to be able to say that I saw roadsters run in the Indianapolis 500. Six roadsters started in my first Indianapolis 500 in 1965, and two of them were the ear-splitting Novis. I saw Jim Hurtubise make several qualifying attempts in his Mallard, but it qualified only once – in 1968, lasting only for nine laps. After that, a front-engine car would never race again in the Indianapolis 500. They would only be found in history books and now – You Tube videos.

But on Legends Day this year, we can all take a step back into a time when the Offenhausers ruled and the roadsters were king. While I enjoy the sleek designs of the rear-engine cars that have been prevalent for over fifty years; there is something mystifying about the giant bulky roadsters. Although their average lap speeds never went higher than 155 mph, there is just something about them that just look like raw power. They ran in an age when during a crash, the car would survive even if the driver didn’t. Their massive steering wheels took a lot of muscle to handle these large machines. These cars were no-nonsense cars driven by no-nonsense men – at least on the track.

So on Saturday May 26, if you are anywhere close to Indianapolis; come by the Speedway – even if you aren’t planning on going to the race. You will see and hear sights and sounds of a time gone by. Let your imagination run wild.

George Phillips

Please Note As is normally the case at this time of year, Susan and I will be travelling to visit my mother this Easter weekend. Therefore there will be no post here on Monday April 2. I will return here on Wednesday April 4. I hope everyone enjoys their weekend. – GP

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11 Responses to “Celebrating The Roadster On Legends Day”

  1. I grew up with the roadsters and love that era of the 500. The Vuky car is one of my two all time favorites. My favorite of all is the Boyle Maserati. Great article about the history of one of the best periods of the race.

  2. Hi George, I believe when folks around here talk about “upright'” they are talking about the engine placement in the car, not the looks of the car. Ruttman won in a “dirt car” (the last of those to win Indy), and its engine sat “upright.” The actual last “upright” car to win was A. J. Foyt’s 1964 Watson, as opposed to the two wins by the “laydown” roadster in 1957 & ’58.

    One other thing: Donald Davidson has repeatedly said his favorite car in the museum is the 1964 Watson Foyt drove that year. He says it’s his favorite because at the end of the 1964 season Foyt and his crew dropped it off at the museum in exactly the shape it was in when it came off the last track that season (after helping Foyt win 10 of 13 IndyCar races that year, a record), and it has remained un-restored to this day. He even co-authored a book just about that car, which is still available in the IMS Museum.

    Thanks again for all you do!

    Phil Kaiser
    Indianapolis

    • Phil, I’ve repeatedly heard Donald Davidson refer to Ruttman’s car as the last “upright dirt car” to win. If it’s good enough for Donald, it’s good enough for me. I’ve also heard him say numerous times that the Belond Special is his favorite.

      I have every episode of “The Talk of Gasoline Alley” from 2003 loaded onto my phone, and some dating back to 2000. That’s over 300 episodes. I listen to them constantly doing yard work, taking walks and on long drives. Over the years, he repeats himself a lot and is very consistent. I don’t make this stuff up. I know what I hear. – GP

  3. Would love to go to this. I wish they had it later in the day on Saturday. Since we go up that day and pay for a place in one of the yards near the track, 9:00 is just too early.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    I continue to be impressed with the staying power of the roadster (and the cigar-shaped early rear-engine cars) as an icon, something that even folks far-removed from their era continue to recognize as a “race car”.

    They’re great-looking cars.

  5. George consistently puts up good stuff here so I am left today to simply say once again: Good stuff George. My favorite roadsters are the Blue Crown Specials and Vuky’s car. I enjoyed seeing Ruttman win in something that looked like a dirt track car.

    • Both are worthy mentions. My favorites include the Vukovich car and Ol’ Calhoun. there is something about the front-drive Novis that fascinate me. Then of course – the Boyle Maserati of Wilbur Shaw. But the Blue Crowns are up there also. So many to choose from. – GP

      • Ron Ford Says:

        I’m with you on the Boyle Maserati also. The Novis were glorious, terrifying, beasts with legions of fans-including me-but they always broke our hearts in the end.

  6. James T Suel Says:

    1960 was my first 500 ,been to all since. The Roadsters are still my favorite race car. 1951 with Lee WAllard and Troy Ruttman were in upright dirt cars ,set up for the speedway. Looking forward to seeing the Roadsters and hearing the sweet sound of the Offy again. Thanks for what you do.

  7. Sigh, I will be missing a great Saturday this May. I will look forward to our photos, George.

  8. Mark J Wick Says:

    The first 500 I attended was 1963. I was also at the ’65 and ’67 raced before being at every 500 from ’68 through 95, so i witnessed the transition from font engine cars to the rear engine cars.
    I saw Parnelli wn in Ol’ Calhoun and many years later was invited to sit in that car the day before the 500, as it was parked in a garage in the old Gasoline Alley, ready to be driven around the track before the race. I am 5-10 and could barely fold myself up enough to get into that cockpit.

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