Posting vignettes based on great postcards found in my mail box and elsewhere.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Revolution Is Complete

This 3x5 inch postcard shows the starting field of the 1965 Indianapolis 500-Mile Sweepstakes. The eventual race winner, Scotsman Jimmy Clark, is in the middle of the front row. He is flanked by defending champion A.J. Foyt, on the pole (right) and Dan Gurney (left).


This was the first year that a rear engine car won the 500 mile race. Since 1911 the front engine roadster-style cars were the vogue. The rear engine revolution was now complete and there was no looking back.

The rear engine was brought to Indy several times. The first was in 1937 by Lee Oldfield, a maverick engineer. The car failed to qualify. There were a few others but the revolution began in earnest in 1961 with Jack Brabham's Cooper-Climax, a modified Formula I racecar. Compared to the traditional front engine roadsters, the Cooper was a tiny car with a small engine compared to the roadsters of the day but because of superior handling finished a respectable ninth its first time out.  Despite this top ten finish, the rear engine car's finish was seen as a fluke by most, though others could see the future was in the rear end.

Seeing the writing on wall, American Dan Gurney paid famed English car builder Colin Chapman to attend the 1962 race and arranged for him to meet with the Ford Motor Company executives. He returned to England with a contract to build three rear engine cars powered by an aluminum Ford engine for the 1963 race. Jim Clark drove one of those to a strong second-place finish. By 1965 27 of the 33 cars were rear engine. Fourteen were Ford-powered rear engine cars and they took nine of the top ten spots. People soon began to refer to the front engine cars as dinosaurs.

Besides the first win by a rear engine car, this was a years of other firsts. Notable among them was the first year since 1916 the race was not won by an American. It was the first year the race was televised live by the American Broadcasting Company (ABC's Wide World of Sports). It was also the first year the racecar's gas tanks contained a thick rubber bladder with a low-density plastic foam so that if the tank was ruptured the fuel spill and splash would be minimized. This safety feature was added following the previous year's worse fiery accident in the speedway's history (another first). This seven car accident claimed the life of rookie Dave McDonald and veteran racer Eddy Sacks. The deaths and injury to other drivers in this conflagration led to several safety related changes at the speedway, such as less volatile fuels and limits on fuel capacity in cars.

Friday, May 22, 2009

1950 Indinapolis 500 Starting Bomb

This postcard shows the starting field of the 1950 Indianapolis Motor Speedway race, 69 years ago. It was photographed in Kodachrome and Ansco color by Robert Martin for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation. The description on the reverse side is vague but contains one note of specific interest. It records that the 33-car starting field awaits "the starting bomb" -- the speedway's signal for drivers to start their engines. This was the last year before the now traditional "Gentleman, start your engines" command would be uttered.

The winner of this race was Johnnie Parsons. He is in the yellow car, number one, far right, the fifth starting position. The first row is off picture further to the right. The car featured a lightweight aircraft-like tubular space frame, welded with chrome-moly steel. Instead of solid front axles with springs used by most cars, Parson's sported an independent front suspension with torsion bars. The modern suspension gave the car a softer ride, superior handling and faster cornering speeds. A DVD of the race is available here.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The "Cool and Unshakeable" Parnelli Jones

Perhaps the perfect name for a race car driver -- Parnelli Jones. (Of course, he dropped his first name, Rufus, which rhymes with dufus.) Jones was an incredible talent in a racing machine. He won the Indianapolis 500 once in 1963 but came close to winning in 1967. Leading the race with three laps to go he was forced out by a mechanical break down.

In his autobiography, They Call Me Mister 500, Andy Granatelli made a list of the great Indy drivers. "The names of the outstanding ones leap immediately to mind; the incomparable Jimmy Clark, the cool and unshakable Rufus Parnelli Jones, Graham Hill, Johnny Parsons, Pat Flaherty, Jim Rathmann, Bobby Unser." By a vote of the fans Jones is listed as one of the 33 all-time top Indy drivers. He has the distinction of being the first driver to crack the 150 mph barrier in qualifying at the speedway.

This 6X9 inch picture postcard is the official speedway post qualifying picture. He is at the wheel of the Offenhauser-powered roadster, the J.C. Agajanian Williard Battery Special, in which he won the pole position as the fastest qualifier and the 1963 race. Yes, that is a garbage truck riding pig, complete with cowboy hat decal on the oil reservoir tank. The car owner was J.C. Agajanian, a California pig farmer, whose cars always carried the cartoon emblem.

Judging from the large crowd, my guess is the picture was taken sometime after his qualifying run on the first day of qualifying, usually the second weekend in May. He is one of ten drivers to win the pole position twice, in 1962-1963. Each time was a new speed record. In 1963 his average speed was 151.153. This year's (2009) pole winner is Brazilian Helio Castroneves's. His four-lap qualifying average was 224.864 mph.

The 6X9 picture postcard below shows Jones at the pole (right, foreground) leading the pace lap before the start of the 1963 Indianapolis 500 mile. The red car beside Jones is Jim Hurtubise in a Novi-powered car, one of three in the field that year. Jones and Hurtubise battled in the early laps for the lead, a battle that was caught on recorded tape by Fleetwood Sounds. The tape was made into a thirty-three and a third vinyl disk which I listened to as a young boy. The original tape recording was made into a CD in 2005. It is available from Track one records Bobby Unser's, then a rookie, qualification run. Unser also drove one of the Novi's. The engine was one of the loudest and most powerful race cars ever to circle the track. The Novi's were super-charged and developed more horsepower per cubic inch than any other car. To seriously addicted motorheads, the Novi sound was not only an ear-splitting roar but universally regarded as finely tuned motor music.

"Grand Prix" postcard advertisement

This postcard is an advertisement for the movie Grand Prix. My mother, and later myself, worked for a cinema theater company near Detroit, Michigan, which showed the film after its release in 1966. I think it opened first in Michigan at the Summit Theatre in Detroit, which is printed in large letters on the lower reverse side. The reverse side's top inscription reads: "The International Star Cast of "GRAND PRIX" photographed at the finish line of the Monza motor racing circuit in Italy. An M-G-M presentation in CINERAMA."

Among the international stars of the film are American James Garner, Italian Yves Montand, Chinese Toshiro Mifune, English Brum Bedford and French actress Francoise Hardy. Actual Formula One drivers Phil Hill, Graham Hill, Jim Clark, and Jack Brabham made cameo appearances. The movie follows four Formula One fictionalized drivers through a race season. The movie won Academy Awards for best sound effects and film editing. It was one of the ten highest grossing movie of 1966. In 2006 the film was released in DVD version.

As far as racing movies of that era go, I prefer "Le Mans," starring Steve McQueen. It was not popular at the box office but it captures the tension and all-consuming passion of a race car driver. Le Mans was worth the admission just for the one quote from McQueen's character, Michael Delaney, who said, "When you're racing...its life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting." To hear the quote, go here. The film is an explication of this quote.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Main Gate


I bought this Curteichcolor postcard on one of my visits to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I might have picked it up when I was eleven years old when my family attended the 1964 Indianapolis 500 but more likely it is from later years. It is a picture of the main gate to the speedway. Our family could not afford to attend each year so every two or three years we would make the racing pilgrimage to the famed oval. As an adult I've attended the race twice - once in 1978 and again in 1982. I may have picked up the card either of those year because the trees are tall enough to obscure the grandstands. Other postcard views of the gate, like this one -- scroll down to number 77, show younger trees.

This year is the Centennial year of the Indianapolis (Indy) 500. The speed was established in August 1909 when Carl G. Fisher, James A. Allison, Arthur C. Newby and Frank H. Wheeler pooled their ideas and financial resources to create the track. The first 500 mile race was held in 1911. It was called the International Sweepstakes and was won by Ray Harroun at an average speed of 74.602 mph.

Ray Harroun retired from driving race cars after his first and famous victory. He became a builder of successful race cars. In early 1917 Harroun leased a small plant in my childhood home town of Wayne, Michigan. In 1917 he built 500 roadsters at this plant. Like Ray, I left racing shortly after my first and only race car victory two years ago. I have since sold my race car but have yet to open a high speed performance shop.