One of the most unusual Indy cars ever built, Smokey Yunick’s 1964 capsule car continues to fascinate race fans to this day. Here’s a detailed look. -Indianapolis Motor Speedway photos
This famous but bizarre race car has been tagged with many names over the years—sidewinder, Smokey’s sidecar, the pod racer—but Yunick preferred the term capsule car to describe the unusual architecture of his 1964 Indy car. The drivetrain and running gear were housed in a central fuselage, with the driver installed in an auxiliary capsule suspended along the left side of the chassis.
Countless stories have been written about the capsule racer, but the best source is Smokey himself in his fabulous memoir, Best Damn Garage in Town. There, he explained the theory and thinking behind his creation. With the book as our primary source, we’ll use photos to tell the capsule car story.
The young Smokey spent World War II as a B-17 pilot, mainly in the European theater. It was in the skies over Germany on a bombing mission one day in 1944, he later wrote, where he encountered a Blohm & Voss BV 141, a German reconnaissance aircraft. He was captivated by the unusual plane with its outrigger cockpit layout, and intrigued by the packaging possibilities. The BV 141 would eventually serve as the inspiration for his 1964 entry at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
In the spring of 1964, shifter tycoon George Hurst and Smokey pose with the newly-completed capsule car behind Smokey’s race shop in Daytona Beach. Note the Halifax River directly behind them. Hurst put up $40,000 to fund the effort in exchange for the naming rights: Hurst Floor Shift Special. Here, Hurst’s hand rests on the combined shifter/clutch control crafted by Smokey.
This head-on view of the capsule car on the track at Indy nicely illustrates the unique layout, with the main fuselage and drivetrain on the vehicle centerline and the sidecar hung on the left side of the chassis between the wheels. The car’s guiding principle, in a nutshell: Smokey arranged the three greatest masses—engine, driver, and fuel load—so that the vehicle’s weight distribution was balanced front/rear and biased to the left, but remained constant throughout the race.
Yunick originally intended to use a helicopter turbine to power the capsule car, but his deal with the supplier fell through in mid-build and he installed a trusty four-cylinder Offy instead. The intake trumpets for the Hilborn fuel injectors are longer than most builders employed, suggesting that Smokey was tuning for midrange torque.
The simple front suspension setup features a transverse leaf spring, which doubles as the upper lateral locating link on each side. The front spindles, backing plates, and brakes are 1963 Pontiac Tempest components, including the finned aluminum drums with cast-iron liners. Though they were light and inexpensive, the OE drum brakes would prove to be a crucial trouble spot.
At the rear, the capsule car runs a DeDion tube with coilover dampers, trailing arms, and an antiroll bar. The oil tank is mounted behind the rear axle, while the fuel tank is up front, ahead of the radiator. A simple tubing space frame with bulkheads connects the front and rear.
This tight crop of the driver capsule shows the squared-off steering wheel, which Smokey devised to provide more knee and knuckle room, and the cable-operated shifter/clutch control. Smokey also intended to provide a single brake/throttle control, but eventually settled on a conventional pedal setup. The steering wheel employed a quick-disconnect coupler while the driver pod detached with five bolts—two features that troubled the USAC technical inspectors, according to Smokey.
To pilot the unorthodox invention, Yunick deliberately chose an experienced driver but an Indy car rookie: NASCAR veteran Bobby Johns. The son of famed midget driver Shorty Johns, Bobby won two NASCAR Grand National races in 141 starts and eventually attempted to qualify for the Indy 500 seven times, starting twice and finishing in the top 10 both times.
While Bobby Johns was the driver of record, Indy car veteran Duane Carter also ran some practice laps. A previous Yunick collaborator, he drove Smokey’s Reverse Torque Special (read the story here) in the 1959 Indy 500, finishing seventh.
Plagued with new-car bugs, the capsule car was slow getting up to competitive speed and did not make an qualifying attempt until the afternoon of Sunday, May 24, the final day. On the first timed lap, Johns entered Turn 1 a little too hot and tapped the brakes—whereupon things went wrong in a hurry. The Tempest drum brakes were grabby and unpredictable until fully warmed up, so when Johns toed the pedal, the car executed a 720-degree spin and slapped the outside wall, as shown in this video freeze frame. Johns was unhurt, but with no time left for repairs, the capsule car’s month was over.
The freeze frame shows something else, too: the driver’s vulnerability in a spin into the wall or in contact with other cars. This rotation was relatively gentle but it still tossed Johns around in the cockpit, leaving him shockingly exposed in the event of an impact.
As things turned out, the 1964 qualifying attempt was the last time the car ever ran. Rules changes for 1965 rendered the capsule design obsolete. A few years later, Smokey turned the car over to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Hall of Fame Museum, where visitors can see it today.
More Smokey Yunick stories at Mac’s Motor City Garage::