It seems almost unfair: Only one car can win the Indianapolis 500 each year. So here we celebrate five exceptional race cars that never triumphed at the greatest spectacle in racing.
MCG caught plenty of heat in some quarters for our recent feature, “The 10 Greatest Cars in Indy 500 History.” To provide a fresh angle on a very old debate, we introduced a new condition to the list: only Indy 500 race winners could be included. “Unfair!” howled our army of critics. Many great cars in Speedway history never actually won the race, they assert. We sure can’t dispute that.
By way of atonement, if you will, now we turn the matter upside down. Here are five great cars that raced at Indy and never won. Still, each one holds a special place in Speedway lore.
In over two decades at the Speedway, the fabulous Novis never lived up to their potential, nor to all the hype they generated each May. The best year for the screaming supercharged V8s was 1946, when Ralph Hepburn (above) set a sensational new qualifying record of 134.449 mph and led 44 laps before dropping out. A Novi would never come any closer to victory lane.
With its low, sleek design (the body was just 28 inches tall) and stunning pole-position qualifying performance, the 1952 Cummins Diesel Special accomplished its objective, generating huge publicity for the Columbus, Indiana engine manufacturer. Though driver Fred Agabashian completed only 71 laps in 1952 (turbocharger failure, officially) and the car never raced again, the Cummins Special remains one of the most recognizable racers in Speedway history.
The 1911 Indianapolis 500 was one of the wooliest events in the brief annals of auto racing (as this amazing film here at Mac’s Motor City Garage illustrates). Pointing to all the confusion, one cadre of racing historians advances the theory that, due to scoring errors, the race was erroneously awarded to Ray Harroun in the Marmon Wasp. They insist the real winner was Ralph Mulford in the no. 33 Lozier (above). Balderdash, say other historians, led by eminent Speedway chronicler Donald Davidson; it’s a manufactured controversy and the Lozier finished second. In any event, it gives Indy enthusiasts something to talk about.
Never has a 9th-place car been as influential at the Speedway. Jack Brabham’s Cooper T53 Coventry-Climax came to the 1961 race overwhelmed and underpowered, but still managed to demonstrate the clear superiority of its lightweight, mid-engine design over the venerable roadsters.
The Granatelli brothers’ 1967 STP turbine is probably the most famous race car that never won the Indy 500. Fans were riveted by the revolutionary design, featuring four-wheel drive and a Pratt & Whitney ST6 gas turbine engine borrowed from a helicopter. Silent Sam, as the car became known, dominated the 1967 race only to fall out at the 490-mile mark when a driveline bearing failed. The United States Auto Club eventually regulated turbine engines right out of the sport.
Photos courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway