This year’s 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 featured the largest assembly of vintage Indy cars ever assembled in one place. Veteran automotive journalist Jim McCraw was there for the spectacle, and here’s his report.
With nearly a half-century writing and editing for America’s top automotive publications, Jim McCraw is one of the most distinguished journalists in the biz, and It’s an honor to present his work. Here’s his report, with photos, on the recent vintage Indy car meeting at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 2016 Indy 500.
A Look Back, Way Back, At The Indy 500
Story and Photos by Jim McCraw
At this year’s Indy 500, in the Historic Gasoline Alley compound behind the Indianapolis 500 Museum, there were more vintage Indy cars than have ever gathered in one place before, all part of the celebration of the 100th running of the Indy 500.
The cars here were the living symbols of the hundreds of thousands of hours of toil, sweat and tears spent at this glorious place, trying to win. A few of the cars here were race winners. Most of them were not. But the important thing is that they were here, brought by their owner/stewards to be part of this year’s very special show. Then entry list for this vintage gathering swelled to 150 cars and crews, packed under a tent city for all to see, divided into Prewar, Postwar, and Rear-Engined groups.
1965 Lotus-Ford Indy 500 winner Jim Clark
From the earliest days, there was Bruce McCaw’s 1908 Benz racer, the 1913 Peugeot that won the race, brought by The Collier Collection, a 1913 Mercer, the big white 1914 Stutz owned by Florida’s C. J. O’Steen, the 1923 Miller-engined Locomobile Junior 8 driven by none other than America’s winningest endurance racer, Hurley Haywood, and a dozen other Miller-engined cars including Tommy Milton’s 1923 winner from HCS Motor Company. Miller engines, in a variety of chassis including Miller, won the race a dozen times in the Twenties and Thirties.
From the Miller-dominated 1930s came a very large number of entries, the most interesting of which was the no. 61 Miller of Bill Miller, a car that competed at Indy more times than any other race car, from 1938 through 1949, when it finished second. Also from the Thirties, the lone Studebaker, the 1930 Sampson Miller sporting not one but two Miller straight-eight engines, a Ford-powered Ford roadster, and a replica of the only Oakland race car ever built, replicated in an Ohio garage by John Armstrong and his family and including a very strange Oakland V-8 flathead engine with 90-degree valves. The only car with big-time sponsorship from the Thirties was Pat Phinny’s Ringling/Henning Wonder Bread Special with paint to match.
1923 Locomobile Miller Junior 8
1972 McLaren-Offy Indy 500 winner Mark Donohue
Sponsorship and specials came to Indy to stay in the war-interrupted 1940s, and there were cars there representing some of the great old names of Indy racing, including Bardahl, Belanger, Bowes Seal-Fast, Bryant Heating and Cooling, Dayton Wheels, Grant Piston Rings, Leader Card, Sheraton, Simoniz, Travelon Trailers, and Willard Batteries.
The fabulous ’50s at Indy was the era of the builders, builders like A. J. Watson, Frank Kurtis, Eddie Kuzma, Emil Deidt, Quinn Epperly, and Lujie Lesovsky, all of whom specialized in building Indy race cars, and all of whom were represented here in 2016 with one or more cars.
1930 Oakland V8 Ira Vail Special
1933 Miller Wonder Bread Special
The double-overhead-cam four-valve engine pioneered by Harry Miller became Fred Offenhauser’s masterpiece, winning Indy starting in 1935 and winning its last race, as a turbo Offy, in 1976, including a run of 17 straight races from 1947 through 1964. This year, there were Offys and turbo Offys all over the place.
The car that started the rear-engine revolution, the Lotus/Ford of Colin Chapman and Jimmy Clark that won the race in 1965, had probably the most crowded pit in the joint, but was just one of many of the innovative cars built and entered by Mickey Thompson, Clint Brawner, Joe Huffaker, A.J. Foyt, Dan Gurney, Rolla Vollstedt, Lola, Lotus, March, Bruce McLaren, Jack Brabham, Bob Riley, and Parnelli Jones. Not to mention the infamously quiet STP Turbine. How’s that for a Hall Of Fame lineup?
The vintage cars ran in paced groups by themselves on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, between final Indycar practice (formerly known as Carburetion Day) and the Indy Lights sessions. A very special group of the race-wining cars were part of the opening ceremonies on race day, Sunday, before California’s Alexander Rossi won his first Indy 500.
We’ve been to the Indy 500 12 times since 1975, and we can tell you that there won’t be another one like this in our lifetime. It was special, very special.
1965 Brawner Hawk-Ford Mario Andretti
Historic Gasoline Alley