The Python may not be as well-known as some other Smokey Yunick creations, but it was as radical as any of them. Here’s the story behind a race car that leaned into the turns.
Everything about Smokey Yunick’s Python Indy car was a little strange, including the name: In Speedway lore, it was invented by two-time Indy 500 winner Rodger Ward, who took a look at the ungainly machine on pit row and said it looked “like a python that swallowed a piano.” However, the oddly bulging bodywork was not the most unusual feature. Underneath was a radical chassis designed so that all four wheels banked into the corners—like a motorcycle, more or less. And while it wasn’t successful, that doesn’t make the Python any less fascinating.
The Python appeared at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1962 and 1963, but only in practice—it never made a qualifying attempt. Driver Jim Rathmann tried out the car in ’62, but the team opted to qualify its trusty Watson-Offy, the 1960 winner, for the race that year. In 1963, Smokey’s buddy and NASCAR legend Curtis Turner (above) made his Indy debut in the Python, but crashed and destroyed the car on the Turn 3 wall in practice, ending his open-wheel career almost as soon as it started.
The official owner of the Python on the 1962 entry form was Kenny Rich, another Yunick partying associate, a wealthy entrepreneur, and the co-owner of the 1960 Indy 500 winner, the Ken-Paul Special. (For years, Smokey bitterly complained that he was robbed of the crew chief credit for that victory). Sponsorship for the Python came from Simoniz Wax, the source of the Rich family fortune, and the Fiberglas division of Owens Corning. Meanwhile, key technical support was supplied by two divisions of General Motors, where Yunick enjoyed some powerful executive connections.
The Python’s chassis was constructed by Smokey and Luigi “Lujie” Lesovksy, regarded by many (including Smokey) as probably the greatest race car fabricator there ever was. The Offy’s exhaust system, fuel and oil tanks, and fine details all show Lujie’s meticulous craftsmanship.
Unlike conventional Offy roadsters, which housed their giant fuel tanks in their tail sections, the Python carried its tank outboard the left side of the chassis (above). Thus with a full fuel load, when the car was at maximum weight, the left-side weight bias was at maximum as well, for optimum handling on the Speedway’s four left turns. As the heavy fuel load burned off, the weight distribution progressed back toward neutral—an interesting strategy.
The radical suspension system, with special geometry that allowed all four wheels to bank inward during cornering, was designed and constructed by engineers at the Saginaw Steering Division of General Motors, under the direction of chief engineer Phil Ziegler. GM frequently experimented with such systems that used camber thrust to generate cornering force, and Smokey was keen on the idea as well. However, he was disappointed by Saginaw’s execution: All the pivots used plastic-filled spherical joints similar to passenger car tie-rod ends, and he declared the setup far too heavy for an Indy car.
The far-out asymmetric bodywork was the work of General Motors as well—designed by Bill Mitchell’s staff at the GM styling studio and constructed in fiberglass by the studio’s modeling and fabrication shop. But alas, for all the high-tech resources directed at the Python, the project was a disappointing flop. In two years the car never quite got up to qualifying speed, and after Turner bounced the beast off the wall in Turn 3, Yunick had it hauled back to his shop in Daytona and crushed.
Smokey himself would later declare, “The Python may have well have been my most unmemorable Indy adventure, on the track at least.” As always, the best and most entertaining source of info on the life and times of Smokey Yunick is the man himself, in his amazing, invaluable, and irreplaceable three-volume autobiography, which is available at the official Yunick family website, Smokey Yunick.com.