Equal parts legend, myth, and fable, the awesome Novi V8 is one of the great stories of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Here’s a look back at 25 years of fascinating Novi lore.
Few race cars in the history of the Indianapolis 500, if any, possess the mystique of the mighty Novi—despite the fact that it never won a race. It never came close, to be honest about it, yet the Novi holds a beloved place in Indy racing lore. This is by no means a complete history, only an assortment of interesting facts about the fearsome Novi V8.
The Novi story starts approximately here. For the 1941 Indy 500, businessman and racer Lew Welch (standing in the center in the photo above) entered this ungainly race car, which was in fact one of the 10 ill-fated 1935 Miller-Tucker Ford racers with redesigned sheet metal. The real news was under the hood: a scratch-built, highly advanced V8 racing engine. Equipped with a screaming centrifugal supercharger, the exotic 183 CID mill was said to be good for 450 hp at 8000 rpm—a good 50 percent more power than a standard Offy four-banger in those days.
At this point the name Novi was not yet part of the enterprise. The entry was known as the Winfield Special after the engine’s co-creator, Bud Winfield, the tall man in the photo above. An Indy veteran, he was the younger brother of machine shop genius Ed Winfield, who no doubt lent his expertise to this project as well.
Installed in an obsolete Miller-Ford front-wheel drive chassis that was originally designed for 160 hp, the Winfield V8 proved nearly impossible to control. Indy journeyman Ralph Hepburn, with miles of experience jockeying the old Miller front-drive racers back in the ’20s, was recruited to drive. With a wood block installed under the Winfield’s throttle pedal to make the beast more manageable, the crafty veteran qualified 10th at 120.653 mph and finished a quite respectable fourth in the race. The Novi legend was off and running.
As much as any single image, this photo of the Winfield V8 in its original Miller-Ford chassis tells the Novi creation story. From left: Leo Goosen, the brilliant Miller/Offy draftsman and engineer who designed the new V8 to Winfield’s specifications; Fred Offenhauser, whose Los Angeles shop manufactured the engine’s components; and Bud Winfield, who served as midwife and chief mechanic for the project until he was tragically killed in a highway accident in 1950.
Since the Winfield V8, soon to be known as the Novi, was originally designed for a front-drive installation, its packaging was rather novel. The gear drive for the double-overhead camshafts is located at the flywheel end of the engine—here, toward the front of the chassis. (Decades later, the Ilmor-Chevy Indy engine employed a rear cam drive.) Meanwhile, the centrifugal supercharger is mounted behind the engine, and the three Winfield racing carbs are installed on the driver’s side of the firewall, protected from engine heat and track grime. Winfield’s hand is resting on the giant air-to-air intercooler on top of the engine, which fed the fresh intake charge from the supercharger to the eight cylinders.
Following the standard racing practice of the day, from Offy to Bugatti, the Novi’s cylinder block and head were cast in one unit to avoid the need for a head gasket. As a V8, naturally, the engine employed a pair of iron four-cylinder block/head assemblies, one for each bank, which bolted to the aluminum crankcase. The combustion chambers were of classic hemispherical configuration with two valves per cylinder splayed at 84 degrees. Note the staggered cylinder bore spacing, which allowed the intake manifold plumbing for the supercharger and intercooler to pass up through the middle of the engine between the cylinder pairs.
Like the Ford flathead V8, the engine employed only three main bearings, but following Peugeot/Miller practice, the main caps were large-diameter, 360-degree bronze bulkheads that bolted into a barrel-type crankcase. The single-plane crankshaft was machined from a 4130 steel billet, while the bore and stroke were 3.185 inches by 2.84 inches, respectively. The remarkably oversquare dimensions yielded a a displacement of 181 cubic inches, just under the 183 CID (3.0 liters) capacity limit for supercharged engines at the time.
Here’s a key element in the Novi mystique: the big 10-inch centrifugal supercharger. Turning at 5.35 times engine speed through a torsion shaft and a series of straight-cut drive gears, the blower was effectively a siren, piercing the air with a 43,000-rpm Doppler scream that could be heard anywhere around the 2.5-mile Speedway. Fans who experienced the Novi remember the unique sound as much as the sights. But while the blower was loud, it surely wasn’t very efficient, as the tip speed of the plate-sized impeller exceeded 1,800 feet per second.
With World War II ended and competition resumed at Indianapolis, Welch and crew returned in 1946 with a new chassis to house their mighty supercharged V8 and a new name: Novi, after Welch’s hometown in Southeast Michigan (and his company of the same name). The Novi front-wheel-drive chassis, designed by Goosen and constructed by Frank Kurtis of Glendale, California, was a runner right out of the box.
Though not ready for pole day, the Novi set a qualifying record of 133.944 mph, and on race day Hepburn carved through the field from 19th place and led 44 laps before mechanical failures ended their race on lap 122. Welch (in hunting cap above, next to big Bud Winfield in the fedora) was so thrilled he ordered a second Kurtis Novi chassis for 1947.
It was in these years that the Novis began to develop their reputation: fast but jinxed. In any given year they were the quickest cars on the track, and the loudest as well. But they were fragile and temperamental and seldom finished. The best final result for a Novi in the Indy 500 was fourth in 1947 with Herb Ardinger aboard. And with their brutish power and tricky handling, the Novis soon became known as widow makers. Hepburn lost his life in a practice accident in 1948, while Chet Miller was killed in an oddly similar crash in 1953, and Duke Nalon received serious burns in a 1949 smashup. In those days, to be a Novi fan—and Novi fans were many—meant spending your time at the Speedway on the edge of your seat. With your fingers crossed.
With their front-drive chassis growing increasingly obsolete in the early ’50s as the roadster era took over the Speedway, the Novis failed to qualify in 1954 and 1955. For 1956, Welch commissioned two roadster-style, rear-drive chassis from Frank Kurtis. Carrying the Kurtis model designation 500F, these cars were noted for their flamboyant tail fins, which grew taller in successive years.
This construction photo shows how the Novi V8 was turned around to fit a rear-wheel drive layout: the cam drive and distributor are now at the rear and the supercharger is at the front, fed by a single Bendix aircraft-type carburetor. The big intercooler atop the engine had been ditched a few years earlier to reduce weight. While the lighter and more modern rear-drive Kurtis chassis restored the Novi to the front of the field for several more years, the poor reliability and lousy racing luck continued. In 1959 and 1960, the Novis failed to make the race.
By 1961, Welch had gotten his bellyful of the Novis, and he sold the entire operation to Andy Granatelli, veteran Indy team owner and master STP salesman. In Indy lore, Granatelli paid $10,000 for everything, including the boxes of worn and broken pieces.
With the help of his brothers, world-class racing wrenches Vince and Joe Granatelli, Mr. STP launched an extensive dyno program for the Novi V8, now 20 years old. With revised camshafts and followers, modernized intake and exhaust porting, and an up-to-date blower (based on the Granatellis’ supercharger expertise as owners of Paxton Products), the Novi now produced a reported 742 hp at 8,200 rpm. However, the vastly improved performance came at a cost: With a smaller, more efficient blower impeller, the engine’s sound was noticeably more docile.
For 1962, Granatelli also ordered two more new Kurtis chassis. Designated model 500K, they were among the last Indy cars produced by Frank Kurtis, and at 1,740 lbs., the new piece was the lightest Novi ever. In 1963, Bobby Unser (above) qualified sixth at 149+ mph but crashed out of the race on Lap 2. Notable Novi drivers of the Granatelli era included Unser, Art Malone, and Jim Hurtubise.
The Novi’s swan song was the Ferguson 104 project of 1964-1966. To cope with the supercharged V8’s excessive power, Granatelli commissioned Ferguson Research in Britain to build a chassis incorporating its advanced four-wheel drive system. Unser qualified fifth fastest in the Novi-Ferguson in 1964 at 154 mph and change, but was caught up in the horrible MacDonald/Sachs crash on the second lap and was scored 32nd.
Although the four-wheel drive system improved traction off the corners, it also introduced a significant weight penalty: all up, the car scaled at over 2,400 lbs. A second, lightweight chassis was constructed, but it was damaged in a practice crash by Unser and parked. In 1966, the car was crashed in practice again with a young Greg Weld at the wheel and failed to qualify for the race. And with that, the Novi’s 25-year run at Indy was over.
Photos by Indianapolis Motor Speedway.