The 10 greatest Indy roadsters in history

???????????????????????????????The classic Indy roadster might well be America’s most beloved race car. Here are 10 of the most memorable examples.   

 

 

Nobody can say with absolute certainty where the Indianapolis roadster first got its evocative name. Some claim that Bill Vukovich, a two-time Indy 500 winner and a legend in his own right, first used the term. Others say  it was Frank Kurtis, the originator of the distinctive design. Both stories sound a little bit like the creations of racing PR writers.

However it got the name, the roadster holds a special place in the hearts of American racing fans. As MCG has noted before, there’s an entire generation of gearheads for whom, when you say the words “race car,” an Indy roadster is the image that forms in their minds. And the roadster era—the years 1952 to 1965, more or less—produced some of the finest racing and greatest heroes the Speedway has ever seen. Here are the 10 roadsters that, in MCG’s view, left the deepest marks on racing history.

 

1952 Kurtis-Kraft Cummins Diesel SpecialMaybe because of its ponderous diesel powerplant, some say the 1952 Cummins Special is not a true Indy roadster, but MCG disagrees. In this car, designer Frank Kurtis included all the key roadster elements: engine offset and canted over for increased left weight bias; driver offset to the opposite side alongside the driveshaft; low, wide roadster-esque profile. His Cummins Special was proof of concept for the Indy roadster layout.

 

1953 Kurtis KK500 Bill Vukovich Fuel Injection Special '53 Indy winnerWhile the Cummins Special came first, for 1952 Kurtis also built a handful of similar chassis designed for conventional SI engines. But curiously, only one featured a true roadster layout with offset driveline: Howard Keck’s Fuel Injection Special, prepared by Jim Travers and Frank Coon and driven by Bill Vukovich. The KK500-Offy (also shown in the lead photo) dominated the 1952 Indy 500 but fell out late with a steering failure, then won the race handily in 1953 and 1954. The roadster was now the proven way to win.

 

1956 Watson-Offy John Zink Spl. 1956 winnerIf imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then A.J. Watson was the Kurtis-Kraft’s greatest fan. The first Watson roadster of 1956, shown here, was a thoughtful refinement of the original Kurtis concept, employing a narrower frame and magnesium body panels to shave off excess weight. Driven by Pat Flaherty, Watson chassis no. 1 won the Indy 500 from the pole position that year.

 

???????????????????With the novel car he built with fabricator Quinn Epperly, George Salih is often credited as the pioneer of the laydown roadster. Its engine offset to the left but leaned over 72 degrees to the right, the Salih/Epperly had roughly the same left/right weight distribution as a Kurtis, but with a cowl height of only 20 inches. With veteran Sam Hanks (shown here) driving, the roadster with the pancake profile won the 500-mile sweepstakes in 1957, then repeated in 1958 with Jimmy Bryan at the controls.

 

 

1959 Watson-Offy Leader Card Spl. 1959 Indy 500 winnerFor 1959, Watson introduced a twin-nostril nose designed by Larry Shinoda, completing the trademark Watson roadster look. Driving for Leader Card Racers, Rodger Ward won both the Indy 500 and the Milwaukee 200 with this beauty, the sixth Watson chassis constructed. Watson typically built only a few cars per year himself, with copies built to his plans meeting the rest of the considerable demand.

 

Dave Schleppi Chenowth Chevrolet SpecialOne of the very few Indy roadsters designed to house a small-block Chevy V8 instead of an Offy, the 1961 Chenowth (aka San Diego Steel Products) Special was never successful at the Speedway; in fact, it never even qualified. The car’s place in history is assured first by its exquisite build quality, and next for its fame on the historic racing circuit, where it is extensively toured by owner/restorer Dave Schleppi. With its stunning looks and incredible exhaust sound, the Chenowth-Chevy has probably minted more roadster fans than many Indy 500 champions.

 

 

Art Malone Mad Dog VFew today have heard of Bob Osiecki, but he was a pioneer in both NASCAR and drag racing. Gunning for Bill France’s $10,000 prize for the lap record at the new Daytona International Speedway, he obtained a 1958 Kurtis-Kraft roadster, a Pontiac-powered Firestone test mule built for Ray Nichels, and wedged in a supercharged 413 Chrysler V8 enlarged to 460 CID. A tall vertical fin and inverted wings were intended to keep Mad Dog IV, as Osiecki named it, from taking flight on the high banking. On August 28, 1961, with drag racer Art Malone at the wheel, Mad Dog IV ran 181-plus mph, setting a lap record that stood for years.

 

Watson-Offy Old Calhoun 1963 Indy 500 winnerA roadster with so much personality it was given a name, Old Calhoun was J.C Agajanian’s annual entry at the Indy 500, first with Lloyd Ruby and then with Parnelli Jones in the seat. In 1962, Old Calhoun was the first to qualify at greater than 150 mph, and in 1963 the red, white, and blue Watson-Offy carried Parnelli to his only Indy 500 win.

 

1964 Watson AJ Foyt Sheraton Thompson SpecialSpeedway owner Tony Hulman and his good pal A.J. Foyt must have foreseen the historic meaning of Foyt’s Indy 500 win in 1964, which proved to be the final victory for a roadster. From victory lane, the Watson-Offy was rolled straight into the Speedway museum, where it remains to this day.

 

1968 Mallard Jim Hurtubise last roadster to qualifyHere’s another car some Indy purists don’t regard as a true roadster, possibly due to its lightweight construction and rearward engine location. However, the builder of the Mallard-Offy, Jim Hurtubise, certainly considered it a roadster. For him, that was the point. The roadster’s last stalwart, Hurtubise DNQ’d with the Mallard in 1967, then made the show in 1968, the final appearance for a front-engined car in the Indianapolis 500.

 

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26 thoughts on “The 10 greatest Indy roadsters in history

  1. Glad to see the Mallard included in this list. By the time Herk gave up on it, it looked more like a super modified, but in 67 to 69 it was beautiful. Disappointed that you didn’t include anything built by Lesovsky, he also built some beautiful roadsters.

  2. The name Larry Shinoda jumped out at me when I was reading this post. I believe he is the same man that designed the original Mustang. Earlier in his career he was involved with the Corvette.
    I believe the name ‘roadster’ was actually started in 1965 to tell the difference between the rear engine cars and the traditional Indy car. I started going to the 500 in 1958 and I don’t remember the cars being called ‘roadsters’ until 1965.

    • I wonder if the name “roadster” came from the old California Roadster Association that raced hot rods in the southern California area? I do remember us referirng to the rear engine cars as “funny cars” at first. Ironic that name was later associated with drag racing.

  3. You’re quite the rebel featuring Indy cars less than a week before Daytona. But I welcome almost all forms of racing and these photos are certainly appreciated. I wasn’t really aware of Indy cars before 1969, so I missed out on the roadster era. But I had seen the old films sponsored by Miller High Life, and my toy cars all represented 50s and 60s F1 and Indy roadsters.

    I doubt you’d be allowed to show beer sponsored sports films to nine year olds in camp these days. I remember the logos and slogans vividly even today.They never enticed me to start drinking before I was (almost) legal.

    Nor did I become interested in auto racing until the testosterone kicked in. I remember the instant my life changed. It was an ad for a red 1969 Mustang Mach 1 parked on a dry lake bed.

  4. As a recent convert to Roadsters although I have been a lifelong Motorsport fan rear engines you guessed it and living in New Zealand far away from Roadster country I am now on a mission to obtain books, model, photos etc to bring me up to speed on this very important chapter of US motorsports history. Anyone with and interest in the INDY 500 needs to look at the period these beautiful machines because the men who designed and built these machines and those brave souls who raced them deserve a special place in World motorsport history.

  5. Can’t argue with number 7 in the list. Art Malone drove to the record on the last set of tires in America and described the rubber flying off like shredded wheat as he went thru the turns. My dad, Bob Osiecki, had shoved a block of wood behind the accelerator pedal to prevent wide open throttle due to the “excessive horsepower” available.

  6. The Chenwoth roadster had an even greater life running the short tracks in the 70’s with drivers like Jeff Bloom behind the wheel. It was the 47 Roberts roadster in USAC and other short track events. Winning a bunch of races including the Little 500. It was a pretty car in both looks.

    • The Roberts #47 roadster belonged to my grandfather lyle roberts! brings back many great memories for me in 1970″s 80″s….I was at the little 500 in 1977 when it won!! driver (Jeff Bloom) I have a few pics matt if interested

  7. Was the Chenowth the same company (in San Diego) that later built the dominant off-road buggies in the ’70’s-’80’s?

    I became a fan of Indy because as a kid my favorite driver and favorite car company teamed up to try and win the race. And I was fortunate enough to be there when Jimmy Clark won. So I came to appreciate roadsters later in life. That said, my favorite roadster is the last winner. A.J.’s car, with the perfect paint scheme, the unique air intake and wider, more modern wheels and tires, just looks mean and beautiful at the same time.

    Not unlike my ex-wife.

  8. Your pics are very close, my one corrections is the car that George Salih built! The only thing Quinn did on that car was build the body! George and Howard Gilbert built the car in George’s home garage! And Howard’s automotive shop in Whittier .

  9. If a Novi was to make the list, and at least one of the Kurtis Bodied should, I would like to nominate the 65 Tombstone Life Spl Driven by Herk, It was at the Museum one time, and it made me nervous standing too close to it! I was pretty well convinced it could bite.

  10. I Am Very Sorry To Disagree With You !!! But My Father Bob Estes Was The Father Of The First Watson Roadster . Coming Out Of The Glendale Shop In 1954. That Same Car Finished 7th That Year With A.J. Watson As Crew Chief With Jud Phillips. Such Embellishment. See Article Sheve Glick : L A Times ” Another Estes Gains Notice”

  11. Recently Dean Jefferies passed and I think we need to recognize his contributions to the beauty of many of these roadsters. His paint, lettering, and striping work, was outstanding.

  12. The San Diego Steel Products Roadster, while not making the race due to a blown engine, has made a significant contribution to open wheel racing. With the Chevy V8, it was on the leading edge of the trend to use stock block engines to challenge the Offy. It set a world record of 157.4 MPH for open wheel cars on a 1.5 mile track at Atlanta, GA in 1964. Won the Little 500 in 1977 with Jeff Bloom driving. It is credited with leading the “Roadster Revolution” in sprint car racing. It is considered by many people to be the most beautiful roadster ever built. And, yes, it has a very distinct sound. During its 23 year racing career it was driven by many prominent drivers including Mike Magill, Greg Weld and Tom Sneva. For more history of the car, go to http://www.sdsproadster.com .

  13. The 1958 Watson Leader Card Spc that won Monza with Jim Rathman and Jim Clark’s rear engine Lotus should be top ten… Also the first STP Turbine with Parnelli Jones driving.

  14. Interesting list however – don’t you think it would have been appropriate to elaborate on the Cummins Diesel Special? My good friend the late Freddy Agabashian drove that car to the pole in 1952. First and only diesel to achieve that. The Cummins Diesel Special was the first turbocharged car ever in the Indianapolis 500. Unfortunately the turbo gave out and ending Freddy’s race on lap 71.

  15. although I like all the roadsters shown the salih no 9 is my favourite thank you for showing all these wonderful race cars

  16. I think I would have had to include at least one roadster built by Clint Brawner, after all they do give an award in his honor every year at Indianapolis

  17. Mac Miller would know for sure, but A.J.’s car was not immediately rolled off from victory lane and into the Speedway Museum. The car ran 3 more times A.J. Won in it at the Milwaukee 100 miler in June and the 150 miler at Trenton in July. The last time was again at Trenton in September but was knocked out of competition due to a bad clutch. It was only the 6th time A.J. had ever driven this race car in a race and it was the only time he didn’t win. September was the last time it was ran. For the next 2 years it sat in Bill Ansted’s building on Henry Street in Indianapolis, until the summer of ’66 when it was donated to the IMS Museum.

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