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.
Maybe 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.
While 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.
If 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.
For 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.
One 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.
Few 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.
A 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.
Speedway 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.
Here’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.