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Historic Indy Engines

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2022 will mark the 106th running of the Indianapolis 500. Before we watch 33 drivers in their cutting edge wings on wheels scream around the track at 230mph, we always love looking back on how we got here. In this case, we’re going to focus in on a few engines from the Museum of American Speed that highlight a few of the incredible technical advances that have taken place over the years.

Miller Flathead Ford (1935)

This engine lived in what were among the most beautiful cars to ever lap the Brickyard. We’ve talked about the ‘35 Miller Fords before, but we never get tired of looking at the hopped-up flathead Ford that ran Indy. These engines used finned aluminum Bohnalite heads and three-carb manifolds and were remarkably similar to the engines that hot rodders were beginning to stuff in their cut-down T roadsters and Deuce coupes.

We all know how this story ends. In their haste to develop the cars before the ’35 race, the crew managed to overlook a steering knuckle that was perilously close to the exhaust, which eventually took them out of the race. A sad ending to an otherwise great story and a few exceptionally beautiful cars.

Novi (1941-1966)

According to Andy Granatelli, “The Novi did everything but win races.” In fact, they developed a reputation as being cursed; regularly that fastest and most powerful thing on the track, but never actually winning Indy. That didn’t stop them from becoming fan favorites, in large part because these things absolutely screamed. Literally. Not only did the massively oversquare 4-valve DOHC V8 have a sound all its own, but that huge centrifugal supercharger was turning more than 5-times the speed of the engine. That worked out to a 40,000-plus rpm siren that could be heard for miles.

Before it was called the Novi, the platform was developed by businessman Lew Welch, along with engine mastermind Leo Goossen and Bud Winfield. Interestingly, the engine’s first appearance at Indy was in a refugee Miller-Ford (see above). In 1941, this monster was making 450 horsepower, way more than a contemporary Offy, and also more than the old front drive Millers could handle.

Many attempts were made to tame the Novi for Indy, ultimately culminating in the monstrous, 700-horse Granatelli four-wheel-drive cars of the mid-60’s. Crashes and bad luck continued, and the last appearance for a Novi at the Speedway was ’66.

Studebaker Special

More Leo Goossen magic, this time perched atop a stock Studebaker V8 block. We might not all think of exotic, high-winding Indy engines when we think of Studebaker, but Indy legend J.C. Agajanian saw potential and commissioned Goossen to develop this beautiful design. The DOHC heads were designed by Goossen and bolted to the 274-inch stock block Stude. Straight-cut gears spun the cams and it was topped with a Hilborn injector.

The engine was fitted to an Eddie Kuzma chassis with Allen Heath in the driver’s seat. Unfortunately, the rig didn’t get very far; the starter broke the snout off the crank during qualifying.

Turbo Offenhauser (1974)

Behold, the immortal Offy. The fact that the turbo 159-incher pictured here in Jan Opperman’s Viceroy ride dates to the mid-1970’s speaks to this engine’s insane longevity. It’s roots with Leo Goossen (again; are you noticing a theme?) and Harry Miller date back to the 1930’s. 40 years of Indy dominance is nothing to sneeze at. In fact, Offys won at Indy a total of 27 times.

By ’74, when Opperman was piloting his Viceroy VPJ car around the Brickyard, these engines were a bit long in the tooth. But, with addition of that turbocharger, they were still making over 700 horsepower.

On top of all that success, these engines were just plain beautiful. There’s a whole room dedicated to them in the Museum of American Speed, and it resembles a giant jewelry case.

Cosworth DFX

Cosworth picked up where Offy left off, becoming the dominant powerplant at Indy into the mid-80’s.

The turbocharged DFX was based on the naturally aspirated DFV that was developed for Formula One. The Vel’s Parnelli Jones Team began development of the turbocharged version for USAC in 1976, and Cosworth picked up the ball shortly thereafter. Remember that part about Indy dominance? Well, between ’78 and ’87, DFX’s won ten consecutive Indy 500’s.

The N/A Formula DFV’s made around 500 horsepower at a screaming 9,000 rpm, and the turbocharged DFX’s that were running USAC, CART, and Indy made an astonishing 840 horsepower by the end of their development.

Toyota RV8F

As we round the corner into the new millennium, Toyota was making a push into Indy Car racing. You may think of Toyota as a Japanese automaker, but their TRD racing wing was based in California. In fact, the RV8F was the only US-designed and built engine racing in CART at the time. The next year’s evolution of this engine, the RV8I was built specifically for IRL, and won the 2003 Indy 500 with Gil de Ferran at the helm. How’s over 800 horsepower from only 161 cubic inches sound? That’s almost 5 horsepower per cubic inch (!) from a naturally aspirated V8.

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