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Indy Cars Through the Ages

5/11/2021
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In the 110 years since its first running, the Indy 500 has seen plenty of innovation and evolution. It’s a jarring contrast to see an early competitor with wire wheels and a flathead engine next to one of the modern, cutting edge wings on wheels that currently dominate the Speedway. The Museum of American Speed houses an impressive collection of cars from Indy’s history. In honor of this year’s running, we thought it would be fun to showcase a few from the collection in chronological order to show how the cars have evolved. For extra fun, we've included the qualifying mph for each car to show how the speeds have evolved as well.

1935 Miller-Ford-First 500: 1935, Qualifying Speed: 113.2 mph

Preston Tucker, who later became famous for his attempt to take on the Big 3 with the unique car bearing his name, this time chose to work with Ford to take on the 500. He believed that a race car using a stock block flathead V8 could be competitive if it was housed in a car designed by the legendary Harry Miller. Tucker secured funding and manpower from Edsel Ford and they were off to the races. Problem was, by the time the effort was underway, there was only about three months until the 1935 race. In spite of the hasty effort, the crew showed up in Indiana with some of the most beautiful cars to ever lap the Speedway. In the end, the lack of testing time caused the crew to overlook a steering knuckle that was too close to the exhaust and ultimately took all the cars out before the end of the race.

"The Pup"-First 500: 1940, Qualifying Speed: 120.8 mph

Called “The Pup” because it was significantly smaller than other cars by builder Joe Lencki, this little champ car has a unique claim to fame. This was the first car to run a seatbelt at Indy. Conventional wisdom at the time was that the safest bet in a crash was to jump clear of the scene. In 1941, driver Joie Chitwood found himself bouncing around on the brick surface so much that he couldn’t keep his foot on the throttle. He belted himself in, but only after promising the AAA officials that he would unbuckle and bail out if things went south. Fortunately for him, that impossible feat wasn’t necessary. Fortunately for us, the car survived it’s racing days and lives on in amazing, unrestored condition.

#81 Central Excavating Special- First 500: 1951, Qualifying Speed: 133.7 mph

The Central Excavating Special takes us into the 50’s and is a beautiful example of the front-engined, Offy-powered roadsters that were common at the Speedway (and dirt ovals across the country) after WWII. Commissioned by Pete Salemi and built by Floyd Trevis, #81 made its Indy debut in 1951, driven by Bill Vukovich. An oil tank conked out and the car didn’t finish, but it would be back to finish 16th in 1952. Bad luck and failure to qualify would keep the car out of the 500 in the years to come. In 1954, this car was involved in a crash at the dirt oval in DuQuin, Illinois that killed legendary cam grinder (and the man immortalized by the Mr. Horsepower woodpecker) Clay Smith.

Bob Estes Special-First 500: 1954, Qualifying Speed: 138.3 mph

A.J. Watson would go on to become an Indy legend as a highly successful builder and mechanic. After a few unsuccessful attempts as a crew member and builder, this is the first Watson car to finish the 500. Powered by a 270-inch Offy, it carried Don Freeland to seventh place in 1954. Watson would go on to win the 500 six times as a builder and four as a chief mechanic.

#5 Watson Roadster-First 500: 1957, Qualifying Speed: 142.8 mph

There’s a lot going on in this picture. We’ll get to the car in a minute, but first we have to acknowledge the garage that it’s parked in. That lived-in space that surrounds #5 is A.J. Watson’s shop, painstakingly relocated by the crew at the Museum of American Speed. The car itself was built by Watson during the winter of 1956-57 and made it’s debut at the 500 in ’57. Troy Ruttman qualified on the outside of the front row and led the race for four laps before an oil leak took him out of the running. But this car was far from done. It would go on to dominate The Race of Two Worlds in Monza, Italy in 1958. Basically a match race between the American Indy cars and the European Formula 1 racers, the race was only run once. Jim Rathman won in handily behind the wheel of this very car.

VPJ-2 Jan Opperman Indy Car-First 500: 1974, Qualifying Speed: 176.2 mph

When the Vel’s Parnelli Jones team put drivers Mario Andretti and Al Unser in Gurney Eagles for the ’74 500, this car was taken to the Speedway as a spare. Legendary sprint car shoe (and driver for Speedway Motors) Jan Opperman was milling around the garages at Indy prior to the race. He summoned the courage, introduced himself to Vel and Parnelli, and inquired about a seat in that extra car. Familiar with his reputation, they agreed to give him a chance (after he cut his hair…twice). Opperman qualified in the middle of the 11th row and was working his way up when a blown tire spun him out.

There’s more to the story of Opperman’s ‘74 appearance. Check it out here.

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