Strange and Amazing Race Cars Through History
Racers are always innovating in the interest of more speed, and sometimes what they come up with is just plain weird. Others follow the crowd and come up with something more typical, but after their competitive days are over the cars miraculously escape restoration or ruin, emerging as literal time capsules. Here are a few of our favorite examples of each from the Museum of American Speed.
Land Speed race cars tend to be strange birds anyway, but when you look away from the thundering A/Street Roadsters and focus on the small-displacement classes (higher in the alphabet-E/F/G, etc.) things really start to get interesting. How do you go fast with less than 100 cubes? The Wee Eel is a great answer to that question.
Els Lohn was the founder of Eelco, and he built this tiny streamliner to campaign at Bonneville. It was featured as the “Thundering Termite” in the August ’61 Hot Rod Magazine with a Hilborn-injected, McCulloch-blown Morris Minor engine that measured a whopping 61 cubic inches, yet still cranked out 127 horsepower. Running in G Streamliner, Els and the Wee Eel set a record at 144.116 mph. That would have been closer to the 172 mph one-way speed, but a missed shift scattered the little Morris engine.
Back to the drawing board. A 90 cubic inch English Coventry 4-cylinder replaced what was left of the tiny Morris. In 1965, the car as you see it here, now called the Wee Eel VI, would put Lohn in the coveted 200 MPH Club with a run of 203 mph.
No, you’re not hallucinating. That is a Hilborn-injected small block Chevy stuffed into a motorcycle chassis by the legendary “Michigan Madman.” EJ Potter built a series of these bikes and became famous for his theatrical heroism on the drag strip.
Not the least of these theatrics was his launching procedure. He would put the bike up on its kickstand, wind the small block up in the revs, then drop it onto the track and hang on for dear life. The car tire on the rear was the only thing that would stand a chance of holding the power. In spite of the extra rubber, Potter’s runs were still quarter-mile smoke shows.
This is what a competitive midget looked like in pre-war America. It has a few odd details like the twin-plug heads with half the holes plugged, but what makes it a standout is its as-found condition. The front axle is bent from what was likely the car’s career-ending crash, and all its original components remain, making for a neat time capsule.
But perhaps the strangest thing about this one is that we don’t really know anything about it. We believe it came from Watertown, CT. Maybe one of our readers will recognize this car and can fill us in on its history?
By the 1980’s, sprint cars all pretty much looked alike. There were subtle differences between chassis manufacturers, but few dared any attempts to reinvent the wheel. Not so for Kenny Weld. After finding himself with some court-ordered time on his hands, he read every book he could get his hands on about engineering and aerodynamics. In 1988, he built this car to test some of the principles he had learned about in his reading. The result is a very unique sprint car.
The wedge shape and strange radiator location were all about decreasing frontal area and minimizing drag. Weld chose to forego the typical Schroeder box in favor of rack and pinion steering. The lack of a steering pump to actuate the wing slider necessitated a screw jack to adjust the top wing. And check out the left-side header. It’s a right-side header mounted backward, with the collector pointing up. Weld theorized that this would use exhaust pressure to push down on the left front, pinning the tire for more positive corner entry.
Weld raced it only 12 times, and it was never very competitive. But it stands in the museum as a great example of Kenny Weld’s outside the box thinking and the racer’s constant desire to innovate.
Neither of these vehicles are particularly strange or amazing, but when you put them together, they’re one of a kind.
The car was typical of what you would find on the dirt ovals of America in the late 20’s-early 30’s. It was sponsored by Riverside tires and campaigned successfully all over the western half of the country. It even set a few records and won at the 1933 Nebraska State Fair. By some sort of miracle, after retirement the car stayed on the back of the hauler that lugged it across the country in the days of Prohibition and the Depression. In the interest of a little more pulling power, someone back in the day fitted a Frontenac head to the old Model T truck.
This is what it looked like to tour with a race car 100 years ago. How cool is it that these two have remained together and unrestored for all those years?
Who in their right mind would attempt to run Indy with a flathead Ford? Harry Miller, Edsel Ford, and Preston Tucker did, and they ended up creating a fleet of what were arguably the most beautiful cars to ever hit the bricks.
Preston Tucker (yes, that Tucker) believed that a stock-block car could be competitive with a little help from Harry Miller. He appealed to Edsel Ford for funding and manpower to make it happen, and by the time the ink was dry on their agreement, there were only three months to have ten cars ready to compete at the ’35 Indy 500. Miller and Tucker set up shop in Detroit and emptied Ford’s engineering department in Dearborn. The Ford employees were working 12-hour days, seven days a week to get the cars done.
Miller’s design was innovative both for its low-slung, aerodynamic shape and its four-wheel independent suspension. The suspension itself was a work of art, with all components that were exposed to the wind being tucked into an aerodynamic fairing. Typical of other Miller racers, the cars were front wheel drive and used a 2-speed transaxle.
Four of the cars qualified. The drivers found them to be low on power, but the aero work allowed them to top 130 mph and Miller’s suspension worked so well that the drivers could pedal them hard all the way around the track.
In the end, none of the cars finished the race. A steering knuckle positioned perilously close to the exhaust proved to be the Achilles heel. But in spite of their disappointing showing, the remaining cars stand as a tribute to Ford’s venerable flathead and Harry Miller’s engineering genius.
This car was built in 1938 by Joe Lencki in response to the new AAA rules that no longer required a riding mechanic. Called “The Pup” because its 96-inch wheelbase was smaller than Lencki’s #8 car, it raced twice at the Indy 500, first in 1940, then in ’41 with Joie Chitwood at the wheel.
So what’s so strange and amazing about this one? Well, you are looking at the first seat belt ever at Indy. But ironically, it wasn’t there for safety. In fact, conventional wisdom of the day said that it was safer to be thrown out of the car in a crash than to remain inside and ride out the wreck. This seatbelt was there to make the car go faster. Remember, in the old days the racing surface at the Brickyard was actually brick, and it was far from smooth. Chitwood was bouncing around so much that he couldn’t keep his foot on the throttle. So, after promising the AAA officials that he would release the belt and jump in the event of a crash, Chitwood had his solution. And the 500 had its first seatbelt.