Ten Interesting Cars

From the History of the

Indianapolis 500

By Harold Frost

The History Channel Magazine, 2003

“Obscenely fast” clucked a worried sportswriter named Robert F. Jones in 1972 when qualifying lap speeds at the Indianapolis 500 jumped to more than 190 miles per hour.

The previous year had seen qualifying speeds around 175 mph. Speeds at Indy generally advance year-to-year by small increments. The leap in ’72 was made possible by aerodynamic wings, a new development that allowed cars to cling more securely to the speedway’s sharp corners.

Today, drivers zip around the Indy track at speeds averaging 230 mph, rocketing down the front and back straightaways at 250 and darting through corners at 200-plus, tires sticking to asphalt like adhesive tape on skin.

The history of the Indianapolis 500 features many cars that worried the heck out of people and thrilled them too. Here are 10 great vehicles and talented drivers from Indy’s storied past.

Mark Donohue at Indy in 1972 with his Sunoco McLaren, with front and rear wings. (Scroll down for additional details on the ’72 race.) 


The 1913 Peugeot

Frenchman Jules Goux drove this Peugeot to victory in 1913, the third running of the Indy race, at an average speed of 75.933 miles per hour, drinking a spot of champagne at each of his six pit stops, covering the 500 miles in six hours, 35 minutes, and five seconds. (Racers today complete the event in just over three hours.) Peugeot, a French firm, taught the world how to build race cars in these years, offering a radical engine design that became a touchstone of excellence: dual-overhead camshafts, four cylinders, and a centrally-located sparkplug. (The first running of the Indy 500, in 1911, was won by Ray Harroun in a Marmon Wasp. Controversy attends that result. An excellent article about the ’11 race can be found here.)

The 1923 H.C.S. Miller

Tommy Milton (above), pride of St. Paul, Minnesota, won the 1923 race at 90.954 mph in a car built by the legendary Henry A. Miller, a Los Angeles entrepreneur whose exquisitely-tuned vehicles also won in 1926, ’28, and ’29. Miller’s main competition during these years was supplied by Duesenberg; these won in 1924, ’25, and ’27. The Miller vs. Doozie rivalry provided considerable newspaper fodder in the ’20s as sports moved to the forefront of American life via Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange, Indy, etc.

The 1928 Miller

Leon Duray tinkered with an eight-cylinder Miller engine and drove the front-wheel-drive car (above) to a qualifying average of 122.391 mph, including one lap at 124.018, a single-lap record that stood for a remarkable nine years. But even though Duray’s Miller was the fastest qualifier, it didn’t win the race (a familiar story at Indy); it conked out from overheating. Louis Meyer won in another Miller.

The 1935 Gilmore Speedway Offy

Kelly Petillo (above right, shown with his drive-along mechanic) won in ’35 with an average speed of 106.240 mph, powered by something new, a four-cylinder engine nicknamed “Offy,” built by Fred Offenhauser and Leo Goossen in Los Angeles. Offenhauser engines – offsprings of the four-cylinder Miller – were rugged, moderately-priced, and capable of pumping out tremendous torque for acceleration out of corners. For the next 30 years these engines dominated open-wheel American racing.

The 1948 Novi Grooved Piston

The Novi (pronounced “NO-vee”) was one of the most exciting Indy cars ever, a big, brawny, tough-to-handle brute – “unsafe” said at least one driver – that screamed like a banshee as it thundered down the straights at 8,000 rpm. Novis never won at Indy, partly because they consumed fuel and tires so quickly, but in 1948, Dennis “Duke” Nalon (above) wrestled one to a third-place finish, averaging 118.034 mph. Mauri Rose won the ’48 race.

The 1960 Ken-Paul Offy

Jim Rathmann won the checkered flag with this car (above) at an average speed of 138.767 mph after qualifying at 146.371. The lead changed hands a record 29 times this year; the race was “the most exciting Indy 500 ever” in the opinion of Chris Economaki, TV commentator and founder of National Speed Sport News.

The 1965 Lotus Ford

The British Invasion! As if the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, 007, and the films “Tom Jones” and “Mary Poppins” weren’t enough for Americans to absorb, now came an Englishman named Colin Chapman, co-founder of Lotus Engineering Co., bolting a Ford engine to the rear of a Lotus chassis, behind the driver, in the manner of Formula One cars rather than the traditional front for Offenhauser roadsters. Chapman’s cars thus gained better handling in Indy’s all-important corners. Net result: more speed. The concept roiled the Indy establishment and caused generational arguments in many American homes. (The first rear-engine car to race at Indy was the 1961 Cooper-Climax driven by Jack Brabham.) Chapman and the great Scotsman Jim Clark first raced at Indy in 1963; many observers think that they were cheated out of victory that year, that the eventual winner, Parnelli Jones, should have been black-flagged for oil leakage. The Lotus Ford breakthrough came in ’65 when Clark drove a gorgeous car to victory (its bullet-shaped chassis was painted British racing green with yellow accents) with an average speed of 150.686 mph. This was the first rear-engine car to win the 500. (The photo above shows Clark and his team after taking the checkered flag. Chapman is to Clark’s immediate right.)

The 1967 STP Oil Treatment Turbine

So close, yet so far. This innovative car (above, to the left) abruptly quit near the end of the ’67 race as it purred along in first place, shattering the dreams of owner Andy Granatelli and driver Parnelli Jones. The car was powered by a quiet gas-turbine engine originally designed for helicopters (550 horsepower at 6200 rpm, zero cylinders). Its average race speed was 166.075 mph. Indy officials soon clamped down on turbines. A.J. Foyt won the ’67 race.

The 1972 Sunoco McLaren M16 Special

Several Indy cars sprouted aerodynamic wings in 1971; a year later these contraptions became essential for the entire field, delivering downforce in the corners, and thus, adhesion. In ’72, Mark Donohue qualified his car at 191.408 mph and won the 500 averaging 162.962. (Photos above and at top of article.)

The 2003 Marlboro Team Penske Panoz G Force/Toyota/Firestone

The world of Indy car racing split apart in 1996 in a stupid, expensive, ego-entranced dispute between factions. Roger Penske, one of racing’s great car owners, got huffy and departed, convincing his drivers to leave with him. (The other side was equally at fault.) Recently, however, Penske and other heavy hitters have returned to Indianapolis, and in 2003, in an exciting competition, Gil de Ferran drove a Penske car (above) to lap speeds in the 225 mph range and won with an average of 156.291 mph. Sports Illustrated saw enough juice in the race to headline, “Gentlemen, Start Your Celebration – INDY IS BACK.”