The mobster’s motor

Crime did pay for George ‘Babe’ Tuffanelli, and his team’s Indy 500 machine is a unique curiosity, says Simon de Burton

1951 Silnes-Offenhauser-Tomshe

Once Tuffanelli switched to crime, his money found its way into motor racing


Anyone who has become involved in motor racing will know that it’s a great way to get rid of a large amount of cash, and cynics may say that George ‘Babe’ Tuffanelli had exactly that thought in mind when he set up ‘Tuffy’s Racing Team’ back in the late 1940s.

As his surname suggests, Tuffanelli was of Italian heritage and the fact that he fetched up in Chicago hints at the fact that he was a also mobster. However,  his love of cars was genuine.

Having arrived in New York City from Italy, Tuffanelli moved to ‘the windy city’ where, at the tender age of 18, he landed a job as a district sheriff – only to have his driving talents spotted by none other than Al Capone after he gave one of his employees a run for his money in a car chase.

Capone encouraged Tuffanelli to jump the fence into a life of felony, and he was soon responsible for organised crime on the whole of Chicago’s southside, running a lucrative bootleg operation with an estimated 50 illegal stills to its credit.

By the 1940s, Tuffanelli was a decidedly wealthy – and highly respected – individual who decided to spend some of his money on auto racing, establishing a team of midget racers and upright dirt cars which were maintained by Rock Island mechanic Charles Pritchard and his assistant Ray Nichels.

1951 Silnes-Offenhauser-Tomshe exhaust

Initially the team ran mainly Kurtis-Kraft 2000s, but towards the end of the decade began commissioning bespoke machines such as the Tuffanelli-Derrico Special – and the Silnes-Offenhauser Tomshe, which is pictured here.

Made to compete in the 1951 Indianapolis 500, it was built by Milwaukee race car specialist Fred Tomshe using a 4.4-litre four-cylinder, fuel-injected Offenhauser engine mated to a two-speed gearbox with sparks coming from a Joe Hunt magneto.

Midget racing star Ray Knepper was hired to drive it at Indianapolis, but he failed to qualify for the 500, although the car did put up respectable performances at other events later in the season.

What happened to it during the following few decades is unknown, but the presence of the Halibrand magnesium wheels and Jones chronometric tachymeter with which it was originally fitted suggests a period of long-term storage before the comprehensive restoration that left it in today’s condition.

Recent outings include runs at the Milwaukee Mile and three appearances at Monterey Historics. Freshly rebuilt and wearing the same number ‘78’ with which it competed as ‘Tuffy’s Offy’, it’s on the button, ready to go and available to anyone with a suitcase full of cash…

1951 Silnes-Offenhauser-Tomshe
On sale at RM Sotheby’s, Amelia Island, March 6. No reserve. RM