From the archives with Doug Nye

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TURBINE OR NOT TURBINE?

That was the question at Indy 50 years ago, when a cunning technical initiative came within eight miles of winning America’s most famous race

Did you watch the Indy 500? I thought it was relentlessly rousing stuff. Fernando Alonso greatly enhanced his reputation by missing Monaco to tackle the Speedway classic, and I really felt for him when yet another Honda engine failure ended his run. Just the onboard noise was a gut-wrencher – from the 2.2-litre twin-turbocharged V8’s consistent ‘Waaahhhh!” to an abrupt “Tink! Blurrggghhh…” and kill-switch time. 

Back in 1967 noise was quite an issue at Indy, for another reason. Railbird opinion – conditioned by decades of the Offenhauser roar overlaid by a recent descant from the latest Ford V8s – was being split by something new. That was the competitive speed – in near silence – being shown by Andy Granatelli’s latest joker in the pack, his innovative new four-wheel-drive, gas turbine-powered STP-Paxton Turbocar, driven by Parnelli Jones.

Oh, the fuss. Some loved the new car. Some despised it. Here was ‘Silent Sam’, ‘The Whooshmobile’ and it threatened to hit the always conservative but now near-despairing Indy establishment with a revolution even more troubling than that from front-to rear-engined cars, as cemented by Lotus-Ford two years earlier.

Back in 1962 Dan Gurney and Duane Carter had famously tried to qualify John Zink’s Lotus 18-based ‘Trackburner’ special with a Boeing motor. The car was quick through the turns but just couldn’t hold a light to the Offy cars’ grunt onto each straight. 

Lateral-thinking engineer Ken Wallis had been trying to find backing to build his concept of a turbine Indycar when promotional genius Andy Granatelli of STP expressed interest. Wallis began working with Andy’s brother Joe at STP’s Paxton division in Santa Monica in January 1966. The Granatellis were prone to claiming technical credit for everything they ever ran, which sat uncomfortably with Colin Chapman of Lotus, for one, whose 1966-68 Indy programme was also STP-backed.

A hurried attempt to run the prototype car at Indy ’66 was foiled – according to Andy’s account – when the aluminum chassis backbone was badly warped by botched heat treatment. This meant starting all over again. When he launched the startling ’67 car with its side-slung turbine engine, Granatelli declared: “This is the first car in history ever designed around a suitably large turbine power source, and the power plant has a 95 per cent reliability factor in completing the 500-mile race against only 45 to 50 per cent for reciprocal engines. Furthermore the car offers superior power-to-weight ratio and fuel economy. According to our computers [a truly magical buzzword at the time] it should not only win the race, but can be expected to turn 170mph-plus laps when running properly…”

The new car ran in Firestone tyre testing at Phoenix, Arizona, and Parnelli Jones was impressed by both the car and Granatelli’s offer of $100,000 plus half any prize money if he would drive it.

With its Pratt & Whitney Canada ST6B-62 helicopter-derived engine taking advantage of a yawning conversion mismatch within the rules between gas turbine and piston-engine equivalency, Jones qualified the car sixth-fastest at Indianapolis, at 166.075mph. But in the race the whooshing, whistling racer soon took command. The experienced Parnelli just guided it around, lap after lap, leaving all the conventional piston-engined opposition sweating in his heat-haze wake. When refuelling stops were made it was AJ Foyt’s Coyote-Ford that kept Jones’s first place warm for him.

Into the closing laps it really looked as if Granatelli’s STP operation – so long a luckless Indy 500 hopeful – was poised to win. But with just three laps to go a transmission bearing broke up; Parnelli – like Alonso – heard the sound change, “felt the friction” and coasted into the pits to retire – just eight miles short of his goal. Foyt was left to score his third 500 victory, but even then only after picking his way through a multiple accident at Turn Four.  

For this year’s Indy victory Takuma Sato has won $2.45 million. Back in 1967 Foyt trousered a then-record $171,227. Parnelli in ‘Silent Sam’ was classified sixth, having completed 196 of the 200 laps, earning $55,892. The Turbocar was entered again by STP at Indy in 1968 but driver Joe Leonard hit the wall during qualifying and ‘Sam’ never raced again, passing instead to the Smithsonian Museum and being displayed long-term at the scene of its near-win, now 50 years ago.

Soon after that race USAC slashed permissible gas-turbine air intake area from 23.999 square inches to 15.999 – hobbling such deviousness. This still didn’t prevent Colin Chapman and ‘Groticelli’ (as he called the STP boss) producing the four Lotus-P&W Type 56 turbine wedges for the 1968 race – when they very nearly won again… only for another footling failure to cause Joe Leonard’s leading Lotus to flame out with nine laps to run. Somehow, it seemed written in the stars…

WHEN JENKS UPSET HILL…

Motor Sport’s eminent scribe DSJ was respected for his forthright views, but his subjects could be every bit as direct at times

Even the most established and successful of racing drivers is inclined to get tetchy when realisation dawns that they are approaching their sell-by date. American speedway stars historically tended to survive at top level longer than those in Formula 1. Back in 1968 two USAC Indy stars – who were actually far from passing their respective sell-by dates at the time – tried to do a reverse-Alonso by flying over from America to Europe to compete in the Italian Grand Prix on September 8, while also contesting the National Championship Hoosier 100 race on the dirt at the Indiana State Fairgrounds the previous day. This involved practice in Italy, flights back to the US for the dirt-track race, then back again by helicopter and ‘giant jetliner’ for the Grand Prix. It was never a good idea, and created some collateral damage involving this magazine.

Mario Andretti and Bobby Unser had been invited to drive works Lotus 49 and BRM V12 respectively at Monza. Their practice appearance proved controversial, truncated to maintain their USAC schedule, and ultimately abortive. After attempting to qualify in Friday practice both hurtled back to Indiana by Boeing 707. On the dirt AJ Foyt won in his Meskowski-Offy, with Mario’s Kuzma second and Unser’s Watson out with a broken water line after only eight of the 100 laps.

At Monza only 20 grid places were available for the fastest of the 26 entries. What’s more the organisers emphasised that if the American drivers competed in the Hoosier 100, they would be barred from starting the GP because a ruling by the FIA forbade drivers from competing in two international events at different venues within a 24-hour time span. And so they were.

In reflecting upon this fiasco in these pages, continental correspondent Denis Jenkinson wrote that while he regretted not seeing Andretti taking part he thought the organisers had done the right thing, to cause people to apply more thought “before running after the almighty dollar”. He continued, “As regards Unser, he was no loss. In the past I have watched Graham Hill, Hulme and Brabham drive like old women in European races after flying back from America overnight, and for all their spectator value they might just as well not have bothered to come back…”.

On October 10, Graham Hill dictated a letter to “Dear Jenks”, complaining that: “You say I drove like an old woman in European races after flying back from America overnight. For the record I have, in fact, done this once [by which he clearly meant ‘only once’] and that was after the Canadian Grand Prix of 1967 which was held on the August Bank Holiday Sunday. I flew back on the Monday morning to drive in the afternoon in a F.11 [sic] race at Brands. I made rather a poor start and was working my way up through the field, I think I got into about third place, and my front anti-roll bar fell off. The car then became a little more difficult to drive and I slowly dropped back eventually finishing sixth or thereabouts. A simple enquiry at the time could have elicited this fact, which you could then have conveyed to your readers. Incidentally, the mechanics, at the end of the day, drove around the track and found the roll bar lying beside the track. As you can imagine at the time I was somewhat puzzled when the car developed fantastic oversteer. It was picking up the inside rear wheel on every corner.

“Needless to say I feel it required a little more skill than that of an old woman to keep the car on the track. In fact I think the term can be applied to yourself in this case for not doing your job properly. You are entitled to write exactly what you think and to express your own opinions but when you start accusing me of driving like an old woman you are going to get an ear-full in return.”

Tell it like it felt. These blokes both did…

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