Motor Sport talks to the former Lotus designer behind the successful Parnelli USAC car
Maurice Phillipe left Team Lotus, where he had worked elbow to elbow with Colin Chapman on some of the world’s most advanced racing cars, just over a year ago. The Vel’s Parnelli Racing Team, one of the top outfits in American USAC racing, had made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. The 40-year-old Englishman is now living and working in California and his first design for the team has brought driver Joe Leonard his second consecutive USAC Championship; the team also finished second at Indianapolis. Motor Sport visited Philippe at the new headquarters of the team at Torrance in the suburbs of Los Angeles to find out just how those twelve months had gone.
Phillippe immediately stresses that he has not for one second regretted the decision to move from Britain. He has been living in idyllic surroundings at an apartment of the Portofino Inn at the delightful Redondo Beach resort right on the Pacific Ocean. He loves the Californian way of life, while the dollars are pouring into his bank account in a way that would never be possible anywhere else in the world. He is at present negotiating for the purchase of a house up on the Palos Verde peninsula and drives around in a new Ford Torino GS.
The only thing he misses is Grand Prix racing as he finds oval racing far less exciting than Formula One. But designing a car specifically for these conditions has been a tremendous challenge which he has tackled with enormous enthusiasm. Now he is working on a second generation Phillippe for next year.
The curiously named Vel’s Parnell Racing Team is only one branch of the business enterprises of Vel Miletich and Parnelli Jones. Miletith has worked for the same Ford dealership in Torrance California since 1949. He started as a junior employee, soon worked his way up through the firm, became a partner and, since 1955, has been the principal owner. During the 1950s he sponsored Parnelli Jones and they have been close friends and associates ever since. In 1964 he sold part of the Ford agency to Jones, who had won the Indianapolis 500 the year before, and since then the pair have expanded their operations to include several Firestone tyre centres in the Los Angeles area, a Firestone racing tyre distributorship for 11 Western States, an alloy wheel marketing outfit with quite astounding sales plus the racing team. Added to this they also have various property interests.
Parnell Jones, readers will no doubt know, is one of the all time greats of American racing. Now 38, his legend started in the early 1960s when he ruled the rugged USAC sprint car circuits. He reluctantly ended his racing career in 1970 due to business pressures with a victory in-the Trans-Am Championship although he still has a tremendous competitive urge. His motoring sport is now restricted to off-road racing and last year he won THE event, the Baja 1000. Jones had something of a reputation as being a hard and mean driver on the track but off it this former Indianapolis winner exudes Californian charm. It is his strength of character and leadership that welds the Vers Parnelli team into the success it is to-day.
Vel and Parnelli now direct operations from a brand new 59,000 sq. ft. office block, warehouse and race headquarters in Earl Street, Torrance, from two adjoining offices. Parnell proudly showed them to us with obvious delight for they are the most breathtaking set of executive offices I have ever or am ever likely to set my eyes upon. The pair like the rewards that success and fortune has brought them.
This year their racing operation was nicknamed the “Superteam”. Behind them at the start of 1971 were victories in the 1969 and 1970 Indianapolis races (both recorded by Al Unser) and two USAC Championships (Unser and Leonard). They had on their staff the fabled George Bignotti who has more USAC Championship wins to his credit than any other chief mechanic plus a bunch of fine mechanics, engine men, and fabricators. Then they hired Philippe, undoubtedly one of the finest racing car designers in the world, they added a third driver to their strength and his name just happened to be Mario Andretti and, to complete the picture, they pulled off a top sponsorship arrangement with Viceroy cigarettes.
The driver line-up was quite extraordinary for a start. It was like having Stewart, Fittipaldi and Ickx all in the same team. By way of explanation one should explain that the United States Automobile Club’s Championship series is of utmost importance in America. It comprises about 10 races through the year, up and down the United States, headed by the three big 500-mile events—Indianapolis, Pocono and Ontario—but many of the other rounds are run on little 1-mile ovals at places like Trenton, New Jersey and Phoenix, Arizona. All the races are on banked ovals of one description or another, after a plan to include some road courses fell through.
In 1971 Joe Leonard just pipped Al Unser to the post for the championship which was, at that time, sponsored by Marlboro and both had been driving the team’s PJ Colts, basically a copy of a Lola design. Jones realised that, to keep pace with the new era of cars like the latest Eagle and the McLaren M16, which had taken Indianapolis by storm in 1971, something drastic would have to be done. Thus he contacted Philippe and offered him a job as a designer. Philippe first went to Indianapolis with Lotus in 1966 and, on several subsequent occasions, including with the incredible Lotus 56 turbine cars. So he was well known in America already.
What decided Phillippe to move home and family to California apart from the obvious financial inducements? “Well”, says Phillippe considering his answer carefully as always, “the opportunity arose, one weighed up the situation and I could see there are many more prospects for financing various motor racing projects which tend to be very expensive things to play with. There is just more money available, that is your simple answer”.
Parnelli F1 possibilities
At the time of the interview rumours were rife that the Vel’s Parnelli team was embarking on a Formula One programme, backed by the credit car company, American Express, and naturally we asked about this particularly with regard to Phillippe’s comments regarding money being available. “We could run a Formula One team out of here if we had the sponsorship”, he said “but I was concerned that we should be involved with only one area of motor racing at first because running two teams obviously puts a strain on any sort of organisation. One might be able to do reasonably well but two is definitely going to be a compromise.” This was Phillippe being cautious for, in our conversations later, it was obvious that he is extremely keen to get back into Formula One and prove to the world that he can design a Grand Prix car without the assistance of Cohn Chapman.
The latest edicts from Hethel would suggest that Phillippe was merely the draughtsman on the tremendously successful Lotus 72. Obviously the relationships between Chapman and Phillippe are a little soured now but Phillippe maintains that this design, like the many before, was a joint Chapman/Phillippe project. Rumours and politics, aside, American Express are definitely not sponsoring a Parnelli Formula One car but such a venture for 1973 is not entirely ruled out by Jones who sees it as a tremendous challenge. Finding sponsors for the team is the work of promotions man Jim Cook, who works exclusively for the team in this area, and there is none better. Johnny Lightning toys, Samsonite luggage, Olympia beer and the present major sponsors, cigarette company Brown & Williamson, are all companies who have backed the team following the persuasive powers of ex-Firestone public relations man Cook. Give him time and he will surely come up with a Formula One budget.
USAC and Formula One
We were interested to learn just how different USAC oval racing is from Formula One, from both a design point of view and from the actual racing. Although the Parnelli cars were successful, and Leonard won the championship, the cars, with their interesting dihedral wings, did not enjoy a good reputation at first, although there was a tremendous improvement after Indianapolis following a rear suspension redesign. What were Phillippe’s thoughts on all this? “Well”, he prefaces almost every answer with the word, “like all these things, hindsight is always a good thing and I hadn’t actually been to Indianapolis for a couple of years, not since the Lotus 4-w-d era. An interesting thing about 4-w-d cars is that they are very admirably suited to high speed circuits, they have a very high polar moment of inertia and a 50/50 weight distribution as well as heavy steering. This is what you want for high speed courses because it steadies the cars down. However, road circuit cars tend to be, and need to be, far more twitchy. A USAC car is quite a bit different to a Grand Prix car in several ways. For a start I don’t think there is much chance of getting on opposite lock thanks to their turbo-charged engines. There is a lot of power there and it makes a Formula One look pretty sick. In fact Mario Andretti sums it up by saying that when the turbocharger comes in on those Offenhausers, there is a big bang in the back and it takes a lot of guts just to keep your foot hard on the accelerator.”
One of the criticisms the drivers had of the Parnelli at first was that they were very twitchy and sensitive to drive like a Grand Prix machine and Phillippe expanded further “we were still thinking in terms of braking and accelerating these cars and now we find that, with the amount of wing available (the rules regarding rear aerofoil dimensions were changed for 1972) you can just drive flat out all the way. They don’t brake at all on the 2½-mile ovals, like Indianapolis, although they do on the shorter courses. There are special techniques the drivers use and they drive with two-pedal control all the time. They enter a corner without coming off the throttle and slow the car a little on the brakes. Thus they keep the engine working all the time and keep the boost pressure high. The car must give the driver a comfortable feeling in the entry, in the apex and in leaving the turn.
Like most other USAC teams Vel’s Parnelli were shattered by the times recorded at Ontario Motor Speedway by Bobby Unser testing the Eagle before the start of the season. Phillippe continues, “I was pretty confident when I came over that we could sort them all out over here and, to a large extent, I think that we still can. But there was a bad demoralising effect with Bobby going to Ontario so early and turning around 196 m.p.h. average speed laps, which was incredible actually. Eagle have done a good job on that car but it is big and perhaps they were lucky with development. As things panned out their cars were unreliable and we at least achieved what we set out to do. I think we have to be thankful to the gods that we were given a little bit of grace.”
One particular problem with designing a USAC car is the amount of fuel they carry, Phillippe expounds “The problem of fuel distribution is very important because the difference between a full load of 70 gallons and empty, which happens three times during Indy, alters the handling of the car fairly drastically, and this does make a big difference on fast corners.
The dihedral wings
When Phillippe’s design was first shown it caused a tremendous stir because of the dihedral stings mounted on the side of the car, the like of which had never been seen before. Phillippe’s theories, like torsion bar suspension and inboard front brakes, tend to be trend setting but the cars never raced with the dihedrals. What went wrong? “In the first few days of testing with the car we were running at a certain speed and we didn’t seem to be able to make the cars go any quicker, so I thought it would be a good idea to try with the dihedrals off, because we were having this peculiar handling problem. Thus I instigated them being taken off one car and it started a bit of an epidemic and, before we could stop them, they were off all three cars. Actually they never went any quicker without the wings.” Phillippe still believes in the idea, however, “When your car starts really working and gets slip angles produced by all four wheels”, he explains. “the car itself is presented to the air stream at an angle of attack. It is yawing into the airstream and that is when the 45 deg. wings really give effect. There is a tremendous anti-roll component because the inner wing starts to hit the airstream at a much greater angle of attack. Meanwhile the outer wing is feathering and, the more the tail slides out, the more the feathering action. So, therefore, it was intended to load up the inside wheels in the corners and the tyre temperature measurements showed that this did happen while the similar small wings of the front had the same effect. The dihedrals have a tremendous steadying effect on a car and you can get it well out of line and recover it. Since taking the wings off it has been all go and we have never had tyre testing time to try them again.” Once the more normal rear wing was fitted to the car it caused problems with the inboard rear suspension lay-out because of the extra down pressure and the cars started riding much closer to the ground than the suspension could accommodate. Thus, immediately after Indianapolis, the rear suspension was completely re-designed to an outboard system and the cars have been much quicker ever since, and have, in fact, at one time or another, led every championship round since the re-design.
The racing in USAC
Phillippe misses the excitement of big time Grand Prix racing for, while the three big 500 races are huge occasions and spread over days or, in the case of Indianapolis the whole month of May, some of the other meetings at the 1-mile ovals are concertinered into a single day with practice and qualification in the morning and the race in the afternoon rather like the club meeting in Britain in which Phillippe was successful for several seasons as a driver. These short track races allow very little time for testing and setting up the car for different conditions. A Parnelli will average close on 200 m.p.h. around Ontario, with a top speed of 220 m.p.h., but at somewhere like Phoenix’s 1-mile track the average will be nearer 125 m.p.h. with a top speed of 160 m.p.h. At Phoenix in the last race of the Championship the cars were competing a lap every 25 sec.! It is enough to make you giddy. USAC racing is a lot more tactical than Grand Prix racing and many a race is won in the pits by slick teamwork. Even in the 150-mile races the cars have to make pit stops for fuel as the turbocharged Offenhauser units consume expensive methanol fuel at the rate of a gallon every mile-and-a-half. In the longer distance races, tyres also need changing. All this works in with the yellow light system which is completely different from the flag signals in road racing. If a car crashes, or spins off, the yellow lights are put on all around the track and the pace car comes out and leads everyone round very slowly for several laps. This system often allows all those on the same lap to close right up on the leader and it is also the time to make a pit stop. Once the crashed car has been towed away and the yellow light is off, the race is on again and a driver, who had a ten second lead before the yellow, now has the second man breathing right down his neck again. Phillippe considers this system completely unfair but the rules are unlikely to be changed because it has the effect of closing the race right up again. In so doing it promotes a false situation but it makes the events all the more exciting for the crowd. Very rarely is a race ever free from yellow light periods. Phillippe continues, “I have never been impressed with oval racing. Because of the lay-out of the tracks the overall impression of speed doesn’t catch the imagination quite as much, but it is probably very frightening from the cockpit view.
The team’s personnel
Strangely enough USAC teams do not tend to have team managers, like Peter Warr or Peter Schetty, but rather a chief mechanic who, in the past, has done almost everything. He has started by designing the car, then supervised the construction of it and finally is in charge of it at a circuit. At the Parnelli team each of the three drivers has a chief mechanic, who has two mechanics working under him with George Bignotti as overall Team chief mechanic.
It was Bignotti who, until recently, was in charge of the 30-strong team and he is probably the best known of all American racing mechanics. But it was obvious at our visit that Phillippe and Bignotti did not get along too well, “he always seemed to be there when the photographs got taken”, commented Phillippe, wryly. Since our visit Bignotti has left the outfit. Vel’s Parnelli team actually has two workshops, the shiny new facility at Torrance and permanent premises at Indianapolis as well. The cars are built at Torrance where Joe Fukushima is the shop manager and chief fabricator and for whom Phillippe has the highest praise. He has a team of four fitters and a permanent machinist under him. Then there is a fibreglass laminator called Mike McQueen who Phillippe reckons is better than anyone in England. At Torrance there is also a transmissions shop, and a new 1,000 b.h.p. Heenen & Froude dynamometer was being installed in the engine shop.
Phillippe would have been unable to design the 1972 Parnelli in the available time had it not been for the valuable work of his English assistant John Baldwin. Like Phillippe, Baldwin worked at De Havilland and then joined Team Lotus, where he worked alongside Phillippe and then moved with him to California. Between them they produced over 500 detail drawings for the first car and have now all but completed the work for the 1973 model.
The three Chief Mechanics are Jim Dilamarter, Jimmy McGee and Johnny Chapels, who work respectively for Al Unser, Mario Andretti and Joe Leonard. All in their mid-thirties, Capels and Dilamarter have both raced themselves quite extensively, while McGee has been Andretti’s personal mechanic for several years. In fact the two mechanics under Dilamarter are both British and ex-Team Lotus; Derek “Joe 90” Mower and Sid Carr. Mower was enormously enthusiastic about his year in America although he told us he thought that in some aspects the racing was still very amateur. “Do you know”, he said “we’ve hardly changed an engine between practice and a race all season and we have had very few all-nighters, not like Team Lotus at all”. Mower will pick up probably £100 a week, almost three times as much as he was getting at Lotus. Phillippe likes having the British mechanics around him and would probably be keen to have a couple more.
At a race meeting the regular mechanics are backed up by a team of part time wheel changers and re-fuellers, who are called the weekend warriors. “There seems to be an awful lot of them sometimes”, comments Phillippe. At Torrance there is also a full-time Purchasing Manager by the name of Bill Yeager who buys all the equipment and, with Bignotti’s departure, he will take on additional and more conventional team manager responsibilities. The questioning was steered on to the subject of drivers and what it was like to have more than one top driver in the same team. We mentioned the Team Lotus line-up for next year with Fittipaldi and Peterson. “It always creates problems” says Phillippe, “because it spreads the effort and it is difficult to put as much emphasis on two drivers as it is on one. The problem is that drivers tend to get demoralised if they see their fellow No. 1 going quicker than they are. However, in the Parnelli team we have been very lucky in the temperament of the individual driver. They had all discussed it prior to signing and they all get on very well together.”
What were the individual talents of the three drivers on the team? Phillippe tells us about Mario Andretti first. “Really, to sum it up, he is a very competitive driver. He understands the mechanics of the car fairly well and of the three drivers he finds it easiest to assess what is happening to his car. I tend to work with Mario at a circuit more than the others.
“Al Unser tends to be more reliant on other people to sort out his car. Of course he is very quick but this year he has been somewhat phsyced.” What of Joe Leonard, we asked, he has won the championship this year but he has a reputation of winning after everyone else drops out? “Last year Joe was regarded very much as a number 2, even early this year there was a tendency to say, its only Joe’s car, he will have what we have put for Al. But this season he has emerged as his own master and more of a number 1. Actually having observed Joe drive on fast sweeping curves, I think he is probably the smoothest of our three drivers. He is a pretty old guy too and really I think he does a fantastic job. A lot of people say that the way to win is to follow Joe and pip him at the post. But that is part of what it is all about, being there at the chequered flag.
USAC cars are, in the main, powered by the famous and evergreen Offenhauser 2.6-litre turbo-charged straight 4 engine built by Dale Drake Engineering although some competitors are using the V8 Ford, a project which is now entirely the responsibility of A. J. Foyt. There are also the occasional stock block engines around and they are allowed a capacity of 3.3-litres. USAC racing can be very expensive for the Offy engines are about £14,000 apiece, over twice as much as a Cosworth V8 Grand Prix engine. The Parnelli team rebuild their own engines while engine development is looked after by a chap called Dick Jones who runs a firm called R & D just down the road in Long Beach.
We had read in the American press that the AAR Eagle’s seemed to he ahead in the USAC power race although the cars have proved unreliable. Why was this, we asked Phillippe? “All American Racers has had a history of being so close yet so far, it is rather like Chris Amon not being able to win a Grand Prix. I only wish we could qualify as quickly as the Eagles do, but of course, we can usually run as fast in a race as our qualifying speed, Which they can’t. I don’t know what Dan Gurney’s policy is about qualifying. We don’t seem to be able to turn up the turbo-charger boost on our car and run any quicker, perhaps the Eagle engines have a better torque characteristic when the boost is screwed in. Our cars become difficult to drive with the boost in. These turbo-charged engines have a point where they come in with a grand slam of power. It is a question of how much pressure you put in the inlet manifold, if the boost is really turned up the engine becomes very unreliable. The All American Eagles have a tremendous history of engine failure, and so have teams like McLaren and Penske; perhaps we have been lucky. Every engine failure means a big minus sign on the till, blow-ups can cost around £6,000.”
Now for Maurice Phillippe his first season as designer for the “Superteam” is over. Joe Leonard has scored a clear victory in this year’s Championship and Al Unser finished fourth in the points table. Unbelievably, Mario Andretti led seven of the ten rounds and failed to pick up a single victory. News comes also that Parnelli Jones has just won the Baja 1000 Mexican off-road race for the second time in the Bronco Special which is prepared alongside the USAC cars. Phillippe hasn’t had the time to design some suspension mods for that yet! 1972 has been a good year for Phillippe and he considers it well spent. Next year’s car incorporates many of the things he has learned this year plus, no doubt, a few surprises. “Of course, from my point of view, a car is always out of date. As designers we are always looking to the future.” Emerson Fittipaldi’s success with the Lotus 72 has also brought him a great deal of pleasure too, and via the grapevine he keeps in touch with the old firm. But, as Maurice says, “California has got a lot more to offer than Hethel, in fact to sum it up, its pretty good, pretty good.” — A. R. M.
How would a USAC type car fare against the best in Formula One machinery? Dan Gurney on behalf of his AAR Eagle team has offered to challenge any Formula One constructor to a match race between the two different types of car around the Nurburgring. Exact details are yet to be sorted out but Gurney is willing to put up 100,000 dollars with an equal amount coining from the challenger—winner takes all.