George Bignotti, one of American racing’s greatest chief mechanics, has died at the age of 97. Bignotti’s cars won seven Indy 500s between 1961 and 1983 and a total of 85 Indycar events.
Born in San Francisco, Bignotti became a major force in California midget racing immediately after WWII. Fred Agabashian took Bignotti’s cars to three straight Bay Cities Racing Association midget championships in 1946, ’47 and ’48 and Johnny Boyd added another BCRA title to Bignotti’s collection in 1951.
As midget racing faded in popularity, Bignotti worked for a few years as a florist. In 1954, however, Agabashian requested his help in trying to qualify for the Indy 500. Two years later Bignotti formed Bignotti-Bowes Racing and scored his first USAC Championship victory, with Jud Larson driving his car on the one-mile Phoenix dirt track at the end of 1958.
Bignotti hired promising young Texan AJ Foyt in 1960 and over the next five years the pair established themselves as the men to beat in Indycar racing. Foyt won the USAC Championship in 1960, ’61, ’63 and ’64 and scored the first two of his four Indy 500 wins in 1961 and ’64. Foyt won 27 races during this time, including a record 10 in 1964.
Foyt and Bignotti parted following the 1965 Indy 500 and Bignotti joined Texas oil man John Mecom’s team. Mecom was Lola’s US importer at the time: Parnelli Jones raced Mecom’s Bignotti-prepared Lola T70 Can-Am car and Graham Hill won the 1966 Indianapolis 500 aboard a Bignotti-prepared Lola T90.
After Jones retired from driving he started Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing and Bignotti went to work for VPJ, winning the Indy 500 with Al Unser in 1970 and ’71 and USAC titles with Unser in 1970 and Joe Leonard in 1971 and ’72. Between 1968 and 1971 Unser won 25 races in Bignotti-prepared cars, equalling Foyt’s record of 10 wins in 1970. “George Bignotti was the guy who made our team work in those days,” Parnelli said. “He did beautiful work and made our cars reliable.”
In 1973 Bignotti moved to Pat Patrick’s STP team and Gordon Johncock won the Indy 500. Bignotti continued to run Patrick’s team through the ’70s, with Johncock winning the USAC championship in 1976. Bignotti left Patrick at the end of 1980 to start his own team, running Tom Sneva, and the American went on to win the 1983 Indy 500 in Bignotti’s March 83C.
At the end of that year Bignotti sold his team to Dan Cotter, but continued as chief mechanic with Roberto Guerrero driving. Guerrero finished second to Rick Mears at Indianapolis in 1984 and was co-rookie of the year with Michael Andretti. After retiring, Bignotti continued to do research work and act as a spokesman for Mobil. He remained a regular visitor to the Indy 500 and other races for many years.
Bignotti lived his final years in Las Vegas with his second wife Kay, the daughter of three-time Indy 500 winner Louis Meyer. He is survived by Kay, daughter Mary and two grandsons.