Maserati V8 RI Part Two
LAST month we left all four V8 RI Maserati Grand Prix cars in the United States of America. They had proved totally uncompetitive in Grand Prix racing, unable to match the challenge of the W25 Mercedes-Benz and the V16 Auto Union, either in maximum speed or general performance. The two Frenchowned cars, that of Philippe Etancelin (4503) and “Raph” (4504) had taken part in the Vanderbilt Cup Race at the Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island, New York on October 12, 1936 and though neither car featured strongly in this first Grand Prix Formula race in America, they found ready buyers after the event, as did the two other cars, 4501 and 4502, which belonged to the Scuderia Torino.
Among American racing enthusiasts were many people who wanted to see European-style road racing become a permanent part of the United States racing scene, and it was hoped that the event at the Roosevelt Raceway in October 1936 would start the interest. At the time American racing was of the track variety, always turning left, running on tracks of 2/4-mile length, to the 2 Y2-miles of Indianapolis.
There was a thriving industry building track cars with fairly unsophisticated chassis, but powered by some first class racing engines, but nothing in the way of pure road-racing Grand Prix type cars. The only avenue left open for the Americans was to buy Grand Prix cars from Europe, but these were mostly ex-factory team cars or secondhand private owner cars. There were no Mercedes-Benz, Auto Union or current Alfa Romeo cars for sale, regardless of how much money was offered. Maserati were the only firm prepared to build and sell brand new Grand Prix cars, but with the failure of the V8 RI to come up to expectations they opted out of Grand Prix racing and built 1 %2-litre “Voiturette” cars. Thus it was that, on paper, the Maserati V8 RI was the newest design of car that was available for the American roadracing aspirants. In truth they would have done better to have bought a good secondhand Bugatti Type 59 or Alfa Romeo, and indeed drivers like Rex Mays, who
bought an obsolete Alfa Romeo, did far better than those with the comparatively new Maseratis.
The 1937 Vanderbilt Cup Race was on July 3rd, which meant that the American classic Indianapolis 500 was more than a month before and one of the new Maserati owners entered his car for the Memorial Day race as a try-out. This was 4503 which had been bought by Henry J Topping Jnr, whose driver was Egbert “Babe” Stapp, seasoned American track racer. The rules for the Indianapolis 500 still called for mechanics to be carried so the Maserati 4503 was modified accordingly. The steering box was moved to the left, with new cross shafts, one short and one long, running out to the drop arms, the separate drag link for each front wheel being retained. The pedals were moved to the left and the gear lever now become central, used by the driver’s right hand instead of his left. In single-seater form the V8 RI had widely spaced chassis side members, even though the cockpit width
was only 33 inches, so that in Indianapolis form the driver and mechanic sat within the width of the chassis. A completely new body was made, with an almost identical nose cowl over the radiator, but otherwise it was pretty simple and basic, the ridingmechanic not having a great deal of room.
Indianapolis rules also required the use of straight petrol (or gasoline) so the carburation had to be adjusted to suit, and in the entry list the engine capacity was given as 305 cu.ins. which is as near as makes no odds 5-litres. “Babe” Stapp took Cecil Yates with him as riding mechanic and their qualifying speed of 117.226 mph put them in 31st position on the starting grid of 33 cars.
The car was entered as a Topping Special and lasted for only 36 of the 200 laps, when clutch trouble intervened and caused its retirement, being classified in 31st position in the results. This was not a very auspicious debut under the new ownership and the car was then entered for the Vanderbilt Cup Race, with “Babe” Stapp once more as the driver. As this race was run to International rules riding mechanics were not called for, nor the restriction to straight petrol, so 4503 was put back into single seater Grand Prix form using its original body, the conversion to two-seater having been comparatively simple. All four Maseratis were entered for the July 3rd race, which was the real reason they had been bought by the Americans. In 1936 the American sporting scene had been mildly surprised by the performance of Tazio Nuvolari and the 8C/35 Alfa Romeo when he won the first Vanderbilt Cup Race on the very winding original circuit. In 1937 they were stupified, for teams of Mercedes-Benz W125 and V16 Auto Unions were entered, with Bernd
Rosemeyer, Rudolf Caracciola and Dick Seaman among the drivers. The poor old Maseratis had been unable to challenge the 8C/35 Alfa Romeos in 1936, and Alfa Romeo now had their 12 cylinder cars running, and even they could not match the German cars, so the four Maseratis turned up for practice without a lot of hope. The Bradley-Martin brothers owned horse racing stables which went under the name Balmacaan, and they entered the Maserati 4501, still in its revised form, under this name with Deacon Litz as driver, but though he practised he did not start. The second Maserati (4502) had a more exciting time. It had been bought by
George Rand who was involved in a motor racing deal with a young boxer of Italian origin, named Enzo Fiermonte, who had aspirations of becoming a racing driver. Rand entered the car for the Vanderbilt Cup Race and nominated Fiermonte as his driver, even though the boxer had virtually no experience of racing. It did not take long for Rand to realise that Fiermonte had little or no idea about driving racing cars, or racing, and before he killed himself, or worse killed someone else, Rand withdrew the entry. There was no further practice and qualifying time left so Rand made a deal for Wilbur Shaw to drive the car. Shaw was one of the top Indianapolis drivers and had won the “500” just over a month previously, so his appearance in the Maserati aroused a lot of interest, and no necessity to qualify, he taking Fiermonte’s position on the grid in the eighth row.
The Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Unions were by this time at their peak of development and were developing nearly 600 bhp so the V8 Maseratis with their meagre 320-340 bhp were totally overshadowed. Even Shaw’s driving ability could not make up for such a horsepower discrepancy, especially as the track was much faster in 1937, a lot of tight hairpins having been eliminated. At least he kept it going for the full 300 miles, and finished in eighth position. 4503 was entered as a Topping and “Babe” Stapp qualified for the fourth row of the starting grid with a speed of 79.800 mph, compared to pole position speed of 85.850 mph by Caracciola in the W125 Mercedes-Benz. His race was relatively short as engine trouble caused his retirement. The fourth Maserati (4504) had been bought by Townsend B Martin and was entered for Mauri Rose to drive. Rose was another of the top Indianapolis drivers and after starting in the sixth row of the grid he worked his way up to sixth
place. With only five laps to run the Maserati broke its rear axle and that was that.
It soon became pretty obvious that European-style Grand Prix racing was not going to catch on in the United States, and no Vanderbilt Cup Race was scheduled for 1938, nor were there any other Grand Prix Formula races mooted. However, the ARCA ran some minor club events, and George Rand raced 4502 but this scene was not for the AAA professionals, though some of them thought the Maseratis could be used for Indianapolis, especially as riding mechanics were no longer called for from 1938.
European Grand Prix racing had a new Formula for 1938, which put a limit of 4 /2-litres on engines without superchargers, and 3-litre for those with superchargers, and the Indianapolis organisers set their rules to the same limits, along with the aforementioned withdrawal of the 2seater rule. In 1938 Maserati 4504 was entered for the “500” but no driver was nominated, and anyway it did not arrive for practice.
In 1939 three of the four Maseratis turned up at Indianapolis for practice and qualifying, but only one made the race. 4501, still unchanged outwardly with its low-level exhaust pipes and “cascade” radiator cowling, had the supercharger removed and a new crankshaft with shorter stroke to bring the capacity down from 4.7-litres to 4.5-litres. It was driven by George Robson who set a qualifying speed of 116.305 mph, but it was not fast enough to take a place on the 33 car grid.
4502 had been bought from George Rand by Richard T.Wharton, who owned the Wharton-Dewart Racing Team with Tom Dewart. They had the engine capacity reduced to 3-litres and retained to the supercharging layout, and it went quite reasonably. Deacon Litz qualified it for 31st place on the grid with a speed of 117.979 mph, but only 7 laps into the race valve trouble caused its retirement. It was classified 33rd in the results. 4504 was once more entered by its new owner Hollis A Cheeseman, this time as a CheesemanMaserati, whereas the previous year when it did not show it had been entered as a Kirkham-Maserati. Like 4502 it had its engine capacity reduced to 3-litres and retained the supercharger. Henry Banks drove it but failed to qualify.
Of 4503 there was no sign at all. Henry J Topping Jnr owned large estates in Honolulu (Hawaii) and he had the car put back into 2-seater form, as it had run at Indianapolis in 1937, and shipped it to Hawaii where he kept it as a “fun-car”. He later had the supercharger installation removed and a Ford V8 single carburettor adapted to the manifolding to make it more tractable for use on his estate roads. It is remarkable how certain cars get to Indianapolis, and then appear year after year, even though they proved unsatisfactory from the word go. The V8 RI Maseratis were typical cases. The 1940 race, while most of the world was at war, saw only 4504 arrive with Henry Banks at the wheel, but it broke down during its qualifying run so was posted DNQ. In
1946, when racing at the “Brickyard” resumed, 4501 and 4502 both turned up and both failed to qualify. The first car had now been bought by James Brubaker, from Pennsylvania, who did not aspire to being a professional racing driver, but enjoyed working on the old car and took it along to Indianapolis as part of the fun. It was still of 44-litres and running without the supercharger and not surprisingly it did not qualify. 4502 had been bought in 1944 by Milt Marion, an old time track racer and he entered it for the 1946 event for Tommy Hinnershitz to drive. This was still running supercharged in 3-litre form, and had been driven in ARCA events by Dick Wharton up to the time of America joining in the war.
Even though Tom Hinnershitz was quite a good track driver he could not qualify the old Maserati. Surprisingly, both cars had remained almost unchanged outwardly since they arrived in the USA in 1937, but it was a bit optimistic to imagine that a basically 1935 Grand Prix car could match the pace of specially built Indianapolis track cars, and later Maserati Grand Prix cars that were doing particularly well. The remarkable Jim Brubaker entered his car (4501) in 1947, 1948 and 1949, failing to qualify each time, but no doubt enjoying his annual outing of speed. 4502 continued its checkered career, for it will be recalled that it made quite a stir in the 1937 Vanderbilt Cup Race. Milt Marion sold it to the Granatelli brothers, three speed-crazy hot-rodders of Sicilian origin. They had formed the Granatelli Corpor
ation, dealing in performance and speed equipment in Chicago. They ran numerous racing cars under the name Grancor Specials and the Maserati 4502 is mentioned many times in Andy Granatelli’s hilarious book They call me Mister 500 (which is well worth reading, as well as for the V8 RI references). Andy Granatelli was the leader of the gang, the entrepreneur and driver, Joe
was the spanner man who loved working on racing cars and racing engines, and Vince was the “kid brother”. It was 1948 and the Gracor team was preparing to set off for Indianapolis. “This time we were ready to plunge at Indy. The bet-a-million Granatellis. We had five cars lined up in various stages of readiness. There were our two MillerFords, one Grancor-Ford, the one sensa tional Offenhauser-Miller-Ford and one supercharged Maserati an honest-toGod monster Maserati that we were putting together on a pay-as-you-go basis. In fact we were still putting it together when it came time to load everything on trailers and wheel off to the 500. (`Whaddya expect me to do?’ Joe said. ‘Stand on the back of the trailer and install the engine while we’re towing it down? I can’t get to everything, you know.’)”
The Maserati V8 RI was finished and ran, driven by Walt Brown entered by Grancor Auto Specialists, but it failed to qualify. Undeterred they brought it back to Indianapolis in 1949, but this time it had undergone major surgery and had been sold to an up-and-coming lad by the name of Jim Rathmann. The Maserati V8 engine had been taken out and in its place was installed a new 4-cylinder 41/2-litre Offenhauser racing engine. (Indianapolis did not restrict engines to 4.2-litres until 1957). The chassis and suspension remained unchanged but it had an entirely new body, typical of post-war Indy cars, so that it was unrecognisable as a Maserati V8 RI apart from the brakes and suspension, which could still be seen.
It was entered by Andy Granatelli as a Grancor V8 but Rathmann was unable to qualify, though he borrowed another Offy-powered car, with an American chassis, and qualified in 11th place. He was flagged-off at 175 laps to be classified 11th. Jim Rathmann was to go on to become one of the leading lights at Indianapolis, gaining three second places, and winning in 1960. Interesting that he started his Indy career in a Maserati V8 RI, even though the record books have it down as a Grancor! Apart from 4501 not qualifying in 1950 in the hands of Mike Burch, that was the end of the professional careers of the Maserati V8 RI quartet in the USA, but like old soldiers, old Maseratis seem not to give up, and next month we will deal with their activities in American amateur racing and in the hands of special-builders, which will bring us through to the fact that all four cars are still alive and well. DSJ
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