The Penske PC 17-Chevrolet with which Rick Mears won this year’s Indianapolis 500-Mile Race was manufactured in Poole in Dorset. Indeed, all the competing chassis, and most of the engines, were of British origin. But despite the success of our automotive export industry, and the presence in the 33-car field of one Englishman (Jim Crawford) and one Irishman (Derek Daly), interest in the American classic on this side of the Atlantic remains slight; this was certainly not the case twenty years ago.
Of the three cars on the front row in 1968, Pole-man Joe Leonard was in a works STP Lotus, alongside him was Graham Hill in a similar car and a third car, driven by Art Pollard, was on the fourth row.
The Lotus involvement at Indianapolis had begun in 1963 after Dan Gurney had supplied Colin Chapman with an airline ticket to come to the previous year’s race and successfully aroused the Lotus boss’ interest in the Hoosier event. As a “rookie”, Team Lotus was an unqualified success. Clark finished second and Gumey seventh; at one stage the Lotuses had even been running first and second. It took another two attempts before Clark in the Lotus 38 became the first foreigner to win Indy since 1916.
It was natural that this success was generating a great amount of interest in Britain, but what was particularly appealing about the 1968 event was the fact that all three Lotuses were turbine-powered cars.
It was not the first time that cars propelled this way had appeared at Indianapolis. As far back as 1955 a Kurtis roadster was powered by a Boeing turbine at an Indianapolis tyre-test, and in the early 1960s there were a number of attempts to qualify turbine-powered cars.
By 1966, team-owner Andy Granatelli had also become excited by this technology. Using finance from the STP Corporation, he commissioned his brothers Joe and Vince of Paxton Products to build a car that was exclusively powered by a Pratt & Whitney turbine manufactured by United Aircraft of Canada. The squat and stubby car, with the driver alongside the long 550 bhp engine, simply dominated the 1967 race. It whooshed away into the lead only to retire with three laps to go, victim of the failure of a six-dollar bearing in the transmission.
Worried lest all existing cars would be consigned to a multi-million dollar rubbish tip, the United States Auto Club changed the rules the following year, in an effort to bring the power produced by turbines more into line with that of reciprocating engines.
While an outraged Granatelli was unsuccessfully trying to sue USAC, his English designer Ken Wallis left him to join Shelby Racing, which was being funded to the tune of $1-million by Goodyear to manage its own turbine-powered team.
Now without a designer, Granatelli became receptive to overtures from Chapman that their two teams should pool resources and jointly tackle the turbine project. Consequently four wedge-shaped, rear-engined cars were built for Granatelli — for an American driver, Clark, Hill, and a spare.
The May practice sessions at the circuit brought disaster. Following the death of Jim Clark in April, Jackie Stewart was brought into the driver line-up, but his suspected sprained wrist sustained in a Formula Two accident turned out to be a hairline fracture. Mike Spence was consequently borrowed from BRM, and on his first visit to the circuit set lap-times which were just short of Andretti’s qualifying record. He then tested the car to be driven by Greg Weld.
While entering high into Turn One, he encountered some dust and slid broadside into the wall. Little damage was done to the car, but the wheels were torn off and one bounced back giving him a fatal blow to the head. Chapman subsequently left the States wishing to have nothing else to do with the race; Shelby withdrew his cars, ostensibly on the grounds of safety, but if truth be told more because his cars were totally uncompetitive.
Problems still kept cropping up for the turbine-powered cars. A week before the first qualifying sessions, officials from USAC objected to suspension and steering parts on the Lotuses not meeting the required specifications. This was quickly remedied. Joe Leonard, testing the 1967 car vacated by Parnelli Jones (who had decided that it would not be competitive), escaped unhurt from an enormous accident which wrote the thing off; and engineers from Pratt & Whitney were aghast when they discovered that the “failsafe” shafts, designed to shear if they overheated in an aircraft prior to take off, had been replaced by steel ones. Granatelli yielded to their demands but not Chapman.
An estimated quarter of a million people turned up to see the race. Despite Granatelli’s objections, the USAC rule-makers had got the equivalency formula just about right. For 180 of the 200 laps, it was a fight between Leonard’s turbine-powered Lotus and the Offy-powered cars of Bobby Unser and Lloyd Ruby.
With twenty laps left to run, and Leonard leading, the yellow lights flashed on follovving a crash. On the 192nd lap, they changed back to green. Leonard put his foot down, but nothing happened. The turbine’s fail-safe shaft had done the job it was designed for — it had sheared under the heat that had built up when running under the yellow flag. At exactly the same time, the same thing happened to Pollard in seventh place. Hill’s car, with the steel shaft, had already disappeared from the race after losing a wheel and crashing.
To all intents and purposes, this was the end of the turbine era in USAC competition. The following season the regulations limited turbines even further, and by 1970 gas turbines not specifically made for cars were altogether outlawed. WK