The Great Turbine Controversy finally came to a head last month when practice opened for the 52nd Indianapolis 500. Although this was necessarily written before the qualification attempts or the race itself, the first two weeks produced more than their usual share of extraordinary and, unfortunately, tragic events.
The controversy began, of course, when Parnelli Jones drove the S.T.P. Turbocar to within 7½ miles of victory in last year’s race. Caught off guard, the United States Auto Club quickly amended its rules to make gas turbine powerplants more nearly equivalent to reciprocating engines. (U.S.A.C. does not use the F.I.A. equivalency formula.) The principal change reduced the permitted inlet area, measured at the first compression stage, from 23.999 sq. in. to 15.999 sq. in. Anthony Granatelli, the president of S.T.P. Corp., cried foul, took U.S.A.C. to court and lost the case. Meanwhile, Ken Wallis, the Englishman who designed the S.T.P. car, left Granatelli and was already building two new cars to be powered by modified General Electric turbines. The project was underwritten by Goodyear— at a cost of over $1 million—and managed by the Shelby Racing Co. Bruce McLaren and Denis Hulme were the drivers. At the same time, Colin Chapman was building four new S.T.P.-Lotus turbines (Type 56) to be powered by a modified version of the Canadian-built Pratt & Whitney engine that Granatelli used last year. The drivers were to be Graham Hill, Mike Spence, Jackie Stewart and an American, Greg Weld.
When the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened on May 1st, McLaren, Hulme, Hill and Spence were among the first on the track. Just two days later the controversy (1968 version) flared anew when Parnelli Jones announced his withdrawal as driver of the original S.T.P. Turbocar. Referring to the restrictions on turbines, Jones said one can’t take away one-third of the horsepower and expect the car to remain competitive with piston-engined cars. “I race to win,” he said, “and I don’t think I can win with this car except for a fluke. I don’t depend on flukes.”
Granatelli’s disappointment was eased somewhat the following morning when Spence took out his S.T.P.-Lotus turbine and posted the fastest speed of the year as he circled the track at 164.239 m.p.h. Three days later Spence shook everyone—except, perhaps, the Lotus contingent—with a consistent series of laps over 169 m.p.h. His best lap of 169.555 m.p.h. was the second fastest in Speedway history, just behind the one-lap record of 169.779 established by Mario Andretti on his way to the pole position last year. Spence had been at Indianapolis only a week, and was still a “rookie” in their terms, but his relaxed, easy-going manner and rapid adaptation to the 2½-mile track had earned the respect of all who met him. He also had the advantage that he had done more testing in the S.T.P.-Lotus than any other driver. Not long after Spence’s runs, Hill took his car out and confirmed that the turbines were still a threat, despite the restrictions, with a best lap of 169.045. The Lotus team was elated. Not only would Hill and Spence be able to leave for the Spanish Grand Prix with a tremendous psychological advantage, but the team had accomplished more in a week than it did in the whole month last year. Later that afternoon, however, Spence was asked to shake down the turbine entered for his team-mate, Weld. He had worked the car up to 163.1 m.p.h. when the car went out of control and crashed into the wall in the first turn.
(The 2½-mile Speedway is a simple rectangle with four rounded corners. The two long straights measure 3,300 feet and the two short straights 660 feet. The four turns are each 1,320 feet long and are banked at 9 deg. 12 min. Although the turns are similar dimensionally, surface variations and other factors mean that each requires a different technique. Virtually all drivers agree that the first turn is more difficult than the others because it is the only one completely lined on the outside by cavernous, two-tiered grandstands. Coming down the front straight at over 200 m.p.h. the drivers say the grandstands tend to throw their perspective off and give the impression of driving into a huge, dark hole. The other three turns have fewer grandstands around them and the drivers are better able to “see where the turn goes”.)
There were many witnesses to Spence’s crash, but two of the most reliable were Walt Myers, U.S.A.C.’s chief observer, and Jim Maguire, a sprint and midget car driver who devotes the entire month of May to timing the cars through the first turn. Myers said Spence was going higher and higher each time he approached the slightly banked turn and just before the crash he had got well above the line and into some dust. Maguire said Spence ”. . . was much higher in Greg Weld’s car than he had been in his own. I saw the dust blow under his car when he came into the turn just before the crash and knew he was too far out of the groove to make it through. It looked to me as though he realised how high he was and tried to cut the wheels sharply to the left to get back into the groove. Then it looked like he saw how fast he was going and knew he’d break loose if he cut too hard and tried to ride it out along the wall. By that time it was too late because he was going too fast and he went into the wall . . .”
Spence was travelling at over 125 m.p.h. when the car hit the wall almost broadside. Spectators said the right front wheel appeared to twist back and catch him on the head, ripping his helmet off. The helmet was found with the chinstrap still fastened and a tyre mark across the top. There was another big tyre mark on top of the car near the right front of the cockpit, which is relatively further forward in the S.T.P.-Lotus than in most rear-engined cars. The right front wheel had apparently rotated about the steering tie-rod, which was the only component still attaching the wheel to the car after the impact. Apart from the right side wheels and suspension, which bore the brunt of the impact, there was hardly any other structural damage. The monocoque tub, though it may have been twisted, showed only a small deformation of the outside skin near the right front suspension pick-up points. Spence was rushed to hospital with severe head injuries, but he never regained consciousness. He died 4½ hours later just as a neuro-surgeon requested by Chapman was about to leave Washington in a Firestone Tyre Co. jet.
The repercussions of the accident followed immediately. That same evening, Carroll Shelby announced that he was withdrawing his two turbine cars, saying: “After complete and intensive testing, I feel at the present time it is impossible to make a turbine-powered car competitive with a reasonable degree of safety and reliability.” Issued only two hours after Spence’s death, Shelby’s statement caused considerable annoyance to the S.T.P.-Lotus-Firestone camp because. it appeared to refer to all turbine cars rather than his entries specifically. The statement also skirted the fact that the new Wallis-designed cars had encountered a number of serious problems, including inadequate braking, and could not do the job they were designed for without expensive re-engineering. Hulme could only get his car up to 161 m.p.h. and McLaren was slightly slower. This speed would not have qualified for last year’s race, let alone this year’s.
Meanwhile, Colin Chapman announced that he was returning to England and handing over direction of his crew and the cars to Granatelli. “I am filled with grief at the loss of my long-time friend and associate, Jimmy Clark,” Chapman said, “and the additional loss, just a month later to the day, of Mike Spence. As an understandable result, I want nothing more to do with the 1968 Indianapolis race. I just do not have the heart for it.”
Chapman added that it was “regrettable” that the withdrawal of two competitive turbine cars by another owner was somehow associated with the death of Mike Spence. “Both Andy (Granatelli) and I agree that the combination of four-wheel-drive and turbine power provide the safest kind of racing vehicles and that this combination is here to stay.” He pointed out that immediately after the accident a technical committee of U.S.A.C. (headed by S. A. Silbermann, a metallurgist) had made an inspection of the crashed car and could find no evidence of any structural failure.
Spence’s death cast a heavy pall over the Speedway, but unfortunately the turbine controversy was far from over. On May 11th, week before the first qualifying sessions, Harlan Fengler, the U.S.A.C. Chief Steward, sent a letter to Granatelli pointing out that the suspension parts of the S.T.P.-Lotus turbines did not meet the specifications in the U.S.A.C. rules and would have to be changed. The rules require that all highly stressed steering and suspension parts must be made from SAE 4130 steel, or an alloy specified by the manufacturer as equivalent in structural strength. They must then be stress relieved and heat treated to specified standards. Fengler said investigation of Spence’s accident “revealed that the subject parts are of mild steel and do not meet the alloy and Rockwell (hardness) specifications required by the rules.” But he was at pains to emphasise that U.S.A.C. was not criticising the construction of the cars. “Let me emphasise that we are not implying that this is an inferior part, or that it is unsafe, but simply that it does not meet our specifications. Actually, the parts stood up very well in the accident.” Silbermann, the metallurgist, said the Lotus components might well be equal or even superior in structural strength, but they could not meet the Rockwell specifications. Fengler was in the difficult position of enforcing a rule he did not make and, as many observers commented, it was the U.S.A.C. rules were need of an overhaul.
Granatelli accepted the ruling stoically and immediately set about having new parts fabricated—only to be struck by two more blows in this most incredible series of misfortunes. On May 12th Joe Leonard was testing the S.T.P. Turbocar vacated by Parnelli Jones and had worked it up to 166 m.p.h. when he lost control going into the first turn and crashed into the wall. Leonard was uninjured, but the car was extensively damaged. Granatelli announced that the car that launched the turbine revolution at Indianapolis probably “will never run again”, and it was withdrawn. This disheartening development was made even more so by the fact that earlier that day Art Pollard had worked the car up to 166.8 m.p.h.—the fastest speed it had ever lapped the track.
Finally, on May 13th, new X-rays of Jackie Stewart’s right wrist showed that it was not just sprained, but had a hairline fracture. The wrist went into a cast and the S.T.P.-Lotus team lost another driver. And so, after two weeks of what can only be described as tragedy, the Granatelli/Chapman combine approached the first qualifying weekend with three cars and only one of their original drivers—Graham Hill. The last chapter in the Great Turbine Controversy was still to be written.—D. G.