Ferguson's big ambition at Indy

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Significant front-engined racing cars continued to be designed and built after 1960, most notably for USAC Championship Trail speedway racing, until first Cooper and Coventry Climax, and then Lotus and Ford taught the colonial backwoodsmen the error of their ways in 1961-65. The last front-engined F1 car worth a light had been the four-wheel-drive Ferguson-Climax P99, designed in 1959-60 but finally emerging in ’61 when it won that year’s Oulton Park Gold Cup, driven (almost inevitably) by that man Moss.

While the much-loved Fergie proved to be a cul de sac in F1 design, its four-wheel-drive system attracted the interest of that emerging technical junkie Andy Granatelli, for Indianapolis. ‘Groticelli’, as Colin Chapman rather uncharitably nicknamed this burly entrepreneur, headed the STP Division of the Studebaker Corporation – marketing what was alleged to be ‘Scientifically Treated Petroleum’ as cut-price tune-up in a tin.

When rear-engined cars began showing real form at Indy with Brabham’s works Cooper-Climax T54 in 1961, followed by Jimmy Clark’s second-placed Lotus 29 in 1963, Granatelli thought he saw a highly promotable way to stave off the conversion tide towards rear-engined configuration by perpetuating Indy’s front-engined traditional roadster theme thanks to four-wheel drive. At his invitation, the Oulton Park-winning Fergie P99 was shipped to Indy and tested promisingly there, driven by reliable (if hardly bullet-fast) Jack Fairman. It proved impressively quick and stable through the turns. Granatelli was sufficiently taken with it to commission Ferguson Research to build him a 4WD front-engined chassis for the 1964 Indy 500, to be powered by one of his spine-tingling supercharged Novi V8 engines.

The result was perhaps the largest post-war front-engined racing car I’ve ever seen, which Granatelli’s STP Corporation entered for Bobby Unser to drive in the 500. Sadly, after Unser had qualified 22nd at over 154mph, it all went horribly wrong and he became entangled in the second-lap disaster which claimed the lives of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald – both in rear-engined, gasoline-fuelled cars. Back again in 1965, Unser’s latest STP Novi-Ferguson was the fastest non-Ford V8-engined, non-rear-engined qualifier – eighth quickest at 157.467mph. Again the older Unser brother’s luck evaporated on race day, together with the Novi-Ferguson’s hot oil, gushing from a leak.

For Ferguson at Indy this was far from the finish, as Ferguson Research 4WD technology would feature in such enduring subsequent classics as the STP-Paxton Turbocar ‘Silent Sam’ of 1967, and the Lotus-Pratt & Whitney 56s of ’68. They both led to within agonising touch distance of the flag, only for minor component failure to foil their entrant’s ambitions. In a way it was ironic that when Granatelli and his STP-liveried cars finally won the 500, in 1969, they did so with an unremarkable conventional design – the rear-drive STP Hawk-Ford driven by Mario Andretti. But at least Granatelli had explored the radical approach – and from many more directions than most…