The big chief & his Indyans
If you want to win at Indy, you need a good car. And George Bignotti. David Malsher catches up with the greatest crew chief of them all
George Bignotti was a chief mechanic in Champ Car racing for 30 years. Correction: he was the chief mechanic. Eighty-five times he got the magic winning formula right. So this former San Francisco florist is well placed to give his verdict on the star drivers he worked with over the course of three decades.
“I started out working with Freddy Agabashian in 1954. And then when I built my own racing car in ’56, I had Johnny Boyd, a rookie driver. He drove for the whole schedule — 13 races — and we finished sixth in the championship. We were up at the front quite a bit, but we weren’t winning: when I had raced midgets in the San Francisco Bay area, I used to win three or four times a week! So you could say I was a little disgruntled by 1958. But then Jud Larson won a race for me and I decided to keep on going.
“Jud was a great dirt oval driver, but he could never make it work on paved tracks — he was no good at Indianapolis, for example. On dirt, though, I don’t think anyone could beat him. In any corner he could go outside, inside or middle. Superb.”
With Bignotti-run cars becoming front-runners and then winners, by 1960 an ambitious young Texan by the name of AJ Foyt was eager to team up. The results started pouring in from mid-season and, by winning four of the last six USAC races, Foyt scored his and Bignotti’s first title.
The following season brought the win the partnership craved: Indy. And it came after a mesmeric duel between Foyt and Eddie Sachs.
“That was a peculiar win,” recalls Bignotti, “because on what should have been Foyt’s last pitstop we got all the tyres changed, but when I ran round to the fuel guy he yelled, ‘There’s no fuel going in!’ So I just shut the tank and sent Foyt back out. But because he was now so much lighter than Sachs’ refuelled car, he was able to go a lot quicker.”
Foyt eked out an advantage, but had to stop for a splash-n-dash with 10 laps to go. When he re-emerged he was 25sec behind Sachs. But remarkably, with just three laps to go, Sachs too had to pit: the warning strip was showing through his badly worn right-rear tyre, perhaps as the result of being worked so hard while the roadster was on its full fuel load. Ironically, Foyt’s refuelling problem may have brought him the win.
Their second Indianapolis victory together, 1964, was less remarkable for its racing and more for its significance in US motorsport history: it marked the final Indy 500 victory for a front-engined roadster; Foyt led 146 of the 200 laps.
The following year they switched to rear-engined cars, and a Bignotti-modified Lotus was straight on the pace; Foyt put it on pole, ahead of the newer Lotus-Fords of Jim Clark and fellow GP star Dan Gurney.
“By now, though, Foyt was a little headstrong,” recalls Bignotti. “He wanted to be team leader and make the decisions. So although I had it all planned out that he had to come in on lap 65 for more gas, he ignored the pitboard and ran out of fuel on the back straight.”
It was the beginning of the end of the Bignotti-Foyt combo; after three championships and 27 wins, including two Indy 500s, they went their separate ways. Bignotti’s respect for his first star driver remains immense, however.
“Foyt had no problems switching between dirt and paved ovals, and could drive just about any car. At the end of the roadster era there were several ace drivers: Parnelli Jones, of course, was exceptional, and Rodger Ward and Jim Rathmann were very good, too. But Foyt was as tough as any of them and, wherever he qualified, he very quickly got to the front once the race started.”
Graham Hill & JYS
After The Big Split, Bignotti was immediately snapped up by team-owner John Mecom who was having Lolas built for 1966. New and untried they might have been, but with the Bignotti touch, two of the three cars — the Ford-powered pair of Jackie Stewart and Graham Hill — would proved front-runners at Indy.
“When they first arrived, Hill and Stewart were all at sea about oval racing, understandably so. But they were good drivers: Jackie was the quicker, whereas Graham was a mechanic who had become a driver. When Jackie first came across to test in 1966, he stepped off the plane and came straight to the Speedway, and I said, ‘Go to the motel, relax, and grab a couple of hours’ nap. And then we’ll run.’ And he replied, ‘No, I’m okay.’ So he got in the car and completed nine laps. But on the 10th he scraped along the wall coming out of Turn Four. He cruised back to the pits and was white as a sheet.”
A lesson learned, then. But that same cocksure confidence that had also put Hill on the back foot in the BRM Formula One team was to cost Stewart the biggest race win in the world, according to Bignotti. The British pair already had a healthy intra-team rivalry going on and they took this emotional baggage with them across The Pond.
“Jackie was leading by almost a lap, and came up to put a lap on Graham who was running second,” remembers Bignotti. “Graham sees Jackie coming up in his mirrors and starts to really push, cutting his lap time by about 1.5 seconds. Jackie starts responding, trying to lap him. We were hanging out boards telling Jackie to slow down because he only had about 15 laps to go and he was well ahead. But he kept standing on the gas and, with 10 laps to go, he broke a bolt in a connecting rod and that was it. Still, Graham won, and he gave me the winner’s ring, and he gave John Mecom the Pace Car [a Mercury Cyclone].”
Al Unser Snr
The third Mecom car that day at Indy had been driven by an ageing Rodger Ward, but having spooked himself on oil soon after witnessing the mother and father of all startline shunts, he pulled into the pits and retired. For good. The man who took over his position in the Mecom team was none other than Al Unser. Bignotti had embarked on another driver relationship that would prove to be legendary.
“Al seemed to get a lot of runner-up places in that first season. I would say it took him about a year to really get in the groove. But once he started winning, boy! It was like he was winning everything. He was a very smooth driver, you didn’t see him thrashing the car when he was going flat-out. He came through the field until suddenly, when you looked up from your lap chart, he was there in the lead.
“The other thing I liked about Al was that he would never complain about the car. And he wasn’t the sort of guy to come into the pits and say, ‘Change these springs, do this, do that,’ which is good, because those sorts of things don’t go over too well! He would just tell me what the car was doing, and I knew exactly what to do from what he was telling me about how the car felt. Then he’d go out and set his fastest lap.”
It was a similar relationship to that enjoyed by Jimmy Clark and Colin Chapman in Formula One. But whereas that was put down to Chapman having been a fine racer himself, as well as a superb engineer, Bignotti was by now so far removed from his own driving days that interpreting what Unser wanted came only from his innate sense of what a driver needed to perform.
“In 1970, there had been no rain for the month of May so far, so the track was real greasy by the time we got to Pole Day. I’d been listening to the on-track commentary and I’d hear a driver say things like, ‘My car had so much push I don’t know how I was getting through the corners’, and each time I heard this I would adjust the suspension some more. Eventually, it came to Al’s turn, and I said to him, ‘Be careful of it getting loose on that first lap, the second and third laps should be fine, and then on the fourth it’s going to be understeering like crazy.’ He listened, acted upon what I had said, and put it on pole.”
Sadly, Bignotti’s relationship with Parnelli Jones that had started in 1968 had ran its course by ’72.
“I had got pretty tired of designing and building the cars, so we hired Maurice Phillippe. He had shown with the Lotus 72 that he was a great draughtsman. However, he did not really understand oval racing, and I found I was having to completely redesign the stuff he was coming up with. Parnelli had taken the engine-building duties away from me too, so I thought, ‘If they don’t need me, I’ll go.’ And so at the end of the 1972 season I left to join Patrick Racing.”
He joined forces with Gordon Johncock and ex-bike racer Swede Savage.
“Gordon was a good driver; we won the 1973 Indianapolis 500 and ’76 Indycar title. But Swede Savage was, to my mind, the perfect driver. In the off-season of 1972-73, whenever we went testing he’d be setting new track records. I got really excited and felt sure that here we had the all-American hero. He would probably have won Indy in ’73, because he was running well ahead ofJohncock when the accident happened…”
A few laps after taking the lead, he lost control on oil at Turn Four and hit the wall with hideous force, triggering a huge inferno.
“As I was running to the scene,” says Bignotti, “a firetruck going the wrong way up the pitlane hit one of the other STP mechanics, right next to me, and killed him: he was just a kid. Swede got burned pretty bad, though he survived a month in hospital in Indianapolis. It was an infection that actually killed him.
“Gordon won the race for us, but there was no celebrating.”
The Patrick relationship lasted a full seven seasons, but an offer to finally become a team owner with businessman friend Dan Cotter proved too tempting. And the chance to work with a six-time Indy-winning crew chief proved too tempting for 1977 and ’78 Indycar champ Tom Sneva, a driver Bignotti remembers with great affection.
“They called him the ‘Gas Man’ at the Speedway — the first man to lap the Brickyard at over 200mph — but he was originally a schoolteacher and certainly he was no dummy. He would happily sit there in the pits thinking about technical changes, coming up with solutions, but occasionally he’d get carried away doing this and would try to change too much. I remember Michigan in ’81: we had gone up there with our two almost-new March 81s — his car and the spare — and as soon as practice started he was running quick. But he kept coming back into the pits and making little changes and asking for little tweaks. Finally, as qualifying was about to start, he said, Jeez, I can’t drive this thing!’ So we unbelted him and put him in the spare. He hadn’t had any chance to mess around with this car, and he went off and planted it on pole.
“He won us four races in our first two years before finally nailing Indy in 1983. I had got Ed Winfield to make some special camshafts that were much better than the standard Cosworth ones, and those gave us much better speed on the straights. That meant we could run two inches less boost so we wouldn’t trigger the pop-off valve and still keep pace with the leaders. However, when we had a full load of fuel, that wasn’t enough to allow us to pass. But in the closing stages, as the fuel load went down, Tom decided it was time to get going. He turned up the boost to the level everyone else had been running at and, in just one move, he went past Al Unser Jnr on the way into Turn One, Dick Simon on the chute to Turn Two, and Al Unser Snr on the way out of Two. By the time he went through Turns Three and Four and then past us, he was already 15 car lengths ahead. It was just incredible. Then we had to tell him to slow down because we were marginal on fuel; at the chequer, I think Tom had just about a gallon-and-a-half left.”
That victory was to prove Bignotti’s final win at the Brickyard. It should not have been, though. Nor should Juan Pablo Montoya’s victory in the 2000 Indy 500 have been the first Brickyard success for a Colombian. Bignotti has no doubts that the man who replaced Sneva for 1984, ex-Ensign F1 driver and future Indy pole-sitter Roberto Guerrero, had the talent to get the job done.
“Roberto was a rookie that year, but still he qualified seventh. He was going well on the race day, but twice he overshot when he tried to stop at our pits, and both times he was so far out of the box that we had to send him out to come in again. Then he had a spin at Turn Two, but managed to do a complete 360 and carry on. When they threw the yellow, we got him in and changed just the right-side tyres to make sure he got ahead of the pace car; he flew round and came back in, and we changed the left-side tyres and got him out before the pace car came round again. After all that, he still finished second, 20sec behind Rick Mears. I think we could have won in ’84.”
At the end of that season, Cotter decided to reduce Bignotti’s role. At the age of 68, he would become a consultant. “Well, that worked for about two months before I quit,” says George. “Since then I’ve worked for Mobil, first telling corporate guests and the public that synthetic oil was the thing to have, and then running the company’s suite over at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“I miss running the cars, having drivers say, ‘The car’s doing this, this and this’, and then me working out what needs to be done, fixing it and seeing the reward in the lap time.”
That kind of payback only comes from working with the best, something Bignotti had the pleasure of for so long. But he’s so matter-offact, so rational about his key role in turning talents into legends, one wonders if he realises that he himself has become a legend.
Hail to the Chief!