The success of Lotus at Indy led to some of the craziest most nightmarish cars ever seen at Brickyard. Joe Scalzo tells their strange tells and sympathises with those who drove them them.
Тhe great Don Branson (1920-1966) was, among many wonders and eccentricities, a tortoise. He abominated having to flop on his back in a race cat Front-engine Offenhauser roadsters and upright dirt track cars were his loves, and when it came to wrestling such dinosaurs across pavement and dirt, he was in the class of AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones and Jim Hurtubise. Foyt, Jones, and Hurtubise, however, weren’t stooped, baggy, or infirm with low blood pressure. Nor were any of them an antique and grumpy 46 years old.
So, if there was anything that could make poor Branson feel silly, inept and infuriated it was the double whammy of 1) having the engine behind him instead of in front, and 2) the far worse torture of being forced to recline on his back instead of racing sitting straight up. Watching him go through the ordeal of doing so, you didn’t know whether to giggle or groan. There he’d be, before the start of an Indianapolis 500 (or at Phoenix, Milwaukee or Trenton) poisoning himself with cigarettes and grumbling bitterly about the horrors to come. Finally, when the terrible moment could be postponed no longer and he had to get into harness, Don would consent to have Jud Phillips, his unsympathetic stonefaced chief mechanic, lead him out to their insufferable ‘funny car’ where Branson would descend into rear-engine hell and prostrate himself in the cockpit Phillips would next cinch down all the shoulder straps and belly belts so that Don was unable to raise up in the wheelhouse no matter how desperately he tried. But even with the engine firing and Phillips pushing him away, Don could be heard roaring in his squeaky grandfather’s voice, “Godamnit, this ain’t no way to drive a race car!”
The belts were strong and his physical strength was marginal. Yet such was Branson’s stubborn resolve that, as a race unfolded, he was like a mummy raising from the crypt First, you’d see only his helmet top like everyone else. Then, gradually, you’d notice his shoulders, and somehow he’d continue the process of stretching the belts and wrestling free. By the finish, he’d be sitting straight up and racing like he was back in his dear old front-engine upright
A dinosaur reactionary too locked in his diehard ways to escape Stone Age race cars? Guess again. Don Branson was a race driver for the ages and might have easily gotten over being gun-shy of ‘funny cars’. He might have even overcome his tortoise fixation and enjoyed the little creatures — if only he’d ever had the chance to plant his posterior in one that didn’t have bad habits. It’s a legacy of the ‘rear-engine revolution’ of the 1960s and 70s that always gets airbrushed over, although the rest of the story is quite well known: for years and years the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a sealed and xenophobic racing fortress and hunting preserve for the mighty Offenhauser roadster. But when the Speedway held out the welcome mat, first to John Cooper and Jack Brabham, and next to that strange and singular genius
Colin Chapman — with his equally strange Team Lotus monocoques — the Indy 500 was thrown wide open to English influence. The resultant roadster versus Lotus combat was like a second War of Independence, and this time the Redcoats — Chapman and Jimmy Clark, plus all those mod mechanics of Team Lotus with their Beatles hairdos and Chapmanesque nicknames —were victorious.
So far so good — if you were a Brit. But afterwards, Chapman did something it wasn’t really cricket to do. Having set everything in motion, he and Team Lotus returned to Europe and Formula 1 instead of staying to see the rear-engine revolt through. Left to carry on by themselves, US constructors, in the main, responded by unleashing experimental rear-engine cars of their own whose handling miseries were almost beyond comparison. Now Don Branson was a rough-and-ready character with a reasonably high fear threshold. Which is to say, as a model US race driver, he knew what it was like to walk on the wild side of the lethal hill tracks of Dayton, Salem and Winchester, and even go into the belly of the beast and survive the experience of snaking around Langhome. Strapping on a sprint car and hurtling around and around Ascot Park on a fog-bound Saturday night and hoping the fog didn’t contain a crashwall was routine duty. Even so, Branson soon discovered all of this was prosaic compared to the experience of having to pilot American rear-engines and getting the funny car works. ‘Funny car’ was an expletive. “The ones that work are ‘funny’,” Branson’s chum Roger Mcauskey once explained. And those that don’t? “They’re just stupid.” (Roger was entrusted with an especially diabolical funny car that he named ‘the Disneyland Lotus’.)
Branson and McCluskey were hardly the only Yank soldiers forced to lead difficult lives. Following a desperate struggle, Big Jud Larson, demon of the dirt tracks, was made to climb inside a Watson ‘funny car’ and ordered to get it up to speed. He did, but his lower body suffered cramp and when Larson’s legs fell asleep, his little roller skate went into a wild spin, then slid for 230 metres before finally catching the inside wall. Bouncing clear, it bellyslid a further 90 metres to wallop the outside one. Larson survived; Davey MacDonald and Eddie Sachs didn’t. Strapped inside a gasoline-laden Mickey Thompson nightmare with oversize side-saddle fuel bays, stone-cold Davey, on the second lap of ’64’s Indy 500, managed to find the cement and blow himself and Sachs sky-high in an enormous orange fireball that shook the ground, disabled another five automobiles, red-flagged the race and kept fire crews busy for over 100 minutes. A further reckoning occurred in 1966. Three-quarters of the starting field in the Silver Anniversary 500 were ‘funny car’ clones. Down came the green.
A two-speed Gerhardt was jumped by a two-speed Watson, and when a Vollstedt with a Lotus-type Hewland came upshifting through the gears between them, the Vollstedt’s right-rear wheel caught the Gerhardt’s left-front. In the melee that followed, a third of the field was wiped out. Drivers continued exchanging blood-chilling anecdotes, but the rear-engine revolution sped on anyway. Nobody wanted to go back to racing roadster ironclads no matter what happened. Accordingly, quackery and quack cars became the Indy menu of the ’60s and ’70s: everybody wanted to look as smart as Colin Chapman. There were stock-blocks and turbines; rearwheel-drives, front-wheel-drives, four-wheel-drives; rear-engines and mid-engines and double-engines and (no joke) a bizarre side-engine — Smokey Yunick’s you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it capsule car. What was occurring, in other words, was the exact opposite of that comedy flick in which Jack Nicholson says, “Go sell crazy some place else. We’re all stocked up here.” For all its hilarious ‘funny car’ revolt, crazy was just what the Brickyard did want Then Cale Yarborough, up from NASCAR to embark on open-wheel racing, made what he thought was his amazing discovery. Having experienced scare after scare from counterfeit Lotuses, bogus Brabhams and hybrid Lolas, Yarborough anxiously scoped out The Brickyard horizon and learned that, contrary to prevailing thought, all of the original hirsute mechanics and brainy fabricators of Team Lotus hadn’t returned to Mother England with Chapman, after all. Finding Indy more congenial than their master had, a few had acquired visas and stayed on. To Yarborough, who fantasised that anybody with an English accent must be a ‘funny car’ genius, the next step was obvious. Rushing to his sponsor, Gene White Racing, he expostulated, “We gotta hire us some of them long-haired Limies!” A few of their Chapmanesque nicknames were Slugger, Rabbit, Challcie and Angel.
But it was Maurice Phillippe who initially climbed the highest and fell the furthest. Perhaps unique among Team Lotus alumni, he had neither long hair nor screwball substitute name. And in 1972, for its trio of champions Mario Andrett, Al Unser, and Joe Leonard the Vel’s Pamelli Jones team (US racing’s richest) ordered him to engineer something brilliant Phillippe obeyed. Amidst Pentagon-like secrecy, he disgorged a huge folly known as the dihedral car a freak dreadnought with stubby wings sprouting from its fat bulk in a V. It became a great white elephant, causing VFI’s champions nightmares and its sponsors an enormous financial bath. Meanwhile, Rabbit, Slugger and Chalkie heeded Cale Yarborough’s abject cries for help and were canonised into the new medicine men and wizards of ‘funny car’ design. The automobile they created, known as the Atlantas, was possibly superior to Phillippe’s notorious dihedral. Fate, however, seemed against it. Yarborough’s team relied on the turbocharged Ford, and a lot of time got wasted switching over to the faster turbo Offenhauser. Yarborough had by then renounced Indianapolis and returned to the greener, safer pastures of NASCAR. Practically the only driver left available was Jimmy Caruthers, and he was on crutches. So Rabbit, Slugger and Chalkie took his crutches away from him and put him in the cockpit at Michigan International Speedway.
He qualified an impressive fourth fastest, but this was the Atlantas’ only big moment Rabbit later followed Yarborough into the Deep South to work among the NASCAR taxicabs; Slugger eventually vanished into IMSA; and Chalkie, arguably the most off-the-wall of the three (he was a lively Irishman who didn’t mind being taken for a Brit, whose actual name, incredibly enough, was Eamon Fullalove), made his own legend. Chapman’s sudden 1982 death made Indianapolis stop being a Diaspora for the vagabonds of Team Lotus. But one of the last to arrive was John Waters, dubbed Angel by Chapman because, in Formula One, he worked like one: “Angel, it’s a three-hour job to switch engines. You have an hour and 45 minutes, so see to it, there’s a good lad.” Upon departing Team Lotus, Angel fora time piloted taxis around London. On a whim, he flew to New York, rode a Greyhound bus to Milwaukee for the first CART race he ever saw, then got offered a job by the first CART team manager he ever met, the attack demagogue Andy Kenopensky of the wild Machinest Union band.
Adventures ensued. Angel’s green immigration card expired. He was flung inside a bathed-wire detention camp in El Paso for two days and nights. The experience was made doubly intense because it was the time of the Falldands War and an Argentine contingent in’the camp was quietly plotting to hang him. But he got out his old mate Kenopensky had him sprung and Angel found new employment with Team Intermedics. There he was driven half out of his mind by the mad eyes of Gordon Smiley, who subsequently smote the concrete literally head-on. Rehabilitating, Angel put airconditioners in Volvos for a time. One of his last American gigs was with Newman-Haas, whose colourful mechanics had their own nicknames, like Timmy the Hippie and Dawg.
By then it was the beginning of the 1990s and Don Branson, the one who launched us on this discursive parable, was long gone. Arbitrarily set adrift in a funny car world he found altogether strange and hostile, he’d faithfully stayed on the job, white-knuckling his way through the 1963-66 tournaments.
That November, he and his sprint car at last failed to divine a wall in the Ascot fog and it was all over. The wonderful old grump never did get to race a decent funny car.