Frank Lance: The Indy 500 mechanic who engineered racing history

US Motor Racing News

Frank Lance experienced the dream by winning some of racing's biggest events as a mechanic, but it wasn't one he wanted to live forever

1966: Graham Hill celebrates victory in the Indianapolis 500 motor race driving a Lola car. The trophy can just be seen rising behind him. Mandatory Credit: Allsport Hulton/Archive

Hill claims the '66 500, the first crew Lance worked with to win the big race

Allsport Hulton / Archive / Getty Images

A lot of guys spend their entire lives chasing victory in the Indianapolis 500 and never see their dream come true. Frank Lance had a different experience. “I made two trips to Indianapolis,” he says, “and I was on the winning teams both times.”

Lance, now 88, grew up in Texas and wrenched for several of the most prominent racers in the Lone Star State. He started as a mechanic at Carroll Shelby Sport Cars in Dallas. When the dealership closed, he went to work for Jim Hall on everything from the front-engine Chaparral to the Lotus 18/21 Formula 1 cars. Then, after a stint with oilman John Mecom Jr.’s Houston-based team, he shifted his allegiance to the Shelby American juggernaut in Southern California.

Lance was at Le Mans in 1965 for what driver Ken Miles called “the greatest defeat ever suffered by a team in the history of motor racing.” Six pristine Ford GTs took the flag at the Circuit de la Sarthe, and six tattered Ford GTs were relegated to the dead-car park before midnight. Fearing that Ford would axe the Le Mans program after this debacle, Lance jumped ship and rejoined the Mecom Racing Team.

Young, handsome and fabulously wealthy, Mecom had already scored a bunch of impressive wins in big-time sports car racing and secured the exclusive right to sell Lolas in the United States. But for 1966, he planned to use Eric Broadley’s latest creation, the attractive Lola T90, to mount a three-car assault on the Indy 500.

UNITED STATES - MAY 17: Indianapolis 500 Qualifying. Race winner Graham Hill of American Red Ball racing sits in his Ford powered Lola. (Photo by Bob D'Olivo/The Enthusiast Network via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Hill: “Kind of stuffy”

Bob D'Olivo/The Enthusiast Network via Getty Images/Getty Images

Two-time Indy winner Rodger Ward was hired to drive one car, fitted with an Offenhauser supercharged with a Rootes blower. In the USAC races leading up to the 500, Ward was second at Phoenix and won at Trenton, which seemed to justify old-school crew chief George Bignotti’s faith in the venerable Offy. The other two chassis, powered by newer, more sophisticated four-cam Fords V8s were entrusted to a pair of rookies – Indy rookies, that is – Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart.

“We all got along fine,” Lance says. “Rodger was a good guy, laid-back like Lloyd Ruby. And I don’t think anybody could dislike Jackie. Graham was kind of stuffy, though.”

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Among Hill’s complaints were the commodes in Gasoline Alley, which were arranged, military barracks-style, in an open row. Track owner Tony Hulman, stung by the criticism, immediately brought in a carpentry crew to install plywood partitions.

Hill and Stewart effortlessly got up to speed and qualified in mid-pack. Ward qualified between them – and was thrilled to start 13th. “He hadn’t made it [into the race] the year before,” Lance explains, “so when he qualified, he was in tears.”

The race opened with a bang; 11 of the 33 cars were eliminated in a huge crash on the front straight. Ward mystified his crew by parking his seemingly healthy Lola on Lap 74, complaining about diabolical handling on the oily track. (The following night, at the post-race banquet, he announced his retirement from racing.)

Jimmy Clark and Lance’s old bud Ruby were the class of the field. But Clark spun twice, and Ruby’s engine let go. Suddenly, Stewart was leading the race with nobody left to challenge him. With 10 laps remaining, just cruising to the finish, Stewart lost oil pressure, and Hill was there to pick up the pieces, becoming the first rookie in four decades to win at Indy.

After working on the Lola T70 that Stewart drove in the last three Can-Am races of 1966, Lance solicited a job from another old friend and fellow Texan, AJ Foyt. Smarting after a winless Indy car season in 1966, Foyt had acquired a trio of Lotus 38s, and he used them as the template for the first of his home-built Coyote.

(Original Caption) This happy little group that is feeing mighty big has much to be happy about. A.J. Foyt just won the Indianapolis 500-mile race and he is sharing his victory with his wife (l), 500-mile Festival Queen Janice Louise Cruze, of Terre Haute, Indiana, and Allen Murphy, son of the winning car's sponsor. Foyt set a track record May 31 in winning the annual classic.

Another year, another win in the form of AJ Foyt at the Brickyard, but Lance says he was already “getting tired of racing” by this point

Getty Images

Renowned roadster builder Eddie Kuzma fabricated the tub in Los Angeles. In Foyt’s race shop in Houston, Lance heliarced the chromoly suspension pieces, which were fitted to the chassis by the legendary Lujie Lesovsky, who’d helped fashion the car that won Indy in 1938. Meanwhile, a SoCal surfboard maker was imported to shape the fibreglass.

After running the old Lotuses at Phoenix and Trenton, Foyt went to Indy with a spanking-new Coyotes for himself and a Lotus Lance had upgraded for Joe Leonard. Although they qualified fourth and fifth, respectively, the car flanking them on the end of the second row was the odds-on favourite in 1967 – Parnelli Jones in the Andy Granatelli-owned, STP-sponsored turbine.

“He sandbagged the whole month,” Lance recalls. “When the race started, he took off and left everybody, and everybody stood there slack-jawed.”

Jones was stroking it, leading by nearly a minute, when a $6 bearing in the gearbox failed, and Foyt inherited the lead with four laps to go. “And then on the last turn of the last lap, I was looking down to Turn 4, and there’s a humongous wreck – cars spinning and whatnot,” Lance says. “A.J. comes around the corner, and I thought, ‘Oh, no!’ But A.J. slowed down and weaved his way through the spinning cars. I think he’s actually the only one who finished the race.”

Foyt won his third 500 at a canter. Leonard was third in the team’s second car. Splitting them, ironically, was Al Unser in a Mecom-owned Lola.

The crowd was going wild, naturally. But Lance didn’t join in the pandemonium. “It was kind of anticlimactic to me,” he admits. “I felt like I ought to be screaming and jumping up and down like a lot of people do. But it really wasn’t that big a deal to me.” Referring to the constant grind and countless weekends away from home, he says, “I was getting tired of racing.”

Lance’s final race was the US Road Racing Championship round in Mexico City in 1968 – another win, by the way, with local hero Moises Solana. After that, Lance spent the rest of his career working as an industrial mechanic in a coffee manufacturing plant and then a paper mill. Although he’s proud of his record in racing, he doesn’t regret leaving the sport behind.

At Indy, winning back-to-back 500s, he lived the dream. It just wasn’t his dream.