Atlas F1   Rear View Mirror

Backward glances at racing history

Indianapolis Says:
Welcome Back, Formula 1...
by Don Capps, U.S.A.

Another rambling discourse, this time on Mom, Apple Pie, and the USGP at Indianapolis. In September, the Indianapolis Speedway returns as a venue in the World Champion. However, were it not for the quirks of fate, there just might have been a United States Grand Prix in Indianapolis decades earlier. And they even held the event that could been the USGP! Interested? Read on!

When the United States Grand Prix is run in September, it will mark the return of World Championship racing to Indianapolis for the first time since 1960, when Jim Rathmann won the 500 with the Ken-Paul Special, an Offy-powered Watson roadster. Although few realize it today, the Indianapolis 500 Mile Sweepstakes - its official title - was a round in the World Drivers Championship from 1950 until 1960.

From 1950 until the 1953 race, it really was a race that (almost) fit into the Grand Prix formula in effect at the time: unsupercharged engines up to 4,500cc and supercharged up to 1,500cc; the AAA (American Automobile Association) Contest Board still allowed the pre-war maximum of 3,000cc for supercharged engines, but only the rare appearance by the Novi-powered cars amid the ubiquitous 4,500cc Offenhauser fours broke up the monotony from time to time. And, there was also the first appearance of a turbocharger used by a racing car to spice up the proceedings: it was used on a Diesel roadster in the 1952 race no less. Along with the appearance of a Ferrari 375 with Alberto Ascari at the wheel, 1952 was a pretty interesting year.

However, the United States Grand Prix almost ended up Indianapolis much, much earlier than the year 2000. Much sooner than most would ever expect, in fact. Which is the story for today.

Now, a Quick Question: when and where was Mario Andretti's first Champ Car victory?

And what did it have to do with the USGP? In a word, Everything.

When the United States Auto Club assumed the duties of sanctioning the National Championship from the AAA Contest Board in 1956, the changes were essentially cosmetic. The vast majority of the officials, the tracks, the rules, and the owners and the drivers were simply absorbed into the new organization. An offshoot of this change was that there was no longer a single automobile club that the FIA recognized as the United States national automobile club. In terms of international recognition of events in the United States, this was important. Without an event being given international status by the FIA upon the nomination of the national club, drivers with international competition licenses could not appear in that event. There weren't that many events - the Indianapolis 500 and the Sebring 12-Hour race being the biggest perhaps, but something had to be done.

The result was the joining of the three major sanctioning groups in the United States into a committee to represent the US in motor sports-related issues to the FIA sporting committee, the CSI. The Automobile Competition Committee of the United States, ACCUS, was an often uneasy confederation of NASCAR, SCCA, and the USAC. The three groups were often rivals and the shifting alliances between them on various issues actually seemed to work to keep things honest.

Unlike the other two, the SCCA was an amateur organization in almost every sense of the word. Its members raced for trophies and were not allowed to accept prize monies, nor was there much in the way of starting money either since the races had registration fees that had to be paid. It was consciously modeled after the British system of motor racing, amateurs and damn proud of it. The SCCA, as could be imagined, used road courses of every size, shape, description, and level of safety. Either you found someone to sponsor your effort as a patron or you bankrolled it yourself, there wasn't much of an in-between.

The growth of the SCCA was a direct result of the heightened interest in foreign - read, European - cars in the United States and the urge to race them. The SCCA was a "club" in every sense of the term: in its early days, interest was not enough, you had to actually own a "sports car" and membership was not automatic, you had to be accepted by the membership (or at least the national office in Westport, Connecticut), and then perhaps you were in. The image it strove for was that of a cozy little club of racing amateurs.

Like the British, the SCCA devised a handicapping system, but though the grouping of various production cars into classes where the performance of the cars was generally equal. That practice continues in the SCCA even today. The racing sports cars - the Maserati 300S, Ferrari Monza, or Jaguar C-Type and so forth, were called "modifieds," and the classes broken out using the FIA displacement classifications with "C Modified" being the highest grouping.

However, not everyone was enthralled with the SCCA approach to racing. The sponsors wanted at least some token financial return on their investment, specifically starting money and other compensation. As could be expected, many organizers and teams struck up under-the-table deals to circumvent the SCCA. And, in the late 1950's and early-1960's, the California region, the Cal Club, essentially seceded from the SCCA in a very nasty disagreement over professionalism in the sport.

Many of the early supporters of the SCCA, particularly those such as Briggs Cunningham, were staunch amateurs and fought the introduction of prize and starting monies into the SCCA upper level events, the Nationals. The Nationals, as the name implies, were a series of events in the SCCA classes that were held in the various divisions across the United States. In other words, if you wanted to be the B Production National Champion, be prepared to race in all four divisions literally from coast-to-coast, and border-to-border. And do it all for the love of The Sport.

As can be imagined, patrons were often paying their drivers, but it was usually, at least initially, considered a stipend. Indeed, that was literally what it was since there were few - if any - drivers in the SCCA series able to subsist off his earnings. Almost all the upper level drivers had some form of - albeit nominal - "real" job between races.

Over in the USAC, there were some similarities and some huge differences. The greatest similarity was that the owners were not that different from owners in the SCCA, except that the USAC owner expected some form of compensation from his efforts, although any hope of breaking even was quite remote. The prize monies and the appearance monies and the various other schemes to place at least a few dollars in the coffers, allowed the teams to continue to operate. Drivers were professionals and were often mainly dependent upon prize monies won and the stipend that some teams provided.

The National Championship Series was for cars (Champ Cars) with the Offenhauser (actually Meyer-Drake) engine in either a dirt car for tracks such as Milwaukee or a Roadster for Indianapolis. The events were usually 100-mile races on a series of dirt tracks that stretched through the Mid-West and were often centered on State Fairs. The single biggest event of the year was the Indianapolis 500. It was one of the few places that there was serious money to be made. In addition to the Champ Cars, most racers also participated in the Sprint Car and Midget events that USAC also sanctioned and a driver could make a decent living if he could be consistent and collect the checks at the end of the race.

NASCAR walked a line that wandered the territory between the other two. Although perceived to be a sport centered in the Southeast region, during its second season, 1950, NASCAR sanctioned a total of 19 races ranging from Florida (using a combination road and beach course at Daytona Beach) to North Carolina (Charlotte, Hillsboro, North Wilkesboro), Pennsylvania (Langhorne), Virginia (Martinsville), Ohio (Canfield and Dayton), New York (Vernon, Rochester, Bridgehampton), South Carolina (Darlington), and Indiana (Winchester). Soon there were NASCAR Grand National events in Alabama (Mobile), California (Gardenia, Oakland, Hanford, Riverside), Arizona (Phoenix), Michigan (Grand Rapids), Georgia (Macon, Atlanta), Nevada (Las Vegas), and Illinois (Springfield) as well as many others to include Ontario (Niagara Falls).

In 1958, the SCCA and USAC ended up butting heads over series of races for sports cars that would be true professional events - prize money and all. The SCCA immediately announced that it would ban any driver with an SCCA competition license who competed in the four races - Lime Rock, Upper Marlboro, Watkins Glen, and Riverside. However, for many teams and drivers this was what they wanted and they broke ranks and entered the races. When it all over, the first Champion of the new Road Racing Division of USAC was - Dan Gurney! The total prize money for the season was heady $24,600.

In 1959, USAC once again conducted a series of professional races, eleven this time, and they were almost all very successful financially. The champion for 1959 was Augie Pabst in a Scarab. Prize money for the season jumped to $96,958. The 1960 and 1961 seasons saw five events held in each season. In his swansong prior to his forced retirement due to a heart ailment, Carroll Shelby captured the 1960 crown with Ken Miles gaining it in 1961. In 1961, the crowd at the Riverside race was in excess of 75,000 spectators and over 50,000 saw the race at Laguna Seca.

In 1962, USAC decided to discontinue the championship for a number of reasons, but the SCCA had seen which way the wind was blowing and starting in 1963, initiated its professional series, the United States Road Racing Championship (USRRC). The last USAC Road Racing Champion was none other than the driver of the Zerex Special, a former F1 Cooper 53 (chassis F1/16/61) which had been wrecked by Walt Hansgen at the 1961 US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, Roger Penske.

As is well-known, in 1961, Jack Brabham drove a Jim Kimberley-sponsored Cooper fitted with a special 2.7-litre Coventry Climax engine. Although the attention devoted to the Brabham Cooper effort exceeded the attention given to the actual winner of the race - A.J. Foyt, there really wasn't any "revolution" at Indianapolis. There certainly wasn't in the minds of the entrants and the drivers. Brabham qualified 17th and finished ninth. It did not raise many eyebrows simply because as even Brabham realized, the car was simply woefully underpowered. Whatever his cornering speed was, he was getting blown off on the straights.

Then came the real revolution when Ford pitched it muscle behind a Dan Gurney-inspired Lotus effort in 1963. The Ford and Lotus combination did not achieve victory until 1965, long after its original thoughts of a first time out victory had met reality. Colin Chapman and several others did not read what Laurence Pomeroy had written in his tome on the technical aspects of racing, The Grand Prix Car; "A law of automobile design is that the first concept of a superior principle is always defeated by the perfect example of established practice."

What ever the Champ Cars may or may not have been, they were finely developed and crafted racing machines and the same applied to the Offenhauser engine. The scorn with which the American road racing and the European Grand Prix communities heaped upon the cars, the drivers, and the series itself simply missed the point. This was a racing series that had evolved with virtually no manufacturer support since the 1920's. It was an adaptation to the environment. It was not a series in which great manufacturers like Mercedes-Benz, Chrysler, Alfa Romeo, Ford, or Packard waltzed into for a few seasons and then left until the next assault. There had been the occasional effort, but it was strictly limited and generally unsuccessful anyway (such as Ford in its 1935 effort).

It was a successful series and generally functioned well. It was a series that evolved - witness the rise of the Roadster - and could change. Even as the road racing community sneered at its backwardness, USAC was divesting itself of the dirt tracks and replacing them with more and more paved tracks.

In 1963, USAC began looking at the possibility of gaining the sanctioning rights for the USGP from the SCCA. After all, USAC had gained valuable experience in dealing with many of those on the European Grand Prix circuit through running its professional road racing series. It easily grasped the concepts of starting and prize monies as well the need to promote an event. The SCCA was still coping with these issues: the 1960 USGP at Riverside, in the very heart of what most would call the American road racing community, was a serious financial failure, nay, flop. The organizers lost their shirts. More showed up to watch the weekly midget races at Ascot Park than the USGP.

The ACCUS was notified by USAC that it was interested in being the sanctioning body for the USGP in 1965. After the initial gasps both of shock and muted laughter from the SCCA delegation, USAC was asked where it intended to hold the race. Why Indianapolis, of course, was the response. In answer to the puzzled looks, USAC explained a bit more about the site. Not the Speedway in Indianapolis (well the Speedway is actually located in, well, Speedway), but at the recently constructed Indianapolis Raceway Park (IRP) in Clermont. There was a 5/8th-mile oval and a 2.5 mile/ 4.023km road circuit at IRP. The race would use the road circuit naturally.

After their initial concern, the SCCA disregarded the USAC request as just talk to put the SCCA in a dither. However, it soon became clear that USAC was deadly serious about sanctioning the race. There were soon a series of battle within and outside the ACCUS. These raged into the Spring of 1964. Much to the horror of the SCCA, it appeared that the tide was turning in the favor of USAC. I will spare you the gory details which would only gladden the hearts of lawyers, who - this is America we're talking about after all - got involved. There was a series of court actions and propaganda campaigns the ensued and eventually, just before the 1964 USGP, ACCUS announced that the 1965 USGP would - ta dah! - stay at Watkins Glen with the SCCA.

Well, there was USAC with a road course. It was used for the USAC stock car events - the Yankee 300, and even a wild formula libre or two. When the calendar for the 1965 Champ Car season was released, there were three events which listed Indianapolis as the venue: the 500 mile race at the Speedway on 31 May; the 150 mile race at IRP on 25 July; and, the 100 mile race at the Fairgrounds on the 1-mile dirt oval on 18 September.

Now, back to Mario Andretti: just where do you think Mario captured his first Champ Car victory? Of course, IRP! It was his only victory that season, but his consistency was such that in his rookie season, Mario won the National Championship. At the wheel of a Ford powered Clint Brawner-made copy of the car that Jack Brabham drove at Indy in 1964, Mario was simply superb. The IRP event was the first road circuit race in the National Championship since the Vanderbilt Cup at Roosevelt Field in 1937.

It will be great to see the USGP being held again and, officially, having the event so designated at the Speedway. It is the hope of legions of F1 fans in the USA that the race is a success and runs for any years to come. It is interesting to contemplate what might have happened if the USGP had gone to USAC. Perhaps we would have a similar course at the Speedway, just years sooner. At any rate, we are all looking forward to the race this Fall. Now, we just need some American drivers out there…

Note: There was soon a flurry of USAC races on road courses from 1965-1970, before USAC turned back to ovals in 1971. Here is a quick capsule of those events:

Indianapolis Raceway Park

1965 - Mario Andretti, Brawner-Ford
1966 - Mario Andretti, Brawner-Ford
1967 - Mario Andretti, Brawner-Ford
1968 - Al Unser, Lola-Ford
1968 - Al Unser, Lola-Ford
1969 - Dan Gurney, Eagle-Gurney/Ford
1969 - Pete Revson, Brabham-Repco
1970 - Al Unser, Colt-Ford

Mosport Park

1967 - Bobby Unser, Eagle-Ford
1967 - Miles, Bobby Unser, Eagle-Ford*
1968 - Dan Gurney, Eagle-Weslake/Ford**
1968 - Dan Gurney, Eagle-Weslake/Ford

* Race called due to rain
** First use of the Bell Star helmet

Mont-Tremblant, Ste. Jovite

1967 - Mario Andretti, Brawner-Ford
1967 - Mario Andretti, Brawner-Ford
1968 - Mario Andretti, Brawner-Ford
1968 - Mario Andretti, Brawner-Ford

Continental Divide Raceway, Castle Rock

1968 - A.J. Foyt, Coyote-Ford
1969 - Gordon Johncock, Eagle-Ford
1970 - Mario Andretti, McNamara-Ford


1967 - Dan Gurney, Eagle-Ford/Weslake
1968 - Dan Gurney, Eagle-Ford/Weslake
1969 - Mario Andretti, Brawner-Ford

Las Vegas

1968 - Bobby Unser, Eagle-Ford


1969 - Gordon Johncock, Eagle-Ford
1969 - Dan Gurney, Eagle-Gurney/Ford


1969 - Mario Andretti, Brawner-Ford
1969 - Al Unser, Lola-Ford

Sears Point

1970 - Dan Gurney, Eagle-Gurney/Ford

Don Capps© 1999 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
Send comments to: Terms & Conditions