At the Brickyard – From the May/June 2014 Issue of Vintage Motorsport
May to me means Indianapolis, more specifically the 500-mile race. And why my big smile appeared when an invitation from Joe Freeman came along to join him in Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Legends Day historic track drives over the Thursday, Friday and Saturday before the Indianapolis 500. Freeman owns two wonderful historic Indy cars‚ a 1953 Kurtis-Chrysler and the 1960 Joe Hunt Magneto Special that was featured on VM’s Jan/Feb ’07 cover. I had driven both on Milwaukee’s Mile in 2006 but to run them at Indy would be extra special and an honor.
This year the Speedway promoted the historic track drive sessions in the program and on the track’s daily schedule and provided big white tents behind the Speedway Museum for our paddock. Museum director Ellen Bireley made it all run like clockwork, a difficult chore given the Speedway’s busy schedule leading up to the “500.”
What the publicity meant was that instead of the old cars being a big secret for a few lucky fans to stumble upon, the spectators instead came looking for us and our cars – nearly 70 magnificent machines this time out ranging from prewar two-seaters to when Indy cars looked much better than they do today – even a few Indy turbines to makes things especially exciting.
On Thursday I’d run the Kurtis, Friday the Joe Hunt and Saturday the K-K again. The Kurtis has an interesting but short history, its engine once a project of Chrysler, its 331cid Hemi designated the A311. After laboratory and dyno work it produced more than 400hp, thanks to 12.5-to-1 compression, big valves, a roller cam and alcohol fuel. Indy car owner Roger Wolcott stuffed the Hemi into a Kurtis 500A roadster and went testing, since the American Automobile Association (AAA) had announced its support of “stock block” passenger car engines for competition, allowing a 335cid for the 1953 Indy “500.”
Testing with sprint car champion Joe James in the fall of 1952 the car lapped at record speeds, but once the numbers were up the Offy car owners cried foul, the result being that the AAA rescinded the 335cid rule and required 270cid for stock blocks. Down 50hp to the 331, they terminated the A311 Indy program before qualifying began.
However, Firestone wanted the car for tire testing, since it was hard on tires given its power and weight (one heavy Hemi). Invited to Chrysler’s Chelsea Proving Grounds grand opening in 1954, the Kurtis set a new closed-course world speed record at 182.554mph with Sam Hanks at the wheel.
That was then, this is now. For our first track session, I climbed in and fastened the big lap belt. There’s no roll bar or shoulder harness. Ol’ Blue has a 3-speed Chrysler manual tranny with a reverse, and it’s right between your legs. The clutch is down in the left footwell and the gas and brake pedals are in the right footwell. I moved oil and fuel line levers to the on position, clicked the ignition toggle to “on” and reached under the instrument panel for the starter button.
The Hemi cranks slowly and it always takes some time to get fired but everyone around knows when it happens. Whap! People nearby jump in unison. We’re required to stay behind the Camaro pace car that runs at about 110 to 120mph but it’s more fun to drop back a bit and stand on the gas with an empty track ahead. The bellowing torque will spin the rear tires in high if you nail the throttle at about 80mph, and it wants to go straight—modern race cars are much easier to drive at near the limit—but this one requires muscle to get it to turn. Plus, I stick up out of it like a bobblehead doll, far enough that with Indy’s walls streaking by, the haunting of mortality creeps into my head. The only crush zone would be me.
Those thoughts aside, it’s an amazing sight when alongside are historic Indy cars with their sounds and sensations, shiny skins gleaming in the sunlight. I ran at speed with Mark Mountanos’ Epperly laydown, Freeman’s Joe Hunt and Dave Schleppi’s ’61 Chenoweth Chevy, cars from the pinnacle of the roadsters’ existence, driven by talented and courageous men when racing was a particularly dangerous game. They’re smiling, I’m smiling and we take turns leading.
One of life’s great experiences…