Archive for May 12, 2007

Region Racers in the Indianapolis 500

“Frenchy” & “Jigger” Sirois

By: Wm. LaDow
Published in the Post-Tribune — May 11, 2007
A Chicago Sun-Times Media Company
Speedway, Indiana

This May 27th, marks the 91st Running of the Indianapolis 500, the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. But more than a “Racing Spectacle” it is a time honored tradition and on a more personal note, a Hoosier tradition. Since 1911, the finest racecar drivers, mechanics and engineers have come to Indianapolis to participate in the most important auto race on the planet. There has been one unique aspect that has made the Indianapolis 500 the largest single day sporting event in the world. That aspect is that this race from its very first running, has been one open to all comers. To race at Indianapolis all you have to do raise the money, buy the equipment, and pass the Rookie Orientation Program. Your reward? Simple. Win the race and you became a racing immortal. The purse of almost 2 million dollars notwithstanding.

Since the early days, young racers have fought their way to the Brickyard. The stories of these Indy racers and the hardships they endured along the way and finally the accolades that they won are truly inspiring.

Over the course of the next few weeks, leading up to the 2007 Indianapolis 500, we are going to focus on some of those unique men, especially those who came from our own “Calumet Region.” The men we will tell you about led mostly quiet, reserved, hard working lives here in the Region. But in American racing circles, they were highly respected competitors, who in many cases were honored across the nation

Earl “Frenchy” Sirois

Earl Sirois was known mostly around his community of Shelby, Indiana as the proprietor of a Farmall Tractor and Implement business and later as the owner of a hardware store, both businesses in which he had partnered with his father, Samuel. Earl or “Frenchy” as he was later known, was born and raised in Shelby, along with his brothers, Samuel, Jr. and Ernest

What most people didn’t know when they happened into Sirois’ businesses for equipment, parts repair or general hardware items was that they were talking to a man who had won the Indianapolis 500, not once, but three times.

A respected businessman, “Frenchy” was also known as an excellent mechanic, almost methodical in his approach to working on engines. Though active as a racing mechanic for many years, his most prolific period for racing success began quietly in the mid-1930’s when he joined forces with Murrell Belanger. Belanger, the owner of automobile and implement businesses in Crown Point and Lowell, had first ventured to Indianapolis to participate in the 24th running of the Indianapolis 500 in May of 1936. Sirois and Belanger quietly toiled in speedway racing circles for the next 15 years before their race team started to draw attention. Over the years, they spent many days during the month of May, trying to qualify for the 500, sometimes successful, sometimes not. Legendary drivers such as Duke Nalon and Jimmy Snyder drove for them, but never to the winner’s circle. After World War II, American auto racing began to grow by leaps and bounds and Belanger and his top associate Sirois were perfectly positioned for the opportunity. They then added the very driver they needed to ratchet up their performance, Tony Bettenhausen from neighboring Tinley Park, Illinois. Bettenhausen had been running the midget racing circuit for Rudy and Ray Nichels in Highland and had been searching for a “Speedway” ride for sometime.

Sirois worked on a series of Belanger-owned cars; a Miller-Offy, a Stevens-Offy, and a Wetteroth-Offy, all the time trying to wring out more speed from the heavy, oversized race cars. He also went on the road with Bettenhausen, running selected parts of the AAA Championship IndyCar schedule, gaining the occasional solid finish. In 1950, Frenchy and the Belanger team scored a 12th place finish in the 500 with Duane Carter behind the wheel, while Bettenhausen had raced for one of the pre-eminent teams in Indy racing, the “Blue Crown Special” crew owned by Indy 500 multiple winning owner Lou Moore.

In 1949, big changes would begin to shine more light on Sirois’ successful racing endeavors when Murrell Belanger purchased a unique Frank Kurtis creation, known as the Meyer & Drake No. 99. The car manufactured in 1949 for Meyer & Drake (M&D), producers of the Offenhauser (Offy) engine and the most dominant powerplant in racing, was campaigned midway through the AAA Championship season. M&D, a long-time suppler to Belanger, asked that Frenchy Sirois and Dale “Tiny” Worley (from Lowell) campaign the car as a testing program for the new, smaller and lighter designed car. The car immediately began to race among the leaders. With Bettenhausen behind the wheel, it didn’t take long for the other racing teams to begin protesting loudly about the conflict of interest of Meyer & Drake racing their own car against other race teams, M&D’s primary customers.

So impressed with the M&D No. 99, “Region Racers” Ray Nichels and Paul Russo, while at the August 20th AAA race at Springfield, Illinois, immediately began to beg their then car owner, Carmine “Tuffy” Tuffanelli, to purchase the car, then reportedly for sale. They were rebuffed over the course of the next two months, so much so, that Ray Nichels left Tuffanelli’s race team and with Russo, went on to build the Russo/Nichels Special (later to become known as Basement Bessie) in Russo’s Harrison Street basement in Hammond.

Much to Frenchy Sirois’ delight, Belanger purchased the M&D No. 99 and labeled it the Belanger No. 99 during the winter of 1949.

When it was all said and done, the Belanger No. 99, won the 1951 Indianapolis 500, the 1951 AAA National IndyCar Championship and went on to become the winningest Kurtis-Kraft built, Offy-powered race car ever. It now rests in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall-of-Fame Museum.

But that wasn’t the end of Frenchy Sirois’ career, due to a partnership he had forged with Meyer & Drake Engine Mechanic George Salih while wining the 1951 Indianapolis 500, the two gentlemen stayed close over the next several years as Sirois continued to toil on Murrell Belanger’s race cars.

In 1957, after Belanger had decided to stop competing in the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” Frenchy’s good friend, Salih asked him to join his crew for the 1957 Indianapolis 500. Salih had designed a unique racecar. It was a “laydown” roadster, where the Offy engine was installed on its side, rather than standing vertically. Salih built the frame of his laydown roadster in his home workshop in 1956. Quin Epperly did the bodywork and with the unique approach to the engine installation they created a car that held its speed in turns, crucial when running Indianapolis. Salih obtained sponsorship from Sandy Belond (who had been Ray Nichels’ sponsor in the 1953 and 1954 Indy 500s) and labeled his laydown roadster the “Belond Exhaust Special”. With Frenchy Sirois beside him, Salih didn’t win just one Indy 500.

He won two!

In a row!

With the same car!

First, Sam Hanks piloted the No. 9 Belond car into the winner’s circle and promptly retired, knowing it could never get any better for him in his racing career. A year, legendary Jimmy Bryan rewarded George Salih and Frenchy Sirois with another Indy 500 victory.

From then on, Sirois stayed active at Indianapolis Motor Speedway every May till the mid-1960s, when the rear-engine revolution took place.

Earl “Frenchy” Sirois passed away in October of 1974. With him went a legacy of 19 IndyCar victories, a national IndyCar championship and standing in the winners circle for three Indianapolis 500’s. Any way you analyze his career, it clearly makes him one of the best in a long line of “Region Racers.”

Leon Duray “Jigger” Sirois

Born in Shelby, Indiana on April 16, 1935, the son of the Earl “Frenchy” Sirois, Leon was labeled early. Named after 1920’s driver Leon Duray, it also didn’t take long for him to be nicknamed after another Indy veteran, riding mechanic, “Jigger” Johnson.

Although not pressed by his father to go into racing, “Jigger” Sirois soon learned he had the support of his family and other “Region Racers” like Dale “Tiny” Worley, Johnny Pawl and Ray Nichels. He began racing in 1956, with his first contest being a Jalopy race at Illiana Motor Speedway in Schererville. That same year, the next challenge he accepted was racing midget racecars in the United Midget Auto Racing Association (UMARA) for car owner Jack Sims of Crown Point. Racing at the Joliet Memorial Stadium in Illinois was then considered by race fans to be some of the finest midget racing in the country. Jigger’s midget racing travels also took him to O’Hare Stadium in Chicago, and Raceway Park in Blue Island, Illinois.

By 1961, Jigger’s reputation had grown considerably as a reliable, smooth and competitive driver. He took a new ride with Larry White of Lockport, Illinois and never looked back. Behind the wheel of the No. 82 car, Sirois made his mark winning the UARA Season’s Championship, winning 8 features out of the 49 race cards he appeared on. What was most impressive was his 46 race finishes, coupled with winning 17 heat races and 6 trophy dashes.

Jigger moved to the USAC National Midgets Schedule in 1962, driving for Harry Turner in the No. 21. He got off to a great start almost winning the 100 lap “Night before the 500” contest at Indianapolis Raceway Park, before losing a tire after leading for well over 60 laps, eventually finishing sixth. It was that evening that the vast majority of the Indianapolis 500 community saw what Sirois could do. Something very important to Jigger as his ultimate goal was racing in the Indianapolis 500.

Four months later, Jigger lay in a hospital bed after a spectacular wreck at the quarter-mile track at Springfield, Illinois. After being in critical condition for almost a week, he began the long road back. Serious head injuries, burns, a broken collar-bone and assorted other injuries required months of rehabilitation. Unbelievably, he was back racing the following season.

Jigger raced midgets and sprint cars for a variety of sanctioning bodies; USAC, IMCA and others over the next few years. He mixed it up with the likes of A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford and other racing greats of the era, winning his share of races.

In 1967, IndyCar rides began to surface with Sirois attempting to qualify at tracks such as Indianapolis, Trenton, Milwaukee, DuQuoin and Springfield. But in every case, the equipment he was in was not competitive, stunting his ability to move up the IndyCar racing ladder. In 1968, he qualified for four IndyCar races. At Michigan International Speedway, he ran with the leaders for much of day, before losing a clutch while in 2nd place in the Inaugural USAC IndyCar 250 mile race.

In 1969, his best opportunity presented itself at Indianapolis. Sirois who was convinced that this was the opportunity he had been waiting for, quit his crane operator’s job back in the “Region,” and settled in as he prepared to chase his dream. On Friday, May 16th, Jigger drew the first spot in qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 to be held on the following day.

With the skies threatening rain, Jigger Sirois in his No 14 Quaker State Oil Gerhardt-Offy went out on the track and did what he did best, he “stood on it”. His first lap clocked in at 161 miles per hour, next was a 162 mph, and then the third lap a solid 162.5 mph. But as he headed back into the first turn for his final lap, his car owner, fearing Jigger’s effort wouldn’t be fast enough overall to qualify, unexpectedly pulled out the yellow flag, indicating that the team was waving off their qualifying attempt. Before the next car could get out on the track, it started to rain. It rained the entire weekend wiping out all of speedway qualifying. Had Jigger’s race team allowed him to finish his fourth lap, Sirois would have been the pole winner until qualifying the following weekend. Because of a quirk in the 1969 rules, it was logical that Jigger would have been the first pole winner ever “bumped” the following weekend. But what was even more disheartening was when Sirois went out on the following weekend to claim a spot in the 500, his engine blew after a single lap. To add insult to injury, the slowest Indy 500 qualifying effort was by fellow rookie, Peter Revson, who copped the last spot with a 160.851 mph run. Had Jigger’s car owner not waved off his first qualifying attempt the previous weekend, Jigger’s projected speed of 161.535 mph would have put him in his first 500.

What happened after that, showed what kind of man, Sirois really is. Jigger refused to second guess his car owner stating that “I don’t believe in being bitter. A lot of people have a lot worse things happen to them. I was upset, but life is too short to be bitter.” He later said “Indianapolis is special. It is the ultimate test. If that’s where you’re going, you’d better be ready. If you aren’t, you should take your helmet bag and go home.”

Jigger retired from racing in 1977, relocated to Williamsburg, Virginia and has since retired from the American Oil Company (AMOCO).

Following his racing days, Sirois tackled another great challenge in his life, a life-long stuttering affliction. Jigger had battled with public speaking during his racing days and in 2000 pursued help with his inability to communicate by doing what he did on the race track, battling it. He was victorious and since has won several public speaking awards. In fact, in 2002, after declining for many years to be the host speaker for the annual American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association breakfast held during the Month of May, when the AARWBA presents it annual winner of the “The Jigger Award” so named as the hard-luck award, Leon “Jigger” Sirois accepted their invitation and proceeded to give an inspiring speech.

As the years have passed, Leon “Jigger” Sirois has become one of the storied legends of the Brickyard and although his notoriety initially was because of a bad break, his legacy has since become one of class and integrity.

That is what makes him one of the great “Region Racers.”

Frenchy Sirois

Jigger Sirois - 1969