Archive for March, 2020

By: Jeff Majeske – Jeff’s Indy Talk

A few weeks ago I recounted the history of the Norton Companies’ involvement with Penske Racing from 1974 through 1982.

The first Norton Spirit actually appeared in the 1973 Indianapolis 500. Longtime car owner and builder Rolla Vollstedt brought the company to Indianapolis that year in a car to be driven by Bill Simpson, the legendary safety innovator.

Also in the Vollstedt stable was another rookie, Tom Bigelow. Bigelow, an excellent midget and sprint driver, temporarily squeezed into the field on the last day of qualifying, then saw his Bryant Heating and Cooling Special squeezed out by Jim McElreath in a Norris Eagle entered by Champ Carr Enterprises. (Champ Carr’s shenanigans in 1973 are worth a separate story at some point.)

Here’s what the 1973 Norton Spirit really looked like when Bill Simpson drove it. At the back, the radiators are more streamlined while at the front the nose looks a lot like that year’s Parnelli — Photo credit: Unknown

Simpson also failed to qualify, due in part to a hard crash in Turn 2. Here’s a quick description of the wreck from Simpson’s excellent book “Racing Safely, Living Dangerously”:

It knocked the engine out of the car and just about knocked my brains out, too. I mean, it rang my bell pretty good.

In this chapter Simpson also recounts how the team was able to get the back-up car together and up to qualifying speed (or thereabouts), then felt he got aced out of potentially getting a chance to qualify on the last day by a little do-si-do by one of A.J. Foyt’s backup cars in the line. (Simpson did make an attempt late in the day, but was yellow-flagged after two laps averaging 183-plus.)

In those days, you could be in line to qualify and let another car go ahead of you. Remember also that, unlike today, cars had only three attempts total for the month. So the idea would be that if you had a car that was showing only marginal speed in terms of making the race, you waited until almost the last minute before going out to qualify.

Of course, cars also could cut in front of you if you weren’t proceeding expeditiously to the front of the line. Simpson apparently thought Foyt, who put George Snider in the car to qualify, snuck in ahead. Simpson was known to fly off the handle in such moments and said some uncomplimentary things about Super Tex. One of Foyt’s larger crew members got wind of this and the result was that Simpson was thrust head-first into a trash can – a fitting conclusion to his Month of May.

The upshot of all this drama was that Vollstedt’s team – and more importantly, his two sponsors, Bryant Heating and Cooling, and Norton – were on the sidelines.

Bryant Heating and Cooling ended up sponsoring Bob Harkey on the Lindsey Hopkins team. Norton went to the Grant King entry driven by Steve Krisiloff.

King was one of the more interesting and colorful car owners and builders of this period, creating cars that he named the Kingfish. The one he designed and built for the 1972 Indianapolis 500 seemed to be, ahem, inspired by the McLaren cars of the previous year.

For 1973, King seemingly dropped all pretense and pretty much copied Dan Gurney’s Eagle. Gurney reportedly wasn’t thrilled by this whole imitation-is-the-sincerest-form-of-flattery routine, but probably realized that King was a small fish, so to speak, and he would come off looking like the bad guy if he complained too loudly.

Besides, King wasn’t selling his creations to anyone else. Had he done so, Gurney likely would’ve loudly objected – with good reason.

Krisiloff did an excellent job in qualifying, nailing down the seventh starting position in what was then an unsponsored, all-red No. 24 entry.

The eventual Elliot’s Norton Spirit as it appeared after Steve Krisiloff qualified the Grant King entry seventh — Photo credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

With Norton coming aboard for race day, the Kingfish was repainted sky blue. Krisiloff backed up his fine qualifying effort by finishing sixth in the rain-shortened, tragedy-filled 1973 Indianapolis 500

And here’s how the Elliott’s Norton Spirit appeared on race day for the 1973 Indianapolis 500. Steve Krisiloff finished sixth — Photo credit: Kettle Moraine Preservation & Restoration

The entry was renamed the Elliott’s Norton Spirit. So that’s why if you look at the qualifying photos of this car, it’s red, while on race day, it’s sky blue. In any event, any top 10 showing in the Indianapolis 500 is an excellent result, even more so for a small team.

For the 1974 Indianapolis 500, Krisiloff moved on to the Patrick Racing Team, driving the No. 60 STP Gas Treatment Eagle-Offy. King, who was known to give promising rookies a chance, took a flyer on a former educator from Spokane, Washington, named Tom Sneva.

Sneva’s potential was apparent early in the 1974 season when he qualified second at Trenton. At Indianapolis, the man who eventually would be dubbed the Gas Man when he drove for Texaco years later, started eighth, ran in the top 10 in the early part of the race, then dropped out after 94 laps, finishing 20th.

Sneva continued to charge throughout the rest of the 1974 season – so much so that he attracted the attention of Roger Penske. Sneva joined the Penske team for 1975. His car? The Norton Spirit.

 

Wilbur Shaw won his first Indianapolis 500 in 1937 — Photo credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

By: Jeff Majeske — Jeff’s Indy Talk

This May, the Indianapolis 500 will be run under new leadership for the first time since World War II as Roger Penske takes the helm. Penske’s record-breaking success as a car owner (18 victories, including the last two with Simon Pagenuad and Will Power) and global stature as an accomplished businessman has fans optimistic about the future of the race, the track and the NTT IndyCar Series, all of which are now his.

From the 1976 Indianapolis 500 program …

Penske bought everything from the Hulman-George family, of course. Tony Hulman purchased the dilapidated facility, which had been almost totally neglected during World War II, on Nov. 14, 1945. Under Hulman’s leadership, the Indianapolis 500 bloomed again in the postwar years, grew in stature and defined automobile racing in the United States, if not the world.

That legacy might not have been possible if not for the efforts of one man: Wilbur Shaw. Shaw, who was born in Shelbyville, which is about 35 miles southeast of Indianapolis, was the first to win the 500 back-to-back in 1939 and 1940. These wins followed his first victory in 1937. Shaw finished second in 1938 and crashed because of a wheel failure while leading in 1941, so he came close to winning the 500 five times in a row.

Still, his greatest achievement might have come after he hung up his goggles. Shaw was heartbroken when he saw the condition of the track while testing a new synthetic tire for Firestone during the winter of 1944-45. That heartbreak soon turned to determination, and then action to save the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as Shaw recounted in his autobiography, “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines.”

But, to me, the track was the world’s last great speed shrine, which must be preserved at any cost. I felt that all I was, or ever hoped to be, I owed to the Indianapolis 500-mile race. I accepted the situation as a personal challenge and started a one-man crusade to get the job done.

Shaw, of course, succeeded in persuading Hulman to buy the track from Eddie Rickenbacker. It remained in the family’s possession until Tony George, Hulman’s grandson, approached Penske about buying it last year.

As a sort of tribute to Shaw, I had a shirt made inspired by his 1937 winning car, the Shaw-Gilmore Special. This Gilmore had nothing to do with Jim Gilmore, a longtime sponsor of A.J. Foyt’s cars during the last half of Super Tex’s career.

This trading card offered one of the few clues to the car’s color scheme.

Instead, it was the Gilmore Oil Company of California, which had slogans like “Roar With Gilmore” and used a leaping lion to promote its products. (Roscoe Turner, a barnstorming pilot and an important aviator who lived in Indianapolis, touted the Gilmore line as well and actually flew with a real lion, named, naturally, Gilmore. Turner also served as an official at the Indianapolis 500 for many years.)

Hulman wisely named Shaw the President and General Manager of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and certainly his leadership was a key reason why the Indianapolis 500 rebounded so quickly. Shaw died in a plane crash in 1954. How much more he could have accomplished is something to ponder, but all Indianapolis 500 fans are forever grateful for Shaw’s love of the race, the track and his determination to save it for future generations.

This might be this year’s raceday shirt.