A look back at the Norton Spirit and Penske Racing …

Posted: March 2, 2020 in Uncategorized

Bobby Unser and the Norton Spirit in 1980. — Photo credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

My new Bobby Unser shirt.

By: Jeff Majeske — Managing Editor – Speedway Sightings

For the past few years, I’ve commissioned “throwback” T-shirts for various cars and drivers from my childhood. This year’s new additions include Bobby Unser’s 1980 Norton Spirit, a Penske PC-9 Cosworth. Unser started third and finished 19th, dropping out after 126 laps with a turbo problem.

Norton, which produced abrasive products (as in for grinding and sanding), had been a Penske sponsor since 1974.

Usually the cars were sky blue; this is the first and only time they had a dark or royal blue finish.

Mike Hiss put the Norton Spirit on the front row in 1974 — Photo credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Mike Hiss drove the Norton Spirit in 1974, a McLaren Offenhauser. The sky blue and bright yellow made for a striking combination. This entry originally was intended for Peter Revson, but he perished in a testing crash ahead of the South African Grand Prix in March.

Hiss had driven for Penske earlier in his career, subbing for Mark Donohue in 1972 after Donohue was badly hurt in a Can-Am crash at Road Atlanta. So from that standpoint, Hiss was a natural fit. Interestingly, in an article in the Sunday, May 26, 1974 edition of the Indianapolis Star (race day), Hiss said he was in the picture to run a third car for Penske before the Revson tragedy.

That’s conceivable. Penske did have three entries the year before, with Donohue and Gary Bettenhausen as the regulars and NASCAR star Bobby Allison in a third machine. And the 1974 program lists a No. 66 entry for Penske Racing, though that could have been intended all along as a spare car for Hiss and Bettenhausen.

Tom Sneva joined Penske Racing in 1975 — Photo credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Tom Sneva’s car as seen in the 1976 program.

Tom Sneva joined Penske for 1975. The yellow trim was confined to the front wings. This car was demolished in a horrifying crash when Sneva touched wheels with Eldon Rasmussen in the south end of the track during the race. Fortunately, Sneva came away from the wreck relatively unscathed (although he did suffer some burns).

Norton switched up the paint scheme to celebrate the bicentennial in 1976. Sneva grabbed the first of his five front-row starting spots by qualifying third. He wound up sixth in a race shortened to just 102 laps because of rain.

The sky blue returned in 1977, and Sneva stormed to the pole, becoming the first driver to officially record a lap in excess of 200 mph at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Sneva’s performance was a bit of a surprise as A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford, Gordon Johncock (who reportedly eclipsed 200 mph during tire tests in March) and teammate Mario Andretti (first over 200 mph in practice) all were considered the top contenders for the pole.

Tom Sneva set the track record in the Norton Spirit in both  1977 (top) and 1978 (above) — Photo credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

The next year, 1978, saw a radical change as all Penske cars were red, white and blue. Sneva and Andretti were still with Penske, which added someone named Rick Mears to drive in the 500-mile races and sub for Andretti when he had Formula One commitments. Sneva broke his track record in winning the pole again, this time with an average of over 202 mph. He finished second to Al Unser, who in those days was just Al Unser as his son was not yet an Indy competitor.

Bobby Unser replaced Tom Sneva in 1979.

Speaking of Unsers, Bobby took over for Sneva in the Norton Spirit for 1979, which was blue and white. Al drove the radical Pennzoil Chaparral and looked to be long gone before mechanical gremlins sidelined him. Bobby took over and appeared poised to take the checkered flag before losing top gear – something that almost never happens. Together the Unsers led for 174 of the 200 laps, but it was Mears who snagged the victory.

Bobby Unser won from the pole in 1981.

Bobby’s performance in 1980 is recounted above, so aside from noting that the bright yellow trim returned, we’ll move ahead to 1981. This is just a beautiful car, striking yet understated. A lot’s been written about the controversial 1981 Indianapolis 500, so we won’t go into all that here. In sum, Bobby started on the pole and won in what turned out to be his final Indianapolis 500.

Interestingly, Bobby Unser was last in his first 500 and first in his last 500. He also became the first to win the 500 in three different decades, a feat that Mears accomplished as well.

Kevin Cogan momentarily held the track record in 1982 after qualifying his backup car. It all went wrong on Race Day — Photo credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

With Unser gone, Kevin Cogan joined Penske for the 1982 season in what was to be Norton’s final appearance as a primary sponsor. Cogan broke the track record in qualifying, only to see Mears top him minutes later. On race day, “Coogan,” starting second, managed to torpedo both Foyt and Andretti as the field came down for the green. The why and how of this unfortunate incident continues to be discussed today. Was it a mechanical failure? A turbo kick-in that caught Cogan by surprise? Was the field going too slow to begin with? Driver error?

Whatever the reason, the mishap derailed the hopes of the two greatest drivers in history. Andretti’s car was too badly damaged to continue. Foyt, being equal parts great driver, mechanically gifted and highly competitive (or stubborn), literally pounded his damaged suspension back into place (more or less), then proceeded to lead the first 22 laps after the restart. Of all the great moments that he had at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, to me, that was the A.J. Foytiest.

Cogan, though he had some success later in his career, never quite lived down the 1982 500. He was even booed at some races during the 1982 season, which was rather cruel.

And so ended Norton’s involvement with Penske Racing – one win, three poles and seven front-row starts overall. Pretty impressive.

Norton still exists, though it was purchased in 1990 by Saint-Gobain of France. Since its Indy days, the company has backed the U.S. luge teams – another form of racing.

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