Archive for March 31, 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.