Saturday, March 23, 2019

An Unexpected Flip In Auto Racing


By Doug Vehle, for the Daily Bosco 

With Indycar's first race over and Formula One is about to be, I just think of the chance to shock the world with the unexpected flip in a moribund series. Ten years ago the front row of the first Grand Prix was occupied by the brand new Brawn Team. Built on the leftovers of the none too successful effort Honda abandoned, Brawn collected eight wins and the championship; while it's closest competitor, Red Bull, collected their first six wins. With Brawn immediately becoming Mercedes, it was the beginning of ten years of domination by the former also rans. Pushing Ferrari to the middle and McLaren to the back of the pack. Another variation on 'Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.'

So what brings such a sudden fall from grace in the racing world? Rarely has Williams contended in the Grand Prix for over a decade. The Roush and Childress teams win less in a decade than they used to in a year. It seems unthinkable to say it could happen to Penske in Indycar, but you never know.

Maybe we could ask Mario Andretti. He certainly endured a collapse of his Indycar career. Thanks to YouTube I was able to watch the beginning of the end of his heyday, the season opening race of 1970. So foreboding to have Al Unser starting alongside him. But Andretti was starting the season as he had the year before. The new car wasn't ready, so he was driving the old Hawk. That worked out well the previous year, Andretti's greatest Indycar season. He'd picked up his first win before finally getting the Lotus 64 'Wedge,' then stepped back into the Hawk when the Wedge was destroyed and won the Indy 500. By the end of the year Andretti had won half the 18 races. For the first race of 1970 the Hawk was renumbered '1' for the champion, who was the fastest qualifier.

And there was the '2' of Al Unser alongside him. The commentators were far more effusive of the winner of five events the previous year. Back then the race might air a week later, giving the television network the opportunity to have the announcers do their job AFTER the race. So 20/20 hindsight makes it possible that they successfully predicted the winner during the warmups. And after briefly leading the race early, the defending champion did give up the lead, but held close to the new leader for much of the race.

Then what happened? Well, you could say it all started some two years earlier. After two championships and a third lost in the last race of the season, the owner of Andretti's team decided to retire. Starting the season as his own owner, he soon gave it up to Andy Granatelli and STP. In that order. What must it have been like to work for Granatelli? You can see the 1969 Indy 500 on YouTube; there's Granatelli interfering with one of Andretti's pitstops and chief mechanic Clint Brawner intefering with Granatelli. All those wins didn't keep the situation from wearing thin. At the end of the season Brawner would depart the STP effort.

So for all the appearance of all is well with a fast qualifier in the season opener, there was trouble under the hood. That he fell out late in the race while running second might not seem like much of a warning. He did collect a pair of second place finishes in the next two races before getting into the new car for the Indy 500. And there is where many point the finger for the end of Andretti's spectacular five year reign.

It was certainly an odd matter that the defending champion found his way into the McNamara 500. In Germany an American exgreen beret was building Formula cars for the lesser classes, getting rave reviews as he did. Still a bit of a leap for Francis McNamara, a dillentante with a reportedly wealthy new wife, to be building the car for Indy's hottest driver. Many refer to the car as ugly.

I think if it as looking unfinished. Much like the under classes, the lower formula cars with much less detail to them, the initial McNamara design seems in need of some final parts installation. There was an extra late race pitstop, a fourth at a time when they were only making three stops in the Indy 500, so Andretti limped home sixth. And in the inaugural California 500 Andretti was gaining on Al Unser late in the race when the transmission failed. The expression 'Teething problems' has become attached to memories of the car. Thus is blame laid for Andretti failing after the previous five years to at least be in championship contention in the last race.

Not so fast. And I don't mean the car with that. Indeed, Andretti was the fast qualifier for the next race in Milwaukee driving the McNamara. This was followed by Andretti's only win for the season in Castle Rock and another fast qualifier in Indianapolis Raceway Park. We're now through more than half the six starts of the McNamara 500. By the time the McNamara was done for the year Andretti was still holding second in the points standings if I can recreate the old points system correctly. His seven starts in the venerable Hawk produced no wins and fewer points. Five starts in a Kingfish dirt car for that portion of the championship was similarly unproductive.

My own feelings go right back to the loss of Clint Brawner. The legendary mechanic made no bones that he'd had enough of Andy Granatelli and went off to build cars he called Scorpions. Art Pollard ran second in the California 500 with one and Roger McCluskey had three top three's. Anaheim Midget champion Jimmy Caruthers was ninth at Indy his rookie year. But it was a low budget effort.

Hard to say if Brawner could have made better progress with the McNamara cars. After the legendary "Thunk" Andretti went faster in the 1970 Indy 500. Could Brawner have knocked that part in place to begin with? In 1971 the McNamara 501 was also being called ugly. No idea why, I think it was great looking. The short lived Ford engine that emerged with the rear engined cars was being superseded by the resurging Offenhauser (But that's another story) and Andretti was left underpowered. He won his first Grand Prix start in a Ferrari early that year, Ferrari is said to have sent an engine mechanic to Indy to try to learn about putting a Ferrari Boxer engine into Andretti's Indycar, (Also another story) but that effort died off. As for what might have happened had Granatelli been willing to put an Offy in Andretti's McNamara, the world will never know.

What is known is that Andretti's career was never the same after the departure of Brawner and the alleged curse placed by Brawner's wife. In five years with Branwer, Andretti won 30 times, including 3 championships. He would win the USAC Silver Crown for the dirt track cars separated from Indycar racing, he would win the Grand Prix championship and the International Race of Champions series. He would even win another Indycar championship in his 15th year without Brawner. But he would never approach the domination he exerted for the stretch of 1965-69. In the remaining 25 years of Indycar racing without Brawner, Andretti would win fewer races than he did in five years with Brawner. It was as though in that early race pass, the torch was passed from Mario Andretti to Al Unser in that season opening Phoenix race of 1970.

For a time. Unser indeed won 15 races in a year and a half, twice at Indy. Imagine the excitement of being the manufacturer of the Johnny Lightning racing toys and your driver owns the biggest racing series in the world at the time. Even Unser's teammate picked up a win in his five starts in Johnny Lightning blue and yellow. But somewhere about the time that the sponsor Topper Toys was collapsing so was Unser's Indycar effort. Midseason. A huge point lead evaporated and he placed fourtth for the season. Was the Vel's Parnelli Jones team paid by the sponsor for the year?

A cloud hangs over Francis McNamara, wherever he is. He filed a lawsuit against STP and the ever popular Andy Granatelli. Nobody was paying for the cars. The wealthy wife died, in a manner the press called mysterious. And McNamara disappeared. Or did he? There are those who insist he returned to the U.S. and owned a concrete company in California. Perhaps it was a hoax, perpetrated by a certain someone who was never so popular anyway.

Andretti escaped STP and Granatelli, if not the curse, at the end of the winless 1971 season and became teammates with the similarly slumping Unser, who would shortly lose his own miracle working mechanic, George Bignotti. So they won occasionally, Unser even becoming 1 of 3 four time Indy winners. But combined, they couldn't win so many together as either won by himself for awhile there. 25 years is a long time to be remembering when. . .

Friday, May 25, 2018

At Indy, Imitation Is The Best Form of Flattery


By Doug Vehle
For The Daily Bosco

If you've been wondering what Indycar racing has in common with the Chinese aviation industry, maybe you should consider stagnation. Unlike Brazil, whose thriving aviation industry is built with imported parts, China has demanded that the aerospace industry sell them technology they can take over as their own. These means the aviation leaders refuse to do business with China and building planes has been an exercise in futility. Much like trying to create excitement over Indycar racing.

I remember how excited I used to be waiting the final days before the Indy 500. I hate to say it was always about the exciting new cars, often I was more interested in the people who were struggling. J.C. Agajanian didn't want to pack it in when his onetime top team was struggling, he kept finding ways to update his out of date design and kept his team near the front. I remember the old picture of an Indycar on a consumer car trailer towed by an old station wagon. The caption said it was taken in a cheap motel parking lot in Milwaukee in 1968. From the number I figured out it was the car of Lloyd Ruby, who won both Milwaukee races that year. Such was the state of finances for the Gene White team.

So much of that excitement left when Indy became a 'Spec' series. Everyone races the same car. There was a bid put out to see who would build all the current generation Indycars, the same manufacturer already building the cars won. When the new design was ready, the old design was removed from racing. The unusual design of the Deltawing entry would turn up at Le Mans and create more interest than people have held in the Greatest Spectacle in racing for many years. Indianapolis desperately needs to see something different.

In 1963 Jimmy Clark was in the process of winning his first Grand Prix championship when he chased Parnelli Jones to the finish at the Indy 500. Noteworthy about that was that he was driving a rear engine Lotus. Two years later the order would be reversed, Clark's was the first win for a rear engine car but already the front engine had faded to only 6 of the 33 qualifiers. A.J. Foyt, the defending winner, had switched to a Lotus, though he called it a 'Coyote.' Foyt would begin to build his own rear engine cars, though at first they would be largely copies of the Lotus. Foyt won in 1967 in a Coyote quasi Lotus. Well, since all anyone in Indycar racing had known was front engine cars, you have to expect they'd be hard pressed to come up with something so good as the Lotus they feared. Everyone was looking around for something to---Imitate.

So it's no surprise that the 1961 Cooper that started the rear engine craze was copied by Vollstedt, which was then copied for the Watson. Parnelli Jones built copies of his Lola and called them Colts, Al Unser won Indy in a Colt followed by Mark Donohue in a Lola as was copied.

The most popular car to be a knockoff had to be the Brabham BT12. Extraordinary considering the lackluster career of the one example built. Jack Brabham qualified the car 25th at the Indy 500 and only lasted a few laps in 1964, then the car was sold and raced four times before it was seriously wrecked. This led to Clint Brawner collecting the wreckage in hopes of learning about rear engine cars and replicating it as the Brawner Hawk. Mario Andretti spent five years racing Hawks; in addition to 3 championships he would twice enter the last race still competing for the title but finishing second. All this was capped with an Indy 500 win.

But there's more. At the time Brawner started building Hawks for Andretti he built an extra for the owner of the destroyed Brabham with which Jim McElreath won four races and even finished 2nd to Andretti in the Championship. Buoyed by this success, Dave Laycock licensed the Brabham to built his own replicas with the name Mongoose, which won its' first race and 5 total for Lloyd Ruby. Mechanic George Morris replicated Parnelli Jones' Mongoose for him, then built more called Morris, one of which was replicated as a Cecil. Howard Gilbert built 2 Brabham based Gilberts which ran a total of 40 races and managed a win with George Follmer. James Hayhoe reproduced the BT12 from Brabham's own plans twice as Hayhoe's, which followed three lackluster seasons with a year of Billy Vukovich Jr. placing 3rd in the championship without a win.

Are you dizzy yet? Through that there were still some original designs, such as Dan Gurney's first Eagles, Yet those too were often copied, and some claimed a new name for a modified Eagle.

Then there's the Grant King cars, not so much famous as infamous. King was a builder of the Midget, Sprint and Silver crown dirt track racers so many Indycar drivers progressed through to build their careers.  Often referred to as dinosaur cars, one wasn't so different than another, all followed much the same design at the time and had for decades. A habit King brought to building Indycars.

There's an unanswered question of whether King actually licensed the BT12 design. Others bought plans from Brabham, King is considered to have imitated the Mongoose. In the 1970-71 season his two Kingfish cars were also rans in a total of 21 races. When STP lost 2 of the promising but difficult McNamara cars, the builder of which had disappeared after the mysterious death of his wife, they turned to a partnership with King to place two of their drivers for the rest of the season. This would bring Steve Krisiloff into the fold. 1971 was the year that the radical McLaren M16 sent the more well financed teams scurrying after better aerodynamics, time had run out for the BT12 knockoffs. In 1972, King had a new Kingfish which greatly resembled the McLaren, at least while in the garage. On the track the car struggled to keep pace.

King's greatest success came with the cars he began building in 1973. As popular as the Dan Gurney Eagle had become, it was easy to think King had become a customer of the All American Racers. In fact King had done it again. While last years' car hadn't lived up to the source, the new Kingfish would qualify 7th and finish 6th at Indy in the hands of Steve Krisiloff, one of his 5 top 10 finishes for the year. The Kingfish had arrived. There were suspicions of who might have allowed King access to their Eagle, which would seem to have made the difference as compared to their uncompetitive knockoff of the McLaren. The design so followed the original that the low budget teams began buying parts from King.

Which is what finally irked Dan Gurney. Bad enough someone who'd never buy a car from him steal his design, but to steal his customers too? King pleaded poverty none too convincingly, racing being expensive. Gurney retorted as not being born with a silver spoon in his mouth either.

By 1976 King's cars had run fairly well but he still hadn't become a front runner. He formed an alliance with J.C. Agajanian, owner of 500 winners with Troy Ruttman and Parnelli Jones but no longer able to repeat the success. This time King's target would be the modern Coyote's of A.J. Foyt, who would win the 500 and the Championship with that model just a year after King stole it.Steve Krisiloff was still aboard, having driven all 4 of King's cars.

So I have mixed feelings about the old days vs. the new days. When someone built a knockoff before, it wasn't really the identical car. Brawners' Hawks were considered an innovation. Donohue would comment on the superiority of the variant Colt over his OEM Lola. It used to be you could look at the cars approaching the green flag and see an ocean of variation. All those knockoffs of the Brabham BT12 looked dramatically different from one another. Longtime front engine builder Eddie Kuzma made his venture into rear engines by modifying the Lotus for customers, I've found no reference to Kuzma's own rear engine builds were based on the work of others. Today not even the paint jobs are enough to tell the cars apart.

When Indycar and Championship Racing remerged in 2008, the existing Indycar teams gave their older Dallara cars to the Champcar owners. Rather than complain that the cars were used, They brought up the sheer number of seemingly new, unused parts. It seems the OEM parts, such as front suspension wishbones, were replaced with a teams' proprietary designs for improved aerodynamics or other reasons. To give the car away, the OEM parts were reinstalled. Thus the Champcar owners felt they were given inferior cars, which were the Dallara as built. Those owners still had their 17 Panoz they had raced in the final season of Champcar. The thought of those being brought to Indy. . . .

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

A Not So Rockwellesque Holiday Season


By Doug Vehle
For The Daily Bosco

Hey, I just made it through another Happy Thanksgiving time. At least it was if you have something to be happy about on Thanksgiving. So I saw the wife of a guy who used to live and work here in town. He got another job and they bought a house a ways away, but she still works here, even on Thanksgiving. He asks "You still don't have a wife. . . " No. ". . . .Or a husband." Excuse me?

So at what point do you not have anything to be thankful for? Or is it okay to be thankful to at least be away from the Thanksgiving of your childhood? Thanksgiving around my family. Think of the alcohol consumed. Think of the pills swallowed. Think of the kid that started somewhere around age 10-12 to say "I think you've had enough. . . ." For all the good it did. Not much of a Thanksgiving.

 Ah but that's nothing. I saw a guy who used to live a few blocks from the gas station he was sitting in his truck at. Before he went nuts. Things had been happening to him. Like the divorce, though he kept the house. Then he was in the front yard and went around back with the door still open. When he went back inside he found. . .Call him Grandpa. Then came the return of Grandma, who brought help. And our hero noticed there were things missing. When they saw the door open and him not handy, they decided to see what they could take.

I barely knew him, but I was aware of some of what went on as he lost his job in the bad economy and simply went off the deep end as more things happened. The sheer pressure of it broke him. He seems to be doing better now, but trying to rent rooms out to people who did things once they were in his home played a part in him losing it, both mentally AND the house.

It wasn't just the old neighborhood he was coming to from his sister's house in another town. Inside at the gas station was the Granddaughter of Grandma and Grandpa. She comes from a long line of it, I'll tell you. An aunt didn't know what to do after her husband went off to prison and she tried to hold up a convenience store by hitting the cashier over the head to knock him out but couldn't seem to hit him hard enough. When he fled to the back she and her partner tried to open the register. When that didn't work they did what they always do on 'America's Dumbest Criminals' and carried it out, where the police were waiting. I should be glad that, outside of my Mother and several brothers and sisters, my relatives on both sides are good people. Though in another state, darn it.

So I've known this girl, the granddaughter, who was growing up sharing my same motive, to just not be like the rest of our families. When they came to arrest her mother a few years back they didn't take her too because she was working downtown and no stranger to people, the police knew better. Oh, by the way, Mr. Crazy was framed at one point, the police figured the matter out but not before he got put through more on his way downhill. Through it all he was trying to look out for the granddaughter of these people who'd burglarized his house, half jokingly calling her his 'Daughter' when he was sticking up for her at times.

Which became uncomfortable for her at times but then he was also someone she really could talk to while she was growing up and she admits he made a difference. But once he was flipping out you have to remember, he wasn't REALLY family. Even though he's been doing better she hasn't been so accepting. One sided relationships can take many forms.

So I mentioned to her that he was outside, she did that thing where she sighed and said 'I know.' He never had kids of her own, she never had a real father figure beyond him. Most people don't understand so many of the ways the holidays can be hard on people.

When I was leaving I told him that she seemed like she'd talk to him if he went in. He said he had to get going. Sure, he's going to his sisters' and he won't be alone on Thanksgiving. Not really, eh?

I should still think of his Thanksgiving as being better than mine, I suppose. He probably will at least be doing better once he's back to his sister's family. I assume her family is okay but I've never met any of them. These things I'd planned to get done today, I didn't get to many of them. Where did the day go? I walked around a little, saw the little minicastle house a few blocks away that I'd thought of moving to a few years ago, seems they had quite an event going. I'd meant to stay home but I wound up at a restaurant downtown. Just in time for them to run out of the Turkey dinners. Kind of my life, eh?

But it's a long, long way from being the worst Thanksgiving I've known. If I think about old girlfriends, I wonder how many of them are drunk and fighting with someone. The fact that it's probably all of them is why I feel glad I'm not having a good old fashioned Thanksgiving.I'd like to think the worst of those are behind me. Even if I don't think a particularly good one is coming in the future. And for those of us who have a hard time finding something to be seriously thankful for, we can remember it's only one day. Oops, that means we've began what they call 'The HOLIDAYS. . . .'