Monday, June 5, 2017

The 1967 Indy 500: When An STP-Sponsored Turbine Almost Changed Racing

Photo Credit: Uncredited Photographer/IMS LLC


Racing has always been the ultimate proving ground for automobiles. Not only has competition promoted innovations big and small, race cars have also influenced overall vehicle appearance. At the 1967 Indianapolis 500, the STP-Paxton TurboCar fielded by the late Andy Granatelli provided a shocking example of how much racing at the speedway evolved over 56 years.

Ever since the first 500-mile event was held at the 2.5-mile rectangular oval Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1911, the winning Marmon Wasp with a rearview mirror paved the way for what would be a grand showcase of automotive development. Accompanying “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” advancements in automobile technology showed greater sophistication with every passing decade in the quest for more speed. During the 1920s and 1930s, American race car designer Henry Miller offered groundbreaking engines to the Indianapolis 500. Miller also gave front-wheel drive technology its first prominent exhibition to the world at Indy. For the early 1950s, Cummins diesel-engined vehicle disrupted the field of gasoline race cars. At a time where diesel power was only starting to gain acceptance mainly with locomotives in North America, the Cummins Diesel Special’s 1952 pole-sitting effort by driver Fred Agabashian occurred at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway more than 50 years before Audi found success at Le Mans with their R10 sports car. That same 1952 Indianapolis 500 saw Troy Ruttman as victorious using a Hilborn fuel injection system.

The 1960s history at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was reshaped by a modern renaissance of rear-engined vehicles. The evolution started with a ninth-place run by the late Sir Jack Brabham driving a Cooper in 1961. Four years later, Jim Clark’s Ford-powered Team Lotus effort claimed the milestone Indy win that forever tipped the scale in favour of rear-engined machines at the Indianapolis 500. As front-engined roadster style racers were rapidly declared obsolete as the late 1960s approached, another presence was preparing to polarize motorsports. A group led by legendry team owner and STP president Andy Granatelli generated noise by competing with turbine power over a brief but memorable period.


Photo Credit: Image from Uncredited Photo Slide



Seen as potentially more efficient than typical internal combustion engine designs in automotive applications, turbine propulsion was strongly viewed as a realistic advancement in road cars through the 1950s through to the 1970s. Turbine engines would feature fewer moving parts and generate better fuel economy than the powerplants commonly associated in normal automobiles. The closest the propulsion system came to being accepted on the road was when  Chrysler created 50 purpose-built, Ghia-bodied turbine cars were offered for evaluation by the public. As the technology was gaining momentum, it was only natural for the propulsion style would be race-tested. A Rover BRM Turbine Car ran at the 24 Hours of Le Mans as an experimental entry from 1963 to 1965. After an attempt to compete in the 1966 Indy 500 failed by Granatelli and company with a turbine car, the STP-Paxton TurboCar would bring what some believed to be the future of automobiles to the Brickyard.  

The radical 1967 effort was fielded by an experienced team. Battling to win the Indianapolis 500 since 1946, Andy Granatelli along with his brothers Joseph and Vincent had one major advantage as they raced into the 1960s in the form of STP Corporation. An engine treatment company spun-off of from the Studebaker auto company, STP was skilfully managed by Andy Granatelli with the aid of exposure through racing at the 2.5-mile track. Attempting to take victory using various types of vehicles including Ferguson race cars powered by supercharged Novi engines, Granatelli brought the Day-Glo Red STP-Paxton TurboCar to the speedway anticipating to create a scene before, during and after the 1967 event. The vehicle made several appearances in popular car magazines as well as the cover of Hot Rod May 1967 issue. At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the welcome for eh STP-Paxton TurboCar ranged from marvel to disgust by some identifying it as an unfair match. To certify the on-track effort, famed American racer and 1963 Indy 500 winner Parnelli Jones took the wheel for what could have been (and nearly was) a second taste of the milk at the track.


Photo Credit: Image from Uncredited Photo Slide



The STP-Paxton TurboCar’s movement at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came courtesy of a Canadian contribution. A modified turboprop PT6 engine supplied by Pratt & Whitney Canada served as turbine power for the 1967 Indianapolis 500 effort. Developed in the late 1950s and entered into production in 1963, the PT6 turboprop engine continues to be built to this day. Pratt & Whitney Canada’s PT6 engine remains known as a powerful yet reliable design. Known as the ST6B turbine, the STP-Paxton TurboCar’s 550-horsepower power unit was channelled through a four-wheel drive system (also an exotic mechanical attribute for its time). A transmission was specially prepared for the vehicle.

While the extremely unorthodox Pratt & Whitney-sourced powerplant was singled-out as technologically astonishing, the STP-Paxton TurboCar in its entirely was an advanced engineering and construction. For 1967, much of the technology behind the STP-Paxton TurboCar was cutting-edge. Recorded to have cost $28,000 at the time according to a Hot Rod magazine article, computers played a major role in the construction of the turbine-powered Indy car. Wind-tunnel testing was also an integral in providing the ideal layout for an advanced race car contending at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Beneath the heavily aerodynamically-contoured shape, the STP-Paxton TurboCar structure was a beam-type chassis where the driver’s compartment was positioned on the right and the turbine engine was on the left.


Photo Credit: Uncredited Photographer/IMS LLC


The month of May of 1967 served as the period of truth for turbine dreams. Andy Granatelli, Parnelli Jones and the STP-Paxton TurboCar convincingly cracked the 33-car field with a 6th place starting spot while Mario Andretti took the year’s Indianapolis 500 pole. When the green flag dropped, the Day-Glo Red race car stormed to the lead on the first lap. The 1967 Indianapolis 500 featured only three drivers at the front with Parnelli Jones owning the top spot for 171 of the race’s 200 laps. With four laps remaining, a failure of a gearcase bearing was enough to deny Jones and the STP-Paxton TurboCar of victory at the Brickyard. A.J. Foyt won the 1967 Indianapolis 500 in a Ford-powered Coyote race car. The Granatelli team settled for a sixth-place result as the super-expensive was ultimately defeated by a six-dollar part. Andy Granatelli would return to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a new set of Lotus-based turbines in the following year (a story you’ll go into greater depth for another time).

The 1960s is cemented as perhaps the last decade where absolutely diabolical ideas and engineering could easily compete in at the speedway. After two years of threatening for the win at Indy, turbine cars were banned from competition in 1969. Four-wheel drivetrains would also be prohibited guaranteeing the continuing dominance of rear-wheel drive at the Indianapolis 500 shortly after the turbine. The STP-Paxton TurboCar made for a memorable chapter that almost turned into the start of a completely different book.

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