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True Patriot Performance Love: Canadian-born Stuart Hilborn’s Winning Indy 500 Influence

Photo Credit: Chris Nagy/Car FYI

When it comes to going fast, every flag in the world can be evenly captivated by the alluring rush of speed. However, the citizens of every nation want to see their country’s colours ride the fastest. 

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has long hosted exceptional gentlemen and ladies of the world attracted to the mystique of the event known as the Indianapolis 500. Drivers, financiers, media and even fans from all over the globe are recognized for their contribution to the traditional 500-mile race on the United States’ Memorial Day weekend. For Canadians, we celebrate the success of Jacques Villeneuve’s 1995 victory at the 2.5-mile oval while some curse the outcome of the 2002 Indy 500 where so argue Paul Tracy was the rightful winner rather than Helio Castroneves. While Canada’s best land-based pilots of automobiles are noted for their attempts to be immortalized through a relationship alongside the Borg-Warner trophy, one individual born in the nation secretly achieved victory by supplying a cutting-edge piece of technology.   

Stuart Hilborn would become a major staple in the hot rod and racing community operating in California but came into this world as a resident of Canada in 1917. The son of a pharmacist and graduate from McGill University, Stuart was born in Calgary, Alberta before his nomadic family chartered their way into the United States in 1922. Settling in Washington state for sometime, the Hilborns would wind up in California where the young boy would grow up to attend college and found work as a paint chemist. 

In the late 1930s, Stuart Hilborn’s invitation from a friend to attend automotive speed trials on a dry lake ignited a passion he wanted to expertise to its fullest. The young man immediately found the support of his neighbour Eddie Miller who happened to be a skilled mechanic as well as a former Indianapolis 500 entrant who drove a Duesenberg in the 1921 event to a fourth place finish. Hilborn, Miller and Miller’s son Eddie Jr. worked together on a custom streamliner roadster they used to compete in speed trials until 1943. With the United States involved in the second world war by this time, Stuart Hilborn enlisted in the air corps where he served as an aerial gunnery instructor for bombers. It was during this time a breakthrough technology for engine performance evolved. 

By the time of the second world war, the basis for fuel injection was being explored mainly in diesel engines. Fuel injection was also finding inroads in the aviation sector particularly with fighter aircraft in the 1940s as engineers sought a solution for a stable, strong fuel flow. Gasoline direct fuel injection technology was utilized with the BMW 801 engine that propelled several aircraft including the German Focke-Wulf Fw 190. The allied powers quickly rolled out pressure carburetors (incorporating similar principles associated with fuel injection) that was a major component to the success of later Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. 

In his spare time while in the air corps, Stuart Hilborn exploring an alternative to carburetors that could not handle pure methanol and would devise a simplified indirect, mechanical fuel injection system immediately after the conclusion of the war. Constructing a handmade prototype from sheet steel and an aircraft fuel pump, Hilborn’s fuel injection technology would be showcased on his Ford-powered streamliner race car achieved a record-setting speed for its category with a 150.50 miles per hour one-way trip during a dry lake time trial event on July 17th of 1948. Even before the remarkable run, the word of the performance potential possible from fuel injection technology developed by Stuart Hilborn travelled quickly. 

Through a brief collaboration with Jim Travers, Stuart Hilborn’s fuel injection system with Meyer & Drake’s Offenhauser engine for midget racing. When the fuel-injected powerplants quickly began to dominate events, son of Superior Oil founder Howard Keck enlisted Hilborn’s engineering expertise in pursuit of success at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In qualifying for 1949 Indianapolis 500, the Keck-owned race car driven by Jimmy Jackson placed seventh using Hilborn’s fuel injection in combination with a 4.4-liter Offenhauser 270 engine. Four additional teams at the track also requested the fuel injection system predicted to deliver up to 15 percent greater horsepower than the traditional carburetor setup for the time. For the first year at Indy, none of the teams were ready to trust the endurance of the new speed advantage over the 500-mile event but its future at the speedway was solidified. The next year’s Indianapolis 500 had 13 entrants using the system for qualifying with five using fuel injection in the race using Mauri Rose who finished in third place. For 1951, more than half of the competing vehicles at the Brickyard ran with fuel injection in a retirement-heavy race where only eight cars finished. With six of the eight finishers in the 1951 Indianapolis 500 running fuel injection, the reliability of the system was no longer in question. The only question was when Stuart Hilborn’s technical efforts will play a part in ultimate glory at Indy.

Branding his Offenhauser-propelled race car as the ‘Fuel Injection Special’ in 1952 confident on the technology as well as Stuart Hilborn’s efforts, Howard Keck hired Bill Vukovich. Vukovich led the 1952 Indianapolis 500 late but the car failed before the checkered flag. The next year Fuel Injection Special was triumphant in the hands of Bill Vukovich winning the 1953 Indy 500 from pole position. 

While Vukovich’s likeness was placed on the Borg-Warner trophy for 1953 (followed up a repeat victory in the event for 1954) in accordance with traditions, Hilborn and his fuel injection system perhaps left an even greater imprint. For the 1954 event, the entire field had switched to fuel injection with final competition of a carburetor-equipped race car in the Indianapolis 500 recorded in 1963. Fuel-injected Offenhauser engines dominated at the Brickyard through the latter years of the roadster era. However, even after A.J. Foyt’s 1964 Indy 500 victory that closed the winning chapter for roadsters, Hilborn’s influence continued as the rear-engined revolution reached the speedway. Jim Clark drove his Lotus 38 to the momentous 1965 win at the 2.5-mile oval with a 4.2-liter, 32-valve Ford V8 engine using a fuel injection system relying on Stuart Hilborn’s design. In the late 1960s, Hilborn would also collaborate with the development of a turbocharged Offenhauser powerplant that remained competitive against the threat of Ford. The last Offy engine to win the Indianapolis 500 was in 1976 when Johnny Rutherford drove a McLaren M16 to the top honours.

The Calgary-born pioneer of fuel injection passed away in 2013 remaining active in refining the technology into his last years. Stuart Hilborn's contribution to auto racing and hot rodding has resulted in recognition in the SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) Hall of Fame and the Speed Parts Hall of Fame. In 2023, the Hilborn name endures as a brand with Holley Performance Products.  

Special mention and thanks for writing this article goes to Paul D. Smith and his wonderful book published in 2009 called Merchants of Speed: The Men Who Built America’s Performance Industry. Using it as one of my references in composing this article, Smith’s book is an absolutely exquisitely put together read. Researched stories on Stuart Hilborn as well as many other performance brands such as Edelbrock, Navarro Racing Equipment and Crane Cams are all found within the book's 240 pages. 


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