Motor Racing: More Slowdowns

Ken Purdy, who lives, in Connecticut, is widely known as a writer and an authority on the automobile.

Automobile racing is the fastest recreation in which man indulges himself, but victory is not always to the swift: in this year’s Indianapolis race the car that led for 196 of the 200 laps and could, in the trade term, run away and hide from any one of the other thirty-two cars, not only did not win, but can never win. It won’t be allowed to run again. I he car that won the world’s premier long-distance race, this year’s running of the twenty-four hours of Le Mans, will not win again, for it, too, has been forbidden to appear next year. This is sport? It’s rather as if the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, having beaten everyone in sight, were to be forbidden to fight again — perhaps an unfortunate analogy, but sound nevertheless.

From the beginning of automobile racing at the end of the nineteenth century to this moment, the bitterest competition has not been between driver and driver, or between manufacturer and manufacturer, but between the manufacturers on the one side and the governors of the sport on the other. Race car builders want the machines to go faster; the various governing bodies, ever mindful of carnage like the 1955 Le Mans accident that took eighty-odd lives in a few seconds, want them to go slower, but not so slow as to rouse ennui among the customers. Corollary to this, sometimes national or corporate or vested interest throws a logjam across the track. But the forces carrying the “Slow Down” banners, massively powerful as they sometimes seem to be, win only the skirmishes, never the battles. Year by year, on every race circuit in the world, speeds go up, as if in response to some fixed law. Indeed, such a law has been cited; it is called Pomeroy’s Law, after its discoverer, the late Laurence Pomeroy, an eminent British authority on Grand Prix racing who demonstrated that the speed of racing cars rises annually by a fixed percentage. On a gross basis, the years 1906 to 1939 saw maximum speeds go from 93 miles an hour to 195. The curves at Indianapolis were engineered in 1909 for a maximum of 90 miles an hour; today a driver who doesn’t take them at 140 isn’t in the running.

Cars in the first Grand Prix race, the French Grand Prix of 1906, were held to a maximum weight of 2204 pounds. The winner, a Renault, averaged 63 miles an hour for the twelve hours and fourteen minutes of the event. Since, various formulas have been laid down based on maximum and minimum weight, engine size, amount and type of fuel, and so forth. The present formula, enforced by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, allows an engine three liters in size burning commercial gasoline. The exception is Indianapolis, which allows a 4.2liter engine burning anything, which means, in practice, alcohol and the so-called exotic or oxygen-bearing fuels like nitromethane. Engines other than the standard piston type are also allowed — diesel, internalcombustion rotary (Wankel), gas turbine — and thereby hangs the tale.

For Indianapolis in 1967, a gas turbine engine was entered by Andy Granatelli on behalf of the STP Division of the Studebaker Corporation, to be driven by Parnelli Jones. Granatelli, ex-driver, speed equipment manufacturer, is a veteran Indianapolis sponsor. Jones, winner at Indianapolis in 1963, would be on most lists of the half dozen best drivers in this country. The chassis of the car was built on a Paxton modification of the Ferguson Formula, a British system which allows an even application of power to all four wheels, not the usual two, under any condition. Sophisticated observers held from the car’s first appearance that it would be a serious threat to the orthodox machinery. Much of the Indianapolis establishment, a loose fraternity of promoters, car owners, and drivers, with a heavy investment in the status quo, showed some fright. Up to 1963, the Indianapolis community had been wholly conservative and remarkably parochial, convinced that the standard Indy “roadsters,” which had very similar chassis with identical Offenhauser-Meyer-Drake engines, were unbeatable, I he rest of the world had discovered that lighter cars, monocoque, skinstressed like aircraft, with engines in the rear and the drivers half reclining, were much faster and better handling, and they had been for some time standard on Grand Prix circuits from New Zealand to Italy. When the British designer Colin Chapman appeared in 1963 with such a car, a Lotus, engined by Ford, which hadn’t built a racing engine since the year 1, and driven by a slight, quiet Scotsman, Jimmy Clark, who had never appeared at Indy, merriment was general. It turned to horror when Clark (then champion of the world, something that had not seemed significant to the “500" folk) finished second, with many observers convinced that only oil laid on the track by the winning car had kept him from first. There was a general rush to a Lotustype Ford-engined car, which did not prevent Clark from winning in 1965, and Graham Hill, another British former world champion, in 1966. So the Indianapolis orthodox were suspicious of Granatelli’s machine, even though another turbine had made an unsuccessful appearance the year before, when Hill won.

It was not as new as it seemed. The jet engine, of which the gas turbine is a modification, was invented by Sir Frank Whittle in 1937, and the Rover Motor Company of England ran the first gas turbine automobile in 1950 and later campaigned it successfully at Le Mans. A gas turbine is a simple device. It draws in air, compresses it, expands it by burning it in a fuel mixture, uses the resulting highspeed exhaust blast to turn a turbine geared to the driving wheels. The gas turbine uses almost any kind of fuel, runs smoothly and vibrationfree (all its motion is rotary), has none of the ignition-timing problems that plague the piston engine, and is extremely powerful for its weight.

In the 1967 race it was crystalclear from the beginning that Jones and the turbine car, number 40, could not be beaten barring accident. The vehicle was wickedly fast, and its Ferguson drive system, eliminating the problems inherent in applying great power to either the front or the rear wheels alone, gave it handling qualities so superior to the field that Jones was not restricted to the standard “line” through the corners. Because they may spin out if they leave this line, faster cars are often unable to pass slower ones in the corners. Jones could pull out and pass other cars where he found them. He dominated the race completely, until, four laps from the end, a six-dollar ball bearing broke up, stripped the gears, and immobilized him. A. J. Foyt, in a now standard rear-engine car, went on to win.

Before the last car had come off the track, rumor that the gas turbine would be barred from competition in 1968 was flying. Similar rumors had been current after the first Lotus appearance in 1963, but there was heavy metal — the Ford Motor Company — involved in that case, whereas Studebaker no longer builds cars in the United States. Also the Lotus was not so radical. On June 19, Granatelli sent to the American governing board, the United States Automobile Club, a fourteen-page letter, with accompanying graphs and charts, in refutation of every argument that had been raised against his car. Charges that it produced offensive odor, a toxic exhaust, dangerous heat, thermal optical distortion of the air behind it, and oil smear on the track he blew out of the water. To the argument that its sound was unexciting and would bore race-goers (a turbine makes a whistling instead of a gunfire sound) he said he would be glad to produce, by electricity, any volume of sound required. He argued that the horsepower of his engine (a Pratt & Whitney aircraft-industrial type) was not excessive, at 640 absolute maximum and 550 effective, and indeed compared poorly with the 837 horsepower of the Novi car he had several times run without protest. About a week later the US AC handed down its ruling: the gas turbine engine was OK in principle, but the crucial inlet area must be reduced from twenty-three square inches to fifteen to bring the horsepower down to 480. However, as it happens, there is not in existence, anywhere in the world, a gas turbine engine of this size. No one is going to spend the millions of dollars that would be required to build one, and if it were built, it would not, in the view of Granatelli’s engineers, be competitive with Indianapolis-type piston engines. The governors had won another skirmish. Gas turbine engines will eventually dominate Indianapolis. But not tomorrow.

At about the same time, Ford took a body blow from the Commission Sportif Internationale of the F.I.A. In 1964 Henry Ford 11 decided to have a go at the Le Mans 24-Hour Race, in effect picking up the torch that the sportsman-driver-manufacturer Briggs Cunningham had bravely, but never quite successfully, carried in the 1950s. (No American car had ever won Le Mans; closest was Cunningham’s second place in 1 953.) Ford’s only serious opponent would be Enzo Ferrari of Italy, whose cars had dominated the race for years. The Le Mans circuit is a car killer. There is a straight on which 200 miles an hour is routinely touched (220 has been seen) by the biggest cars, with a 35-mph corner at the end of it. These cars are nominal twoseater coupes, but they are faster than single-seat Grand Prix machines. In the first Ford-Ferrari confrontation, in 1965, all the Fords broke down and Ferrari won as usual. In 1966, Fords came in first, second, and third. For 1967, the spearhead of the Ford effort was a 7-liter 500-horsepower 8-cylinder catweighing 2205 pounds. Ferrari relied on a 4-liter, 450-horsepower 1875pound 12-cylinder machine. Ford won in handsome fashion, averaging over 135 miles an hour for twentyfour hours. And for the first time, Ford’s winning drivers were Americans: A. J. Foyt and Dan Gurney-

A few days later, the C.S.I. announced a tentative, but possibly permanent, ruling that the 1968 cars must have engines no larger than 3 liters in the limited production prototype class, 5 liters in the sports class. The reason was the usual one, to slow down the race. Some had anticipated the move: the French are understandably tired of seeing their biggest race won year after year by foreign cars, and the French government, after all, has put more than $1.5 million worth of subsidy into the development of a new engine — a 3-liter engine. But from Dearborn came word that no factory-entered Fords would run at Le Mans in 1968. Enzo Ferrari took a stronger view: he did not, he said, intend to accept “new rules that relegate us to the status of village idiots.”