Photos by the Author
They roared and smoked and howled to life, and then a century worth of Indy cars headed for the 2 1/2-mile track as part of the 2012 Indianapolis 500 Celebration.
The oldest car was a tall, black 1909 Alco-6. The Black Beast racer competed in the first and won the 1909 and 1910 Vanderbilt Cup races. A wonderful car owned by Howard Kroplick.
As the cars snarled and filed out to the oval, however, one car stood out and not just for its day glow orange paint scheme. Instead of a raucous piston sound, it made an aeronautical whooshing noise and hot exhaust waves rose from a large hole behind the driver.
While racing may now fit a prescribed formula – Dallara chassis with a 2.2-liter turbo V-6 – there was a time when all sorts of machines competed... diesels, front-drive, all-wheel drive and turbines are just a few examples.
Parnelli Jones came within three laps of the 1967 Indy 500 in a turbine-powered car and Andy Granatelli and STP were back the next year with new version. The Lotus 56 had a wedge-shaped body, all-wheel drive and a Pratt & Whitney turbine engine.
Three were built for the 500, the drivers being Graham Hill, Art Pollard and motorcycle champion Joe Leonard. Mike Spence was killed at the Brickyard on May 7 while practicing in one of the Lotus turbine cars, and Jimmy Clark, who was killed the previous month, had planned to drive one of the Lotus 56s.
Leonard put his Lotus on the pole, with Hill next to him. During the race, Pollard's car broke and Hill's right rear suspension collapsed while he was running 4th. Leonard was leading on lap 191 when his fuel pump driveshaft broke...the same ailment that sidelined Pollard. Bobby Unser went on to win.
That was two 500s in row almost won by turbines. Rule changes would essentially ban them for the future, which is what made it so special to see the orange car whooshing around the track today.
You can see the Lotus 56 at the Goodwood Festival of Speed here: