Thursday, May 17, 2012

Blue Crown Spark Plug Specials saga

Author’s Note
This ‘Mega story was originally published on No fenders during the spring of  2009 - just prior to my inaugural Indianapolis 500 - yet was “ruined” by upon the forced migration to their new & improved blog platform - which rendered OVER 1,500-posts (including these) with broken images; SHEISA! As these were the most labour intensive to re-publish, and hence the lengthy delay...

It’s always interesting to me what sparks your curiosity, eh? As during the summer of 2008 - while dining with “Snobyrd” M.J. and her longtime friend Joy, who was visiting “The Emerald City” from Phoenix, AZ, I was busy extolling the virtues of my No Fenders “BLOB.” (What ‘Aunty Harriet affectionately calls it!) Which in turn sparked the following conversation of Joy telling me about an ex-Chicago classmate’s father who was the sponsor of the Indy 500 winning Blue Crown Spark Plug Specials sixty-plus years ago.

Thus, my curiosity was definitely peaked, (Hey! You didn’t think peaking was Danicker’s sole property; did yuh’s?) And Joy introduced me to Dean, whose father Purvis was the owner of the Blue Crown Spark Plug Company and hence the following conversations with Dean morphed into this story about a long forgotten racing team and racecar I’d never heard about before...

Joie Chitwood, 1941 (DJP)
Early Days
Having retired from the cockpit after the 1936 Indy 500, Lou Moore was busy beginning his career as a team owner, circa 1937 and would ultimately go on to win the Indy 500 five times, a record that stood for nearly four decades, until some dude adorned by the moniker “The Captain,” a.k.a. Roger Penske scored the sixth of his untouchable fourteen victories to date, in 1987. (As this was prior to my having to witness ‘HULIO win his third Indy 500 & Roger’s 15th in May, 2009)

And while “The Cheepster,” a.k.a. Chip Ganassi basks in the limelight of being the current Indy 500 winning Team Owner, Ganassi still trails Moore on the all time victory list; 5-3, as Chip was co-owner of Emerson fittipaldi’s 1989 Patrick Racing winner, along with Juan Pablo Montoya’s 2000 victory and Scott Dixon’s 2008 triumph for Target Chip Ganassi Racing respectively. (And still remains one race BEHIND Moore after Dario Franchitti’s victory in 2010)

So, eat your heart out “Cheep!”

The very first Lencki chassis was being laid down by Joe Lencki of Chicago, as Lencki had commissioned Leo Goossen to design what Lencki considered to be the ultimate solution to capturing victory at the Brickyard.

Interestingly, Lencki was also the inventor of some secret “Slippery Liquids” concoction known today as Z Max, for which you may have seen an ‘Ol Snake Oil salesman by the name of Carroll Shelby pitching to you via television.

Lencki, a mechanic by trade, had begun racing Dirt Tracks in the mid-1920’s and after owning multiple Miller chassis, went to California to have Offenhauser produce an engine of his own specification. There, Goossen, chief draftsman and engine designer extraordinaire for Harry Miller, Offenhauser, Meyer & Drake and Drake Engineering, penned a 270cid, two valves per cylinder “Lump,” for what would become the first Lencki/Lencki to race at the Speedway in 1939.

Speculation suggests that if you were so inclined to call the six, which looked extremely similar to an Offenhauser 270cid four cylinder, with the additional two cylinders in front of Lencki, you were likely to get slugged!

Bill Holland - 1947 runner-up (DJP)
Meanwhile, Louis “Curly” Wetteroth was another of the many fabricators making a living by building race cars, with a shop in California and kept busy by producing Midgets and Indianapolis/Champion Cars. As Curly had previously built the 1935 Indy 500 winner for Harvey Ward and Kelly Petillo...

Thus, reportedly it was Lou Moore serving as chief mechanic for driver Floyd Roberts at the controls of Moore’s Burd Piston Ring Special, who captured the pole position for that year’s race. Roberts would go onto lead 92 laps enroute to his lone 500 victory whilst taking the chequered flag aboard a Wetteroth/Miller race car. The win would become the first of Moore’s five Indy 500 wins as a team owner and the first time the pole sitter had won the race since 1930.

Tony Bettenhausen, 1939; First “Big Car” he drove (DJP)
Floyd Roberts returned with Lou Moore aboard the previous year’s winning Burd Piston Ring Special, while for the 27th Indy 500, there were a total of four entries sponsored by Burd Piston Ring, with Frank Wearne in a second Wetteroth/Offy, along with Tony Gulotta in a Stevens/Offy, while Lencki entered his lone chassis for Tony Willman, the #51, which started 26th and finished 14th after retiring on lap 188 with a broken fuel pump.

As in 1937, when rules revisions no longer made it mandatory for competitors to have a riding mechanic, another popular change was made, when qualifying was cut from ten laps to four, with Jimmy Snyder capturing the pole at 130.130mph, Louis Meyer in the middle of row one and Wilbur Shaw on the outside. This triumbrant would go on to lead the majority of the race, as Shaw in a Boyle-Maserati would win his second race in three years, while Meyer had spun out of contention for his record forth victory while chasing Shaw on lap 198.

The win by a Maserati was the first by a foreign make since the Fisher/Allison owned Peugeot had won the 1919 May classic, while Floyd Roberts, the previous year’s Indy 500 victor, began the race from the 23rd position, but tragedy was to strike Roberts, who was involved in an accident on lap 106, when a spinning Bob Swanson was collected by Roberts, causing Swanson’s car to flip, catch fire and eject its driver, while Roberts race car hurtled out of the Speedway, thru the wooden retaining fence at over 100mph and came to rest against a tree. Chet Miller was also involved in the incident, along with two spectators being injured from flying debris, while all three drivers were transported to the hospital, it took 30 minutes to remove the burnt hulk of Swanson’s car and Roberts was pronounced dead prior to the races conclusion as a result of a skull fracture. Sadly, Roberts was reportedly set to announce his retirement after the race. Also, that August, Carl Fisher passed away in a Miami hospital...

Mauri Rose; Indy 500 Winner (DJP)
While the public pondered the possibility of the Indy 500 occurring that May, as ominous war clouds festering over Europe had led to the invasion of Poland on September 7, 1939 and war declared by Adolf Hitler... IMS track owner Eddie Rickenbacher decided to press on.

Meanwhile, Joe Lencki had commissioned Offenhauser to produce a second six cylinder engine. While the original engine was of two valve design, (hemispherical combustion chamber) the new Lump sported four valve per cylinder construction, (pent-roof combustion chamber) measuring 260cid vs. the 2V’s 270 displacement.

Lencki’s two entries lined-up for the 500 with drivers George Connor in 17th, while Floyd Davis nabbed the very last spot upon the grid; while Connor’s No. 10 Lencki (Lencki 4V) would finish 26th, having thrown a rod on lap 52. While Davis’s No. 61 Lencki (Lencki 2V) wound up 20th. (Ironically Davis would race for Lou Moore the following May).

Pole sitter Rex Mays finished a disappointing second to race winner Wilbur Shaw, while the final “Podium” position of third place was captured by Mauri Rose aboard an Elgin Piston Pin racecar owned by Lou Moore, which past Indy 500 winner Floyd Roberts had helped Moore and Wetteroth construct over the winter of 1938.

Shaw’s third victory was of historic proportion, as not only did it make him the race’s second three time winner, but he became the very first driver to win two consecutive races in a row, along with piloting the very first chassis to win two events in a row... Thus Shaw’s remarkable tally of finishes between 1937-40 comprised of three wins and one runner-up finish, not to mention his two second places in 1933 and 1935...

To continue reading, see; Blue Crown Spark Plug Specials-Part 2

(DJP:  Dean Jackson Photographs)