Lots of guys say the first time they saw an Indy car go around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway they were hooked, and that’s my story. It was 1957 and I was eight years old when Tony Bettenhausen lumbered down the straightaway in the Novi. The noise rattled the folding chairs in the paddock and made my mom and sister cover their ears.
But I was gob-smacked, smitten and overwhelmed – all in 30 seconds – and from that moment on I couldn’t get enough of what rolled out of Gasoline Alley every May. Picking my five favorite cars isn’t easy but it is a pleasure.
Travelon Trailer Special
Maybe because my hero Jim Hurtubise drove it and nearly went 150mph in 1960 but also because it was a gorgeous pink, pearl and purple roadster (a copy of an A.J. Watson original) that even looked good sideways going through Turn 1.
Andy Granatelli’s Tropicana Special
The brutish and star-crossed Novi in the hands of Hercules (Herk) Hurtubise in 1963, where he almost won the pole and led the first lap dueling his pal Parnelli. It wasn’t that good looking but in Herk’s hands it was a thing of beauty.
Dan Gurney’s 1966 Eagle driven by Lloyd Ruby
The first Eagle (designed by Len Terry) was also the prettiest. With classic lines and that nose coupled with that paint job, the Bardahl Eagle, as the cliché goes, looked fast just sitting still. Rube was leading comfortably with 30 laps left when, naturally, the engine failed.
The 1978 Parnelli driven by Danny Ongais
Based on the Maurice Philippe-penned Parnelli VPJ4 F1 design and evolved into an IndyCar chassis by John Barnard, this car came out black and sleek and fast with an aura all its own. Ongais and the Batmobile were a lethal combination — just ahead of the ground-effects era.
Gurney’s 1981 Eagle
Of all the cars that captured your eye at Indy, none made your head whip around quicker than the Pepsi Challenger. John Ward’s baby was like nothing before or since, with a wide, contoured body of aerodynamic grace and rear wing that had everyone scrambling to try and copy. Mike Mosley put it on the front row at Indy with a pushrod engine and won Milwaukee from the back before the jealous rival team owners assembled a kangaroo court and found it guilty of creative thinking. The rules were changed and it was neutered but nothing can take away from its innovative beauty.