RETRO: The Speedway's turbo revolution

Image by IMS

RETRO: The Speedway's turbo revolution


RETRO: The Speedway's turbo revolution


Everything about Joe Huffaker’s approach to Indianapolis was different. From a twin-engine Porsche-powered chassis he created for a customer to an Aston Martin-powered Cooper chassis he assembled for the great Mexican driver Pedro Rodriguez, Huffaker wasn’t shy when an opportunity to try something new was presented.

By chance or by design – even he wasn’t sure – Huffaker also played a central role in bringing turbocharging to the Speedway for a young driver named Bobby Unser. Like every tale involving Uncle Bobby, buckle in for a wild ride once he enters the story.

The Indiana-born race car constructor made his home and his name in the San Francisco Bay Area which, compared to Huffaker’s rivals, was decidedly odd. And those Hoosier roots weren’t particularly useful in Huffaker’s primary discipline of sports car racing where his hand-built machines, mostly prototypes, found great success. Even when he turned to manufacturing small junior open-wheel cars, the ties to Indiana and the Greatest Spectacle In Racing had minimal influence on Huffaker’s designs.

It was the commissioning of two Indy cars by Bay Area sports car importer Kjell Qvale in 1964 that set Huffaker’s creative mind on a path towards fierce individuality as a pair of MG Liquid Suspension Specials for Walt Hansgen and Bob Veith took the sport in a new direction.

Borrowing the liquid suspension concept from the same MG road cars Qvale sold in his dealerships, Huffaker’s four-cylinder Offy-powered creations looked strange with their giant dampers – liquid-filled rubber bladders – in plain view atop the transmissions. The cars performed rather well, as Hansgen qualified 10th and finished 13th on Huffaker’s debut.

His liquid suspension wasn’t necessarily better than the leaf spring or coilover shock systems on the other cars, but it was unique, and also demonstrated Huffaker’s inspired approach to pursuing speed at the Brickyard.

Another run at the 1965 Indy 500 saw Jerry Grant added to the MG Liquid Suspension Special roster, and from Huffaker’s trio, Hansgen was the top performer once again after starting 21st and finishing 14th. Victory through suspension advancement, as Huffaker eventually found, was not the pathway to glory around the 2.5-mile oval. Something more ambitious would be required for 1966.

The concept of making extra horsepower through forced-induction systems was by no means new at Indianapolis. It would, however, transform the race for decades to come when Huffaker arrived with Unser and a turbocharged Offy bolted to the back of a new chassis with smaller liquid suspension dampers.

On the Speedway’s technological timeline, giant, ornate superchargers appeared in the 1920s, and by 1952, a turbodiesel-powered car took pole at Indy, but it took the first crack at conventional turbocharging in 1966 to rewrite the Indy 500’s norm.

1966 Huffaker Offy Turbo. Image by IMS

Working with the leading Meyer-Drake Offy outfit, Huffaker was one of three teams to take a leap of faith by adding turbo boost to the stout motors. Along with the Offy turbo in Unser’s Huffaker, Jim Hurtubise had one in his Gerhardt chassis, and sprint car champion Bobby Grim also used a turbo Offy in 1966 – in a front-engine roadster entered by “Horsepower” Herb Porter, no less.

De-stroked from the naturally-aspirated 255 cubic-inch Offys to 168 c.i. in turbo form, the introduction of boost would eventually make a world of difference for Unser. In early, unrelated testing for Goodyear Tires, Unser was a skeptic, and recalls being unimpressed by Porter’s first attempt at turbocharging the Offy.

“Those things were so new,” he said. “Nobody knew anything about them. Herbie Porter always told everybody – he was a genius on ‘em – but s***, his didn’t run worth a hoot, you know? In other words, his didn’t pull a lot of power. We used his engines all the time in tire testing, so when he switched off of the normally aspirated [Offy], which Herbie did a good job [with], he just couldn’t make power [with the new turbo Offy].”

Strapped into his Vita-Fresh Huffaker Offy turbo, Unser was introduced to the gains Meyer-Drake had made with their mill, but the engine – at least in 1966 – would not be enough of an advantage on its own to usher this gunslinger to Victory Lane.

“That was the worst Huffaker chassis that he ever built, I’m sure,” Unser declared. “I don’t care if he built a goddamn wagon back in the 1600s. That would’ve been the worst one that he ever built. The car was no good. He made big mistakes on that car, and, and the only thing that saved that car was the turbocharged engine. That’s the only way I qualified for the race.”

From Unser’s recollection, a flexing chassis made the 1966 car an unwieldy mess in the corners.

“And there was so much wrong with that thing, I couldn’t even begin to remember how bad it was,” he continued. “It was a real bad car. You know, I tried that car in testing. I tried it different places, it just was no good. Number one, the tub was like a rubber band, you know? We didn’t know much about tub flexing in those days, but we were all starting to talk about it. And we tried and tried and tried to make it go fast, but it just wouldn’t.”

That turbo Offy, however, made a lasting impression on Uncle Bobby.

“In ‘66, the discovery happened because, man, when I’d light that thing up going down those two long straightaways, that son of a bitch’d go like hell,” he said. “And it didn’t go through the short chutes good, meaning you didn’t have enough room for the turbo to get to acting really good, you know? And the car couldn’t handle good, but man, when you’d come off of [Turn] Number 4, Number 2 turn, and I mean, you knew that turbo’d kick in because if there’s somebody in front of [you], you’re just gonna pass them. Doesn’t make any difference who they are.

The turbocharger on Bobby Grim’s No.39 car, 1966. Image by IMS

“And there’s gotta be some way, if they think that Graham Hill actually won the race, there’s gotta be some way that I passed that son of a bitch and went on by him in a junky, junky, junky car, you know? It’s all the engine.”

Hill commentary aside, Unser, Herk, and Grim started a turbo revolution that would take hold of the Speedway before the Sixties came to an end. And speaking of endings, the unloved Huffaker met a suspicious demise on the way back to Unser’s base in New Mexico.

“They were coming home to Albuquerque, somehow or another the whole rig jumped off the Salt River Canyon, off a cliff,” he said with a laugh. “Norm Shoop was driving it, and of course, word had it around that the car was no good, so we’re gonna get rid of it and [team owner Gordon] Van Liew had bought some insurance on it. Now, I know Van Liew didn’t buy insurance knowing he was gonna ruin the car, because he got mad at everybody ‘cause it happened. The insurance company accused him of doin’ it, you know? So it was really Shoop that did it. It wasn’t even me. I got mad about it too because I was afraid somebody [was] gonna accuse me of wrecking the car that was no good.”

Happy to be free of the Huffaker, Unser had another laugh at the bad job done to sell the accident as something other than an intentional act.

“Somebody called me and told me that, that the car was not only wrecked, but off the Salt River Canyon, but then also, that Shoop, now, the guy that’s guilty of this shit – now, he oughta be smarter than this – [he] ran a goddamn jalopy race that night in Phoenix, same night that he supposedly had to go to the hospital and get doctored up a little bit ‘cause the station wagon jumped off Salt River Canyon,” he added.

“Now, that was kinda bad, you know? I called that Shoop, I’m sure I fired him. I didn’t even have the right to, you know? Oh, I’m telling you what. But that was Huffaker’s deal. That car was just no good, you know?”

Uncle Bobby would spend the 1967 Indy 500 in a naturally-aspirated Eagle chassis, and by 1968, his new car from Dan Gurney’s All American Racers had a turbo Offy over his shoulders. The marriage of the Eagle’s supreme handling and a vastly improved turbo engine would soon make history.

Bobby Unser, 1968. Image by IMS

So when we went back in ‘68, I mean, everybody’d heard about everything. Herbie Porter now becomes the guy that knows the most in the entire world about turbocharging supposedly, you know? But you get guys like a Jud Phillips involved … I mean, we actually dynoed that winter, the Offy. He knew how to make a 255 [non-turbo] Offy run … but the turbo Offy is new. And so he calls me on the phone in Albuquerque one day, and, and of course, I’m tickled to death with it. And so Jud and I get to talking. He starts talking to Porter. He learns everything he can learn.”

One trick in particular would turn Unser’s turbo Offy into a raging monster for the 1968 Indy 500.

“So, so he dynoed that thing and … I could be wrong here, but I think I’m right – put five percent nitro in it,” Unser said. “It made a freaking King Kong outta that thing. Jud calls me after he runs it on the dyno, and he says, ‘Man, we got some power now.’ And I says, ‘You gotta be s***ing me.’ I says, ‘From what? What’d you change?’ He says, ‘I just put nitro in it.’ Put whatever, five or eight percent. That’s not very much. I’d be used to running at Pike’s Peak 25-30 percent, you know? Wake it, wake it up good, you know? And boy it did it at Indy. It did it on the dyno. So now I can’t wait to get back there. It’s our big, big, big secret.”

Uncle Bobby’s Rislone-sponsored Eagle would qualify third as Andy Granatelli’s second-generation turbine model took pole and dominated all by the final laps of the race. With both turbines suffering mechanical failures on a late restart, Unser inherited the lead and drove home to his first of three Indy 500 victories.

His turbines, the ones tucked inside the AiResearch turbo feeding the Eagle’s Offy, would force another technology shift at Indy, and from his win in 1968, every ‘500’ victory through 1996 was achieved with turbocharged engines.

The advent of the Indy Racing League and its bespoke formula for 1997 hit the pause button on turbos, but they returned in 2012 when the IndyCar Series wrote a new set of regulations that embraced the Speedway’s forced-induction history.

IndyCar competition president Jay Frye has set a horsepower goal of 900 for the next-generation engine due in 2021. At least for Uncle Bobby, the good old days at Indy – especially his record-shattering pole run in 1972 with an Eagle-Offy – stand as his turbo-fed favorites.

“1100 I used to qualify with in that car. 1100 hp,” he said. “Man, I’m telling you what. I’ll guarantee you, I had a hold of that steering wheel hard, you know?”