Q: I would like to ask you a question about Grant King. Looking through my 500 yearbooks through the 1970s, it looks like he copied everybody’s car that was doing good. And they look like very good copies. Any stories you can tell me about the man and how he did it?
RM: I was standing next to Dan Gurney at Trenton when Grant rolled the “Kingfish” by, and The Big Eagle went crazy because it was basically an Eagle copy. Not sure I ever saw Dan get so worked up. But those were the days when talented guys like Bill Finley, A.J. Watson and King would simply copy the hot car of the moment. Grant had excellent fabricators like Jerry Weeks, Gordon Barrett and Steve Chassey helping him, and his copies were spot on many times so we always figured Ted Hall (his chief mechanic) had a lot to do with their success. Tom Sneva put that Kingfish on the front row at Trenton and that helped him get a ride with Roger Penske. Gary Bettenhausen, Bentley Warren, Sheldon Kinser, Phil Threshie and Sneva all made Indy in a Kingfish, and John Martin qualified another King copy called the Dragon. Finley laid out his Fleagle in his garage floor on Patricia Avenue with Howie Ferland doing the machine work and son Tom Finley building whatever was needed, and Johnny Parsons qualified it in 1974 at Indianapolis. Barrett went to Watson and drew up a car from scratch that Kinser put in the 1979 Indy 500. No computers, no wind tunnels, no aerodynamicists – just good old American ingenuity and a good eye.
Q: Watched your video on George Follmer. Only saw him race once. It was a CanAm race in the early ‘70s at Mid Ohio. Mark Donohue and George in two fire-breathing 917s, nose to tail for 200 miles. George looked like a really serious man and a very deep thinker. As I only saw him race once, what type of driver was he? Was he a wheelman, a set-up guy like Donohue, or someone who won through race craft?
Jonathan and Cleide Morris, Ventura, CA
RM: He was vastly under-rated according to Parnelli Jones, so that’s a pretty good endorsement right off the top. But Roger Penske obviously thought quite highly of him as well, and George was savvy and fast in everything (he won his first oval race in an Indy car at Phoenix) from sports cars to F1 to Can-Am to Indy.
Q: Just finished watching the “Yellow, yellow, yellow. IndyCar Safety Team” documentary on Amazon. A huge shout out to those guys for the work they do to help the drivers. It was very interesting to hear about James Hinchcliffe’s crash at Indy 2015 practice, and what they had to do to pry him out. They probably saved his life. And I can’t believe James is back in the car and racing after that crash. The film really helped explain what happens during a crash, so now when I watch race I can now pick out what each safety team member is doing. With the season over, and needing an IndyCar fix, I hope all your Mailbag readers get a chance to watch it. Thumbs up to Mike Yates and the crew.
Mark, Altadena, CA
RM: Mike and his men most certainly helped save Hinch’s life, along with the IMS and Methodist Hospital medical staff, because every minute was crucial and they all responded flawlessly. Starting way back with Carl Horton, Steve Edwards, Steve Olvey and Terry Trammell, to Lon Bromley and Dave Hollander, to today’s IndyCar group, open-wheel safety is unparalleled anywhere. Alex Zanardi and Hinch are living proof.
Q: I took my girlfriend to the IMS museum for the first time and it was fantastic. She’s not really an IndyCar fan, but she is now excited for our first trip to the 500 next year – tickets are all paid. While touring the museum we checked out the Unser exhibit. I’m a big IndyCar fan and I was surprised that I had never heard of Robby Unser, and even more surprised to learn that in ’98 he finished fifth in the 500. Seems like he must have been pretty fast. What ever happened to Robby?
Russ Webster, Indianapolis
RM: Bobby’s youngest son finished fifth in 1998 and eighth the next May, but never really had proper funding so his IndyCar career didn’t last long. Today he works with Speedway Motors and does ride and drives, plus some consulting work.