Q: Thank you for your insights on the Lightning-Offy of 1976. Since you are the gold standard of expertise on all things IndyCar, I wanted to ask you about another car. In 1974 the Vel’s-Parnelli team produced its third Maurice Phillippe-designed Indy car. It looked like one of Gurney’s ’72-’75 Eagles that had been squeezed in a vice. The layout was very similar to the Eagle, but it was much narrower and I believe it had a slightly taller monocoque. When it was on the racetrack it was difficult to discern it from the Eagles. Mario raced it in the first race at Trenton that year and put it on the pole. It didn’t finish.
At Indy, both Mario and Al Unser tried it in practice and preferred their Eagles. I always thought that it was very odd a car that was on the pole in its debut would be parked after one race. The only other time I know of that happening was with the Brabham fan car in F1. I have a book on Parnelli’s cars and it shows the VPJ-3 in show car guise with the radiators moved back to just behind the driver. In fact, in looks a lot like the F1-based car the Parnelli team raced later. Can you add anything as to why a car that made such an impression on its debut was mothballed soon after?
Steven Meckna, Long Beach, CA
RM: Mike Lashmet worked for VPJ and now runs Vintage Indy Car Registry, so here’s his take: “I just sold this car for Rufus & Dilamarter. So this would be the VPJ3 penned by famed former Lotus designer Maurice Philippe, who found his way to Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing in 1972. The VPJ3 was the first completely new car designed and constructed around USAC’s major rule changes to Indy car racing after the ill-fated 1973 500. No fuel allowed on right side of car, narrow wings etc., and yes, your reader is correct, as it somewhat resembled a narrowed 7200 series AAR Eagle. Philippe did take liberty with the Eagle’s suspension design and overall bodywork theme.
“Taking no chances in ’74, the VPJ team also ordered new Eagles for Leonard, Unser and Andretti, however two VPJ3 tubs were built and one car completed. Mario tested extensively with it in primer at Ontario during the late winter of 1974 and in Viceroy livery at a March IMS Firestone test. The VPJ team, however, started off the season at the California 500 with Joe Leonard and Al Unser in new Eagles, and Mario in a modified VPJ2. Sadly, Leonard destroyed one of the new Eagles in a career-ending crash. Weeks later, the team opted for the Eagles yet again for Mario and Al at Phoenix. However, with the VPJ3 showing promise it was entered at Trenton for Andretti with Al remaining in the trusted Eagle. Much to everyone’s surprise, Mario put the new No. 5 Viceroy VPJ3 on pole, finishing ninth.
“Rolling into Indianapolis the team brought a full-on assault with a mix of three different turbo Offy-powered chassis designs in the form of the Eagles, the new VPJ3 and a year-old VPJ2. Both Mario and Al practiced in the VPJ3 but opted to qualify their AAR-built Eagles. Jan Opperman was provided his rookie year ride by Vel and Parnelli and qualified the year-old VPJ2. The new VPJ3 sat unused for the race. But for the June Milwaukee race, Mario was back in the promising new VPJ3, finishing 17th.
“An interesting side note to the car’s development for the Rex Mays race was the use of the ‘can of ham’ externally-mounted oil tank off of Mario’s Viceroy dirt car! Jim Dilamarter states, ‘We were looking for better oil pick-up, and pinched for time and running behind, opted to try employing the dirt car’s tank mounted in front of the left rear.’ Sadly, this was to be the last race the VPJ3 ever ran, with the team sticking to its new Eagles. However testing and development continued on the car with many major mods, including moving the radiators to the rear and all-new bodywork. The car, now in blue and white American Racing Wheels colors, was considered for use in 1975 but the team stayed with the Eagles and had also began testing an all new VPJ6 design.
In looking at the VPJ3 in its highly-modified final configuration, one can easily see where Philippe was headed with the look of the VPJ4 F1 car and the latter successful VPJ6 Indy car. Fortunately, both VPJ3 cars – unbuilt VPJ3 No. 102 and Mario’s pole-winning No. 101 – survive. Presently, the never-raced chassis No. 102 car is in the hands of a collector as a roller featuring its original unadulterated narrow Eagle design including Mario’s Viceroy bodywork, while the No. 101, in its highly modified appearance, resides presently at Rick Duman’s Turn 4 Restoration shop undergoing a complete redo. One can expect to see the VPJ3 in American Racing Wheels livery on the track with Mike Lashmett’s Vintage Indy group in the near future.”
Q: I just finished reading another wonderful Mailbag. You commented on Jigger Sirois in one of your answers. I know ‘what if’ questions can be silly, but here’s mine anyway: Had Jigger finished his qualification run and was indeed on the pole, do you think there would have been an issue with the other drivers regarding the safety at the beginning of the race? Jigger was 9mph slower than the rest of the field and would have been a moving chicane going into Turn 1. Or would it be, as A.J. would say, “one of them racin’ deals” – but he being on the middle of Row 1 would have raced to the front and laughed at the massive pile-up behind him. Thanks for any consideration for my question.
Janis from Tampa
RM: Not at all. Jigger was a good racer, won several midget races and sat on the front row at DuQuoin in a dirt car, so he was plenty respected. There was always a pretty big disparity from the pole to 33rd spot back then, but most of the starting field was used to running hard and close together, and Jigger was also a smart racer that wasn’t going to jeopardize anyone else.