Of all the shoestring stories that have graced Gasoline Alley through the years, it’s tough to top the accomplishment of Denny Zimmerman and Frank Fiore Racing in 1971.
Fiore, a ground maintenance machinist for United Airlines, had campaigned midgets on the West Coast for years with some decent shoes like Chuck Booth, Tommy Copp, Bruce Walkup and Dave Strickland but always had the Indy 500 bug. He’d made an attempt in 1968 with an old Huffaker that had been restored after Bobby Unser stuffed it under the guardrail in Turn 3 at Phoenix, but the Speedy’s Broasted Chicken Special lost a water pump as Dee Jones was trying to qualify.
Then Frank mortgaged and refinanced his house to purchase a 3-year-old Vollstedt-Offy for Indy in 1971, which, when positioned next to the new McLaren, looked like a Soap Box Derby racer. But he and son Frank Jr. towed it back behind their motorhome in search of fame and fortune — or at least a chance to make the race. They wanted to hire Jimmy Boyd or midget ace Burt Foland but USAC rejected both drivers.
USAC tech chief Frankie Del Roy suggested a young unknown from the East Coast who’d been running strongly in midgets, sprints and modifieds. He’d also logged some miles in previous Mays with Joe Hunt, Barney Navarro and Bulldog Stables but never made the show.
“I always felt that I had so much seat time with those guys that Firestone got me the ride with Fiore, and then it turns out it was Frankie Del Roy and I never got a chance to thank him before he passed,” recalls Zimmerman.
Of course there were still just a few obstacles. Big Frank got two weeks of vacation but needed four to compete at the Speedway so United gave him two extra weeks with no pay if he put their decal on the car.
“We also only had one engine, four wheels, no spares and we slept in the camper in the participants’ parking lot every night and showered in Gasoline Alley,” remembers Frank Jr., who was then a sophomore in high school. “I was too young to get in the pits but after 6 p.m. a couple of the guards would let me go in and help Dad.
“But we never looked at it as a hardship or poor us. Hell, we were at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with our own car.”
Zimmerman was a brainy driver who understood the landscape, so he didn’t rush anything or take unnecessary chances those first two weeks of practice.
“I figured we had a chance — we worked hard the whole month but we weren’t ready first weekend,” he said. “I did have a lot of coaching help from Bobby Grim and Bob Harkey, and then somebody suggested a little spoiler on the back and it made the car 5mph faster. It was comfortable and that’s why we made the show.”
There were 72 qualifying attempts (each car only got three) and 25 drivers didn’t make it as Denny qualified at 169.7mph (Peter Revson was on pole in his McLaren at 178.695mph), ran all day on one set of tires and finished eighth.
“I was blessed, put my heart into it and it worked out,” said the ’71 Rookie of the Year.
Little Frank appreciates the era and his family’s place in it.
“I’m so glad I lived in that era of IndyCar racing and I think Dad realized we’d done something special because Indy is Indy and we did all of our own work. My mom was a Rosie the Riveter in WWII and she welded everything on our race cars.
“Donald Davidson thinks Dad was the last car owner to make money because he spent $18,000 and collected $26,000. But it was never about the money — Dad was a USAC guy and that was the highlight of his life.”