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The Whooshmobile Turns 50

by | May 17, 2017

There have been some bombshells in the racing world recently:  2016 F1 World Champion Nico Rosberg announced he was quitting Formula 1.  Two-time F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso is skipping the Monaco Grand Prix to race in the Indianapolis 500.  But 50 years ago, a bombshell of another type rocked racing: Andy Granatelli’s STP Turbine at Indy.

stp_turbineThe ‘60s were a turbulent time at Indianapolis, in parallel, perhaps, to the social and political turbulence seen elsewhere in the nation during that decade.  But at Indy, the upheaval was driven by technology and innovation, not by restless youth.  The decade opened with the classic and beautiful Offenhauser roadsters in full command of the Brickyard, and closed with the rear-engine revolution complete.  In between, all manner of chassis and engine combinations were tried, and Granatelli’s car, powered by a Pratt & Whitney aircraft turbine, was the most radical.

The car looked like nothing else at the track.  It was smooth and aerodynamic, albeit with a pregnant look due to bulbous bodywork necessary to house the driver and the engine side-by-side.  Also in that sandwich was the fuel tank, occupying space in the center of the car so that the center of mass would remain near the center of the car regardless of fuel load.

Ken Wallis, an aeronautical engineer at Douglas Aircraft, is credited with the design of the car, which was built in secrecy over a two-year period in the Granatelli brothers’ shop at Paxton Products, the business they owned in southern California.   A test at Phoenix early in 1967 substantiated the car’s potential, and the next stop was Indy in May, where the car generated a level of “buzz” not heard before or since.

It’s turbine engine, adapted from helicopter use, made a mere fraction of the noise that a piston engine produces, emitting a high-pitched whine that led to the “Whooshmobile” nickname.  Another nickname given to the car at the time was “Silent Sam.”  The drivetrain had far fewer moving parts than a conventionally-powered car, leading many observers to expect superior dependability.  The car had four-wheel drive, not a new idea at Indy but the first time in a car that was not overly heavy.  An innovative “air brake” was a hydraulically-actuated panel that rose from the car’s tail under braking to help counteract the car’s lack of conventional engine compression braking.  The car’s paint was a brilliant red-orange, and Granatelli’s crew wore eye-popping STP-logoed coveralls.

parnelli-jonesAnd Parnelli Jones, the popular winner of the 1963 race in a classic Offy roadster, was driving, reportedly paid a then-significant $100,000 fee by Granatelli.

A remarkable 86 cars arrived to try to qualify for the race, a record at the time, and practice and qualifications were both eventful and suspenseful.  Would the turbine trounce all comers?  In the end, Mario Andretti secured the pole but the conversation remained focused on Jones and the turbine.  Jones, who qualified sixth, heard plenty of complaints about the turbine, from accusations that he was “sandbagging” (intentionally running under the car’s full potential) to criticism of the car’s exhaust heat to gripes about the “air brake” blocking the vision of following drivers.

And on race day, all the other drivers were following the turbine.  From his starting position on the outside of the second row, Jones swept around four of the five cars in front of him before reaching the second turn, and then ducked under Andretti to take the lead entering the backstretch.  It is said that Andretti flipped a middle finger to Jones as he went by, but all Andretti will say is that he thought, “Uh oh, this is going to be a long day.”

In truth it was a short day, as rain interrupted the race relatively early and it had to resume the following day.  On Day 2 Jones continued to lead easily throughout the race, although A.J. Foyt wisely adopted a strategy of hounding Parnelli, hoping to put additional stress on the car that might lead to a failure.  Foyt’s strategy paid off.  As is widely known, an inexpensive part in the turbine’s driveline failed with fewer than ten laps remaining in the race, and Jones coasted to a stop.  Foyt swept into the lead, and dodged a last-lap multi-car crash on the main straightaway to record his third Indy 500 triumph.

Foyt was quoted later as saying that he felt sorry for his rival Jones, who dominated the race but did not win, but he said also that he felt no sympathy for the turbine car which he thought should be banned.  The turbine was not banned, but changes to the rules for 1968 restricted the allowable air intake for the engine.  Granatelli returned that year with three all-new wedge-shaped Lotus 56 turbines, and driver Joe Leonard put one of them on the pole, but Granatelli suffered another heartbreak when the Pratt & Whitney engine in Leonard’s car “flamed-out” while leading late in the race.

A further rule change restricted the allowable air intake yet again for 1969, such that Granatelli abandoned the turbine project and entered a conventional piston-powered Brawner Hawk for the 500, with Mario Andretti in the drivers’ seat.  They won, their victory immortalized by the photos circulated worldwide of Granatelli planting a big kiss on Andretti’s cheek in victory lane.

As for Jones, the ‘67 500 was his last.  He was invited to drive again for Granatelli in 1968, but he declined.  He considered briefly a return in 1969 but, remembering other drivers’ comebacks that ended badly, he elected to stay out of the cockpit at Indy after the historic 1967 race.  Today, Jones, spry and feisty in his 80s, is the oldest living Indy 500 winner.

Which brings us to the popularly-understood reason for the late-race breakdown of the 1967 car.  It was widely reported at the time, and oft-repeated in the half-century since, that Jones coasted to a stop only a few laps short of the full race distance simply because a relatively inexpensive part, a bearing, failed.  But the story not much reported was that Jones blamed himself.  He was of the opinion that he had been too aggressive when accelerating after each pit stop, putting excessive strain on the car and on the part that failed.  During an opportunity to sit and chat with Jones a few years ago, we asked him whether he felt that he broke the car.  “Yes,” was his reply.

By the way, the 1967 STP Turbine may be the most famous turbine-powered car to race at Indianapolis, but it was not the first.  John Zink, a Tulsa native who fielded cars at Indianapolis for many years, tried a Boeing gas turbine for the 1962 Indy 500.  Despite having a young Dan Gurney as his driver, that car, nicknamed the “Trackburner,” failed to achieve sufficient speed and did not qualify.  Then in 1966, a rookie driver by the name of Jack Adams entered an aging Demler roadster re- powered with a General Electric turbine.  It too failed to make the race.  Despite these failures, Granatelli believed that a turbine engine combined with a modern chassis and robust drivetrain could work.  He was very nearly correct.

Parnelli Jones photo courtesy of the collections of The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan, USA. Photographer, Michelle Andonian.

1967 STP Turbine photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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