A writer’s worst nightmare...
A writer’s worst nightmare is misspelling a name (just ask me) that will be in print forever. Dick Rathmann’s publicity photo, with his name spelled incorrectly, was taken in front of the grandstands at the Speedway in 1950. He finished 33rd after completing 25 laps due to stalling in the pits. Nevertheless Rathmann was on his way to fame and fortune with a Fifth Place finish in 1956 and brother, Dick, was on the pole in 1958 with a qualifying speed of 145.970.
They qualified 18th for the 1950 Indy 500 with Rathmann driving, but a broken crank ended their assault. The $2,148 in prize money went to getting the Offy well again and they entered a dirt race at Milwaukee where Rathmann finished Sixth. The engine let go again at Langhorne, a 1-mile dirt track in Pennsylvania, convincing A.J. that being a car owner was no bargain.
The car was competitive, but the basket-case engine needed to go. Cash was its only salvation and that came in the form of car dealer Bob Estes, who bought the car. Estes took the financial burden off A.J. by sponsoring him in 1950: “Jud Phillips and I became the chief mechanics on the car. Jud did the engines and I did the chassis. Plus, I got paid $50 a week and Jud Phillips did too. When I got married, Bob increased my pay to $75 a week.”
Once he was relieved of the financial burdens of ownership, A.J. could be proud of the success of the “Pots and Pans Special” when it was campaigned on the Championship Trail. In spite of the fact A.J. built it on a shoestring, it was a well-constructed race car. It qualified in 50 Championship races with 19 Top Tens by the end of 1953. (Sadly, driver Joe James was killed in the car at San Jose Speedway while leading the race.)
The grease from their track...
The grease from their track roadsters was still under the fingernails of these hot rod racers when this photo was taken in 1949. “I built the car on the left. It was my first Speedway Car. I made a rail frame for it, but they started going to tube frames by then. We qualified, but not fast enough and got bumped. Andy paid for the entry, that’s all,” A.J. says. (In fairness to the Granatelli, just a couple of years earlier Andy, Joe, and Vince were sleeping in their assigned garage area at Gasoline Alley because they couldn’t afford a hotel room.) Standing behind the “Granatelli Corporation Special” (left to right) Anthony Brazin, Chuck Layton, A.J., and A.J.’s driver, Dick Rathmann. Brother Jim was in the other car, as were Chett Biggman and Andy Granatelli.
Frank Kurtis radically changed the way Championship Cars looked and handled when he rolled out his revolutionary Cummins-powered KK500A in 1952. It was so low (because the turbocharged, injected diesel engine was laid on its side) that the front tires sat higher than the nose. It was also low because instead of the driver sitting on top of the driveshaft, he sat alongside of it. It was said when Bill Vukovich saw the Kurtis he remarked it reminded him of his roadster. The term stuck.
The KK500A’s turbo failed, which took the car out of the race, but the innovation of the design inspired future builders, including A.J. Vukovich, who won the Indy 500 in 1954 in a Kurtis powered by the bulletproof Offenhauser.
A.J. was hired by John Zink (a Tulsa, Oklahoma, industrialist) who purchased a Kurtis 500D kit for the 1955 race (which was set up for power steering but was never used at the Speedway, only on short tracks) from A.J.’s neighbor, Frank Kurtis. A.J. began assembling and modifying his own version of the low-slung Kurtis roadster in his shop.
Sweikert was another L.A. hop-up who honed his skills by racing track roadsters. Sweikert was chosen to drive the Watson-modified Kurtis roadster in the 500. Sweikert not only won Indy in 1955, he went on to win the AAA National Championship and the Midwest Sprint Car Championship that same year. (Tragically, Sweikert died in 1956 racing a Sprint Car at Salem Speedway.)
This was the first win at Indy for A.J. as a crew chief. “The first year we won the race in 1955 I got 10 percent of the purse, which was $5,000, with Bob Sweikert as the driver. We bought a house near the Speedway with some of the money,” in which he and his wife, Joyce, live to this day.
“I gave my kids a choice as to where they wanted to live, Glendale or Indy. They chose Indy. We moved back here for good in 1971. ”
That 1955 win would be the last time a Kurtis would cross the finish line in First Place at the Brickyard. (A.J. has never hidden the fact that the Kurtis configuration greatly influenced his Watson roadsters.)
Winning the 500 was no fluke because A.J. returned to the Brickyard the following year and repeated the highest of motor racing highs by taking the checkered at Indy, this time with another hot rodder, Pat Flaherty, behind the wheel.