American Motors and the Indy 500

Part One

By Michael Wilson

People don't think of American Motors when the month of May rolls around and the familiar frenzy of race teams with  oaring high tech chariots of advanced carbon fiber polymers and metals that I can't pronounce take to that track of all tracks, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway! American Motors did indeed have a presence at the Indianapolis 500  over the years. Perhaps it's just a page in the history of AMC but it is a page we can look to with pride.

Hudson had been involved with racing almost from the start. As far back  As 1917 Hudson race cars were being built  and raced at events across the country. This would continue through the 1920's and in 1931 a Marr Special with a Hudson Straight-8 engine would finish 10th at the Indianapolis 500. The driver was Chet Miller and he would return for the  1932 race. The car qualified with a top speed of 111 MPH, again using a very mildly modified 255-CID Hudson Straight-8. Unfortunately the car suffered from engine failure and had to drop out of the race.   

During the late forties and early fifties Hudson began to promote their powerful  Hornets in stock-car racing. Hudson  would be one of the first companies to factory back NASCAR drivers who opted for a Hornet. Famed master tuner Smokey Yunick would even be involved with the "Fabulous Hudson Hornet" which is how most of these cars were decaled.

After the second world war the brickyard was in a state of decay and nearly overrun with weeds. The track was rescued when an Indianapolis businessman named Anton "Tony" Hulman Jr. bought the derelict property from Eddie Richenbacker. The first post war running of the Indianapolis 500 took place in 1946. One year later in 1947 the Nash Motor Car Company would supply the pace car for the 31st running of the famed event. The car was a 1947 Nash Ambassador Sedan that was painted bright canary-yellow. The driver of the pace car was none other than Nash-Kelvinator President George W. Mason! This would be the only time in the history of American Motors that a pace car would be chosen. The winner of the race that year was three time winner Mauri Rose in the Blue Crown Spark Plug Special, average speed 116 miles per hour! The Nash wasn't quit that fast.

The first effort to qualify a car at Indianapolis with AMC power began in 1968. Barney Navarro, an automotive engineer, inventor and builder, decided to build an Indy car that would use a 199 CID Rambler six cylinder engine.  It all began when a customer of Navarro's wanted to build a six cylinder turbocharged Indy car. After evaluating the six's that where being built at the time the AMC engine was the one judged to be up to the task. The 199 has seven main bearings and eight counter weights as well as half inch head bolts.

One year into the project Navarro  had the little Rambler engine set up to produce 550 horsepower!  The carburetors were a source of trouble and eventually were replaced with a custom fuel injection system. The 199 proved to be very reliable during testing and suffered no internal problems. By the end of the program the little six was making 600 horsepower! Before the project ended AMC would become the backer of the car and give much needed factory support. The car may not have won  the Indianapolis 500 but it helped to generate factory support within  AMC and helped pave the way for the AMC V-8 Indy Car program that was to follow several years later.

Part Two

By Michael Wilson

As mentioned in part one, American Motors did indeed have a presence at the Indianapolis 500 over the years. For a few brief years the sound of AMC Power could be heard at the Brickyard. From 1976 until 1981 the roar was red, white  and blue!

Prior to 1979, Championship Racing rules allowed a 320 CID for non-turbocharged stock-block engines and 209 CID for turbocharged stock-blocks. This was some 50 CID more than that allowed for overhead-cam racing engines. The officials felt that this would be adequate to give a stock-block a chance at being competitive.

Unfortunately car owners and builders didn't feel that 50 CID was enough and very few opted for a stock-block equipped car. Dan Gurney took a second place finish in 1968 and 1969 with his Gurney-Weslake Ford powered Eagle. The Gurney-Weslake engine was a 289 CID Ford unit with special heads designed by Harry Weslake, a well known British designer.

The next serious stock-block attempt would come in 1976 when a well known equipment manufacturer named Fred Carrillo would manage to qualify a turbocharged American Motors V-8 equipped car. The driver was Jerry Grant qualifying at 183.617 mph. In 1977 Jim McElreath would again qualify an AMC powered car at 187.715 mph. At this point the AMC people became interested. They agreed to supply aluminum blocks and heads for the 1978 attempt.

It's interesting to note that all of the blocks whether  aluminum or cast iron, were cast by hand and not done on a regular production setup. This was not the first time that American Motors would produce an aluminum engine for racing! Back in the early 60's AMC made a few 327 motors in aluminum for NASCAR racing. Unfortunately this was around the time that AMC was touting to the world that "The only race we care about is the human race". The program didn't get very far before being scrapped. Fortunately one of these extremely rare engines still exists today and is currently owned by noted AMC historian and fellow club member Larry Daum.  The aluminum Indy Car engines that AMC produced were exact copies of the iron parts and were certified as stock by USAC officials. The aluminum engines weighed 200 pounds less than their iron counterparts and were within 50-75 pounds of the Cosworths and Offy engines!

About the time that AMC began working on the new aluminum engine   Fred Carrillo began to back off of the project. He didn't feel that he could give AMC a fair chance because of limited finances. He decided to sell out to a gentleman named Warner Hodgdon who had been backing an  AMC Powered NASCAR campaign for  several years. Hodgdon had also worked with NASCAR driver Bobby Allison during that time period and was intent on winning Indy with AMC Power!

In the deal Hodgdon would receive the services of mechanic Jack McCormick. During the '76 and '77 seasons McCormick had set up the successful AMC engines that were run. This was the strongest stock-block effort since the Gurney-Weslake project. Hodgdon had a new car built on an Eagle chassis and hired seasoned driver Roger McCluskey to pilot it.  Preparation then began  for the '78 season.

The Hodgdon project attracted a lot of attention on Gasoline Alley that season. The highly modified cast iron AMC developed 875 horses at 8,500 RPM with 80-inches of manifold pressure, equal to the venerable Cosworth!  Despite the extra weight of the iron engine Roger McClusky was able to put the car in the 4th row on race day with a qualifying speed of 192.2 MPH!  McClusky was moving up through traffic and running strong when the gearbox  seized up on the 82nd lap. The transaxle was designed for a Cosworth and couldn't take the massive torque of the turbocharged  AMC! 

Hodgdon's accomplishments with the AMC stock block didn't go unnoticed by the USAC officials of the day. USAC officials began to envision $10,000 to $15,000 stock blocks running on even terms with $35,000 to $40,000 Cosworth engines. The rule book was about to be seriously changed! USAC called it the Engine Equivalency Formula. For 1979 the displacement for non-turbocharged stock blocks was raised from 320 CID to 355 CID. The displacement for turbocharged stock blocks remained at 209 CID. However they were given an additional 8-in. of manifold pressure or "Boost". This meant that the Cosworth got 50-in. of boost and stock block's got 58-in. of boost. The remaining Offy's that were still being run were allowed 60-in. of boost. The idea was to use a bleed-off valve or pop-off valve to limit each engine to its allotted setting. This was supposed to level the playing field. The goal was to bring more grassroots racers to Indy to compete with the big money teams. These rule changes were to trigger the strongest surge of stock block powered cars since the 1930's! Warner Hodgdon and the AMC stock block had helped usher in these  changes and were waiting on the 1979 race!

For the '79 race Hodgdon had the aluminum AMC ready! Displacement was 209 producing 650 horses with 58-in. of boost. The car qualified for the race easily enough but on race day the car came into the pits early in the race on fire belching black smoke. It appeared that the expansion-flexing of aluminum verses cast iron had not been considered. This ultimately caused the internal oil passages to be cut off causing instant engine failure!  Remember that the aluminum pieces were identical to their cast iron counterparts.

AMC powered cars would be back to run in the 1980 and 1981 races but failed to finish due to mechanical problems. Warner Hodgdon tried to recruit stock car driver Neil Bonnett for the 1980 race. Bonnett did test the car but opted not to drive at Indy. And thus the red, white and blue roar was over for AMC.

When the Roar was Red, White & Blue

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Comment from a website visitor:

The failure of the 1979 AMC aluminum stock block engine was actually due to the fact that the castings, which were made in Detroit were contaminated with inclusions, which weakened the engine and created the failure. The heads and blocks had been x-rayed and repaired as best they could, but time prohibited replacement with new castings. New castings were poured in a foundry in Bell, California, however the program had already lost momentum.

Also, Dick Jones of Champion Spark Plug fame, worked with Carillo and was actually the original builder of the iron blocks and ran them on the Champion Dyno in Long Beach.

Good article.

Best Regards,
Pete Whitehead
Team Manager and Engineer

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