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Upcoming Simeone Demo Day focuses on the Indy 500’s early years

Published in blog.hemmings.com

The Simeone’s 1913 Mercer Raceabout. Photos by Andrew Taylor, courtesy Simeone Museum, unless otherwise noted.

In 1911, the two-year-old Indianapolis Motor Speedway held its first “International Sweepstakes 500-Mile Race” on Decoration Day, May 30. The event quickly established itself as “the greatest spectacle in racing,” creating heroes and villains alike, and a century-plus later the Memorial Day classic is woven into the fabric of American culture. On Saturday, May 26, the Simeone Foundation Auto Museum in Philadelphia will host a Brickyard Demo Day that pays homage to the race by exercising five sports cars that could have  — but did not — compete in the event’s early years.

1912 National Model 40 semi-racing roadster

1912 National Model 40 semi-racing roadster.

The 1912 National Model 40 semi-racing roadster owned by the museum is nearly identical to a National run in the second-annual Indy 500 by Joe Dawson and riding mechanic Harry Martin. Starting with a production car, the team removed the fenders, added an unrestricted exhaust, and made a few other minor changes before painting the number eight on both sides of the hood. Dawson qualified the car in seventh place, and at the start, Teddy Tetzlaff, driving a Fiat, charged from  third place to take the lead.

He wouldn’t hold the position long. On lap three, Ralph DePalma captured the lead in his Mercedes, eventually building a commanding 11-minute, five-and-a-half-lap lead over the second-place car. DePalma’s victory seemed certain, but on lap 197 his car developed a misfire and slowed, pulling to the inside of the track. Driving at a reduced speed, DePalma and his riding mechanic, Rupert Jeffkins, desperately tried to limp the car home, but on lap 199, a snapped connecting rod punched a hole in the block. Though the pair would attempt to push the car across the start-finish line, victory went instead to Joe Dawson and Harry Martin in the National, marking the only time that an essentially stock car would win the Indy 500.

1913 Mercer Raceabout

1913 Mercer Raceabout.

The Simeone’s 1913 Mercer Raceabout – actually a lighter 1911 chassis with a more powerful 1913 4.9-liter four-cylinder engine – likely wasn’t raced at Indy, though its quick-change wheels and metric-size Michelin tries do hint at an early competition history. Mercers contested the first Indy 500, in 1911, finishing the race in 12th and 15th, and in both 1912 and 1913 delivered podium finishes for the brand.

1916 Stutz Bearcat

1916 Stutz Bearcat.

The 1916 Stutz Bearcat that will be driven at the Brickyard Demo Day is similar to the Stutz Bearcats that ran at the Speedway in 1915, when Gil Anderson and Earl Cooper (along with their riding mechanics) earned third- and fourth-place finishes, respectively. The Stutz brand made its first Indy 500 appearance in 1911, at the inaugural race, when the first-built Stutz finished in 11th place, earning it the nickname “the car that made good in a day.”

1928 Stutz BB Black Hawk Speedster

The 1928 Stutz BB Black Hawk Speedster, stretching its legs during a 2017 Demo Day.

The Simeone will be running its 1928 Stutz BB Black Hawk Speedster as well, and while this model was developed to dominate in AAA stock car racing, it also proved competitive in the Indy 500. In 1927, Stutz’s Black Hawk Speedster captured the AAA stock car championship decisively, winning every event in which it was entered. Even more impressive, perhaps, was the fact that Stutz Black Hawks finished every event entered, at a time when reliability issues still plagued nearly all automakers. In 1928, the Black Hawk achieved a two-way average of 106.53 mph at Daytona Beach, allowing Stutz to proclaim it “America’s fastest production car.”

By 1930, running competitively at the Brickyard generally required a purpose-built race car, but that didn’t deter Milton Jones from entering a production two-passenger Stutz for driver L.L. Corum and his riding mechanic. Despite a significant weight penalty, the Jones Stutz Special qualified 17th for the 1930 Indy 500, and finished the day in 10th, a feat attributed largely to the durability and performance of the car’s 322.1-cu.in. “Challenger” eight-cylinder engine.

1929 duPont Model G Speedster

1929 duPont Model G Speedster.

After running without success in the 1929 24 Hours of Le Mans, American automaker duPont turned its attention to the 1930 Indianapolis 500, entering a Model G Speedster with driver Charles Moran, Jr. Though a rookie at the Brickyard, Moran had raced for the team in France, and proved capable of qualifying the duPont 19th on the grid at Indy, on the inside of row seven.

Rule changes enacted by new Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Eddie Rickenbacker were meant to attract more passenger car manufacturers and reduce the number of foreign “exotics” at the track, changes that some called the “Junk Formula.” This should have given the duPont a fighting chance, but the Brickyard is a cruel mistress, and an accident on lap 23 ended Moran’s day early. Following the race, the car was returned to the factory, where it was repaired and returned to use as a road car. While the Simeone’s 1929 duPont Model G Speedster wasn’t the one raced at Indy, it is one of seven built and hence very similar to the car modified for competition.

1921 Duesenberg

1921 Duesenberg 183 Grand Prix Car. Photo by Michael Furman.

Ironically, the two cars on static display for this Demo Day were run at the Brickyard in-period. The first, a 1921 Duesenberg 183 Grand Prix car, began its racing career in Europe, part of a three-car team that tackled the 1921 French Grand Prix, contested on the streets of Le Mans. While the Simeone’s Duesy retired early, another team car, driven by Jimmy Murphy, won the race. Upon return to the United States, the car now owned by the museum was sold to Harry Hartz, who raced it at a variety of West Coast venues before entering it into the 1922 Indy 500, where Hartz finished second. Later, under the Burgert brothers, the Duesenberg would attempt (but fail) to qualify for Indy in 1931 and 1932.

Kurtis-Ferrari Bardahl Experimental

The 1956 Kurtis-Ferrari Bardahl Experimental

New to the Simeone’s collection is the Kurtis-Ferrari Bardahl Experimental, a car constructed in conjunction with Ferrari for Giuseppe “Nino” Farina, the 1950 Formula 1 World Champion. Farina wished to drive a Ferrari-powered car in the Indy 500 before he retired from racing, so the Italian distributor for Bardahl Oil stepped in to facilitate this. After procuring a Kurtis 500D chassis in early 1955, the car was shipped to Maranello, Italy, where Ferrari installed a Type 121 “Le Mans” 4.4-liter six-cylinder engine, which produced between 360-380 horsepower.

The high-strung Ferrari produced less torque than the dominant Offenhauser engines of the day, so to level the playing field the Kurtis-Ferrari received a three-speed gearbox instead of the then-standard two-speed. Delays in the car’s construction forced the team to miss the 1955 race, and in 1956, the car didn’t arrive in Indianapolis until May 12, greatly reducing Farina’s practice time at the Brickyard.

Kurtis-Ferrari Bardahl Experimental

Farina may have been a World Champion, but he was still a rookie at Indy, and struggled with getting up to speed in the Italian-American hybrid racer. He struggled with his American pit crew as well, who had little familiarity with the Ferrari engine, and virtually no experience racing at the Speedway. Farina barely achieved 134 mph in practice, and quickly put the blame on the car and his team, at least until fellow rookie driver Earl Motter climbed behind the wheel and immediately began lapping the Kurtis-Ferrari at 136 mph.

In an attempt to make the car faster, the Ferrari’s carburetors were replaced by a Hilborn fuel injection system, but when no gains were made the team switched back to the original fuel delivery system. There was talk about swapping the Ferrari engine for an Offy, and even some discussion about changing drivers, but Bardahl made it clear: Without Farina in the cockpit and a Ferrari engine under the hood, there would be no more money for the effort. Bad weather reduced the number of qualifying days from four to three, and Farina proved unsuccessful at qualifying the Bardahl-Ferrari for the Indy 500. He returned in 1957 – this time in a more conventional car – but following the death of a teammate in testing, Farina left the Speedway and never returned.

Simeone Demo Days begin promptly at noon in the museum’s back parking lot. After presenting a brief history on each car and its significance, visitors have the opportunity of seeing the vehicles exercised in a controlled environment. Entry is included with regular museum admission; for further details, visit SimeoneMuseum.org.