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Fifty Year Flashback: Lotus Turbine Car Almost Wins Indy

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Joe Leonard leads Johnny Rutherford in the 1968 Indianapolis 500. All images courtesy of and copyright IMS.

Some parent one day once said, “If at first you don’t succeed, then try, try again.” Andy Granatelli took that advice to heart when his team’s turbine-powered Indy car failed, in a most heartbreaking fashion, to win the 1967 Indianapolis 500. In 1967, the STP-Paxton Turbocar came tantalizingly close to taking the checkered flag in first, undone by a $6 bearing failure on lap 197 with driver Parnelli Jones having dominated the day.

Andy Granatelli, the man responsible for STP’s deep involvement in racing, had embraced the turbine concept when his team, primarily led by his brothers Vince and Joe, assembled the STP-Paxton Turbocar, based on a concept by Ken Wallis, for the 1967 race. The car featured the driver side-by-side with a Pratt & Whitney ST6B-2 turbine, the kind intended to power small turboprop aircraft. With the Granatellis’ input, that car used a Ferguson-based four-wheel-drive system to put the prodigious power of the turbine to the tarmac as effectively as possible.

Joe Leonard in the Lotus 56 at Indianapolis. IMS Photo.

While proving the concept as a potential game changer—Jones had led 171 laps in 1967—Andy Granatelli turned to a proven winner for the 1968 race, contracting with Colin Chapman and Lotus Cars of England for 1968. Following several years of innovation by it and other teams, Team Lotus, with Jim Clark driving, became the first team to win the 500 with a rear-engined car in 1965. The roadster era was officially over.

Chapman’s Lotus was one of the most innovative race and sports car makers ever, turning his obsession with lightness and aerodynamics into a host of championships, trophies and legends that endure. But the Lotus 56 was the company’s first turbine-powered car.

 

In pre-season testing, from left to right, Andy Granatelli, Jim Clark, Parnelli Jones, (unidentified), and Colin Chapman pose with the Lotus 56. IMS Photo.

The Lotus design also incorporated Ferguson all-wheel drive as well as a variant of that Pratt & Whitney ST6 turbine engine, designated STN 6/76 in the Lotus 56. And that was about it. In lieu of the more traditional-shaped Indy car, which the STP-Paxton special surely followed, the  56 featured a wedge shape with a long, low nose rising toward a truncated tail.

Instead of the engine mounted adjacent to the driver, Lotus mounted the engine behind the driver, with the exhaust stack rising immediately behind the driver’s seat bulkhead, the exhaust spout pretty much the size of the driver’s head. Even though USAC, then Indy’s governing body, had put restrictions on the Lotus 56’s air intake, the cars still produced prodigious speed, with an estimated 500 horsepower generated by the turbine.

Joe Leonard in a Lotus 56 leads the field at the start of the 1968 Indy 500. IMS Photo

Granatelli and Lotus took four cars to Indianapolis in May of 1968. The driver lineup included Graham Hill, Joe Leonard, Art Pollard, Greg Weld, and Mike Spence. A Formula 1 journeyman from the U.K., Spence had only joined the team weeks earlier at the behest of Colin Chapman following the death of ace Jim Clark in April in a racing accident in Germany.

During the early days of practice, Mike Spence set a new lap record in car #60, at 169.555 mph. That same day, after Greg Weld, later of Weld Wheels fame, was unable to produce speeds close to his times, Spence got into car #30 in hopes of getting it up to speed. Following an initial flying lap over 163 mph, Spence lost control on his second lap, hitting the wall hard. He did not survive the night, succumbing to his injuries exactly one month after Clark’s death.

On the formation lap, from the inside out, it was Joe Leonard in card #60, followed by Graham Hill in car #70, and finally Bobby Unser, who would ultimately prevail in car #3 from the number three starting position. IMS Photo

But Lotus soldiered on, and practice and qualifying showed that the Granatellis and Lotus were onto something. Hill opened qualifying with a four-lap average of 171.208 mph, including a record-setting fastest lap of 171.887 mph. Not to be outdone by his teammate, Leonard, in the #60 car previously driven by Spence, then set a new record at 171.599 mph with his fastest lap beating Hill’s, at 171.953 mph. The previous qualifying record, set just the year before by Mario Andretti was nearly three miles-an-hour slower at 168.892 mph. Pollard qualified in 11th, far off the front row, at 166.297 mph.

Leonard came out of the gate strong, leading the first seven laps, before Bobby Unser took over, leading until lap 57 when Lloyd Ruby took over. The entire day, only those three men would lead the race, each three times. Hill, working his way up the field, crashed out while in fourth place on lap 110. Three laps later, as the leaders pitted, Leonard emerged in the lead, with Unser closed behind. On lap 120, Unser sped by Leonard for the lead. Still, the turbine gang stayed with it, as Unser relinquished the lead to Ruby on lap 165, following by Leonard regaining the lead on lap 175 as ignition problems stall Ruby in the pits for an extended time.

Graham Hill in the Lotus 56 at Indianapolis. IMS Photo

On lap 181, a crash and subsequent fire brought out the caution flag. The severity of the accident looked like it would lead to a finish under yellow, but with the wreckage cleared by lap 191, the green flag dropped for lap 192 and as Leonard attempted to put the hammer down to put some distance between his car and Unser’s, the turbine engine failed. Later investigation by the team would show a fuel delivery problem. To add insult to injury Art Pollard’s car failed for the same reason just moments later, though Pollard was not likely in a position to win.

For the second year in a row, Granatelli and his STP team came close to winning the biggest prize of all in racing. Unser went on to take the checkered flag, followed by Dan Gurney and Mel Kenyon.

USAC later banned turbine and all-wheel-drive racers, putting another nail in innovation at Indianapolis. Lotus modified the 56, entering it as the 56B in a handful of Formula 1 races in 1971, its best finish eighth place, out of the points, at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, with future Indy 500 hero Emerson Fittipaldi at the wheel.

Parnelli Jones sitting in the STP-Paxton Turbocar (#40) from 1967 with Jim Clark in the Lotus 56. Standing are Andy Granatelli, CEO of STP, in the black suit and Colin Chapman, founder of Lotus Cars in the sweater. IMS Photo.

While the original #60 car of Joe Leonard currently resides in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, located in the infield of the fame speedway. Also housed at the IMS Museum is the 1967 STP-Paxton Turbocar. The #70 car, driven by Graham Hill, has hit the auction scene in recent years after  having been in the possession of longtime STP-sponsored driver Richard Petty’s private collection.

As for Andy Granatelli and his STP team, they tried and tried again for 1969, finally coming up as winners, with Mario Andretti at the wheel of a Hawk-Ford, the famed racer leading 116 laps for the checkered flag.