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From as high as sixth at Indy to winning Pikes Peak, the No. 37 Studebaker did good for a “junk formula” car

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photos by Mathieu Heurtault, courtesy Gooding & Co., except where noted.

Though Ab Jenkins never got the chance to round out his racing resume with a run at the Indianapolis 500 due to a case of blood poisoning, the car he intended to drive there went on to a remarkable and influential racing career and now, more than 85 years later, will head to auction for the first time.

As early as 1929, Jenkins set his sights on Indy, but it wasn’t until 1931 that he took his best shot. He’d already known George Hunt, Studebaker’s testing chief, from his time racing Studebakers in endurance runs in the late Twenties, and according to Gordon Eliot White’s “Ab & Marvin Jenkins: The Studebaker Connection and the Mormon Meteors,” Studebaker owed Jenkins for his expenses, so he cashed in that IOU in the form of off-the-shelf Studebaker Commander axles, hardware, and a Commander 337-cu.in. straight-eight engine.

He and Hunt then took the lot over to Indianapolis-based Herman Rigling, who built one of his Indy chassis around the components and slid it under a Pop Dreyer-built aluminum body. Somebody – most likely Hunt – spent the time massaging the nine-main-bearing straight-eight with a 6.5:1 compression ratio aluminum cylinder head, four Studebaker truck carburetors, a Scintilla magneto, and a reground camshaft to bump the stock engine’s output from 110 to 175 horsepower.

They built the car according to the so-called “junk formula” template that Eddie Rickenbacker initiated for the 1930 Indy 500. Over the prior 20 years, the race entries had grown ever more exotic, expensive, and removed from the vehicles that carmakers offered. In an attempt to lure those carmakers back to supporting Indy, Rickenbacker increased allowable engine displacement from 91.5 cubic inches to 366 cubic inches for heavier, naturally aspirated four-stroke engine-vehicle combinations and re-instituted the riding mechanic.

Other privateers, including one entry from Russell Snowberger and another entry from a group of five Studebaker employees, had ventured into the 1930 Indy 500 with Studebaker-powered vehicles, but it was the Hunt-Jenkins Special that got Studebaker thinking about an official factory entry at Indy.

Jenkins’s illness forced him and Hunt to find another driver, Indy veteran Tony Gulotta, who qualified in the No. 37 car at 111 MPH. Along with riding mechanic Carl Riscigno, Gulotta turned in a spectacular performance. While they started in the middle of the pack, according to The Old Motor, Guletta was given the signal to run flat our with 80 laps to go then “passed 18 cars in the next 46 laps and was running in first place when he hit a patch of oil left over from a crash, and went into the wall ending its run.” The two men walked away unscathed and Gulotta was credited with 18th place.

Hunt took the car straight back to South Bend to repair it before entering it – still wearing No. 37 – in that year’s Pikes Peak hillclimb. While White makes mention of Jenkins’s involvement in the car throughout this period, Pikes Peak records list the car as the Hunt Special and another driver, Chuck Myers, drove the car in the event. Myers did well too, beating out Jerry Unser and Glen Shultz with a time of 17 minutes, 10.3 seconds, good enough for an overall win and a course record.

Luther Johnson, left, and Tony Gulotta, right, prepare their cars for the 1932 Indy 500. Photo via Studebaker Archives.

If Gulotta’s performance didn’t capture the attention of Studebaker officials, Myers’s did. Studebaker executive (and later president) Paul Hoffman commissioned Rigling to build four more cars just like the Hunt-Jenkins Special to compete in the 1932 Indy 500. While the Hunt-Jenkins Special remained privately owned and ran No. 37 again that year, Zeke Meyer drove it after Hoffman hired Gulotta to drive one of the four replicas. While one of the five crashed, another DNF’d, and Gulotta completed 184 laps before being flagged off, Cliff Bergere in the No. 22 car finished third and Meyer came in sixth.

Despite precarious finances that would cause Studebaker to file for bankruptcy that year, company officials decided to make one more run at Indy in 1933. They used the same four cars, but updated the cars with more streamlined bodywork, supposedly wind-tunnel tested and good for three miles per hour. The Hunt-Jenkins Special, still privately owned, didn’t receive the same bodywork but did get a new nose patterned after the other four cars, some tweaks (its engine moved forward eight inches), a new number (47), and a new driver (Lora L. Corum). The streamlining must have had some effect: While all five cars finished the race, the four factory entries came in seventh, ninth, 10th, and 11th while Corum came in 12th.

After the race, according to White, Jenkins took the car home to Utah and gave it to his son Marvin, who added headlamps and drove it as a sports car until 1939 when he sold it to a friend in Salt Lake City.

By the late 1970s, the No. 37 had made its way to central Pennsylvania, where Stan Smith restored it to its Pikes Peak configuration, including its original-style chrome grille. In the decades since, it has not only seen a color change back to its original 1931 Indy green paint scheme, it has also changed hands, going to New Hampshire collector Bob Valpey. Valpey, in turn, ran the Studebaker at a number of Vintage Sports Car Club of America events, including the club’s Mount Washington hillclimbs, and showed it at Pebble Beach before his death this March.

Photo by the author.

The Hunt-Jenkins Special, chassis number P5375, will cross the block as part of Gooding’s Pebble Beach auction. Gooding’s pre-auction estimate ranges from $500,000 to $750,000.

The Gooding Pebble Beach auction will take place August 16 to 17 at the Pebble Beach Equestrian Center. For more information, visit GoodingCo.com.