To change a long-stodgy image and promote its line of turbocharged performance cars, Buick went IndyCar racing in the mid-1980s, taking advantage of generous rulebook allowances for stock-block engines. Pancho Carter put a Buick-powered March on the Indy 500 pole in 1985, and a decade later, Scott Brayton drove Buick-powered Lolas to back-to-back Indy pole positions in ’95 and ’96. Next month, Brayton’s two pole-winning Buick/Menard Lolas–the green ’95 car and the yellow ’96 car, both restored by Team Menards–will be crossing the block in California, part of Mecum’s Monterey sale.
To encourage more manufacturers to build engines for the Indy 500 (and thus ensure a 33-car field), the United States Auto Club (USAC) allowed “stock block” engines to carry a larger displacement and run more boost than purpose-built and “exotic” racing engines. Stock block engines could be up to 3.43-liters in displacement (versus 2.65-liters), had to be based upon a production block using pushrods, and were permitted to run turbocharger boost of 55 inches of mercury (10 more inches than non-production engines).
The Buick IndyCar engine made its debut in 1985, and Scott Brayton began that year’s Indy 500 alongside polesitter Carter. Carter’s day ended on lap seven, with a broken oil pump, while Brayton’s Buick held together until lap 20, when his engine let go. For a debut, such failures were to be expected, and while the Buicks were fast in practice and qualifying, reliability was clearly an issue.
Brayton Engineering, a firm owned by Scott’s father Lee, worked with Buick to make its stock-block turbocharged V-6 both more powerful and more reliable. Gradually, additional teams signed on with Buick as an engine supplier, and in the early 1990s, the engine saw a few successes. Ten Buick-engined cars started the 1991 Indy 500, and Gary Bettenhausen qualified his Buick-powered Lola at a speed of 224.468 mph, faster than anyone else in the field. It would have delivered Buick’s second Indianapolis pole position, had Bettenhausen’s qualifying attempt not taken place on Sunday, May 12 – the day after Pole Day.
Roberto Guerrero put his Buick on the pole for the 1992 running of the Indy 500, and by then a dozen cars were using the engine, more than a third of the field. The Colombian put up a blistering qualifying speed of 232.482 mph, good enough for a track record, but unusually cold temperatures on race day made for chaos at the start. During the pace laps, Guerrero attempted to get heat in the rear tires by spinning them on the back straight. With little grip to be had, his car spun suddenly and collected the outside wall, ending his day before the race had even begun. He wasn’t alone: Rookie Philippe Gache also spun (though avoided an impact), further delaying the green flag.
The good news for Buick in ’92 was this: Veteran driver Al Unser Sr. brought his-Buick-powered Lola home in third place, proving that the engine could indeed go the distance. It was a fitting sendoff for the brand, which pulled out of the series as an engine supplier after the 1992 season. The Buick engine returned for 1993, but was now branded a Menard in honor of its benefactor, John Menard. Further development work was carried out on the engine, which stormed back to the top of the charts in 1995.
By this time the Menard stock block was reportedly making in the neighborhood of 1,000 horsepower, at least in qualifying trim. That put it nearly on par with the Mercedes-Benz 500I, an engine developed by Ilmor Engineering at the request of Roger Penske, whose team dominated the 1994 Indy 500 with the narrowly-inside-the-margin “stock block.” Following the race, USAC wasted no time in reducing the amount of boost the Mercedes-Benz 500I would be permitted to run (first to 52 inHG and, later in the season, to 48inHG), interrupting Penske’s preparation for the 1995 season. To the astonishment of Penske fans worldwide, the team that ruled the Brickyard in 1994 failed to qualify a single car for the 1995 Indianapolis 500.
Scott Brayton, driving for Team Menard, was atop his game in 1995. From opening day, May 6, Brayton and teammate Arie Luyendyk traded off top speeds, with both drivers putting up laps over 232 mph out of the gate. On May 8, Luyendyk posted a lap of 234.107 mph, then the fastest practice lap in IMS history. He’d break his own record three days later with a lap of 234.322 mph, only to see Brayton best this later in the day by running 234.656 mph. Before pole day, Luyendyk set the bar even higher, lapping at 234.913 mph.
Rain compressed the time allotted to qualifying on pole day, and Luyendyk quickly assumed the lead with a three-lap average of 231.031 mph. Less than 45 minutes before the end-of-day gun sounded, Brayton took to the track, putting up an average speed of 231.604 mph, good enough to seize the pole position from his teammate.
Come race day, however, Brayton experienced problems with his popoff valve, a USAC issued device meant to limit turbocharger boost. Though the Menards engines were allowed 55 inHG, Brayton’s car felt underpowered, as if the valve were opening prematurely. Relegated to backmarker status, Brayton finished the day in 17th position, while Luyendyk came home in seventh.
The 1996 season would be the last for the Buick/Menard V-6, but Brayton once again demonstrated his prowess at the Brickyard, putting his Team Menard Lola on pole with an average speed of 233.718 mph. Speeds at the track had risen alarmingly, to the point where drivers were routinely turning average laps above 235 mph. Luyendyk, then driving for Byrd/Treadway Racing in a Ford-powered Reynard, put up a practice lap of 239.260, while Brayton’s teammate, Tony Stewart, ran a lap at 237.336 mph. With rule changes looming on the horizon, speculation was that ’96 would be the final year for big speed at the Brickyard, and perhaps that was a good thing.
Pole secured, Brayton carried on through the month of May performing the testing duties required of every driver, seeking the ideal balance and setup in a variety of conditions. On Friday, May 17, he was driving one of the team’s backup cars, lapping at speed, when a rear tire suffered a puncture. Brayton spun in turn two, hitting the outside wall hard at the exit of the corner and sliding all the way to the track’s back stretch. Safety workers found Brayton unconscious and extricated him from the car for treatment at Methodist Hospital, but it was already too late. The 37-year-old driver had been killed upon impact, the cause of death a basal skull fracture.
Teammate Stewart, who had qualified second, would take the pole for the 1996 Indy 500, while veteran Danny Ongais was hired to drive Brayton’s already qualified car. The Flyin’ Hawaiian did a commendable job of honoring Brayton’s memory, starting from the last position on the grid (per USAC rules) and ending his day in seventh, the strongest finish of any Menard-powered car that year.
Brayton’s last two Indy 500 cars—both 1995 Lola T95-00 chassis powered by Buick/Menard turbocharged V-6 engines–will be crossing the auction stage as individual lots. USAC serial number 6032 was the same used by Brayton for qualifying and the race, and it carries the livery and race number used by the Michigan driver in 1995. The 1996 car, USAC serial number 6002, was qualified by Brayton as the #2 car, but carries #32 today, as raced by Ongais in the ’96 Indy 500. Both come ready to run (though the front telemetry wiring and batteries need to be reinstalled), and are eligible for competition in select vintage racing series.
Mecum predicts that the 1995 car, S/N 6032, will sell for $250,000-$300,000, while the 1996 car, S/N 6002, has a pre-auction estimate of $300,000-$400,000. Each represents a unique bit of General Motors history and Indy 500 history, from a time when even the “little guys” could run with the big teams at the Brickyard. For additional information on the 2019 Monterey sale, visit Mecum.com.