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Bill Lear once tried to build an Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Reno just to test his steam-powered racer

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Images courtesy Tom Kimmel.

Bill Lear gestured confidently off toward the horizon outside of Reno while bulldozers pushed dirt behind him. Here, he told reporters, would rise an Indianapolis Motor Speedway of the west, a grand design with the sole purpose of developing a steam-powered racer to take on the field at the actual speedway back east. Neither ever materialized.

In 1968, Lear found himself rich and bored and, according to some reports, suicidal. He’d sold off Lear Incorporated in 1962 and Lear Jet Corp. in 1967. Before that, he’d worked on car radios and collaborated with Earl “Madman” Muntz to develop and market the eight-track stereo system. He needed something to do with his millions, if for no other reason to fend off the crackpots that kept calling him up with their wild stories of invention and adventure.

Except, as it seems to have played out, one of the crackpots got through to him.

Lear already had designs on developing steam propulsion systems for automobiles, likely inspired by his own encounters with smog in Los Angeles and the California Air Resources Board’s decision to investigate steam as a low-pollutant alternative to internal combustion. As Sports Illustrated wrote in its February 3, 1969, issue:

A steam-powered car, the fascinated Lear believes, could brighten up a nation which ought to have air as clean as Reno’s. A steam-powered car could save lives and change the economic structure of the country. The man who made it would leave his mark on history. And that part did it.

Lear spent some of his millions buying up real estate just outside the Reno-Stead Airport – the former Stead Army Airbase – and set up headquarters on the former of Mt. Anderson Street and Alpha Avenue. He envisioned jump-starting development on steam propulsion, an area of research then largely abandoned save for a handful of enthusiasts, ultimately selling whatever steam business he’d built to Detroit, and walking away not just as the man who revolutionized automobiles but the man who did what others said couldn’t be done. He reportedly even met with American Motors executives shortly after getting started and offered them exclusive rights to the steam car in exchange for some undisclosed ownership agreement. And then, in August 1968, he met Ken Wallis.

Wallis, a Brit with some sort of mechanical experience, convinced Andy Granatelli to let him help out on the STP turbine Indy car in 1967 and moved on to convince Carroll Shelby to try turbine cars for 1968, a bid that ended when Phil Remington discovered that Wallis had designed a cheat system that opened up the total inlet area beyond the permitted 15.999 square inches when the car was at speed.

According to Sports Illustrated, Wallis wandered into Lear’s life looking for financing to buy a yacht. “Well, I liked him so much I bought him the yacht and made him my chief engineer as well,” Lear told the magazine.

Along with some half-baked ideas of adapting the deltic opposed-piston configuration – as found in the Napier diesel engine – to steam, Wallis convinced Lear he needed to enter a steamer in Indy as the best way to prove Lear’s ideas. And he needed to do so ASAP – before the 1969 Indy 500 ASAP. That gave Lear nine months.

Wallis provided Lear with what he wanted at the time: risk and excitement and immediate results and, more than anything, a narrative. And Lear kept the narrative going when he told the abovementioned reporters he already got Tony Hulman’s blessing to go forward with the project and that he would build a track just for testing the Indy steamer on the land he bought up against Stead-Reno. As Sports Illustrated wrote:

Bulldozers are pushing aside tumble-weeds and sand to make his own private racetrack. He has a special team of architects and planners laying out a model city to house all his new employees, and it will be built around a model lake for them to fish in. (“I think we might call it Lake Lear,” one of his draftsmen said in the first big understatement of 1969.)

“I am building an exact duplicate of the Indianapolis Speedway right here,” Lear said. “I mean exact: It will be 2½ miles, all blacktopped, all banked the same, same curves and straights, same pits—everything. We will start practicing here March 1 with the steam race cars. And lest this sound too fancy, remember that it will be cheaper for us to practice here than to keep running back and forth to Indy with the cars and crews. Then, we will go to Indy with our shakedown completed.”

Others seemed less convinced. John Bond at Road & Track wrote in the April 1969 issue that, as of the first of that year, “no hardware existed… no engine had run, no boiler had been fired… Our own summary and analysis of Lear Motors is that most of the stories are based on wishful thinking, not realism.” Bond put the blame for the delay on Wallis.

Steam historian Tom Kimmel, who has spent plenty of time researching Lear’s steam period, takes an even dimmer view of Wallis, calling him “a complete charlatan and fraud.” However, he doesn’t exactly let Lear off the hook, noting that Lear stepped back after early setbacks and handed the steam project to Wallis to manage, despite the staff of talented and renowned engineers – among them Hugh Carson, Peter Scott-Brown, and Seifi Ghasemi – already working on the project.

Regarding the Reno track, Kimmel noted that the engineers he interviewed told him that Lear “hated reporters and so he told them all kinds of fantastic tales. He gave outrageous interviews, made stuff up. He just had that bulldozer go out and around for a little show.”

Indeed, no replica of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ever opened up outside of Reno, and all plans for such a facility seemed to fall apart not long after Lear made his promises. Which is not surprising, considering Lear essentially dismissed Wallis in June 1969 and scrapped the deltic engine after Wallis had spent $4 million or so to produce nothing tangible.

Lear didn’t give up on steam, at least not right away. He installed Joe Walsh as president of Lear Motors, who refocused the company’s efforts toward steam turbines, steam-powered buses, and even converting slant sixes to steam power, according to Karl Ludvigsen’s profile of Lear from the February 1971 issue of Motor Trend. Nor did Wallis give up on steam, moving from Lear to convince Cornelius Dutcher to invest in the technology.

These days, there might be a Lear Boulevard and a Moya Boulevard (named for Lear’s fourth wife) left over from Lear’s steam endeavor, but the former headquarters for Lear Motors stands empty. Still, out on the northeast side of the airport, on a flat roll of desert now crisscrossed by service roads, lies an oval shape carved into the desert – an oval shape exactly 2.5 miles long.

Perhaps Lear wasn’t all that far away from building his Indy in the desert after all?