The mangled wreck of driver David “Salt” Walther’s 1972 McLaren M16A is on exhibit in Driven to Win: Racing in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
Search the 1973 Indianapolis 500 on the Internet, and you won’t find a bunch of happy headlines. Words like “fatal,” “tragedy,” “cursed,” and “unforgettable” pop up.
Three deaths and multiple crashes are attached to the ill-fated race. One of the day’s most dramatic headlines, and still considered one of the worst crashes in Indy 500 history, involved driver David “Salt” Walther and his 1972 McLaren M16A, an artifact on display in Driven to Win: Racing in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
On the race’s first lap, Walther’s car crashed into the outside wall, exploded, and overturned. Images of the ripped-apart vehicle with Walther’s feet dangling outside of it are disturbing, but although badly burned, Walther did survive the accident. Miraculously, he didn’t lose his passion for auto racing either, coming back to the sport to drive again in 1974. In fact, Walther started in seven Indianapolis 500s, five of which occurred after his terrible crash (his best finish was ninth place in 1976).
We are saddened by the passing of Al Unser, Sr., on December 9, 2021. Over his nearly 40-year racing career—ranked as one of America’s top drivers for much of it—Unser added immeasurably to his family’s rich legacy in motorsport. He earned 39 wins in national championship races and three national titles. Unser won two overall victories at Pikes Peak. He earned a championship in the IROC series. Most famously, Unser won four times at the Indianapolis 500.
Some families farmed, and some ran small businesses. The Unsers raced. Al’s father and uncles grew up near Pikes Peak, Colorado, where they competed in the celebrated Pikes Peak Hill Climb starting in 1926. Uncle Louis won nine victories there between 1934 and 1953, while father Jerry scored a personal-best third-place finish on the mountain.
An American racing dynasty: Jerry Unser (rear) with his sons (front, left to right) Bobby, Jerry Jr., Louie, and Al. / THF227428
By the time Al was born in 1939 (on the day before Memorial Day, appropriately enough), Jerry and Mary Unser had moved their family to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Jerry operated a service station on well-traveled Route 66. Like his older brothers Jerry Jr., Louie, and Bobby, Al grew up helping at the station where he was surrounded by cars and racing culture. Jerry Jr. and Louie went to Pikes Peak for the first time as competitors in 1955. Jerry Jr. earned class wins there in 1956 and 1957. He started in the 1958 Indianapolis 500, but was knocked out of contention by a collision on the first lap. The following year, Jerry Jr. was killed in a crash while attempting to qualify for Indy.
Louie earned class victories at Pikes Pike in 1960 and 1961, but multiple sclerosis forced his retirement from competitive driving in 1964. It was Bobby who became “King of the Mountain,” earning 13 wins—including 10 overall victories—at Pikes Peak from 1956 to 1986. Bobby made his mark at Indianapolis too, winning the Indy 500 in 1968, 1975, and 1981.
The Unsers reigned at Pikes Peak, and Al earned overall wins in 1964 and 1965. He posed there with Wes Vandervoort (left) and brother Bobby (right) in 1964. / THF218643
Al launched his own competitive driving career in 1957. Fittingly, his first taste of success came at Pikes Peak. He interrupted his brother Bobby’s successful streak on “America’s Mountain” by claiming the overall victory in 1964. Al then turned in a repeat performance with another overall win in 1965. That same year, he made his debut in the Indianapolis 500. Al finished ninth, ahead of Bobby (who placed nineteenth) but behind Jim Clark and his rear-engine revolution.
Al’s Johnny Lightning cars of 1970–71 remain Indy fan favorites. / THF148071
Al scored a second-place Indy 500 finish in 1967 and, the following year, he joined Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing team and chief mechanic George Bignotti. Al’s first win at the Brickyard came in 1970, when he dominated the race by leading 190 of the 200 laps. Just as he had done at Pikes Peak, Al posted a repeat win at Indy by taking the checkered flag again in 1971. In both years, Al turned heads not just with his performance, but with his distinct blue and yellow cars sponsored by toymaker Johnny Lightning.
Unser notched another Indy 500 win in 1978. That year’s victory was followed later in the season by wins at Pocono Raceway and Ontario Motor Speedway. The trio of checkered flags gave Al the Indy car “Triple Crown”—victories in all three of the 500-mile races on the 1978 calendar.
Al’s 1987 Indy 500 victory made him only the second driver (at the time) to win the race four times. / THF225018
Unser’s fourth Indianapolis 500 win shouldn’t have happened at all—which made the triumph that much sweeter. Al was without a ride heading into the 1987 race. But when Team Penske’s Danny Ongais went into the wall during practice and then withdrew from the race under doctor’s orders, the team offered Unser the chance to take his place. Al was less than a week from his 48th birthday, but he was game for another run at the greatest spectacle in racing. Unser started the race in 20th position but steadily moved toward the front, taking the lead on lap 183. He held off the opposition long enough to take the checkered flag with an average speed of 162.175 mph. At that moment, not only did Al become the second driver to win the Indianapolis 500 four times (after A.J. Foyt), he also became the oldest driver to win the race (beating a record set by his brother Bobby, who’d won in 1981 at age 47).
Al retired from competitive driving in 1994, but not before racing several times against his son, Al Unser, Jr. “Little Al” earned two Indianapolis 500 victories of his own, taking the checkered flag in 1992 and 1994. Altogether, an Unser won the Indy 500 nine times from 1968 to 1994—one-third of the races held in those 26 years!
For 30 years, Al Unser, Sr., was one of only three drivers to win Indy four times (along with A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears). Helio Castroneves joined the exclusive club in 2021. / THF146847
We join the racing world in mourning the death of Al Unser, Sr. His passing is especially hard coming in the same year that saw the loss of his brother, Bobby, and his nephew (and Bobby’s son), Bobby Unser, Jr. Al’s achievements and his impressive record will endure, as will the incredible legacy of the Unsers of Albuquerque, the first family of American racing.
You can hear Al Unser, Sr., describe his career and accomplishments in his own words on our “Visionaries on Innovation” page here.
Al Unser, Sr., in 2009 (photo by Michelle Andonian). / THF62695
In the latest installment of our series examining horse-drawn vehicles, we take a closer look at a couple of vehicles in the collections of The Henry Ford related to P.T. Barnum and the circus.
P.T. Barnum, Entertainer to the World
Phineas Taylor Barnum, aka P.T. Barnum, circa 1891. / THF277050
During the early and mid-19th century, education was considered a primary responsibility of all citizens. The urge for self-improvement manifested itself in libraries, public lectures, and the creation of public museums.
P.T. Barnum emerged as the key figure in developing, promoting, and popularizing museums. He recognized the potential market in the restless urban masses, sensing what they wanted (or could be made to want), and gave it to them. In 1841, he purchased the American Museum in New York and transformed what had been considered an unimpressive collection of historical and scientific curiosities into an entertaining diversion that was patronized by viewers of all classes and ages.
Four-year-old Willie Bagley performed at Barnum’s American Museum in 1864, billed as the “Wisconsin Infant Drummer.” / THF226454
At a time when the theater was still widely regarded as somewhat disreputable, Barnum marketed his Grand Colossal Museum and Menagerie as highly educational and strictly moral. In its 3,000-seat “lecture room,” dramatic performances and variety acts were staged under the guise of “chaste scenic entertainments.” By 1850, Barnum claimed to have amassed more than 600,000 curiosities in his museum, including living serpents, waxwork figures, models of new machines and of Niagara Falls, and fortune tellers. His offerings were infinitely varied and always changing. They were “democratic,” geared to everyone at a time when this idea was highly esteemed.
Barnum also sent major exhibitions out on the road, and he promoted such personalities as General Tom Thumb and singer Jenny Lind to the status of national (and even international) celebrities.
General Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren, 1863–1870. / THF212034
General Tom Thumb, a little person, was born Charles Sherwood Stratton in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He was taken under Barnum’s wing at the age of four, and Barnum renamed him. He learned to sing, dance, and do impersonations. When fully grown, he was slightly more than three feet tall. General Tom Thumb appeared at Barnum’s American Museum and toured through part of the United States and then Europe, creating a sensation wherever he went. In 1863, Stratton married another little person employed by Barnum, Lavinia Warren, at a much-publicized wedding in New York City.
P.T. Barnum Vehicle in The Henry Ford’s Collection: General Tom Thumb’s Brougham, circa 1875
This carriage was made in England; it was said that Queen Victoria presented it to General Tom Thumb and his wife when they were visiting Aberdeen, Scotland. It was drawn by small ponies and was one of at least six miniature horse-drawn vehicles used by Tom Thumb during his lifetime. It was used in Barnum & Bailey circus parades until Thumb’s death in 1883.
This 1896 Barnum & Bailey circus poster captures a child’s exotic dreams of a circus. / THF81696
The formal circus, which evolved into a distinct entertainment form in the mid-19th century, combined three different types of traveling performances: staged equestrian shows, animal displays, and acrobatic performances. When the three finally merged, the more prominent troupes set up large tents that provided seating for their audiences and used specially constructed wagons for transportation and parades. Circuses would continue to grow in number and scope during succeeding decades. P.T. Barnum entered the circus business around 1870.
Circus Vehicle in The Henry Ford’s Collection: 1917 Circus Calliope
This calliope was made by Bode Wagon Works of Cincinnati, Ohio, for Mugivan and Bowers’s American Circus of Peru, Indiana. The “steam organ” or calliope, which made its first appearance in American circuses in the 1850s, attracted tremendous crowds to circus parades with its colorful appearance and resounding musical productions. The keyboard and whistles at the top of this calliope were originally inside the vehicle.
Bob Casey is former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”
The Henry Ford mourns the loss of Bobby Unser, who passed away on May 2, 2021. He was a good friend to our organization and, of course, one of America’s most accomplished racing drivers.
Bobby Unser was born into automobile racing. His father and uncles grew up in the shadow of Pikes Peak and competed in the legendary Pikes Peak Hill Climb race. Bobby’s uncle, Louie, earned nine victories in the contest from 1934 to 1953. Bobby’s father, Jerry, finished third as his personal best, but his sons would go on to dominate at Pikes Peak—and Indianapolis.
Bobby Unser was just one year old when his parents, Jerry and Mary, relocated the family from Colorado Springs, Colorado, to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Jerry opened a service station on Route 66—wisely locating it on the west side of town, so his station was the first one motorists saw after traveling across the New Mexico desert. Bobby and his brothers, Jerry Jr., Louis, and Al, grew up working in the station, living and breathing cars. Not surprisingly, they all caught the racing bug. Jerry Jr. and Louis each competed at Pikes Peak for the first time in 1955. Jerry Jr. won his class twice, in 1956 and 1957. He went on to compete in the 1958 Indianapolis 500, but died in a crash during qualifying for Indy the next year. Louis won his class at Pikes Peak in 1960 and 1961, but retired from competitive driving in 1964, when he developed multiple sclerosis. Al earned back-to-back Pikes Peak overall victories in 1964 and 1965. He made his Indy 500 debut in 1965 and went on to become only the second person to win the race four times, taking the checkered flag in 1970, 1971, 1978, and 1987.
Bobby Unser racing up Pikes Peak, 1960. / THF217906
Even in a family of racing legends, Bobby Unser stood out. Following service in the Air Force, he made his own debut at Pikes Peak in 1955. He earned the overall victory there the following year, kicking off an incredible run of nine overall wins in 13 years. Altogether, Bobby Unser claimed 10 overall victories and 13 class wins at Pikes Peak between 1956 and 1986. It’s no wonder they called him “King of the Mountain.”
Bobby followed his older brothers to Indianapolis in 1963. His first years at the Brickyard weren’t promising—crashes took him out early in the 1963 and 1964 races, and during qualifying in 1965—but he earned a top-ten finish in 1966. Two years later, Unser won his first victory at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Despite a challenge from Andy Granatelli’s turbine cars, and his own car getting stuck in high gear, Bobby finished nearly a lap ahead of second place finisher Dan Gurney.
Bobby Unser drinks the traditional bottle of milk following his first Indy 500 win, 1968. / THF140423
Unser and Gurney went from competitors to collaborators. Bobby joined Gurney’s All American Racers (AAR) as a driver and competed at Indy under the AAR banner through most of the 1970s. The capstone of their partnership came in 1975 when Unser once again became a reigning Indy 500 champion—or, more properly, a “raining” champion. Mother Nature put on the biggest show at the 1975 race. With 174 of the 200 laps down, the skies let loose with a torrential downpour. Visibility fell to nil, the track flooded, and cars spun left and right. Officials called the race early with Unser in the lead. The race may have been abbreviated, but it was enough to give Bobby his second win.
If Unser’s 1975 win was his most dramatic, then his third Indy 500 win, in 1981, was his most controversial. The final lap saw Bobby cross the finish line five seconds ahead of Mario Andretti. But Andretti and his teammates protested that Unser had passed cars illegally while under a caution flag earlier in the race. After a night of review and deliberation, race officials ruled in Andretti’s favor, penalizing Unser one position and giving Andretti the victory. Unser’s team appealed the ruling and, after months of further investigation, officials reinstated Bobby Unser’s win. The whole affair soured Unser’s love for racing, and he retired from IndyCar competition in 1983.
Bobby Unser in his sportscasting days, 1985. / THF222929
Thirteen wins at Pikes Peak, or three wins at the Indianapolis 500, would be enough to put any driver on a list of all-time greats, but Bobby Unser had more achievements still. He earned USAC national championships in 1968 and 1974, and an IROC championship in 1975. Following his retirement, Bobby worked in broadcasting, providing commentary on auto races for ABC, NBC and ESPN.
We share the grief of racing fans everywhere at the loss of a true giant. At the same time, we celebrate Bobby Unser’s many achievements on and off the track, and we feel honored to have a role in preserving a significant part of his legacy.
Hear Bobby Unser describe his career and accomplishments in his own words on our “Visionaries on Innovation” page here.
Explore the Bobby Unser Papers, in the Benson Ford Research Center, through the finding aid here, and browse digitized photographs and other artifacts from the collection here.
See highlights from The Henry Ford’s Bobby Unser Collection here.
Jeanetta Holder with Her Indianapolis 500 Quilt Made for Bobby Unser, 1975-1980 / THF78732
On May 30, 1932, the day that Jeanetta Pearson Holder was born in Kentucky, race cars sped around the track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway about 250 miles to the north. The timing of Jeanetta’s birth was certainly a hint of things to come: she would grow up with a passion for auto racing, and, as an adult, become that sport’s “Quilt Lady.”
For four decades, Jeanetta combined her love of auto racing and her sewing talents to create unique quilts for winners of the Indianapolis 500 and other auto races.
Dale Earnhardt is wrapped in pride and his quilt after the 1995 Brickyard 400 race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. / THF78819
A Love for Racing, A Talent for Sewing
As a little girl growing up on a Kentucky farm, Jeanetta made her own small race cars out of tobacco sticks and lard cans which she “raced everywhere [she] went.” Jeanetta’s childhood creative streak soon extended to sewing. She began to make clothes for her doll—and her pet cat. By the time she was 12, Jeanetta began sewing quilts, filling them with cotton batting from cotton she grew herself.
Jeanetta was clearly “driven.” When she didn’t have a car in which to take her driver’s license test, the teenager borrowed a taxicab. About this same time, Jeanetta started going to the race track. Soon 20-year-old Jeanetta was speeding around an oval dirt track at the wheel of a 1950 Hudson at Beech Bend Park in Warren County, Kentucky. In the early 1950s, women drivers were uncommon—and so was safety equipment. Jeanetta was dressed in a t-shirt and blue jeans for these regional races.
Lyn St. James, photographed by Michelle Andonian, 2008 / THF58574
Lyn St. James was watching from afar when Janet Guthrie was trying to break into Indy car and stock car racing. At the time, St. James was a part-time competitor chasing a Sports Car Club of America road-racing national championship in a Ford Pinto.
“I was excited and pumped about my racing, and I watched her on the television and thought, ‘God, she’s struggling and nobody wants her there,’” St. James recalled. “She didn’t smile very much, and it made me say, ‘Why would I want to do that? Why would I want to put myself in that kind of situation when I was having so much fun?’”
This racing helmet worn by Lyn St. James is going on display in Driven to Win: Racing in America. / THF176437
In the early 1980s, Kelly Services sponsored the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) American Challenge championship and paid bonuses to female drivers. St. James parlayed an opportunity in that series, along with a chance encounter with legendary Ford executive Walter Hayes, into a highly successful relationship with Ford that produced six wins in IMSA competitions, including class victories at Daytona and Sebring, prior to shifting her focus to Indy cars. She is also the only woman to win an IMSA GT race driving solo.
Lyn St. James at IMSA, Watkins Glen, NY, 1985 / THF69459
“I wanted to test-drive one, just to experience the peak of race car performance,” she said. “I was just in heaven. I had set speed records in a stock car at Talladega, and in comparison, it felt numb. Dick Simon [IndyCar team owner] was very supportive, and that was a turning point. I wrote to 150 companies over four years seeking support. J.C. Penney was the 151st, but the first one that said yes.”
Finally, in 1992, St. James became the first woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 since Guthrie last had, 15 years earlier. St. James finished 11th in the race, claiming Rookie of the Year honors (the first woman to do so). In 1994, she out-qualified reigning Indy car champion Nigel Mansell at Indy; she made a total of seven Indianapolis starts, with her last in 2000. She has been inducted into the Sports Car Club of America and the Florida Sports halls of fame, and held 21 international and national closed-circuit speed records over a 20-year period.
Lyn St. James’s Indy 500 history from 1992 to 2000. / THF284826
Mentor of Motorsports
St. James still occasionally competes in vintage races, and in addition is a speaker, author, philanthropist, and coach, but spends most of her time mentoring female drivers. Her foundation’s driver development program has graduated more than 230 participants over the last 25 years, including then-future Indy car drivers Sarah Fisher and Danica Patrick.
Lyn St. James at her Complete Driver Academy, which provided a comprehensive education and training program for talented women race car drivers who aspired to attain the highest levels in motorsports, in Phoenix, Arizona in 2008 (photograph by Michelle Andonian). / THF58682
“It’s sad that leaders in motorsports have not figured out that the car levels the playing field for everyone,” St. James said. “The leaders have missed an opportunity to show how female involvement in racing really represents society. Women can perform and compete on an equal level.”
Involvement with The Henry Ford and
Driven to Win
In 2008, a small crew from The Henry Ford traveled to Phoenix, Arizona, to visit a race car driver academy for women. The institution, called Complete Driver Academy, was established by Lyn St. James in 1994 to help identify potential champion female drivers and provide the tools they needed to further their careers. The Henry Ford interviewed St. James there as part of its Visionaries on Innovation collection of video interviews, which also features other racing legends such as Mario Andretti.
Lyn St. James’ 1992 Indianapolis 500 "Rookie of the Year" trophy will be on exhibit in Driven to Win. / THF176451
In addition to documenting St. James’ oral history, The Henry Ford has many artifacts from her racing career in its collections—some of which will be on display in the new Driven to Win: Racing in America permanent exhibition in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, where St. James is a showcased driver. “Lyn has been an adviser to the exhibit going back more than ten years,” said Curator of Transportation Matt Anderson. “From the start, she has offered her help and advice, including connecting us with innovators like motorsports training expert Jim Leo of PitFit Training in Indiana.”
Sarah Fisher with Lyn St. James. Photo courtesy Lyn St. James.
Born October 4, 1980, in Columbus, Ohio, Sarah Fisher raced quarter midgets and go-karts before age 10, and earned multiple karting championships in her teens. When she competed in her first Indianapolis 500 in 2000, she was only the third woman to do so (after Janet Guthrie and Lyn St. James) and—at age 19—the youngest. With her third-place finish at Kentucky Speedway later that season, Fisher became the first woman to earn a place on the podium in an IndyCar Series event.
Racing suit worn by Sarah Fisher in 2009, which will be on exhibit in Driven to Win: Racing in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / THF176380
Fisher retired from driving after 2010 (and after nine starts in the Indy 500), but continued as a team owner. In 2011, Fisher became the first female owner to earn an IndyCar victory, with driver Ed Carpenter at the wheel.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
Janet Guthrie at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 1979 / detail from THF140173
After graduating from the University of Michigan, Janet Guthrie worked as an aerospace engineer while also serving as a pilot and flight instructor. But her passion was driving her Jaguar in Sports Car Club of America road races, and by the time she was 35, Guthrie was a full-time racer.
In 1976, she arrived at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) as a 38-year-old rookie with the eyes of the world upon her. Several prominent drivers publicly criticized her presence. "Most of the oval track drivers never had the experience of running with a woman driver, and they were sure they weren't going to like it," recalled Guthrie, now 81. "That got calmed down within the course of the races that I ran in 1976. But the public, I think, needed to be convinced."
When the controversial newcomer didn't find enough speed in her primary car, A.J. Foyt offered his spare Coyote, and Guthrie showed enough pace in practice to become the 500's first female qualifier. But that historic achievement would have to wait another year. "Those were the glory days of the Indy 500, with 85 cars entered, so qualifying for the first time was really a major moment of my life,” she said.
The autographed racing glove worn by Janet Guthrie in 1977, when she became the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500, will be on display in the Driven to Win: Racing in America exhibition in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / THF166385
Guthrie's car broke early in the 1977 race, but more importantly, Indy's gender barrier had been broken. She returned to IMS a year later and drove to a ninth-place finish despite concealing a broken wrist. In all, Guthrie drove in 11 Indy car races between 1976 and 1979, earning a career best fifth-place finish at the Milwaukee Mile in her final open-wheel start. She also competed in 33 NASCAR Cup Series races in the same period, earning five top 10 finishes.
Besides being the first female to qualify and compete in both the Indy 500 and Daytona 500, Guthrie was inducted into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame in 1980, the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2006, the Sports Car Club of America Hall of Fame in 2018, and the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2019.
In retrospect, Guthrie did much of the heavy lifting for the female drivers who followed her into the American motorsports arena. Respect for her achievements, from both a sporting and sociological standpoint, only increases with the passing of time. "The 'first woman' thing was more of a responsibility than anything," Guthrie said. "I think I took the heat, and then the drivers discovered that I was competitive, I was courteous and that I was getting the most out of my equipment."
Guthrie is convinced that a female circuit racer will one day demonstrate the kind of championship-winning success women have achieved in NHRA drag racing. "There's a lot of talent at the lower levels, and it all depends on who gets the chance," she said. "I'm sure that eventually we will see a woman win the Indianapolis 500, and similarly with the Daytona 500."
The 1953 Ford Sunliner, Official Pace Car of the 1953 Indianapolis 500. (THF87498)
As America’s longest-running automobile race, it’s not surprising that the Indianapolis 500 is steeped in special traditions. Whether it’s the wistful singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana” before the green flag, or the celebratory Victory Lane milk toast – which is anything but milquetoast – Indy is full of distinctive rituals that make the race unique. One of those long-standing traditions is the pace car, a fixture since the very first Indy 500 in 1911.
This is no mere ceremonial role. The pace car is a working vehicle that leads the grid into the start of the race, and then comes back out during caution laps to keep the field moving in an orderly fashion. Traditionally, the pace car’s make has varied from year to year, though it is invariably an American brand. Indiana manufacturers like Stutz, Marmon, and Studebaker showed up frequently, but badges from the Detroit Three – Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors – have dominated. In more recent years, Chevrolet has been the provider of choice, with every pace car since 2002 being either a Corvette or a Camaro. Since 1936, the race’s winning driver has received a copy of pace car as a part of the prize package.
Amelia Earhart rides in the pace car, a 1935 Ford V-8, at the 1935 Indianapolis 500. (THF256052)
Likewise, honorary pace car drivers have changed over time. The first decades often featured industry leaders like Carl Fisher (founder of Indianapolis Motor Speedway), Harry Stutz, and Edsel Ford. Starting in the 1970s, celebrities like James Garner, Jay Leno, and Morgan Freeman appeared. Racing drivers have always been in the mix, with everyone from Barney Oldfield to Jackie Stewart to Jeff Gordon having served in the role. (The “fastest” pace car driver was probably Charles Yeager, who drove in 1986 – 39 years after he broke the sound barrier in the rocket-powered airplane Glamorous Glennis.)
Ford was given pace car honors for 1953. It was a big year for the company – half a century had passed since Henry Ford and his primary shareholders signed the articles of association establishing Ford Motor Company in 1903. The firm celebrated its golden anniversary in several ways. It commissioned Norman Rockwell to create artwork for a special calendar. It built a high-tech concept car said to contain more than 50 automotive innovations. And it gave every vehicle it built that year a commemorative steering wheel badge that read “50th Anniversary 1903-1953.”
Henry Ford’s 1902 “999” race car poses with the 1953 Ford Sunliner pace car on Ford’s Dearborn test track. (Note the familiar clocktower at upper right!) (THF130893)
For its star turn at Indianapolis, Ford provided a Sunliner model to fulfill the pace car’s duties. The two-door Sunliner convertible was a part of Ford’s Crestline series – its top trim level for the 1953 model year. Crestline cars featured chrome window moldings, sun visors, and armrests. Unlike the entry-level Mainline or mid-priced Customline series, which were available with either Ford’s inline 6 or V-8 engines, Crestline cars came only with the 239 cubic inch, 110 horsepower V-8. Additionally, Crestline was the only one of the three series to include a convertible body style.
William Clay Ford at the tiller of “999” at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (THF130906)
Ford actually sent two cars to Indianapolis for the big race. In addition to the pace car, Henry Ford’s 1902 race car “999” was pulled from exhibit at Henry Ford Museum to participate in the festivities. True, “999” never competed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But its best-known driver, Barney Oldfield, drove twice in the Indy 500, finishing in fifth place both in 1914 and 1916. Fittingly, Indy officials gave William Clay Ford the honor of driving the pace car. Mr. Ford, the youngest of Henry Ford’s grandchildren, didn’t stop there. He also personally piloted “999” in demonstrations prior to the race.
As for the race itself? The 1953 Indianapolis 500 was a hot one – literally. Temperatures were well over 90° F on race day, and hotter still on the mostly asphalt track. Many drivers actually called in relief drivers for a portion of the race. After 3 hours and 53 minutes of sweltering competition, the victory went to Bill Vukovich – who drove all 200 laps himself – with an average race speed of 127.740 mph. It was the first of two consecutive Indy 500 wins for Vukovich. Sadly, Vukovich was killed in a crash during the 1955 race.
Another view of the 1953 Ford Sunliner pace car. (THF87499)
Following the 1953 race and its associated ceremonies, Ford Motor Company gifted the original race-used pace car to The Henry Ford, where it remains today. Ford Motor also produced some 2,000 replicas for sale to the public. Each replica included the same features (Ford-O-Matic transmission, power steering, Continental spare tire kit), paint (Sungate Ivory), and lettering as the original. Reportedly, it was the first time a manufacturer offered pace car copies for purchase by the general public – something that is now a well-established tradition in its own right.
Sure, the Sunliner pace car is easy to overlook next to legendary race cars like “Old 16,” the Lotus-Ford, or – indeed – the “999,” but it’s a special link to America’s most important auto race, and it’s a noteworthy part of the auto racing collection at The Henry Ford.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
Dan Gurney at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 1963. THF114611
The Henry Ford is deeply saddened by the loss of a man who was both an inspiration and a friend to our organization for many years, Dan Gurney.
Mr. Gurney’s story began on Long Island, New York, where he was born on April 13, 1931. His father, John Gurney, was a singer with the Metropolitan Opera, while his grandfather, Frederic Gurney, designed and manufactured a series of innovative ball bearings.
The Gurneys moved west to Riverside, California, shortly after Dan graduated high school. For the car-obsessed teenager, Southern California was a paradise on Earth. He was soon building hot rods and racing on the amateur circuit before spending two years with the Army during the Korean War.
Following his service, Gurney started racing professionally. He finished second in the Riverside Grand Prix and made his first appearance at Le Mans in 1958, and earned a spot on Ferrari’s Formula One team the following year. Through the 1960s, Gurney developed a reputation as America’s most versatile driver, earning victories in Grand Prix, Indy Car, NASCAR and Sports Car events.
His efforts with Ford Motor Company became the stuff of legend. It was Dan Gurney who, in 1962, brought British race car builder Colin Chapman to Ford’s racing program. Gurney saw first-hand the success enjoyed by Chapman’s lithe, rear-engine cars in Formula One, and he was certain they could revolutionize the Indianapolis 500 – still dominated by heavy, front-engine roadsters. Jim Clark proved Gurney’s vision in 1965, winning Indy with a Lotus chassis powered by a rear-mounted Ford V-8. Clark’s victory reshaped the face of America’s most celebrated motor race.
Simultaneous with Ford’s efforts at Indianapolis, the Blue Oval was locked in its epic battle with Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Again, Dan Gurney was on the front lines. While his 1966 race, with Jerry Grant in a Ford GT40 Mark II, ended early with a failed radiator, the next year brought one of Gurney’s greatest victories. He and A.J. Foyt, co-piloting a Ford Mark IV, finished more than 30 miles ahead of the second-place Ferrari. It was the first (and, to date, only) all-American victory at the French endurance race – American drivers in an American car fielded by an American team. Gurney was so caught up in the excitement that he shook his celebratory champagne and sprayed it all over the crowd – the start of a victory tradition.
Just days after the 1967 Le Mans, Gurney earned yet another of his greatest victories when he won the Belgian Grand Prix in an Eagle car built by his own All American Racers. It was another singular achievement. To date, Gurney remains the only American driver to win a Formula One Grand Prix in a car of his own construction.
Dan Gurney retired from competitive driving in 1970, but remained active as a constructor and a team owner. His signature engineering achievement, the Gurney Flap, came in 1971. The small tab, added to the trailing edge of a spoiler or wing, increases downforce – and traction – on a car. Gurney flaps are found today not only on racing cars, but on helicopters and airplanes, too. In 1980, Gurney’s All American Racers built the first rolling-road wind tunnel in the United States. He introduced his low-slung Alligator motorcycle in 2002 and, ten years after that, the radical DeltaWing car, which boasted half the weight and half the drag of a conventional race car. Never one to settle down, Gurney and his team most recently were at work on a moment-canceling two-cylinder engine that promised smoother, more reliable operation than conventional power plants.
Our admiration for Mr. Gurney at The Henry Ford is deep and longstanding. In 2014, he became only the second winner of our Edison-Ford Medal for Innovation. It was a fitting honor for a man who brought so much to motorsport, and who remains so indelibly tied to The Henry Ford’s automotive collection. Cars like the Ford Mark IV, the Mustang I, the Lotus-Ford, and even the 1968 Mercury Cougar XR7-G (which he endorsed for Ford, hence the “G” in the model name), all have direct links to Mr. Gurney.
We are so very grateful for the rich and enduring legacy Dan Gurney leaves behind. His spirit, determination and accomplishments will continue to inspire for generations to come.
Hear Mr. Gurney describe his career and accomplishments in his own words at our “Visionaries on Innovation” page here.
View the film made to honor Mr. Gurney at his Edison-Ford Medal ceremony below.