The Indy 500s first and only turbo diesel

Q: When did the first turbocharged car appear at the Indy 500?

A: It was in 1952, and the car was not only turbocharged but it was a Cummins diesel. The turbocharger was a first for both Indy and Cummins racing!

The inline six-cylinder engine displaced 401 cubic inches and made 400 horsepower at 4,000 rpm on 20 inches of boost. The smart-looking yellow and red car sat on the pole for the 1952 Indianapolis 500 Mile Sweepstakes Race with California kid Freddie Agabashian in the driver’s compartment turning a track-record 139.10-mph lap.

The diesel engine’s great mileage meant that the race car could theoretically go the full 200 laps of the race without stopping for fuel. Unfortunately, tire wear with the overly heavy car was dismal. (The machine came in at nearly 2,500 pounds dry and weighed a whopping 3,100 ready to race!) In fact, in qualifying trim, future racing Hall of Famer Agabashian had very nearly worn out a set of tires just running his four laps for the pole!

As it turned out, the turbocharger took Agabashian out of the race at mile 175 of the 500 miles to the checkered flag. A low-mounted air scoop sucked every little bit of tire rubber and other crud off the track and right into the turbo, which did not react very kindly to that much roughage in its diet. On lap 70, the car was out of the race.

The Cummins-powered car was also one of the first true roadsters to run at the Speedway. Built by the legendary Frank Kurtis in Glendale, Calif., the racer was a real “Indy roadster.” A revolutionary design (for those days) offset the engine, placing the driveshaft next to the driver as opposed to having the driver straddle it as before. The side-by-seat driveshaft meant that the driver’s position could be much deeper in the machine, and the whole car looked as long, as low, and as wholeheartedly purposeful as any race car ever built – before or since.

Unfortunately, that was the first (and last) time that a diesel ran at the Speedway. New rules have made doing anything like attempting to get a diesel into the race a dream. Rarely will one who builds Indy race cars (or rather assembles from pre-made kits largely) be heard uttering the words “What if?” anymore.

Pining for the “good ol’ days” is not a very productive proposition these days. On the other hand, with the popularity of diesel power steadily on the rise in the United States and with so much emphasis on racing being the proving grounds for new consumer products, perhaps clean, efficient, smokeless (unless you’re referring to the tires of course) diesel power will once again be allowed to prove itself in the crucible of competition at the Speedway.

Interestingly enough, 50 years later, the Gale Banks Dodge Dakota, powered by a turbocharged Cummins diesel engine, established a new land speed record on the salt at Bonneville with an FIA two-way record of 217.306 mph that still stands!

From the “Who Knew?” file: The Champion Spark Plug Company, eager to claim that its wares were “in every car in the race,” had to improvise when it came to the Cummins diesel, which didn’t use spark plugs. Just as the race was about to start, one of Champion’s savvy PR people slipped a miniature Champion spark plug into the pocket of Agabashian’s driving suit so that the company could make its claim with complete confidence.

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