#17 1952 Indy 500

2021-04-12 01:00

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#1952, Fulvio Conti, Ludovico Nicoletti, Translated by Monica Bessi,

#17 1952 Indy 500

The World Champion in charge, Juan Manuel Fangio, and his compatriot Gonzalez, on Friday 23rd of May 1952, unexpectedly arrive in Paris. The two Argen


The World Champion in charge, Juan Manuel Fangio, and his compatriot Gonzalez unexpectedly arrive in Paris on Friday, May 23, 1952. The two Argentinian drivers want to take part in the French Grand Prix, which will be held on Sunday, May 25, 1952, but they don’t have any car available for racing. The organisers then bustle looking for two cars (maybe two Maseratis) that can suit the masterclass of Fangio and Gonzalez. With three Ferraris of 2000 cc without compressor, Farina, Taruffi and Villoresi or Simon will also be driving in the Grand Prix, that will last 3 hours and will be held in the Montlhéry Autodrome. The presence of Fangio and Gonzalez is confirmed for the Albi Grand Prix on June 1, 1952, at the wheel of two B.R.Ms. On that occasion Farina - from the higher formula of car racing - will probably have to handle a Ferrari 4600 cc. Stirling Moss - third driver of B.R.M - will on the other hand be racing in Monte Carlo, on the same day of Albi, with a sports car. On Sunday, May 25, 1952, the third French Grand Prix, held on the fast circuit of the Montlhéry Autodrome, also sees the success of Ferrari. Eighteen drivers take part in the race. The World Champion in charge, Juan Manuel Fangio, sits in the grandstands as a spectator, not having a car to race with. Ferrari is officially represented by the ex-World Champion Giuseppe Farina and from engineer Taruffi and Luigi Villoresi, who is back on track after a bad road accident in Susa, returning from the Grand Prix of Marseille. Manzon and Villoresi swap positions in the lead. Halfway through the race, Villoresi has a 9-second advantage on Manzon. Meanwhile, Farina stops at the pits and leaves the wheel of his car to Simon, reserve driver of the Ferrari team. This car has a special cooling system, which is too open, and the temperature of the engine is kept so low that the acceleration is quite weak. Taruffi, on the other hand, proceeds in a good position without losing sight of the ones ahead of him. When Villoresi stops for a fuel refill, he declares to be feeling weak, since he just came out of convalescence, and prefers to leave the wheel of his Ferrari to Farina.


With this stop for Ferrari Manzon takes the lead, but his Gordini can’t keep up with his pace, causing a break in the differential assembly (Behra had stopped at lap number twenty for the same reason); the reports, maybe due to the rushed preparations (the works on two-litres Gordini have only been going on for a few months), are still not perfectly on point, so Manzon is forced to give up the fight. From this moment the race becomes a triumph for Ferrari; this would have been complete without an unlucky inconvenience for Farina: only ten minutes from the end, a slippage on an oil stain doesn’t let the driver finish his race. Some spectators try to push the car back on the track, of course a behaviour not permitted by the regulations. So, at this point Farina is already out of the race and out of the fight for the win. The driver from Turin could maybe have taken the sixth position in this French Grand Prix, since he had already stopped for refuelling; Taruffi, with a chronometric race, takes the second position, but still had to stop for fuel resupply. Signals of slowdown are coming from the Ferrari box, but the orders aren’t being respected, to the point that during the duel between Taruffi and Farina, the inconvenience of the latter happens. Taruffi still deserves the success for his calm and confident style and for his regular tactic, lap after lap. The winner also sets a new track record, with an average speed of 160.199 km/h. Simon’s race was also good, finishing second with the car received from Farina. A few days later, on Friday, May 30, 1952, a race is held in Indianapolis, capital of the State of Indiana. More than 50,000 spectators assisted at the Indy 500 practices. The Italian driver Alberto Ascari finally made it to qualify between the 33 admitted in the race. The total number of subscribers was 68. The 4500 cc Ferrari of Ascari sets its fastest lap with an average speed of 216.144 km/h. The highest speed recorded is set by Chet Miller (223.361 km/h). Ascari thinks that the chance of victory in the Indy 500 race depends on the divide between the absolute speed of his car and the others.


The Indy 500 race is the most colossal car race in the whole World. It first took place in 1911; Marmon won at the wheel of a Harroun car, in 6 hours 42'08"0, so at an average speed of 120 km/h. In 40 years, the average speed of the 800 kms marathon increased to about 200 km/h; the winner of 1951, Duan Carter, took only about 4 hours to finish the race. The race consists of 200 laps of the famous track, about 4 kilometres long; it is made of two straights and two elevated turns. The drivers that will participate in the 36th edition of the Indy 500 race are ready. The start will be given on Friday. Judging from the lap times set in practice, this should be one of the faster editions, if not the fastest ever. It doesn’t seem unlikely that the winner could reach an average speed of 128 miles per hour, beating the record of 126.244 set in the previous year. But the drivers don’t say the same as numbers in terms of predictions: only a few of them are willing to predict a new record. Even the fastest above all in the recent practices, Chet Miller, says that any new record will be set.


"Despite the speed recorded in the practices for qualifying, the race will be slower than the one of last year. The guys will change assets and protect the engines".


To understand this point it is necessary to know that the regulations for this year allow the use of a series of assets for the qualifying practice and a different one for the race. This with the aim of obtaining a constant speed, without those peaks necessary for the practices that usually burn the engines and cause a massacre of cars in this type of races. Naturally it is not said that everyone will be prudent in changing asset, but there must be a reason if Miller said what he said. More cars should continue in the race compared to the past. Last year only eight of thirty-three starters crossed the finish line, and it was an absolute minimum in the history of the competition. Weather forecasts are promising: clear sky and a temperature around 19 °C are expected, so a colder weather than normal in this season. The drivers couldn’t ask for anything better than this, and the same is true for the 100,000 spectators that from the first hours of the morning crowd the track. Predictions? Nobody makes any. Not the drivers, for superstition; not the technicians, because there are still too many unknowns. Except the matter of assets, that could radically change every consideration made on the practices, it’s important to underline that the cars of Indianapolis are extremely individual, built one by one with particular criteria, assembled with pieces from this or that industry, in the way that the designer considers more adapt to permit optimised performances in the competition. Ascari’s 4500 cc Ferrari without compressor is considered disadvantaged after its first appearance, but surprisingly it qualifies and is now considered one of the big unknowns.


The same is to say about the weird red and yellow car working with a Diesel engine that Fred Agabashian drove to set the best qualifying time in the first day with an amazing average of over 138 miles per hour, and that in honour of tradition will start from the privileged intern position in the first row. It’s then more convenient to delay to a second moment, after the race, every technical comment or comparison between cars, weight, ratio weight-power, displacements and everything else, and without the use of rhetoric. For now we can only say that the driver is the decisive element in Indianapolis, because 500 miles are a lot and the race strategy matters enormously, and moreover this year the sagacity in adopting the range of assets will also intervene to define the final results. The race consists of 200 laps around the famous track of about 4 kms, composed by two straights and two banked turns. The road surface is mainly paved, and the rest is covered in tiles. The winner is entitled to 20,000 dollars, plus other special prizes. The number of starters will be thirty-three, all Americans except Ascari. In 1936 Tazio Nuvolari went to race in North America with a 4-litre Alfa, where he won the Vanderbilt Cup, an European style race run on a circuit. He beat the American champions in a sharp way, nearly without any effort. It is said that he was also invited to see the famous track of Indianapolis and that, after looking out over that huge basin, he said:


"Why would I end my days right here? This track is not something for us European".


In his life as a racing driver Nuvolari was never scared of anything, so is this episode history or a legend? It’s a fact that the Italian aces that tried the adventure of Indianapolis never shined excessively. The poor Varzi didn’t make it to qualify for the final. Villoresi in 1946 finished seventh. What’s the difference between this racing track and the European style circuits? Why can’t the Italian drivers appear there worthily? We must start by saying that the race in Indianapolis is the same that is shown in cinema and it gives chills.


Sometimes two or three cars fly from the track or roll around four or five times, as if they were toys. Generally the films aren’t documentaries, but movies that have as subject the Indy 500 race, and it’s possible that they show some exaggerations. For sure it’s a dangerous and difficult race. It’s 800 kms long, so a race on the average speed of 200 km/h. During the race the road surface, which is partly made of asphalt and partly of tiles, becomes smooth as oil. Be careful with brakes! It’s understandable that this environment is completely different from the European one. Ascari had to work hard to be included in the list of thirty-three drivers admitted in the race. His 4500 cc Ferrari was the only one of the four subscribed to pass the preliminary round. Not even Parsons, with the same Ferrari as Ascari, was able to qualify. Parsons was the winner of the Indy 500 race in 1950. To have access to the next round Ascari had to abandon his Ferrari and take the wheel of another car, the one of 1950. Without any doubt Ascari accomplished a feat. With the same car of the 1950 winner and without his experience he beated Parsons, who is considered the most reckless of the American drivers. It would be interesting to see the American drivers on the European circuits, with a lot of turns. Parsons in spring came to Italy, saw the Valentino circuit, said it was beautiful and then went back to the United States. Experience: the problem is all here. Villoresi, remembering his adventure in Indianapolis, says that the hard part is not to get impressed by the new, eccentric, colossal environment that crowns such an arduous race. An awful game of nerves. Under this point of view, for what concerns Ascari, we don’t have to worry. He could be defined as a man without nerves, for the way he can control them. Once, while hunting, some of his friends wanted to test his reaction to sudden events, so they fired a shot on the ground, two metres behind him. He calmly turned and asked:


"Someone of you missed a shot. Why?"


All of this without a flinch. Even in Indianapolis, in the hard rounds, under the ironic and curious eyes of the Americans, the Italian ace didn’t lose his temper and made it to qualify. His opponents are all Americans, all driving special cars assembled in small workshops of passionate mechanics. The American industry, that produces more than a half of all the cars assembled in one year in the whole world, doesn’t feel the necessity of directly investing in racing. They are still very powerful cars and their displacement in the majority of cases is of 4 litres and a half without compressor. Developments in the race will also depend on stops for refuelling and the condition of the tyres. Even in this case it’s mostly going to be about experience and luck (Ascari says that this year he only wants to do an internship, a test for the following year of 1953). The latest news from the US isn't surprising. First the Italian ace is considered a clear delusion, but a few hours before the start everyone talks about him as a great unknown. Practices are something really different from a four-hour race with the possibility and necessity of adopting a strategy and different assets. Around 200.000 spectators are predicted to attend. There’s an infinity of prizes. There is one even for the driver at the lead in each single lap. What can Ascari do in this furious saraband of thirty cars overtaking each other at 200 km/h, for four hours, on a track of four kilometres? Will he put an end to the legend stating that Indianapolis is a taboo for Italians?


The adventure of Alberto Ascari on the Indianapolis circuit goes perfectly until the end of lap 40. Starting well, he behaves in the race with the soul and the tactic ability of a veteran. Ascari keeps the eighth position until the 50th mile, which sees the lead of Bill Vukovich with an average of 214.533 km/h, a speed that beats every record. Then the Italian driver loses ground, but continues brilliantly in his race, with the roar of the engine of his 4500 cc Ferrari sounding regular and mighty to the technicians, who from the box anxiously follow the race. But at the 42nd lap the yellow lamp that has always been inviting all the drivers on track to caution unexpectedly turns on. The yellow lamp always brings shivers, because something bad could have happened. Fortunately, the trouble is only technical. But for Ascari and the men of the Ferrari team it’s a hard blow to take. While Alberto Ascari drives through the north-west turn, the hub of his right rear wheel breaks and the car twirls in the grass. Fortunately, the car stops immediately, controlled by the driver, and Ascari calmly leaves his seat while help is on the way. The car is towed to the garages. Alberto Ascari’s race ends like this. In the Ferrari circle everyone is embittered for the bad joke of the hub but considering that the participation in the race had experimental purpose it is noted that the general program has been respected. The weather encourages high speeds. The sky is partly cloudy and the temperature is around 16-17 °C, with the breeze blowing against the drivers on the finish straight but favouring them in the other direction. Ruttman, a veteran of Indianapolis, makes the most of every element. Even Jim Rathman from Chicago is the author of an amazing behaviour in the race. Ruttman has a two laps advantage, but Rathman is never too far from the leader. The big fight, anyways, is the one involving Ruttman and Vikovich. The 150,000 spectators don’t regret the money they spent for their ticket. At the start Jack McGrath takes the lead for six laps, then is overtaken by the roaring car of Vukovich, who is later also passed by Ruttman.


But the domain of the future winner only lasts for one lap. Vukovich gets closer again and stays in the lead until the 66th lap, when he stops for tyre changing and refuelling. Ruttman is first again and keeps his position until the 83rd lap, when he is again involved in a fight with Vukovich. At this point it’s time for Ruttman to stop at the pits, with Vukovich driving in the lead. The swing continues. Vukovich stops again at lap 135 for tyres and fuel, and Ruttman regains the first position, but it’s then his turn to stop for the second refuel and tyre change at lap 148. In the rush the mechanics cover his hot car with fuel, surrounding with flames the big driver - he weighs around 100 kgs - who patiently waits in the car for the fire to be put out and then rejoins the race, always trying to reach Vukovich. But at lap 192, eight laps from the end, the yellow light turns on again, and the spectators shiver once more. This time it’s for Vukovich, who, approaching the north-west turn, loses control of his car and crashes at high speed against the wall. Fortunately he’s not injured, he jumps out from the car and climbs over the wall with lightning reflexes to avoid being hit by other cars. So Ruttman’s bolide passes the wreckage of Vukovich’s car, flying towards the chequered flag and towards 70,000 dollars; that much is valued at the first prize with the annexes. Twenty cars make it to the end of the race, with thirty-three having started, twelve more compared to the number of survivors of the massacre of the previous year. Between the names of the retired also figures the Californian Fred Agabashian, who, driving a Cummins car with a Diesel engine, had set the fastest lap in the practices of the first day. Ruttman wins, followed by Rathman, Sam Hanks, Duane Carter and Art Cross. Any victim and any other incident other than the ones mentioned, if we make an exception for the shivers caused by Bill Sehindler to the spectators in the grandstands, right when he was entering the boxes. His car made a whole turnabout, but the driver was able to control it and avoid consequences. Ruttman had finished third in the recent Mexican Carrera, behind Taruffi-Chinetti and Villoresi-Ascari.


Ascari’s adventure in Indianapolis lasted 110 kilometres. Then a slide, in the north-western corner that is the hardest one, and the hub of a wheel yields to violent solicitation. A shiver crosses the 150,000 spectators. The Italian driver makes it to control his Ferrari and to stop without damages. In the end the Californian Ruttman takes the victory, at the wheel of a Agajanian Special car, with a 4500 cc Offenhauser engine. The average speed of the winner of the 36° edition of the Indy 500 race is of more than 207 km/h. It’s necessary to be cautious in rating Ascari’s race. It’s dangerous to sentence about something that wasn’t seen. But this can be said: the race in Indianapolis has just ended and already different American drivers are worried about next year’s. Their preparation will last twelve months. Ascari went to the US only one month before the race. Maybe the valiant driver from Milan missed the time to get used to the environment. Maybe the technicians had to work in a rush. Probably, the rushed experience of Ferrari in this unlucky debut in Indianapolis leaves some precious instructions: out of four cars subscribed, one only - the one of Ascari - made it to pass the first tournament to get admitted in the race. The other three, left in the hands of excellent American drivers, were excluded. Comments and consequences can be imagined. The bad luck, in the case of Ascari, made the rest. The race direction and average of the winner and of the other protagonists clearly demonstrated once more that the Indy 500 race is something very serious and that the Americans are strong in their homeland, both with drivers and cars. Now the wound needs to be accepted and studied with humility. A future eventual expedition to Indianapolis will need a longer environmental and technical study, on site. Ultimately, the use of more money.


The aim of Ferrari becomes harder day after day. The European constructors interested in racing don’t resign to the supremacy of the brilliant craftsman of Modena. The British are back in the fight with B.R.M., engaging Fangio and Gonzalez. In the practices held in the Albi circuit, simultaneously with the dispute on the Indy 500 race, the World Champion in charge drives ten laps one faster than the previous one. In the last he sets a record of 189.898 km/h. It’s calculated that on the straights the B.R.M. was reaching 300 km/h. Ferrari doesn’t have any more adapted cars to fight the B.R.M. The rest is in America, or sold to the clients. He can’t bear alone the tremendous stress of all the competitions. He had to give up on Albi, but the forced abstention threatened to backfire against Ferrari, since an eventual win of the B.R.M would mean a defeat and a retreat for him. Meanwhile in Formula 2, the most current and fashionable races, the ones for cars of 2 litres of displacement without compressor, the new cars of the French-Italian Gordini are growing; the Maserati workshops are getting ready for a dangerous competition, with new means, left to Fangio and Gonzalez. Under this point of view the race that will be held in Monza on June 8, 1952, will be extremely important. The Ferraris will definitely be able to defend, but the best defence, talking about car racing, has always been the tempestivity in renewing and anticipating the projects of the opponents, a tactic preferred by Ferrari. But miracles can’t be expected from them. Waiting for Monza, the days of Sunday, June 1 and Monday, June 2, 1952, have a dual function to perform, in addition to the event in Albi: races for sports cars are scheduled in Monte Carlo, in which Bracco is also registered, with a Ferrari. The test on the circuit by the winner of the Mille Miglia promises interesting aspects.


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