Most of the time when someone mentions the 1964 Indianapolis 500, people think of the deaths of Dave MacDonald and Eddie Sachs in a massive Turn 4 accident at the start of the race. It’s one of the scariest stories and horrific incidents in the history of the speedway. However, it not only created a legend around the Mikey Thompson car that Dave MacDonald had sparked the incident in, but it camouflaged the legacy of another.
Smokey Yunick was already a legend by 1964. He’d built winning NASCAR cars out of his “Best Damn Garage in Town” in Daytona Beach, Florida. He’d built the “Fabulous Hudson Hornets” that won the 1951 and 1953 NASCAR Championships. The car he’d built had won the 1960 Indianapolis 500 and he’d be the first one to stick wings on a car at Indianapolis in 1962. So it’s no surprise that he’d try something different at Indy, but when the month of May started in 1964, everyone was astounded at what Smokey had thought of.
Before being in Motorsports, Smokey was in the US Army and spent time on the European Front doing bombing runs over Germany during WWII. One day he encountered a Blohm & Voss BV 141. It was a German aircraft with a cockpit outside of the main shell, with it being on the right wing.
In the Spring of 1964, Yunick and George Hurst, of Hurst Shifters, showed off their “Capsule Car” in front of the Halifax River in Daytona Beach. Hurst then put up $40,000 USD ($317, 000 Today) to have the naming rights to the car. It was promptly renamed the Hurst Floor Shift Special for the Clutch/Shifter combination that Smokey had put together for the car.
At first, the car seemed like a joke, but the more thought put towards the car, the more people became afraid of it. In 1964, USAC (Who sanctioned the Indy 500) did not have a limit on how much fuel cars could carry. Some cars held between 80 and 100 gallons of fuel, enough to make it all 500 miles. So with the driver and fuel at the front and the engine at the back, it all helped balance the car’s mass between the front and rear, but bias it to the left, helping it through the corners. What Smokey had done was create 3 different masses that would stay constant throughout the race.
At first, Smokey had planned for a helicopter turbine to power the car, but his deal fell through, with Smokey choosing to go with an Offenhauser 4-Cylinder instead. The car’s front suspension was actually composed from parts of a 1963 Pontiac Tempest largely because of both how light and inexpensive they were. The brakes were also meant to be as light as possible, also being OE drum brakes from a Tempest. The oil tank was behind the rear axle while the fuel tank was up in front of the radiator. The Steering Wheel was squared off to allow for more leg room for the driver. Originally, Smokey had dreamed up a single throttle/brake control, but eventually went with a conventional, two pedal, setup.
One might think Smokey would have wanted an Indianapolis veteran, but instead went with NASCAR veteran Bobby Johns. Bobby had won 2 Grand National Races in his 141 previous starts. He’d started at Indy twice, finishing in the Top 10 both times. With a driver, a car and a sponsor, everything was ready for the month of May.
However, Yunick’s theory of the constant weight distribution didn’t work in practice. Johns and Yunick struggled with the bugs of the new car and struggled to get up to a competitive speed. Yunick and Johns didn’t make an attempt at qualifying until the final day of attempts, May 24th. The brakes, which had been an issue throughout the month of practice, again became a struggle on Johns’ first timed lap. The Tempest brakes were very unpredictable and seemed to just “grab” if they worked. In Turn 1, Johns entered the corner too fast. He tried using more brakes, when the car suddenly grabbed. The car then went into a 720 degree spin and hit the wall hard enough to hurt the car. Without enough time to repair and make another attempt, Smokey’s month of May was over.
This would be the last time the car ever went on track. After the MacDonald and Sachs passing, new regulations were put on fuel amounts. This would ruin the already hurt handling of the “Sidecar”. Smokey had understood the uniqueness of the car, and immediately turned it over to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, where it sits to this day.