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1932 Studebaker Indianapolis Special

Published on Thu, Nov 15, 1984

By: Len Frank

A survivor from the heyday of the Junk Formula, as written by Len Frank and first published in Motor Trend, November 1984.

There’s always someone out there who knows better; one whose range of information runs from murky memory and faulty hindsight through layers of prejudice (called “informed opinion”), finally making leaps to conclusions that, considering this planet’s gravity, should be, justice and fairness granted, impossible.

Motor racing is the subject of the preceding paragraph/sentence. I have always felt that the first motor race was held as soon as there were two motor vehicles in proximity, and the first protest voiced as soon as a winner was declared by a third party.

So, too, not content to keep things on a “run what you brung” basis, even the Victorians began to dream up formulas to ensure fairness (read “I win, you lose”). There have been some lulus over the years; weights have had maximums and minimums applied; ditto for displacements, number of cylinders; amount, kind and quantity of fuel have been fiddled; body widths have been kept down to prevent attempts at streamlining; body widths have been expanded for the same reason. Diesels, superchargers, turbochargers, Wankel rotaries, 4-valve heads, overhead (and multiple) camshafts, fuel injection, 4-wheel drive, two-cycle engines, Otto engines – all have been banned, required, discouraged/encouraged at one time or another. All this without getting into nationalities or the welter of rules that regulate every dimension and quantity not touched on above, and leaving arcane driver requirements strictly alone.

Rules were invoked, changed, dropped, later re-instituted, for political, economical, safety, sporting reasons. The rules, as much as machinists, mechanics, and designers, shaped the cars. Still do.

So, when confronted with the front-drive Miller 91 (MT, March ’72, Retrospect), the most exquisite race car ever built in America, maybe the world, it was no surprise that the rulesmakers, working with a vision of the future as fresh as last Thursday and the aesthetic sensibilities of an artist who paints religious subjects on black velvet, took steps to ensure that Harry A. Miller’s most dynamic sculpture had no secure future on the tracks of the U.S. Poor Harry.

Okay, we’ve already told you The U.S. sanctioning body, the AAA, the same group that purveys maps and insurance today, couldn’t keep its hands off. Alarmed at the costs (a Miller 91 was 15,000 1929 dollars when you picked it up in Los Angeles – without spared, demon tweaks, etc.) and speeds (171 mph at Muroc Dry Lake), the AAA instituted what came to know as the Junk Formula for Championship Racing.

The AAA had sought, with the 91-cu-in. formula, to reduce speeds by reducing displacement (from 122 cu in.). But it ultimately advanced technology and increased speeds. It usually happens that way. What the Junk Formula sought to do was reverse this effect, involve the automobile manufacturers more directly, produce slower (always synonymous with safer), cheaper cars.

To involve manufacturers, this displacement limit was raised from 1.5 to 6.0 liters. Superchargers were banned at a time when they were just beginning to be reliable as well as indispensable.

Engines, in the first year of the Formula, were limited to two valves per cylinder, carburetion to two venturis per engine. Later, there was some backsliding on these points hoping to draw the Europeans over. Weight-to-displacement was a minimum of 7.5 lb/cu in., there were minima for body width, track, and weight (1750 lb), maxima for fuel consumption and later oil consumption (6 gal for the 1932 500 race).

Some met the new Formula by modifying and/or reviving proper race cars from the past. But it was a boon for the manufacturer who wanted to prove his product in the Crucible of Speed – and maybe sell a few cars to boot. Stutz jumped in early. Fred Duesenberg built speed equipment for his early ’20s Model A passenger cars. Eventually, with or without direct factory participation, there were racers based on Reo, Graham, Hudson, DuPont, Chrysler, Buick, Hupmobile, Miller-Ford (MT, Dec. ’83, Retrospect), Chevrolet, and, of course, Studebaker.

The extremes in stock-based racers might have been illustrated by the 1930 Stutz versus any number of stock blocks inserted into old Duesenberg or Miller chassis. The Stutz was a production roadster with fenders, running boards, and most other amenities deleted. It did, however, retain the cigar lighter and ash receiver. It also weighed over two tons. Along for the ride with the 2-ton Stutz were some Duesenberg As, Charles Moran Jr. (later our man in ACCUS) in another overweight stocker (a DuPont), a Buick-powered car, a Chrysler from Argentina, a Frontenac-Ford, and Oakland V-8, and a couple things called the Russell 8 and the Romthe special.

The Russell was the work of Russel Snowberger, who finished 8th using the cast-iron lump that normally propelled the Stude President.

The Romthe Special was of slightly greater interest only because the principals – William Richards, George Onishi, J.C. MacDonald, Joseph Tate, and Ernie Huntley – all worked for Studebaker. Luther Johnson, a Studebaker stock test driver who had been racing Studebaker stockcars successfully, was tapped as driver. Johnson was hopelessly overcome by superstition when he found Huntley’s lady friend sitting in the cockpit (women, peanuts, the color green – except in money – were all jinxes at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing) and refused to drive. MacDonald, also a Studebaker test driver, but not superstitious, sat in for him. The Romthe quit with a split fuel tank. Bad luck.

In 1931, Snowberger was 5th. His car was reputed to have cost him $1500 and, further, he had finished 3rd on championship standings for the year previous.

Another Studebaker-based car, the Hunt Special, paired with one of the better drivers of the day, Tony Gulotta, actually led for a couple of laps and ran 2nd for much of its race before if finally expended its considerable kinetic energy attempting to reshape the outer wall.

Even among some who purport to know about cars, Studebaker is misunderstood, a confused and slight make.

Studebaker began to look at motor vehicles in 1895, began to build bodies for electric buggies in 1899, its own electric (designed by T. Edison) in 1902, and its first gasoline car in 1904. It was sold as soon as it hit the street. Studebaker bought Flanders and EMF (which had itself bought Wayne and Northern), and in 1911 produced 27,000-plus cars. The Big Three in those days could just as well have been Ford, GM, and Studebaker.

Anyway, like a few others (Auburn, Stutz, Cole, Hudson), Studebaker went record breaking and stock car racing for the same reasons companies do it today; to improve the breed; prove technical superiority; build corporate image and morale; and, most of all, to sell more cars.

They won at Pike’s Peak in a day when most cars couldn’t crawl to the top in low gear let alone at speed. The Studebakers won head-to-head races against most of the other current “performance” cars and set incredible records up to 30,000 miles, some of which stood for 35 years. So the Junk Formula just came naturally to them.

Mike Cleary is a nice guy. He is married (the only time) to a pretty lady. They have two girls, two boys. The whole family seems to be, well, a kind of ideal America cliché. That’s not negative, not derogatory – just the observation that, in that nice house, on that nice street, there is something pleasantly anachronistic.

Mike has been fooling with cars for a long time. Maybe it’s in his genes. His father, James, started his career as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, and as part of that job he covered Ray Harroun’s win (in the Marmon Wasp) of the first Indy 500.

And, as you might guess, James Cleary eventually made the short trip from Chicago to South Bend, for a while, to work for Studebaker. While there, he hired Cannonball Baker and Ab Jenkins who set so many of those records. He hired Knute Rockne when he was the darling of Notre Dame, pleading for the Gipper. Eventually, Cleary became Studebaker’s sales manager, a job he left in 1933, three years before Mike was born. But not long after he was back in the South Bend orbit as a member of Roche, Williams, and Cleary, a Chicago ad agency, whose principal client was Studebaker. If young Michael didn’t actually inherit Studebaker genes, maybe the environment had something to do with it.

Mike Cleary had a shot at SCCA racing in the late 50’s in an H-Modified, home of the Great Idea and the Lost Cause. He built a couple of cars powered by Mercury outboards, which were “reasonably successful.” By this time he had become an engineer working in the Detroit area.

Following the Mer-powered cars there was a sudden spate of British roadsters, and moving with wife and growing family around the country as jobs required. I can’t suggest that ultimate happiness for Mike is found in front of a milling machine but certainly some degree of it is. So when he found the decrepit Bugatti Type 57, the result was predictable. The Bug metamorphosized from rotting sedan to Type 35/37-like vintage racer. Think of it as practice, rehearsal.

Cleary saw The Ad in the classifieds of some enthusiasts publication. Studebaker commissioned Herman Rigling to build four more cars like the one built for Hunt in year three of the Junk Formula. Rigling had one of those little shops that built and fixed race cars, the kind with oil-soaked wooden floors and pleasantly cluttered workbenches and tool boards hanging on the walls. The tools, of course, were on the floor. Part blacksmith and welding s hop, part machine shop and aluminum forming. No surface plates, no enclosed dyno cells, no wind tunnels, no textbook engineers.

Rigling turned out five beauties. Studebaker provided engines, gearboxes, rear axles, front axles, brakes steering. Rigling built the frames and bodies, provided knock-off wheels, put the whole together so that it looked right.

And they were right. Cloff Bergere, a Hollywood stunt man when he wasn’t racing, brought one in 3rd – the highest a real stock block (to say nothing of crank, rods, etc.) has ever finished at Indy.

When Mike called the number in the ad, it had been disconnected. It was a long time later that he thought of calling classified department of the publication. Sure. They’d printed the wrong number. So when Mike did get through the car was still for sale.

One of the five had belonged to Virgil Exner. Mike remembered it fondly from college days. It was by that time in the Speedway Museum. A second was owned by Stan Smith in Pennsylvania. A third was behind the house in a garage. “Put these on,” said the Stude owner, offering Mike a set of overalls. Mike, business suit clad, demurred. “Put these on,” the man said again, more insistent. Mike is about 6’5″, the coveralls were more the 5’6″ sort, but there was something in the way they were offered, said Mike. Somehow, he got (mostly) into them.

They went out to the barn-like garage, straight at a side wall, up a ladder and through a window into cobwebs and gloom. They stepped from rafter to rafter. Mike recalls peering down and seeing the ground packed solid with an automotive packrat’s collection – a Jowett Jupiter and stacks of tires, a ’35 Ford, third members, fenders, radiators, and finally, unmistakably, a 1932 Studebaker Indianapolis Special. Or, at least major portions thereof.

That was a dozen years ago. There was increasing work responsibility, there were kids to raise, a Bugatti to nurture. About seven years ago, Mike had begun picking slowly through what he had. What he didn’t have was more important. The body and frame, though sad, were there. The front suspension was more or less okay, rear springs and shackles were intact, but no rear axle.

1932 Studebaker Indianapolis Special (Bob D’Olivo)
1932 Studebaker Indianapolis Special (Bob D’Olivo)

The Studebaker Specials, the Rigling-built team cars, made maximum use of the comparatively rare and the comparatively high-priced Studebaker President (priced just below the small Pierce-Arrow) components from proprietary parts bin. Frame, body, wheels, radiator, fuel tank, springs, steering wheel, instruments, intake and exhaust manifolds, carbs, Bosch magneto, all were not Studebaker parts. Studebaker cast some special high compression heads, ground some rortier camshafts. So all Mike had to do was collect a bunch of old Stude parts and put the car back together. Sure.

It should be pointed out that the Studebaker Specials were the simplest kind of stone-age racing cars hewn by highly-skilled Cro-Magnon constructors from the bones of production cars and a few sheets of aluminum, a few pieces of steel flat stock. Skilled labor was cheap – unless it involved tooling of precision machine work. Rigling built the Studes for $750 each, not including the production car pieces.

Although the occasional technical tour de force had popped up at Indy, most real development had been confined to the region under the hood. And though Stutz DV-32 and Duesenberg J-series had production – sort of – DOHC 4-valve layouts, most other production cars were flatheads.

The U.S. was still two years away from its first production independent front suspension, not everyone believed in hydraulic brakes, there was not a unit body or monocoque to be found. Just stone-age design – ladder frames, cast iron, big bolts.

Because an aluminum piece – say the pretty compound curve tail of an old Indy car – had originally been hammered out in four or five pieces with a rawhide mallet over sandbags, then gas welded together, filled, planished, sanded – in other words, the hard way, the way it had to be done 50 years ago, is no reason it must be done that way today. It is all so much easier now what with power tools, hydraulic forming, wheeling machines, better alloys, inert gas welders.

But Steve Alcala, who was spending time around the corner from Mike’s house ironing wrinkles out of a Birdcage Maserati, just didn’t have those modern options.

Mike becomes a blacksmith. The frame, originally hammered over iron forms, is straightened, patched, repaired, partially replaced. Trips to Indianapolis with rule and camera to check the ex-Exner car in the museum. Correspondence and freight from the owner of the Hunt car. Mike becomes a pattern maker. Mike becomes a junkyard scrounger; Mike becomes the ringleader of a nationwide gang of junkyard scroungers, swap meet foragers, garage sale sleuths. He didn’t have to become a machinist; he already was a machinist.

Engine pieces, not all Studebaker, come together. Maybe Packard rods with insert bearings are the hot tip. No one really knows. The Indy-grind cam is hopelessly obsolete, hopelessly worn. Try an Isky flathead Ford grind? It’s only 30 years out of date instead of 50.

No more years of leisure now. There is a deadline – the Stude is Motor Trend’s entry in the Great American Race. Younger son Jamie starts keeping Mike perpetual garage company, part go-fer, part mechanic, part conscience.

Alcala delivers the body. It’s brought together with the refurbished frame for the first time. Everyone smiles. A Gordon Schroeder Indy steering wheel approximated the real thing. But 6’5″ Mike doesn’t fit. Convert the floor-mounted pedals to hanging pedals. Better.

Fabricate new hydraulic brakes – the old mechanical ones are trash. Fabricate a gas tank from flat stock – nice cylindrical upper with a conical lower. Fabricate a header out of tubing – 32 cuts and welds to get the right curve taper. Is that how Rigling did it in that time of $20 labor a day? Mike and Jamie are paid a lot less, at least in cash.

Finally the body goes over to DnS to be painted. Doug Ward (the “D” of DnS, used to paint show bikes for Yamaha, did the Quattro-san project Subaru for MT).

Somehow the carbs get adjusted, the timing for the Mallory distributor is worked out. Mike is putting in 20-hour days, Jamie 10 hours after his high school classes. Everybody is wrenching, running.

At 8 o’clock in the evening of the Monday before the Wednesday when the Stude had to be at tech inspection for the Great American Race, Mike, Jamie, and Mike’s son-in-law tore the transmission out and apart. The body had to be taken off first. The car made tech.

As this is being written, the Great American Race has been run – the Study actually finished – and it’s 48 hours before the departure for the Monterey Historic Races. The body has been retouched by DnS. The rear axle has been rebuilt, a roll bar has been fabricated. Tomorrow, Mike will come home and tear the steering gearbox apart. The car will make Monterey easily, and the show at the Pebble Beach Concours on Sunday. Easily. Sure.

Top image: 1932 Studebaker Indianapolis Special, with driver Zeke Meyer and mechanic Walter Mitchell (public domain photo courtesy of Rathbungs through Wikimedia Commons)

Len Frank
Len Frank

The late Len Frank was the legendary co-host of “The Car Show”—the first and longest-running automotive broadcast program on the airwaves. Len was also a highly regarded journalist, having served in editorial roles with Motor Trend, Sports Car Graphic, Popular Mechanics, and a number of other publications. LA Car is proud to once again host “Look Down the Road – The Writings of Len Frank” within its pages. Special thanks to another long-time automotive journalist, Matt Stone, who has been serving as the curator of Len Frank’s archives since his passing in 1996 at the age of 60. During the next few months, we will be re-posting the entire collection of “Look Down the Road”, and you’ll be able to view them all in one location under the simple search term “Len Frank”. – Roy Nakano

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