Expeditionary Force

Enzo Ferrari sent four Grand Prix cars to contest the 1952 Indianapolis 500. We drive one of them.

Photo: Expeditionary Force 1
June 4, 2020

In 1952, Ferrari shipped four modified Tipo 375 Grand Prix cars to America for the Indianapolis 500. One of them is the Grant Piston Ring car, purchased at the time by Los Angeles piston-ring manufacturer Gerry Grant. More than 60 years later, the Ferrari is in perfect, authentic condition. It can usually be admired in the Louwman Museum in The Hague, but today it’s come to the Zandvoort racetrack, home of the Dutch Grand Prix, where I’m going to drive it.

While Ron van Dongen, the man who cares for the cars of the Louwman Collection, unloads the Ferrari, there’s time to look back to the end of the 1940s, when the fame of the Prancing Horse was rising sharply. Ferrari had been racing the Tipo 125 monoposto, powered by a supercharged 1.5-liter V12, but these cars were being systematically chopped up by the all-conquering Alfa Romeo 159s. They also had the disadvantage of drinking unheard-of quantities of fuel, so Ferrari came up with the idea of a larger, normally aspirated engine that consumed less and, as a result, reduced the number of fuel stops required.

The result of that vision, completed in 1951, was the Tipo 375, which sported a whopping 4.5-liter V12 designed by 24-year-old Aurelio Lampredi under its hood. The new Ferrari soon became the best car in Formula 1, winning the British, German, and Italian Grands Prix and ending Alfa Romeo’s dominance of the sport.

Photo: Expeditionary Force 2

Johnnie Parsons (in Kurtis-Kraft)

But with Alfa leaving F1 at the end of the season, the FIA realized the 1952 field would be filled only by Ferraris, some elderly Talbots, and an underdeveloped BRM. Therefore, it quickly decreed the ’52 World Championship would be run according to the rules of Formula 2, with unblown 2-liter engines. (By happy coincidence, Lampredi and Ferrari were already working on a brand-new 2-liter four-cylinder, the Tipo 500, which would handily propel star piloto Alberto Ascari to the title in both 1952 and ’53.)

As a result of that rule change, there was no future in Grand Prix racing for the Tipo 375, and seven or eight of them (historians disagree on the exact number) were left languishing in the factory. Then Ferrari’s American importer, Luigi Chinetti, came up with an idea to put them to good use. He thought the image of the Cavallino Rampante in the United States could use a little push, and suggested fielding a Tipo 375 in the biggest spectacle of the American racing calendar: the Indy 500. The race was part of the World Championship in letter if not spirit, and there were no technical objections since the American rules allowed a blown 3.0-liter engine or an atmospheric 4.5 liter.

There was quite a stir in the U.S. when it was announced the great Enzo Ferrari would send his cars to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Ferraris had won Le Mans, the Mille Miglia, and several Grands Prix, and there was already a cloud of mysticism around the brand. Moreover, Italian manufacturer Maserati had already won at Indy, a supercharged 3.0-liter 8CTF triumphing there in both 1939 and ’40. Undoubtedly, Il Tridente’s two victories contributed to Enzo’s desire to win at the infamous Speedway.

Photo: Expeditionary Force 3

Factory pilot Alberto Ascari

Four Tipo 375s, their chassis stretched and reinforced, were sent to Indy in 1952. One was a factory entry driven by Ascari, while the other three were fielded by American privateer teams persuaded by Chinetti to embark on an adventure with one of Maranello’s misfits. Besides Grant, the other two lucky owners were Johnny Mauro and Howard Keck, the latter a racing enthusiast who had inherited Superior Oil. All three men had deep pockets, and they needed them: The cost of a Ferrari Tipo 375 was a cool $30,000—a fortune in 1952. Keck transferred an additional $18,000 because he wanted a spare engine.

To drive the Grant Piston Ring Ferrari, Gerry Grant chose Johnnie Parsons, who had won the Indy 500 in 1950. Parsons loved to say things straight. He had tested the Tipo 375 in Italy, where Enzo Ferrari was so impressed by his driving skills he offered him a seat in a factory car—with the caveat that the American had to stay behind Enzo’s Italian gladiators if required. Parsons replied, “I drive to win,” and declined the honor.

BACK AT ZANDVOORT, van Dongen lets the 375’s external starter run for a while to circulate the V12’s oil. He then gives me a nod. As agreed, I turn the ignition switch and immediately the V12 starts. The sound is unexpectedly heavy and dark. It’s not dominated by the valvetrain, nor is it a mix of dozens of mechanical sounds like a modern Ferrari. Instead, I hear mainly the exhalation of the beast.

Photo: Expeditionary Force 4

Johnny Mauro’s Tipo 375

I calmly do a first lap to get acquainted with the Ferrari, just as the American drivers must have done when they first tried it. They must have been surprised about the position of the gear lever, under the driver’s left knee, and the fact the transaxle has four gears. The powerful four-cylinder Offenhausers they were used to only had two.

My first kilometers with the Tipo 375 are made uncomfortable not only because of that gear lever but also because of the accelerator, which is located in the middle, where my foot expects the brake. In addition, the big V12 does not like the first few laps. As I follow the camera car, it bucks and it bumps and I regularly have to press in the clutch and give the throttle a blast to blow the spark plugs clean. The engine reacts gratefully to this, but it clearly hates low speeds. Everything tells me it wants to go faster.

Ferrari’s V12 is certainly exotic. Adorned with three double Weber carburetors, it displaces 375 cc per cylinder (hence its name), features an overhead camshaft per cylinder bank, and is fired by 24 spark plugs supplied with high voltage by an aircraft ignition. In Europe, the Tipo 375 was seen as a beautiful machine, not only because of its extremely powerful engine but also its Grand Prix-winning performance.

Photo: Expeditionary Force 5

The Americans, however, were far from complimentary. The harshest words came from Jim Travers, one of the most talented engineers in American motor racing (who would later partner with Frank Coon to found the famous engine-building company Traco Engineering). He had been given responsibility for Howard Keck’s Tipo 375, but was also developing a revolutionary new racing car, the Kurtis-Kraft 500A Roadster.

Travers put the Ferrari on his dynamometer in Los Angeles and saw that the V12 delivered around 390 hp at 7,500 rpm. That was good in itself, but he was not impressed by its torque, which was lower than that of the 400-hp Offenhauser four-pots. Travers preferred to spend his time on the Kurtis-Craft, and 50 years later he explained why to Car and Driver.

“That Ferrari was a mess,” recalled Travers. “It had no chance at all. As far as I was concerned, it made no sense to take it to the speedway.”

Photo: Expeditionary Force 6

Keck’s driver, Bobby Ball, also had no confidence in the car, and as a result their Ferrari did not even get to the start of the Indy 500. That might have been a good thing, because Travers’ new car turned out to be a brilliant performer. The Kurtis-Kraft 500A Roadster led the ’52 race for quite some time before unfortunately failing, and in the years that followed it would dominate American speedways.

The other privateer Ferraris didn’t go well, either. Johnnie Parsons was unable to get enough speed out of the Grant Piston Ring car to qualify, even after owner Grant fluttered a $1,100 bonus in front of him for extra inspiration. Parsons soon had his fill of the Ferrari and switched to an older Kurtis-Kraft with proven Offenhauser technology. It wasn’t a bad choice, either, as he would finish the race in tenth place.

After Parsons gave up, midget racer Danny Oakes and the talented Walt Faulkner both tried to qualify Grant’s Ferrari, which was specially equipped with magnesium Halibrand wheels and a larger, more streamlined Plexiglas windshield. Nothing helped; the Tipo 375 topped out at just under 133 mph, insufficient to be allowed to start. Faulkner, who had set the fastest qualifying time at the 1950 race, was very dissatisfied.

Photo: Expeditionary Force 7

“So this is that great Ferrari?” he snarled as he climbed out, never to return. “Take it to a harbor and ship it back to Italy.”

Johnny Mauro’s Tipo 375, sponsored by container manufacturer Kennedy Tank, was the slowest of the bunch. It lagged so far behind the team did not even try to qualify.

Despite the dissatisfaction of the American teams, America’s journalists applauded the red-painted car, calling it “The Great Ferrari,” and watched in eager anticipation as Ascari as made his first laps around the speedway. The Italian experimented a bit with a longer final drive, which forced him to switch down to third gear before the bends, but after that opted for the original final drive. During the time trials, the average speed of the Tipo 375 reached no higher than 131.7 mph, not nearly as fast as the Offenhausers or the heavy, immensely strong, and super-fast Cummins Diesel.

Photo: Expeditionary Force 8

A few of the American drivers laughed and told Ascari that he had to floor the throttle if he really wanted to participate. Ascari did not speak English, but understood the message; he smiled back kindly and pretended to hand over his helmet and gloves, with a look of “You do it.”

To give the factory-entered Tipo 375 more speed, engine-designer Lampredi flew to Indianapolis with a trio of larger, quadruple-choke Webers, a full 40 millimeters in diameter. When these were mounted under a large hood scoop, the Ferrari achieved 134.308 mph, which was sufficient to qualify. The great Ascari was well behind in 19th place, but he was in the race, saving face for Ferrari.

WITH ON-TRACK PHOTOGRAPHY COMPLETED, the camera car dives into the pit lane like a pace car giving way and I can accelerate away in earnest. I’ve gotten used to the seating position in the wide, spacious cockpit, with the huge fuel and oil tanks right behind me, above the rear axle and transmission. The large Borranis shod with Dunlop racing tires are almost at the same height as my elbows, but I don’t have to fear touching them; they are far away.

Photo: Expeditionary Force 9

Refinement is a stranger to this particular Ferrari. Its clutch engages with the subtlety of a machete, and the V12’s reactions are intimidatingly brutal and fast, faster even than I have experienced in many modern sports cars. The entire driving experience is dominated by the V12: Its roaring voice and overwhelming character rule over the chassis and driver, who can only try to keep up with the 12-cylinder monster. But the longer I interact with Lampredi’s engine, the more sympathetic it becomes, picking up smoothly and roaring loudly as it catapults the large Ferrari to high speeds.

The reinforced chassis sometimes sighs under the power of the engine; I occasionally feel it flexing, particularly when I use the brakes hard. By today’s standards the braking is far from impressive, but on a track where you know exactly when and how much you need to slow down, it’s easy to manage. However, it certainly helps there are no other drivers on track who might surprise me with an unexpected maneuver.

The Ferrari’s shifter is awkward and its gears are difficult to insert, but double-declutching and some throttle make it easier. It’s exciting to see how the large front wheels respond to my steering commands, which compensates for the fact there’s relatively little feel in the steering and helps me position the car close to the apexes and curb stones.

Photo: Expeditionary Force 10

The Dunlops are old and hard, so grip is minimal and the boundaries are close. When I go a little too fast into the Audi S-bend, I feel the Ferrari slightly understeering—but a measured push on the throttle is enough to give its tail a push and make the nose turn in.

It’s difficult in the Tipo 375 to ignore the permanent sense of danger. Besides the overabundance of power and paltry grip, there’s no seat belt or any other form of protection. But after a few laps, I’ve gathered enough guts to push the loud pedal to the floor on the straight.

I’ve been told hitting the redline in fourth gear should correspond to roughly 137 mph. The Ferrari reaches that speed well before Tarzan corner, leaving plenty of time to brake and shift down to third. Its high-speed stability is pretty impressive, but it still would not have been a piece of cake for Ascari to thunder around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, at the limit or drifting slightly over it, in a crowd of Kurtis-Krafts with Americans wanting to teach that Great Ferrari a lesson.

Photo: Expeditionary Force 11

So why did the Americans go so far as to call the Tipo 375, the pride of Ferrari and Italy, “a mess”? It presumably had everything to do with the fact that it was a European Grand Prix car, not a machine built or optimized for the American speedways.

The Ferrari’s brakes were oversized for Indianapolis, and therefore too heavy. It was equipped with a four-speed gearbox, while a much lighter two-speed transmission was the norm at Indy, especially with engines of generous torque. The 375 did have torque, but it peaked at high revs, not at the bottom like the lighter Offenhausers. Moreover, the Americans already utilized fuel injection and strong alloy wheels, while the Ferrari still sported carburetors and wire wheels.

In other words, in the eyes of the American drivers, the 375 must have appeared unnecessarily heavy and in some ways old-fashioned. It was certainly that in the eyes of its biggest critic, Jim Travers, whose new Kurtis-Kraft had adjustable torsion-bar suspension, a significant step up from the transverse leaf springs of the Ferrari.

Photo: Expeditionary Force 12

Race-winner Troy Ruttman

Despite that, the journalists from Road & Track were convinced the Ferrari would dominate the race. It had the horsepower, and during practice Ascari demonstrated his precision by driving his four qualifying laps with a maximum difference of only 0.08 second.

Ascari started the Indy 500 in 19th place, as mentioned, and at one point climbed into eighth after a spectacular maneuver that saw him overtake several opponents at the same time. Unfortunately, his race ended on Lap 40, when the Ferrari was running 12th, after the right rear wheel bearing jammed. The Ferrari spun as a result, but Ascari was able to bring it to a halt in the midfield without significant damage, although the spokes had been pulled out of that wheel. The Italian wanted to return to the pits, hoping to continue after a quick repair, but because he didn’t speak English he couldn’t make his intent clear to the marshals, and they let the Ferrari be dragged away.

It’s possible Ascari might have won the race, with a bit of luck. He drove at 6,400 rpm as consistently as possible, resulting in racing laps that averaged 128 mph, just a little less than the 128.922 mph recorded by race-winner Troy Ruttman. The big problem Ascari had to deal with was the Tipo 375’s relative lack of torque. While the Ferrari was capable of at least the same top speed as the Offenhausers, it needed more time to reach that velocity, which meant the Americans were in control coming out of the corners.

Photo: Expeditionary Force 13

Cummins Diesel Special

In the years following his great defeat at Indianapolis, Enzo made a few other attempts to perform there, all without results. It was only long after Il Commendatore’s death that a Ferrari crossed the finish line of the legendary speedway for the first time. That was in 2000, when Michael Schumacher won the United States Grand Prix.

Thanks to the Louwman Museum and Circuit Park Zandvoort.

Photo: Expeditionary Force 14

Kurtis-Kraft KK500A Roadster

Sidebar: A Special Race

The arrival of Ferrari is not the only reason to remember the 1952 Indianapolis 500. It was significant for several reasons, including the fact this was the first time a diesel-powered car took pole position.

The Americans had been experimenting with racing diesel engines for many years, and in 1952 Fred Agabashian put the 6.6-liter, 380-hp Cummins Diesel Special on pole. Although very fast in qualifying, the car could not keep up that pace during the race. It also consumed its tires with disconcerting rapidity. Ultimately, the diesel crashed after 76 laps, a result of its turbo being blocked with shreds of tire rubber. This revealed a design flaw; it had not been a good idea to position its inlet in the car’s nose.

The 1952 race was won by 22-year-old Troy Ruttman in a dirt racer, the Agajanian Special. Ruttman remains the youngest winner of the Indy 500 to this day, and it was the last time a dirt racer like his won.

Finally, the ’52 race saw the debut of the revolutionary Kurtis-Kraft KK500A Roadster, which arrived wearing the name Fuel Injection Special. Jim Travers’ experimental car featured an asymmetrical design, with its Offenhauser engine on the left of the chassis and the driver sitting next to it. Bill Vukovich led the race for 150 of the 200 laps in the new Roadster, and probably would have won if not for a steering problem. In the following years, the Roadster would dominate the speedways and give American motorsport a new direction.

Also from Issue 183

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  • Stirling Moss' Ferrari drives
  • Kirk F. White Daytona Competizione
  • Flasback: F355
  • All-red car collection
  • F1: Still waiting for season to start
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