Today’s Flashback Friday feature was originally published on July 24, 2018
The 1960’s represented the Golden Age of automobile racing innovation. Formula One welcomed the Golden Eagle of Dan Gurney. NASCAR went from paint-rubbing stockers to high winged Super Birds. Indy Car moved from bulky front engine Roadsters to sleek rear engine machines.
But nothing matched the innovation of the Whoosh and the Wedge.
The “Whooshmobile” was the brainchild of legendary STP pitchman Andy Granatelli. Granatelli’s brothers, Vince and Joe, built, under the veil of secrecy, the most innovative racing machine in history.
Nicknamed the Whooshmobile because of the sound it made as it sliced through the air down the straightaway, the racer was powered by a turbine helicopter engine. The engine sat on the side of the car, giving it the appearance of a World War II motorcycle side car — without the motorcycle.
In May 1967, the Whoosh qualified to race in the Indianapolis 500 on the outside of the second row. Not bad, but not great. On Race Day, speculation was rampant that the STP-sponsored No. 40 car had been ‘sandbagging’ the entire month of May.
That speculation became reality in the race’s opening moments. As the green flag fell, the turbine’s pilot, Parnelli Jones, used his outside-second-row position to sweep towards the lead.
By the time the Whoosh was headed down the backstretch, the suddenly-helpless and hopeless polesitter, Mario Andretti, could only wave Jones a middle-fingered salute as the turbine-powered machine moved past him easily.
By the final laps of the race, Jones and his flying machine had established a two-lap lead on the field. But on lap 196 of 200, a six-dollar ball bearing failed and the Whoosh became a silent whisper.
Because of its dominance, the then-sanctioning body of the race, the United States Auto Club (USAC), significantly changed the rules in hopes of saving the competition. But like real-world regulation, the new rules simply lead Granatelli to innovate around them. While the engine became smaller for the 1968 race, Granatelli partnered with legendary Lotus designer Colin Chapman to create a new car. The Lotus 56 was a typical rear-engine machine except for one thing — it was shaped like a wedge of cheese.
Accordingly, it was nicknamed the Wedge. Three Wedges qualified for Indy that year. This time, however, there was no sandbagging. One of the Wedge turbines, piloted by Indy 500 winner and Formula One Champion Graham Hill, grabbed the middle of the front row.
Another, piloted by former motorcycle racer Joe Leonard, grabbed the pole while establishing a new track record. But the Wedge’s fate in the race was eerily like the Whoosh’s the year before. After dominating the race, the STP-sponsored No. 60 came to a halt as the leading Leonard mashed the pedal on a lap 190 restart.
Having seen enough, the USAC again regulated the innovative turbine engine into the history books. With it went two of the most revolutionary developments in open wheel racing history — the Whoosh and the Wedge.
Guest author: Jay Beatty
A life-long auto racing fan, Jay Beatty attended his first Indianapolis 500 at six. Born and raised in the Circle City, Mr. Beatty has attended the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” over 50 times and considers the 1987 race his favorite. A die-hard Mario Andretti fan, Beatty has had his heart broken at the Brickyard on several occasion, yet his passion for open-wheel racing continues to burn bright.