Cummins at the Indy 500 - Diesel Alley

How A Cummins Diesel Dominated The 1952 Indy 500

David Kennedy
Aug 1, 2008
Photographers: Courtesy Of The Motor Trend Archives
Photo 2/10   |   cummins Diesel At The Indy 500 first Indycar
For weeks, only those closest to Fred Agabashian knew what his #28 Cummins Diesel Special could do. Fred, a diminutive 38-year-old in his prime dubbed Fearless Freddie by Motor Trend magazine, had a diesel-powered secret he dare not share with his competitors or members of the Indianapolis Speedway's old guard.
Imagine his suppressed grin, knowing his 1952 Cummins-powered Kurtis Kraft race car-an odd-looking, unbelievably heavy, and impossibly low-riding curiosity-was in fact so much more. Fred was an Indy 500 veteran and knew this track. He knew the difference between run-at-the-front fast and pull-away-from-the-field fast. He'd driven all types of cars, but never had he driven anything like this. Then again, no one else had either.
The #28 Cummins Diesel Special IndyCar looked different from anything that had come before. It was built to take advantage of the 1952 Indy 500 race rules that allowed four-cycle diesel engines that were twice as big as their gasoline competition. To take full advantage of this, the #28 Cummins Diesel Special was packed with a turbocharged 6.6L inline-six diesel engine that was reported to make 380 hp.
Columbus, Indiana's Biggest Secret
Clessie Cummins, a self-taught engineer and promotions whiz, had used the Indy 500 now and again to show the world how durable his diesel engines built in nearby Columbus, Indiana, were. By 1952, Clessie had retired, but the company's idea that it could compete in the world's most famous race remained.
To prove its point, Cummins set out to build a '52 NHH 6.6L turbocharged race engine with an aluminum block, head, and magnesium crankcase. Renowned chassis builder Frank Kurtis of Glendale, California, built the car. At Kurtis' recommendation, Fred Agabashian was hired to drive. That spring, the Modesto-born (California) driver and the Cummins team tested in a wind tunnel in Wichita, Kansas, and then at the Indianapolis Speedway. The car was powerful, and not just qualify-and-get-in-the-race powerful, either. Fred and Cummins knew that almost immediately.
"We've got a rocket ship here," Fred was reported to have said. That was the good news. But at the same time, it was not the kind of news that would make many outside Cummins' hometown particularly happy. For weeks, only those closest to Fred knew what the car was really capable of. Cummins made sure of that.
Photo 3/10   |   cummins Diesel At The Indy 500 1952 Indy 500
Cummins Race Team
Nearly everyone who worked on the 1952 race team was a Cummins employee-Clessie's brother Don (who spearheaded the operation), Nev Reiners, Thane Houser, Bill Doup, Mike Fellows, Art Eckleman, and Joe Miller. The seven of them "worked day and night on the car since it had arrived" at Cummins in early 1952, The Columbus Republic newspaper reported that May.
"It was a homegrown type of thing," Harry McCawley, an associate editor at The Republic who writes about local history for the paper, told Diesel Power recently. "Fred was really the only outsider in the group." They were homegrown, and in the racing community at least, relatively unknown.
Nev, the chief engineer and mechanic, was definitely not a "racing guy." The 1952 Indy 500 would be for him two races: his first and his last. Aside from Fred, the only real racing guy was Thane, who'd been a riding mechanic and driver at the Indy 500 in 1931. However, even Thane wasn't a hired gun for the 1952 Indy race team. Rather, he was a full-time Cummins employee.
"They underplayed themselves," said Donald Davidson, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's track historian. "They said, 'We don't know anything. We're a bunch of farmers from Columbus.'''
Farmers they weren't though. They were savvy, experienced engineers and mechanics who'd been building some of the world's most innovative engines for years. And they came from a community that loved cars and racing.
Cummins' Racing Dreams Began In 1911
Clessie Cummins was 63 in 1952 and absolutely in love with engines. He served on the pit crew of Ray Harroun when his Marmon Wasp won First Place at the 1911 Indy 500. Throughout the first half of the century, he pushed Cummins into prominence by creating diesel engines for marine, agricultural, and stationary-engine markets. At first, Clessie focused little on the on-road uses of his diesel engines. When eventually turning his focus there, he did so with legendary flair.
In 1930, he drove a Cummins-powered Packard Touring Car from Indianapolis to the National Automobile Show in New York City. With a diesel installed in his Packard, Clessie made the 800-mile trip on 30 gallons of fuel at a cost of $1.38. That March, Clessie drove another diesel-powered Packard to Daytona Beach, Florida, and set a diesel speed record of 80.389 mph. His cost of gas for that undertaking totaled $4.75, including the cost of fuel for the record runs.
In 1931, Cummins hired August and Fred Duesenberg to build a two-seat car with an eye toward raising the diesel speed record and racing in the Indy 500. Cummins again made the round-trip drive from Indianapolis to Daytona Beach, bumping the diesel land-speed record to more than 100 mph. The diesel-powered Duesenberg then ran in the 1931 Indy 500, making history when Dave Evans drove the entire 500 miles without stopping for fuel and finished 13th overall.
Cummins returned a car to the speedway in 1934 and again in 1950, and although the team had solid runs, there was little to suggest the history that was to be made in the spring of 1952. Still, Cummins managers were confident, partly because the rules favored them to at least have a chance. What remained was working out a few technical difficulties.
Photo 4/10   |   cummins Diesel At The Indy 500 1934 Indy Winner
1950 #61 Cummins Diesel Special
The 1950 #61 Cummins Diesel Special, named the Green Hornet by its driver Jimmy Jackson, featured a 401ci (6.6L) six-cylinder Cummins JBS 600 truck engine with a roots-style supercharger mounted in front of the engine and coupled directly to the crankshaft. "It was mammoth," Donald Davidson said. The #61 Cummins Diesel Special entry qualified as the slowest car in the race and dropped out after about 50 laps when the harmonic balancer failed.
1952 #28 Cummins Diesel Special
Cummins didn't enter the 1951 Indy 500, but that fall-with Don running the operation-a car was ordered from Kurtis Kraft, a well-known California-based builder whose company built 120 Indy 500 cars, including five winners.
"Cummins ordered this special car that would allow a six-cylinder up-and-down engine," Donald said. "Somebody had the idea that if you lay it on its side . . . ." The idea first had been sketched five years before, according to an '06 story in Winding Road magazine. The design laid the engine on its side and moved the driveline to the left. The driver sat low in the car to improve aerodynamics, creating a left-side weight bias. The Indy establishment rejected the design in the belief that so-called "upright cars," in which the driver straddled the crankshaft, were the superior layout.
In 1950, according to Winding Road, the Cummins entry had experienced a problem with "extreme lateral weight transfer" resulting from the upright positioning of its tall, long-stroke engine. The 1952 Kurtis Kraft design solved that issue.
Revolutionary Design
In 1951, blueprints drawn by Kurtis and reviewed by Cummins engineers went to Kurtis' Glendale, California, shop along with a mock-up of the NHH turbocharged diesel engine designed for the project. Fabrication began on the new race car in the summer of 1951 and testing began that November. Noticeable from the beginning was the height of the car. It was remarkably low, just 23 inches tall at the cowl according to Winding Road. Its headrest was barely higher than the tops of the tires.
Photo 5/10   |   cummins Diesel At The Indy 500 1950 Indy 500
"The #28 car sat extremely low and you could have a huge advantage with a lower center of gravity," Donald said. The wheels were over the top of the body work. In most cars, you wouldn't be able to see the far-side wheels because of the bodywork. In the #28 Cummins Diesel Special, you could see about a third of the wheel. It was wide, low, and far from top-heavy.
The rules, written to encourage diversity, allowed for standard gasoline engines of up to 274 ci, but supercharged engines were only allowed to displace 183 ci. To be competitive, a diesel was allowed to displace 401 ci, whether it was supercharged or not. Cummins engineers intended to take full advantage of the rules.
First Aerodynamic Testing
Cummins air-freighted the #28 car to Wichita, Kansas, for aerodynamic studies at the University of Kansas. This, Donald said, was a first for IndyCars. After aero tests, a new turbocharged 6.6L 380hp NHH engine was laid on its side in the car, five degrees from horizontal, to help drain oil from the cylinders. The result was a sleek, aerodynamic car with a huge turbocharged diesel engine.
"They put what ended up being a turbocharger on the new diesel engine, except that it wasn't generally called [a turbocharger] in those days," Donald said. "They put one on and it was a huge advantage. Some people referred to it as a supercharger and it was also known as a turbo supercharger. It was, in fact, a turbocharger 14 years before turbochargers started to show up on the gasoline IndyCar engines."
Photo 6/10   |   cummins Diesel At The Indy 500 cummins Car 61
We've Got A Rocket Ship Here
"Fred knew they were going to upset the competition if they went there and started running fast right off the bat,'' Donald said. "He was accused of sandbagging through the first couple of weeks of practice in May." It was an accusation Donald said didn't exactly lack merit.
"So that people couldn't figure out what he was doing, he wouldn't go flat-out down the backstretch on one lap," Donald said. "He might cruise through one of the turns on another lap. For anybody that was timing from one point to another, they wouldn't see him do a complete lap at full speed because he wasn't showing it."
Throughout that week, Fred hinted at the possibility of something big. "It's the best car I've ever had at the 500, and that's saying something," he said the Wednesday before Pole Day.
"The Cummins team decided, 'Let's not draw attention to ourselves because we may have the troops up in arms,''' Donald said. "Once the #28 car qualified, it would be too late, but they feared the officials may come along and change the rules."
Pole Day in 1952 was Saturday, May 17, and 70 cars competed for 33 spots. Fred, according to The Republic, took "several jaunts around the oval" early that morning and "was reported to be pleased with the car's performance."
Anticipation was high. Practice times indicated the field would be the fastest in Indy 500 history. As for Fred, he wouldn't tell The Republic the maximum potential of the #28 Cummins Diesel Special, but word was getting around.
180-MPH Rumors
"Rumor has it that the engine is capable of a top speed of around 180 mph on a straight course," The Republic reported. The paper went on to say, "Fred plans to drive the diesel all the way, even on the turns, which may mean that his straightaway speed will run around the 155-mph mark. As yet, the engine speed has not attained its maximum speed at Indianapolis. The test engine used thus far was geared for lower speeds, but the new engine will provide Fred with 'all the horsepower that will be needed,' according to Nev Reiners, engineer on the car."
Those practice times? The ones that predicted a historically fast field? They were correct. The first qualifier of the day-Jack McGrath in Jack Hinkle's Kraft-Offenhauser upright-set a new qualifying record with a run of 136.664 mph. Later, Andy Linden drove another Kurtis Kraft upright, the Mircan Power Special, to another record with a four-lap average of 137.002 mph. Just after 5:40 p.m., the #28 Cummins Diesel Special began its qualifying run. By 5:45 p.m., Fred rolled the car into the pits. It had, according to reports, left a mark on the track-as in a whole lot of rubber from its tires. Because of the weight of the car, 3,100 lbs including Fred and a full tank of gas, it had been brutal on tires. When it pulled into the pits, the two left tires were nearly in shreds.
Photo 7/10   |   cummins Diesel At The Indy 500 1952 Turbo Car 28
History Was Made
What the #28 Cummins Diesel Special car had done in those four laps shocked the racing world. Fred completed the first lap in 1:04.70 for an average speed of 139.104 mph, and the next three laps went as follows:
2) 1:05.12, for 136.206 mph3) 1:05.25, for 137.931 mph4) 1:05.78, for 136.820 mph
The first lap was a single-lap Indy 500 record; the four-lap speed of 4:20.85 also produced a four-lap record of 138.010 mph. "When it came time to qualify, they were ready to let all the secrets out of the bag," Donald said. "It was a major upset because the car had a Cummins diesel truck engine."
"We couldn't believe our watches," Crew Chief Nev Reiners told The Republic. "We clocked him at 139.014 mph with three watches on the first lap, but we just couldn't believe the car had gone that fast." Neither could nearly anyone else, including Wilbur Shaw, the Indianapolis Speedway's president and a veteran driver. This was an experimental car. It was one that few knew anything about a month or even a week before. Now, it was on the pole in the world's most famous race.
"The Cummins diesel, along with Fred and members of his crew, have accomplished a feat in the automotive experimental field never before equaled in the history of the speedway," Wilbur told The Republic. So now, everyone knew what a Cummins diesel could do, and not everyone liked it.
While that was true, particularly for the track establishment and the owners of the cars who hadn't gotten any break on their engine specs, there wasn't much that could be done. That meant the #28 Cummins Diesel Special had done exactly what Clessie Cummins and the folks at Cummins wanted when they got into these sort of events.
"It was," Donald said recently, "a huge sensation." This was particularly true in Cummins' hometown of Columbus, Indiana. All spring and into May, the interest in the Cummins Diesel Special had been relatively casual. An occasional column mention appeared from The Republic Sports Editor Scott Alexander, maybe, but he wrote as much about the high school track and basketball teams.
"Even going into the Indy 500, it didn't catch on as far as reporting in the paper was concerned until qualification day," Harry McCawley said. "I'm not too sure people really thought it had much of a chance. It was an experimental car. That's the way that Cummins went into it."
It Was Just What Cummins Wanted
"Cummins was actually looking at that as not just a car that went fast around the track and made a bunch of left turns, but it was looking at it as a business investment, and not just for promotional value," Donald explained.
That was before May 17. Afterward, as might be expected, Columbus went crazy for the Cummins Diesel Special. The promise of the fastest field was true, and the #28 Cummins Diesel Special's track records were twice broken later that month in practice, but it didn't matter. Those cars weren't on the pole. Fearless Freddie was, and in an era in which sports were rarely front-page worthy, The Republic devoted A-1 column inches to the Cummins Diesel Special throughout the next two weeks.
Photo 8/10   |   cummins Diesel At The Indy 500 qualifying Laps
"There was always a great deal of camaraderie at Cummins, and it came from the top," Harry said. "For many years it would bring people to the race. There was a great feeling of family and pride, so when Fred was on the pole, it was, 'That's our car,' in thousands of people's minds. It was a huge morale booster for Cummins employees."
Diesel Fever Hits Columbus, Indiana
Everywhere in downtown Columbus it was "Diesel Fever." "Practically every store has at least one speed symbol on display," the paper said. Nearly every clothing store sold checkered shoes, shirts, and sweaters.
By race day, the paper was estimating that 4,000 to 5,000 people from Columbus were to attend the race. Twelve Greyhound buses were chartered for the trip down Road 31 to Indianapolis: seven for Cummins employees, four for Union Starch Refining, and one for Irwin-Union Trust.
"They probably milked it for as much as they could," Harry from The Republic said. "If you look at it from today's perspective in the way companies promote products, it was probably tame, but you could tell Cummins knew it had something and was going to take advantage of it as much as it could. It was definitely a big thing. There was a great deal of excitement. That was true for the town as much as for the company."
Harry went on to say, "Here in this town, and I guess every town, you have seminal moments. People say, 'Remember the blizzard of 1978?' Here in Columbus, they still talk about the high school basketball team that went to the state finals in 1964. The 1952 #28 Cummins Diesel Special car was definitely along those lines."
Photo 9/10   |   cummins Diesel At The Indy 500 agabashian Pole Position
Indy 500 Race Day
Here's what all those folks from Cummins making the trip to Indy didn't know at the time (they couldn't know really). Those weeks leading to the race were to be the high point for the #28 car. Fred worried it might be, and not because of the tires either. The diesel's weight, Fred knew, would make the start tricky. The diesel couldn't accelerate with the lighter, quicker field, which made him fear a slow approach to the green flag. The Republic reported that he was debating whether to try to keep pace at the start, or "lay back and rely on durability and mechanical failure in other cars."
Still, Fred believed in the diesel. The paper asked him if the record of 126 mph for the event was in danger. He wouldn't be quoted, but intimated that the old record was in danger, and the paper predicted he might put the car at 128 mph and keep it there.
The crew and Fred weren't particularly concerned with the tires. Although qualifying tore #28's tires to shreds, the race-day approach would be different. The plan, Nev told The Republic, was to make one stop for tires. The car had a 50-gallon tank and averaged 10 to 12 miles a gallon so it could make 500 miles without fuel, but because of the tire change, Cummins planned to start the race with enough fuel for 80 laps and pit for tires and fuel then. "They had to run a planned race," Donald said, who added that this wasn't a problem for Fred. "He was very good about pacing himself."
On race day, Fred's primary concern proved valid. Nearly a third of the field passed him early on. But after that, the 5,000 fans from Columbus had hope. The diesel was balky at the start and never led, but "it ran strong," Donald said. "Once he got going, he was cruising along and ran fifth for quite a while." And then, all of the sudden, it was over.
Turbo Failure On Lap 70
Around lap 70 the car began to belch black smoke. According to an '03 Car and Driver story on the 1952 Indy 500, the #28 car made a pit stop at the 175-mile mark. The engine was overheating. The experimental car was taken into the garage and withdrawn from the race, officially due to turbocharger failure.
"The overheating was caused by the turbocharger," Donald said. "What Cummins did, not thinking because no one had ever run one before, was make the mistake of putting the turbocharger inlet down low behind the car's grille. It ended up sucking rubber particles into the inlet and eventually blocked it up. The team's engineers didn't think about it at the time. If they had to do it over again, they would have stuck the turbo up on top of the engine. That was the car's undoing: turbocharger failure. They were done after 71 laps."
The Car Never Raced Again
Less certain was the future of the #28 Cummins Diesel Special, a question The Republic raised quickly. A day after the race, the paper asked whether the car would run the following year, and predicted if it did that it would have a real chance to compete. On the day after the 500, Cummins Chairman of the Board J. Irwin Miller ended the speculation.
"There are no plans for racing the car next year," he said. "Right now, we want to apprise the value of what has been done up there and see what we've learned before we even talk about anything else."
Miller said it had been because of the history of the track "that the car with experimental equipment has a very poor chance of winning. But we learned what we wanted whether the car won or not."
If that left open speculation about the future, it shouldn't have. The #28 Cummins Diesel Special was done. It never raced again. "It only ran that one race," Donald said. "It never went to another track in competition, never came back the next year . . . it just had the one start, period."
Photo 10/10   |   cummins Diesel At The Indy 500 retired At 71 Laps
Don Cummins Reflects On The 1952 Race
Years later, Donald spoke with Don Cummins, whom he said ended up being an official at the Indy 500 for quite a number of years after his company stopped fielding cars. It was then that Donald asked the question he couldn't help wonder about.
"I was curious," Donald said. "It was probably the millionth time Don had been asked that question. I said, 'You won the pole. Why didn't you come back the next year?'"
Don said, "We knew we had this huge engine. A lot of people weren't very happy about us. We were convinced they would change the rules the next year. We caused such an upset by being on the pole.
"We got so much publicity. We started selling trucks like mad. We said if we come back next year with a smaller engine and we're struggling, it's going to tarnish the sort of groundswell we'd caused by being on the pole. Let's quit while we're ahead.''
Besides, Don told Donald that day, "The way the people at Cummins saw it, the success or failure of the venture wasn't measured by normal means, and it sure wasn't determined when Fred pulled the diesel into the pits on Lap 71." It was measured by proving to the world a diesel engine could produce power and do something few imagined it could do, something for weeks only Fred and the Cummins team knew it could do-a secret they unveiled to the world in a little under five memorable, tire-shredding minutes on a famous track in Central Indiana.
"The whole reason for being there was to draw attention to the fact that we were producing these engines,'' Don explained to Donald. "If anybody thought it was a Mickey Mouse engine, we wanted to be able to say, 'Hey, the engine in your truck, this thing you can buy, sat on the pole at Indianapolis.'"

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