Al Unser blasts out of the pits during his victorious 1970 Indy 500 win in his Lola/Colt ‘Johnny Lightning Special’…
Opportunistic American mechanics, drivers and team owners were slow to recognise a good thing.
Jack Brabham’s first appearance at the Brickyard in 1961 with his little 2.7-litre Cooper T54 Coventry Climax FPF saw him qualify 13th, finish 9th and take home a big payday by the GP standards of the day.
With John Cooper and Jack having made clear the advantages of mid-engined cars on their patch American team-owners and mechanics followed the path started by Cooper in the early 1950’s, their first GP win, in Argentina 1958, when Moss won in a 2 litre Cooper T43.
The first in the US to recognise the mid-engined trend was Mickey Thompson, he teamed with Dan Gurney with a proprietary chassis and aluminum Buick V8 power to qualify 8th in 1962, he was classified 20th with 92 laps.
1963 made it clear the Indy roadster’s days were numbered when Jim Clark and Gurney brought Colin Chapman’s lightweight Ford pushrod V8 powered Lotus 29 to The Brickyard. In that first year Clark was barely beaten by Parnelli Jones in a Watson Offy roadster. Some say given the oil the Watson was dropping that only the Indy ‘establishment’ prevented a victory that was rightfully Clark/Chapman’s. Jones took the lesson to heart.
In 1964, 12 of the 33 of the grid were mid-engined cars. Their builders are a directory of Gasoline Alley; Watson, Epperly, Huffaker, Vollstedt, Thompson and Halibrand, only two constructors were ‘furrin, Lotus and Brabham.
In 1965 only a single roadster, Gordon Johncock’s Watson Offy, finished in the top ten. There were only 6 front-engined roadsters in the 33 car field, Clark finally won in his Lotus 38 Ford. By 1966 there was only one roadster left. The transition was complete, in five years the Indy field and the shape of American champcar racing had been transformed.
The period of innovation continued throughout the ’60’s…
Andy Granatelli’s STP Corporation raced a four wheel drive Pratt and Whitney turbine engined car driven by Parnelli Jones at Indy in ’67. After leading nearly every lap of the rain interrupted race a 25 cent part in the gearbox failed, bringing the ‘whooshmobile’ to a halt giving the win to A.J. Foyt’s now conventional Coyote-Ford V8. Jones was classified 6th.
What made this period a golden one apart from the innovation of cars like Parnelli’s Granatelli turbine were a confluence of events which included Ford’s global drive to dominate all forms of racing; Grands Prix, Le Mans, drag strips, NASCAR and USAC. Firestone and Goodyear also battled each other like the heavyweight champs they were, in the process creating tyres of great grip as the understanding of polymer chemistry developed exponentially.
The advantages of 4WD were shown by Jones in 1967. George Bignotti sought to exploit it by combining 4WD grip with the dominant Ford V8 in 1968 with a 4WD Lola T150 for Al Retzloff , founder of a Houston based chemical company, to be driven by Al Unser. And so the basis of the later ‘Johnny Lightning Special’ was born.
I wrote an article about the equally iconic ‘American Red Ball Spl’ Lola T90 Ford, which provides some context in terms of Lola’s early Indycars and which took Graham Hill to his 1966 Indy win, click here to read it;
In the 500 Unser qualified the new 4WD Lola outside the second row in 6th but crashed on lap 40 when a spindle broke, brother Bobby won in an Eagle Offy.
After repair back at Lola’s Bromley works in England the T150 returned in time for the USAC road course race at Indy Raceway Park. Unser proved his versatility on road circuits, winning both heats. His victory came a week after taking his first USAC Championship victory on the dirt at Nazareth. He followed up both wins with another victory later in the season at Langhorne.
A major development in 1969 US racing was the foundation of the ‘Vel’s Parnelli Jones’ Ford team which would go all the way to F1 with Mario Andretti in 1975.
Supported by Ford and Firestone, Vel Miletich and Parnelli Jones set up their own team, buying out Al Retzloff, acquiring his Lola Fords and the services of legendary chief mechanic George Bignotti, his co-chief Jim Dilamarter and Al Unser. Their objective was to dominate USAC racing and also to race competitively in F1, taking the Firestone banner into Goodyear dominated territory.
USAC reacted predictably to the advantages of 4WD by restricting them to just 10-inch tyre widths, effectively robbing the promising but expensive technology of its advantage and protecting the status quo of USAC car owners.
Bignotti and Dilamarter converted the T150, carrying USAC #3 signifying Al Unser’s 1968 driving championship standing, to rear wheel drive with side-mounted fuel cells and the distinctive ‘coal chute’ rear decks feeding air to rear-mounted oil coolers. The Lola was renamed the Vel’s Parnelli Jones Special.
In its first race at Phoenix, Al put the VPJ Spl on pole but the Ford V8 dropped a valve on lap 14 whilst in the lead. After Hanford on April 13 the show headed for Indianapolis for the long month of May.
It rained continuously throughout the first week of qualifying. Unser was fast, but broke his leg in a motorcycle accident whilst waiting for the weather to clear! This car was given to veteran Bud Tingelstad who qualified 18th and was classified 15th when a Ford valve again broke on lap 155.
Jim Malloy qualified and finished 2nd in the T150 in the ‘Rex Mays Classic’ at the Milwaukee Mile, then 7th at Langhorne. Unser crashed in practice for the 151 mile road course race at Continental Divide on July 6, taking over Malloy’s car for the feature but dropped out with broken suspension.
Al capped the car’s season with a win from pole at Phoenix on November 15, finishing 2nd in the 1969 driver’s championship to Mario Andretti, amazing given that after his motorcycle accident at Indy he had only 19 starts to Andretti’s 24.
Unser spoke to Gordon Kirby about 1969; ‘If I hadn’t broke my leg in 1969 the car was totally capable of winning the 500 in ’69,’ he said. ‘It was already there and 1970 showed it. Look at the races I won through the last half of ‘69 and in ‘70 I just dominated everything. The Indycar and the dirt car (King Ford) were both fantastic cars to drive’.
For 1970 the Lola-based Vel’s Parnelli Jones Special was again modified with aerodynamic improvements and changed its identity yet again to ‘Lola-Colt’… Bignotti and Dilamarter built two more cars using this proven and highly developed car as the pattern. They were known as ‘P.J. Colts’. In 1970 Unser used two cars; the 1968 continuously modified Lola T150 Ford as his short paved oval/road course car and one of the new Colts as his long circuit car including Indy.
Miletich and Jones signed Topper Toys as the team’s sponsor, its ‘Johnny Lightning’ blue livery with bold yellow lightning bolts outlined in red became one of racing’s most recognized, brilliant and striking liveries.
Unser had an amazing 1970 in which he won 10 of 18 starts including the Indy 500, had a record 15 top-5 finishes and 8 poles. It was close to total domination and set Al Unser on the way to his 4 Indy 500 wins.
With the Lola T150 he won at Phoenix in the season opener, at Indianapolis Raceway Park in July, the Tony Bettenhausen 200 at Milwaukee in August and the Trenton 300 in October. He was two laps in the lead in the California 500 at Ontario in September when the transmission broke with just 14 laps to go.
Other placings included 3rd at Sears Point, Trenton and in the Rex Mays 150 at Milwaukee, 2nd at Langhorne, 5th on the road course at Continental Divide and 2nd at the season-ending race at Phoenix.
The 54th Indy 500 was held on Saturday, May 30, 1970, Unser dominated the race, winning pole position and leading 190 laps en route to victory in the PJ Colt Ford. He joined his brother Bobby as the first duo of brothers to win at Indy. It was the first of 4 wins there for Al.
Joint car owner Parnelli Jones, race winner in 1963, became the second person (after Pete DePaolo) to win separately as both a driver and team owner. Unser carted $271,697 back to New Mexico of a record $1,000,002 purse, the first time an Indy prize fund topped $1 million.
Rain on race morning delayed the start by about thirty minutes. On the pace lap, Jim Malloy smacked the outside wall in turn 4, which delayed the start further. All 33 cars in the field were turbocharged for the first time.
In his MotorSport interview with Kirby Unser gives full credit to George Bignotti. ‘Once George understood you he was absolutely a terrific mechanic. He could figure things out. George also always hired the right people. He put a team together and made it work. George had a knack for that. He was good at performing and making sure the car finished the races. As long as I didn’t crash, i finished the races. George Bignotti made my career. Without George I would’ve never been able to handle it.’
Big Al has fond memories of a great era in American racing and is disgusted with modern Indycar racing and the arrival of the spec car age. ‘People were always trying new things and looking for new ways of doing things. Today there isn’t any of that. It just tears me up. There’s nothing but a spec car to buy and you’re told what to do with it. You not allowed to do anything. It’s unbelievable!’
Lola T150 Specifications 1970…
Aluminium monocoque chassis, Ford DOHC 4 valve turbo-charged 159cid V8 giving circa 900bhp@ 8500rpm, 4 speed Hewland LG500 gearbox.
Suspension; Front upper and lower wishbones with coil spring/damper units. Rear single top link, inverted lower wishbone, coil spring/damper units and single radius rod. Adjustable roll bars front and rear. Disc brakes and rack and pinion steering.
Originally delivered as a 4wd car for 1968, the car was converted to normal rear wheel drive as per the text in 1969. The T150 still exists, beautifully restored as does the PJ Colt ’70 Indy winner.
glennmason.com, Alvis Upitis, The Enthusiast Network, Bob D’Olivo, Bob Jennings
MotorSport magazine interview by Gordon Kirby of Al Unser, Sotheby’s
Tailpiece: Al Unser in the Indy Museum with the 1911 winning Marmon Wasp and tyres indicative of progress…