Posts Tagged ‘Indianapolis 500’

Kaiser Aluminum no lightweight in 1952 Indy 500

posted on March 1, 2016

Lincoln Cushing, Heritage writer


Cummins Diesel ad, 1952-05-24

“Cummins Diesel Shatters Records” newspaper ad, May 24, 1952

The 100th Indianapolis 500 will be held Sunday May 29, 2016, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway –modestly described as “The greatest spectacle in racing” at “The Racing Capital of the World.” This is one of the most iconic of American events, with drivers racing 200 laps around a 2.5-mile oval circuit.

All that noise and danger may seem a far stretch from the “total health” mission of Kaiser Permanente, but industrialist founder Henry J. Kaiser loved vehicles, and one of his companies played a role in the history of the Indy 500.


Few people associate diesel engines with high performance. These utilitarian engines are the workhorses of industry, thumping along forever with little need for maintenance. But diesels were initially designed for stationary use, and later were adapted for marine applications. However, their fuel injectors were notoriously prone to fouling, so operating them when exposed to dusty outdoor conditions was beyond their intended application.

"No. 1 Shipbuilder" profile on Henry J. Kaiser, LIFE magazine, 1942-06-29

Henry J. Kaiser standing on a diesel-fitted Caterpillar tractor, 1942.

But Henry J. Kaiser was always pushing boundaries. When building roads during the late 1920s, young contractor Kaiser tried to convince the Caterpillar Tractor Company to put diesel engines in their crawler tractors because the fuel was so much cheaper. When they declined, Kaiser bought three Caterpillar Model 60 and three Monarch 75 tractors (Monarch operated between 1916-1928, when it was bought out by Allis-Chalmers; Caterpillar is still in business) and replaced their gasoline engines with 65 horsepower marine diesels made by the Atlas-Imperial Company of Oakland, Calif.

They were heavier than gas engines, and came with problems of their own which Kaiser discovered while using them on a levee restoration project along the Mississippi River in the late 1920s. A 1942 Life magazine profile on Henry J. Kaiser noted that “At first, they stripped transmissions, twisted driveshafts and generally knocked apart the machines he put them in.” But Kaiser and fellow earth mover Bob LeTorneau worked out the kinks, and eventually diesels would become the standard for heavy equipment.


“Agabashian rolls No. 28 in the coveted pole position,” Kaiser Aluminum News, March 1953.

Fast forward to 1952. Really, really fast forward.

This was the year that Kaiser Aluminum paired up with the Cummins Engine Company to produce a diesel race car, #28, driven by “Flying” Freddie Agabashian (1913-1989). It wasn’t the first diesel to whip around the Indianapolis track – that happened in 1931, when a Cummins-powered car was the first to run the entire race nonstop – but it was the first to use a turbocharger.

Turbocharging is relatively common now, but back then it was innovative to use an engine’s exhaust gases to pressurize the intake charge and provide more power without increasing engine size. Number 28’s specially designed engine lay on its side 5 degrees from flat, to lower the car’s center of gravity and handle better on Indy’s left-only banked turns. It displaced 401 cubic inches (6.6 liters), the maximum allowed by Indy rules, and pumped out 350 horsepower.

At least one newspaper account called it a “Freak diesel job.” But this “freak” was fast. #28 captured the pole (the first starting position, which holds high prestige at Indianapolis) with the fastest single-lap time (139.104 mph) and four-lap time (138.010 mph) in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history. And it was the first diesel to do so. It was also the first Indy car ever tested for aerodynamics in a wind tunnel.

Alas, in the race the Kaiser-Cummins Diesel Special ended up only placing 27th. The engine was retired midway through when the turbocharger inlet became clogged with tire rubber debris from the track.


“Inspectors check aluminum block of the mighty 350 horsepower ‘pancake’ diesel,” Kaiser Aluminum News, March, 1953.

The March 1953 issue of Kaiser Aluminum, published by the Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation, featured this story:

A blazing-fast crystal ball on wheels stole the show last year at the Indianapolis Speedway classic . . . and U.S. automotive engineers are still taking looks into it. They’re analyzing performance figures on the powerful Cummins Diesel race car and predicting startling advances in motor power on future American highways.

They see today’s high rpm Diesel engines transformed into even lighter weight units, with even higher speeds, powering more trucks up hill and down with equal ease. And they even see the day when easy-on-the fuel Diesels will possibly compete with gasoline engines in the passenger car market.

Cummins engineers knew that in order to compete with the higher rotative speeds of the gasoline engine, it would be necessary to reduce the weight which the heavier Diesel had to pull. By their extensive use of aluminum (and magnesium), they were able to give Agabashian a sleek, slim beauty of only 2,100 pounds (dry).

Even without a win, the car was such a threat to the racing status quo that soon afterwards the rules were changed to discourage large diesels.  But there is always a relationship between racing and the advancement of the general public good; in this case, the dream of using diesel engines and aluminum components to produce faster and more fuel-efficient civilian vehicles. The KA News article posed the question about what might be next – “…A hundred-mile-per-hour truck?”

Indeed – with Henry J. Kaiser, one was never sure what could come next.


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Kaiser-Frazer auto-racing heritage recalled during Indy 500 weekend

posted on May 25, 2013

By Ginny McPartland, Heritage writer


November 1950 magazine ad for the new Henry J economy coupe

More than 60 years after Henry J. Kaiser debuted his namesake economy car, the “Henry J,” racing enthusiasts around the country still revere – and race – their hopped-up versions of the 1950s-built six-cylinder coupe.

Although outclassed by any race car in this weekend’s Indianapolis 500, the Henry J has had its share of attention, if not glory, over the years. is devoted to everything Henry J, and enthusiasts meet there to share tips for restoration and to score rare replacement parts.

And yet, the Henry J was never meant to be a racing car.

Henry J. Kaiser and Joseph W. Frazer started the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation in 1945 to fill the demand after World War II for new automobiles. During the war, virtually no civilian vehicles were manufactured so factories could focus on the tanks, jeeps and trucks needed for combat.

The company produced a few different cars, including the Manhattan, a large sedan, the Darrin, a sports car, and the Henry J, a lower-priced vehicle for the masses. Kaiser believed that every American should be able to afford an automobile.

Who knew the car could compete?

Hemi-J, souped-up Henry J economy car from the 1950s, manufactured by Kaiser-Frazer Corporation. Photo from

The fancy styling of today’s rejuvenated and supercharged Henry J is a far cry from what Henry Kaiser envisioned. In a magazine advertisement featuring the new model, the car was billed as: smart as an Irish setter; tough as a steer; thrifty as a squirrel and nimble as a kitten.

The ad pictured a family of four riding comfortably and sensibly in a blue Henry J with white-wall tires. Yet hot rodders soon discovered that the light weight and stripped down design of the Henry J made it the perfect candidate for stock car racing. A Web search reveals literally hundreds of hot rodders caught the bug soon after the Henry J’s release.

In June 1960, “Hot Rod Magazine” ran an article about a Henry J converted to a race car by Bill Waddill of Swartz Creek, Mich., not far from where Kaiser and Frazer manufactured the once tame vehicle.

According to “Hot Rod,” Waddill cut the 1953 Henry J in half at the door centerline and “chopped” the top but kept the original body proportions throughout the conversion. He competed in the 1959 Nationals in Detroit, “making a creditable showing before losing out in the run-offs.”

Waddill sold his Henry J in the early 1960s, and the new owner painted the car red and named it “Wicked Mary.”

Indy 500 engineer invents heart/lung pump

Henry J. Kaiser in “Henry J” car on lawn of Claremont Golf and Country Club, Oakland, 1951

For their part in the creation of the Henry J – and the other Kaiser-Frazer vehicles manufactured in the 1940s and ’50s –Kaiser and Frazer were inducted in 2010 into the Automobile Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Mich., just outside of Detroit.

Although the Henry J could never qualify for a race such as the Indianapolis 500, Henry Kaiser, a man for all seasons, had his connection to the prestigious contest. One of Kaiser’s associates, Barney Navarro, considered one of the fathers of hot rodding, a racing engineer and inventor, developed the innovative 199 cubic-inch 6-cylinder Rambler motor producing more than 700 horsepower for the Indy 500 in 1967.

A speed boat racer, Navarro was at the helm of Kaiser’s Chrysler Hemi-powered boat when it set a speed record in the late 1950s. He also raced flat bottom boats with Henry Kaiser.  At Kaiser’s behest, Navarro invented a heart and lung pump that was used from the late 1960s into the 1980s for open heart surgeries at Kaiser Foundation Hospitals.

So when actor Michael Peña says “ladies and gentlemen, start your engines” this weekend, know that the indefatigable Henry J. Kaiser left his mark at The Brickyard.

Henry Kaiser and sons talk about the new Henry J  in 1950 film clip
This clip shows the first few minutes of a film promoting the 1951 model year Kaiser-Frazer cars in the lobby of San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel March 29, 1950. Featured are Henry J. Kaiser and his sons Edgar Kaiser and Henry Jr. The highlight of this show was the low-priced “Henry J,” named after K-F’s chairman, Henry J. Kaiser; here he explains that “The purpose is… [to address] the need for low-cost transportation.”  Production of six-cylinder models began in July 1950, and four-cylinder production started shortly after Labor Day, 1950. Sale to the public began September 28, 1950.


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