Motorsport: Remember The Ferrari Monoposto Corsa Indianapolis?

Remember The Ferrari Monoposto Corsa Indianapolis?

By James Gent
May 15, 2020

News that Ferrari is considering an IndyCar program in the wake of Formula 1’s proposed budget cap for 2021 has set many minds racing (pun very much intended) to not only the un-raced ‘637’ Indy prototype commissioned by Il Commendatore himself back in 1986, but also to the one and only time Ferrari entered America’s most famous oval race in 1952.

It didn’t go well.

Certainly the 375 Indianapolis developed for the event had the theoretical chops to get the job done. In its ‘F1’ guise after all, the 375 featured a stiff tubular steel chassis, independent wishbones fore and leaf springs aft, and a 4,382.09cc version of Aurelio Lampredi’s robust V12 capable of 350hp (a 15hp improvement of the 4.1-litre version mounted in the 375’s forebear, the 340 F1). On its debut at the 1950 Italian Grand Prix, the F1-spec 375 finished 2nd with Alberto Ascari behind the wheel – the Italian took over compatriot Dorino Serafini’s entry after, ironically, his own engine overheated – and with only eventual World Champion Giuseppe Farina ahead of him. One year later, the 375 won three times at the hands of Ascari (Reims and Monza) and Ferrari teammate José Froilán González (Spa-Francorchamps), took a further 10 podiums, and fell behind only eventual champion Juan Manuel Fangio in the standings. Hardly any shame in that!

In its Indianapolis guise, the 375 boasted a longer wheelbase, reinforced suspension and chassis, tipped the scales more than 60kg less than its F1 counterpart, and, most significantly, now punched 380hp from the lightly detuned 4382.09cc version of Lampredi’s V12. With Ascari once again behind the wheel, the debutant’s chances, on paper at least, seemed pretty good.

Unfortunately for Ferrari, the 1952 Indy 500 proved a disaster for the prancing horse. Of the four 375s commissioned for the race, only one of them – Ascari’s factory entry – qualified, and even that could only crack 19th on the 33-car grid. Johnnie Parsons, Bobby Ball, and Johnny Mauro’s customer entries meanwhile went no further than bump day, though Mauro’s #35 entry, now on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Musuem, was driven briefly by Ascari during free practice.

This being Ascari of course, the #12 had at least made its way into the top 10 before a buckled wire wheel, unable to withstand the Brickyard’s formidable loads, spat Italy’s only F1 World Champion into the wall after just 100 miles. That the Indy 500 was the only race the future two-time champion did not win in 1952 made the result all the more galling for Ferrari.

However, while it was one and done for Ferrari at the 500 in 1952, did you know Fiorano was actually gearing up for a second bite at the cherry in 1954? The project would see Farina take on the 500 for the first time, reigning World Champion Ascari having now departed for Maserati. Ultimately though, the gulf to the all-conquering Offenhauser inline-four cylinders as well as Ferrari’s extended sports car program – the team won its sixth consecutive Mille Miglia in 1953 and its maiden win as a factory entry at Le Mans in 1954 – meant the plan was quickly scrapped and work on its Indy prototype was discontinued.

Said prototype – chassis 0388 – was the sole example made that year, and it would be another 57 years before the completed Ferrari Monoposto Corsa Indianapolis finally made its official Fiorano debut in 2009. By which point, some considerable amount of water had flown beneath il ponte.

Unfinished, and sold to Ferrari’s official North American importer Luigi Chinetti in 1954, the Corsa Indianapolis was presented at the New York Motor Sports Show in January. Site, unfortunately for Chinetti, of Mercedes-Benz’ global debut of the brand new W 198 300 SL. Against Stuttgart’s future icon, chassis 0388 didn’t stand a chance.

Still, sunnier skies lay ahead. Just over a year later, and with future Olympic bobsledder Bob Said at the wheel, the Corsa Indianapolis made its competitive debut at the 1955 Daytona Speed Week GP, where the one-off Indy project posted an eyebrow-raising average speed of 170.53mph (just over 274kph) on the sands, and was just shy of grazing 175mph (281kph) that same day. In May 1956, 1950 F1 World Champion Farina made his Indy debut in that year’s Rookies’ Test, though the Italian would have to wait another year before making his event bow. Just a few weeks later, Carroll Shelby – yes, really! – drove the now privately-entered chassis 0388 in two SCCA-officiated hill climbs at Golden Jubilee in Indianapolis and on to an history result at Mount Washington: Shelby’s 10m 21.80s run at the aforementioned ‘Climb to the Clouds’ blew the event’s previous best – Sherwood Johnson’s 10m 44.8s from 1964 – completely out of the water, aided in no small part by the 375’s potent V12. The Texan’s record remained unbeaten until 1961.

Fittingly, its final race proved as inauspicious as its first, chassis 0388 – detuned to a regulatory 4.2 litres and now sporting the red, white and blue livery of the North American Racing Team – was entered for the second 500 Miglia di Monza in 1958 with former non-championship F1 race winner Harry Schell at the wheel. Once again, things went poorly: a solid if unspectacular 12th in Heat 1 was followed by crippling drivetrain problems and an eventual retirement for Schell in Heat 2.

Post-event, the Monoposto Corsa Indianapolis was returned home to Maranello for extended maintenance, its racing life now complete. Quite why further revisions were commissioned for the then-eight year old chassis 0388 in 1960 though, including a broader, F1-style coachwork by Italian engineer Carrozzeria Fantuzzi, is anybody’s guess: even Ferrari has only the original invoice to work with!

Still, revised bodywork or otherwise, Maranello’s fascinating one-off no less deserved its place in Fiorano’s Hall of Fame, and 50 years after retirement in 1958, restoration work began on the Monoposto Corsa Indianapolis as part of Ferrari’s dedicated Classiche program.

Working with existing assembly sheets from the early 1950s – the designated of parts and the model itself were actually codenamed ‘250 Indianapolis’ back in 1953 – Ferrari’s Classiche mechanics set to work overhauling the entire drivetrain, repairing or, where necessary, replacing, the clutch, suspensions, hubs, braking system, fuel tank, oil radiator, fuel tank and shock absorbers with ‘250’ designated components. The tubular chassis? Re-braced by specialist Gilco, albeit with only limited original designs to work with.

The engine? Therein lay a story itself. In early 1953, the design sheet laid out plans for a 2,963.45cc ‘Tipo 250 I’ unit with a single supercharger, but by the time chassis 0388 had made its way to Chinetti in North America in 1954, the Indy plug had been pulled and ‘Tipo 250 I’ had been yoked in favour of a modified version of the 375 Indianapolis’ 4.5-lite V12. The potential of the ‘Tipo 250’ on-track with chassis 0388 will forever remain a mystery.

After some considerable work had been done, the fully restored Monoposto Corsa Indianapolis finally made its Fiorano debut in December 2009, Ferrari test driver, and former F1 veteran, Marc Gené, turning the Corsa’s enormous wheels in anger ahead of assembled press and VIPs. More than half a century after its global debut in New York, chassis 0388 was finally getting its moment in the sun.

Further demonstration runs would follow. In November 2010, this time with leather cap donning, two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso at the helm, chassis 0388 led several demonstration laps at that year’s Ferrari World Finals in Valencia. Three years later, now on home turf at the Musei Ferrari in Modena, the Monoposto Corsa Indianapolis was on display alongside the F1 team’s 2013 F138 as Ferrari’s management presented a ‘three-dimensional preview’ of the brand new ‘059/3’ V6 the Scuderia would use in 2014. An innovative though oft-forgotten past meeting the future.

So, in short, we have a DNF finish in 1952, an abandoned campaign in 1954, a completed Rookies’ Test in 1956, and an unraced prototype from 1986. Few would argue that Ferrari has a lot of unfinished business at The Brickyard.

*Images courtesy of Ferrari, John Windsor Williams, and Indianapolis Motor Speedway

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Jon F. Beutler Jr.
Jon F. Beutler Jr.
3 years ago

Thank you so much for this article… I grew up hearing all about the Ferrari Indy cars as my
Grandfather owned one of the four while I was growing up. He had the Grant Piston Ring car which is at the Louwman Museum last I heard. I have some wonderful photos of that car including a nice one from Carroll Shelby when he took the car for a drive!

Jack B
Jack B
4 years ago

Excellent history.

4 years ago

Great story! Beautiful race Car, work of art. Your story adds a beautiful note to research done on the four 1952 375 Indy cars Ferrari brought to the USA. Ferrari built five and one crashed at the Turin Grand Prix. Only the works Ferrari qualified for the 1952 event and carried the number 12. Three 375s still exist in the USA but the works Ascari car was returned to Ferrari with the hopes of preparing a car for 1953.

Johnny Mauro (Denver, CO) invited me (age 15) to take a life changing seat in his, now Chinetti Blue, 375 Ferrari (Numbered 35) at the Pikes Peak Hill Climb at a practice run in 1954. This car now sits in the Indianapolis Museum in the Ferrari/Ascari livery but still carrying the Mauro #35. After not qualifying for the 1952 Indy 500, Mauro ran at Pikes Peak in 1952 (White livery as at Indy) and followed this event as an entrant to the ’52 Denver 100 mile AAA race at Centennial (yes, a dirt mile oval track) where he crashed.

After the 1952 Denver crash Mauro’s car was returned to the factory for repair with intent to enter the 1953 500 (registered for entry as #47). The car did not make it back in time but when returned it was Chinetti Blue (ordered to remain white), and entered in the 1954 Pikes Peak race. The Mauro car reappears again out of the museum in 2011 (still carrying #35) after revisiting the factory for a second refresh to be prepared to run at the 2011 British Grand Prix weekend driven by then-current Ferrari champion Fernando Alonso as a tribute to the sixtieth anniversary of Ferrari’s first World Championship Grand Prix win. More beautiful than ever.

Johnny Mauro has a second car in the Indianapolis 500 Museum, his magnificent Alfa Romeo Tipo 308 (running number 33). He ran this car at Pikes Peak in 1948 to 1950.

My personal race car experience? Being a gofer/helper on a 8 Cylinder blown Alfa Romeo powered champ car in 1957 at Pikes Peak. Much later I had the privilege for a time to be custodian for a restored 1947 Kurtis Kraft, Ford V8-60 midget. Though starting with Offy power in 1947, the long career ended in 1972 with a Ford 4 cylinder and a cage. When restored it was uncaged and authentically returned to a former Ford V8-60 powered configuration.

Great cars, great history, great men who created them, cared for them, competed in them, and now keep them alive and write to help us remember them. I suggest many more stories are waiting. Such as: “Grand Prix Cars race on Dirt”, “The Italian Pikes Peak connection” (Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Ferrari).


Jack B
Jack B
4 years ago
Reply to  bylund

Very nice memoir. Thanks for posting it.

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