STP Turbine Cars Were Indy Innovation at Its Finest
There was a time when the Indy 500 was the greatest technological hotbed in racing. In the early days of the 500, experimental cars and technical advancements came hot and heavy, from the very first race in 1911 marking the invention of the rear view mirror and the first true single-seat race car. For decades, Indianapolis was the proving ground for the newest and most advanced technologies in motorsports. Seatbelts, superchargers, magnesium wheels, low profile tires, and the legendary Offenhauser 4-cylinder all made their racing debut at the Brickyard, and for a while it seemed like Indy would be the center for new racing tech forever.
By the late 1960s, however, the golden age was long over. Racing’s cutting edge was being honed in places like Monaco, Spa-Francorchamps, and the Nürburgring, far from the Great American Raceway, and it showed in the racing of the time. After decades of evolutionary advancement, Indy was turned on its head by a wave of imports from Formula 1—rear engines and European drivers suddenly took over, with Jim Clark winning for Lotus in 1965 with a dominant performance.
However, there was still one more innovation to come out of the Brickyard: one last glimmer of hope for Indy’s innovation in a changing landscape. It came in 1967, and it came almost silently. When it first lined up for practice, it attracted everything from astonished stares to grandiose declarations of the future to actual threats against the team and its drivers. The STP Paxton Turbocar was radical, unlike anything the 500 had seen before or since.
Almost every part of the Turbocar was a marked departure from contemporary race cars, from the side-by-side chassis up. One the right side of its central space frame backbone was the cockpit, and on the left was a Pratt and Whitney ST6 aircraft turbine engine. The car had no transmission, instead driving power to all four wheels through a single-speed torque converter. Driving the new machine was bizarre, with driver Parnelli Jones reporting that the car would take off at idle unless the brake was held, and that the throttle would take up to three seconds to respond to input.
Because of this, other teams accused STP of sandbagging in the weeks leading up to the race. When qualifying rolled around, though, Jones was able to pilot the car to sixth on the grid. When the race began the Turbocar jumped into the lead almost immediately, and it looked like Parnelli Jones had victory well in hand until a bearing failure forced him to stop from the lead with three laps to go.
The next year, Granatelli teamed with Lotus to create the even more radical Lotus 56, and brought in Formula 1 ace Graham Hill in to drive alongside Joe Leonard and Art Pollard. The turbine moved from alongside the driver to just behind, and the wedge-shaped aerodynamic body pioneered the basic overall body shape (minus wings) that open-wheel cars would take and refine through the next decade. Despite efforts from the sanctioning body to slow the turbine cars down (restricting air intake size), Leonard took the lead early on, and again looked set to win late in the race after his teammates had dropped out, Pollard from a mechanical failure and Hill retiring after his car threw a wheel. Once again, though, the car failed just a few laps before the finish, this time from fuel pump failure, and the last great spark of Indy innovation was gone.
After 1968, the governing body at Indianapolis regulated the turbine cars into oblivion, and the Brickyard finally ceased to be the engine of racing’s creativity. But for a brief moment, Indy—and the turbine cars—looked set to change the racing world.