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.
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.
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 27 th. The engine was retired midway through when the turbocharger inlet became clogged with tire rubber debris from the track.
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.