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By May 11, 2015INDY

The Indy roadsters 1952-1964 the glory days of the Indianapolis 500.

By Hugh DePalma, Staff -Senior Writer

It was the era of the Indy roadsters 1952-1964 a time many consider to be the glory days of the Indianapolis 500. The popularity of the event progressed nationally even when competition was more gritty and less marketed. It was still the great American race because, even though those years were dominated by cars from Frank Kurtis (who debuted the first Offy roadster in 1952) and A.J. Watson, the most savvy and well-funded of backyard motorheads could still hope to build a car and qualify. Between Kurtis and Watson in Glendale and Eddie Kuzman, Lujie Lesovsky, and Quinn Epperly elsewhere in the Los Angeles area, Southern California was the hotbed for IndyCar builders. The local hot rodders saw what was going on firsthand and the rest of the world read about it in Hot Rod . The Indy 500 was something to which even average street racers aspired.

Today, the romance is compounded by the sleek lines of the vintage Indy front-engined roadster body style and the seemingly crude technology used to run frightening speeds in the open-cockpit racers virtually devoid of safety gear. The appeal of these roadsters has always compelled Tony Martinez, whose office at Memory Lane Auto Dismantlers in Sun Valley, California, overflows with scale models of historic open-wheel circle-track cars. Despite more than an acre of 40s and 50s Detroit iron behind his desk, the prize Tony was after was a real vintage race car. One day he was chatting with an old customer and mentioned the urge.An old Indy racer, huh?  said the customer. Got one in my attic I might be willing to let go.

The long-forgotten car turned out to be the 57-58 Bob Estes Special built at Estes Lincoln-Mercury in Inglewood, California. Most of the work was done by Jud Phillips, a dealership mechanic who later went on to Indy successes including crewchiefing the winning Bobby Unser car of 1968. Estes had owned Indy racers since 1951, and this  one was built specifically for the big race. It was notable at its time for its abnormally huge rear upright wing (that was handformed in fiberglass over a wooden buck stuffed with trash), and came to be known as The Wing Car. The wing was designed for aerodynamic stability, but drivers would later report that it worked too well in a straight line, making turns more difficult.

The car debuted in 1957 as No. 7 and was driven by Bob Veith in his second Indy 500 appearance (his first with Bob Estes). Veith qualified at 141.010 mph, earning a 16th Place starting position behind the Mercury Turnpike Cruiser pace car. He finished in Ninth Place, earning $5,969. The rest of the car?s life in 1957 is largely unknown, though we did find a photo of it crossed up on a dirt track in Trenton, New Jersey; presumably it made the rounds as a champ car.

The car number for 1958 was 26 and the driver was Don Freeland, an Indy veteran who had shoed other Estes Specials from 1953 to 1956. He qualified at 143.030 mph and started in 13th position right behind rookie A.J. Foyt, who spun on lap 148 and finished Seventh, earning $7,049. Photos of Freeland after the race show him soaked in oil from the knees down, which was standard for the Offy-powered racers. The 58 Indy is remembered for its opening-lap pileup in turn 3 that DNFd eight cars, sending Jerry Unser out of the park and killing Pat O?Conner. The Estes Special is seen in most of the photos of the crash as Freeland ducked into the infield to avoid the carnage.


Hugh DePalma, Staff -Senior Writer