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Column: Old Timers event to feature Cummins’ ’52 Indy 500 entry


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All things considered, Greg Littleton is having a pretty good rookie season.

This is his first year as primary coordinator for the 25th Street Raceway, Columbus Speedway Old Timers Reunion, an event that for the past 15 years has been put together by promoter Jerry Castor. He bowed out of active leadership after the 2013 reunion because of health problems and turned responsibility over to Greg.

He’s hardly a newbie at the reunion, which was created by Castor and Dave Norris, another fixture on the local automotive scene, to honor the history of two famous but long gone Columbus racing venues — the 25th Street Fairgrounds Raceway and the Columbus Speedway near Clifty Creek. In fact, he’s exhibited his collection of racing memorabilia at each of the previous reunions.

Over the years the reunion has been expanded to feature not only the two former speed locales but the area’s place in the bigger world of auto racing. And that’s why this is turning out to be a pretty good debut year for Greg.

He is a fan of roadsters and their history in racing. He’s even published a coffee table book, “The Roadsters at Indianapolis — Glory Days,” which includes stories and photos of all the roadsters that ran in the Indianapolis 500.

He’s carried that love of roadsters into this year’s reunion, landing for display one of the most famous roadsters in Indianapolis 500 history. It’s certainly the most famous roadster in Columbus history: the 1952 Cummins Engine Co. entry in the Indianapolis 500 — Fred Agabashian’s No. 28.

It has a special place in Indianapolis 500 history because it was the first turbocharged engine to be entered in the fabled race. It didn’t stop there. Driven by veteran Agabashian, the diesel-powered car won the pole position for the 1952 spectacle, qualifying at a record-breaking average of 138.10 mph.

Greg doesn’t get sole credit for the upcoming public display of No. 28. For the past several years, the brightly colored racer has been available for viewing in an area just off the main reception area of the Cummins Inc. Corporate Headquarters. It’s not exactly been kept under wraps, but over the years, few people, especially local residents, have taken the opportunity to see it up close and personal.

It’s been taken out of the building in the past but primarily for trade shows and exhibitions. This is the first time in many years that it’s been on public display locally outside the Cummins building. It’s been made available because of a renewed commitment to Cummins history by company officials.

Spotlighting that history has been a hit-and-miss situation over the company’s 95-year history. It’s become a hit situation in recent years as evidenced by the development of a company archives in the Irwin Conference Center, formally the headquarters of Irwin Union Bank and Trust Co.

Interest and pride in the company history were demonstrated last year when a standing-room-only crowd of employees turned out at YES Cinema to hear a presentation by Lyle Cummins, son of company founder Clessie Cummins.

One of the prime movers in this renewed commitment to company history has been Jeff Jones, vice president of sales and marketing.

“We definitely plan to be much more visible in presenting the company’s history as we approach our 100th anniversary (2019),” Jeff said last week. “Obviously the company’s involvement in racing is a big part of that history.”

“I think that this upcoming display of the 1952 car at the reunion stems primarily from Jeff Jones and his team,” said Bruce Watson, who is refurbishing the Agabashian-driven car in a garage just off Gladstone Avenue. “This is just another way to not only preserve but promote the company’s history.”

Bruce is not exactly restoring the car. Actually, it’s not in need of any restoration, especially in the looks department. The turned-on-its-side engine literally gleams, and the red and orange exterior colors are as bright as they were in 1952, not bad since most of the paint is the original.

The car occupies a unique place in local history, especially to those who worked at the engine company. It’s a vital part of the Cummins-Indianapolis 500 history that began in 1931 when the No. 8 car driven by Dave Evans and co-piloted by Thane Hauser (riding mechanics were a fixture in early 500s) ran the entire 500 miles without a pit stop.

That was followed by two Cummins entries in the 1934 race. The company took a break from racing but returned to the 500 in a car dubbed the Green Hornet and driven by Jimmy Jackson in 1950.

Ironically, the 1952 No. 28 was arguably the most successful Cummins entry in the 500, but it would be the last. Cummins was the major sponsor of the 1987 Holset entry that won the 500, but that was primarily a financial commitment, nothing like the deep involvement of the company and some of its key people in the earlier ventures.

The 1931 car is at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum today, but three of the other cars — those from 1934, 1950 and 1952 — are being refurbished locally.

“Actually, the cars in 1934 were kind of interchangeable,” said Bruce. “They would cannibalize and exchange parts from each of them as needed. In fact, they took parts from the 1931 car and used them in 1934.”

The body for the 1952 car was developed by Kurtis-Kraft, a renowned design and engineering firm that is still an institution in Speedway history, but the engine was all Cummins.

Don Cummins, vice president for engineering for Cummins at the time, headed the effort. His chief engineer was Nev Reiners. Other key individuals involved were Fritz Brinkman and Bob DeWeese.

The development of the engine was closely followed in Columbus through The Evening Republican. As race day neared, excitement built, and people in the community behaved as if they had a team in the state basketball championship.

One local bar advertised its drink special for the month of May, naming it after Agabashian. “Drink this and it’ll be like you’re driving 138.10 miles per hour” proclaimed one advertisement.

There is no way to determine how many people from Columbus attended the race, but Cummins chartered 12 buses just for its employees. Hundreds more drove by car.

In a way most in the local crowd were quickly disappointed. Although he started from the pole position, Agabashian gave up his lead and drifted back into the field. He eventually brought the car back to fifth place, but after 100 miles he was forced to head back to the pits for good.

While that was disappointing, the ’52 car and its predecessors had made an important contribution to the eventual success of the engine company. Years after the pole-winning performance, Don Cummins suggested that the publicity for No. 28 had driven enormous engine sales around the country.

It also had carved out a place in history for the low-slung racer, a history that local race fans can enjoy at the Old Timers Reunion. Those who were alive at the time and worked at Cummins Engine Co. are entitled to a special pride.

Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at harry@therepublic.com.

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