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Quirky ‘sidecar’ racer hit with fans


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YOU would have thought that after 14 Old Timers reunions, Jerry Castor would have run out of surprises to stage for the diehard racing fans of Columbus.

Guess again.

Saturday, Jerry — who’s been deeply involved in a variety of racing interests for more than half a century — will throw open the doors of the Community Building at the 4-H Fairgrounds (11 a.m. to 5 p.m.), and visitors to this year’s get-together will come face to engine with the strangest-looking race car that ever tried to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.

I suspect that this will top all the other cars that have been showpieces at the previous reunions, if for no other reason than it had a sidecar in which the driver sat.

 

What makes this historic entry even more special is that it was designed by the immortal and irreverent “Smokey” Yunick, who managed in his career to skirt just about every rule that racing associations put in place.

Smokey already had made his mark in racing by 1964, when car owner George Hurst offered him $40,000 to build an entry for that year’s race.

A lot of that reputation was centered on Smokey’s penchant for skirting the rules set by the establishment.

“NASCAR had a rule restricting the amount of fuel that could be carried in the car,” Jerry recalled. “Smokey put a basketball in the fuel tank. He would inflate the ball, fill the tank and when NASCAR emptied the tank, it held the required amount of fuel. After the inspection, Smokey would deflate the ball, leaving room for at least another gallon.”

His idea for a car in the ’64 Indy race was just as radical. In essence the car came in two pieces, or capsules.

The transmission, rear end, engine, radiator and fuel tank were housed in one container, and the driver sat alongside in another capsule.

Smokey had billed the entry as the “capsule car,” but it took only one look for all others to dub it the “sidecar” entry.

It looked even more odd on the track, but despite the unusual design, Smokey made a legitimate run at getting it into the race.

On the last day of qualifying in 1964, driver Bobby Johns took it out on the track, but apparently still unfamiliar with its steering characteristics, backed it into a wall.

That ended another grand experiment. Any fame the car might have attracted was obscured a few days later in the race itself by the tragic “fireball” accident in which popular driver Eddie Sachs lost his life.

Fortunately, 500 historians are famous for their pack rat mentality.

The sidecar’s racing days might have ended on that last day of qualifying almost 50 years ago, but the car itself was recognized as a valuable relic for the Speedway Museum, where it’s been on display for several years and is arguably one of the most popular attractions.

Jerry has long had friends in high places, and one of them is Bill Spoerle, head of restoration at the Indianapolis 500 Museum.

Bill has provided exhibits for a number of past reunions, but I’d have to put this year’s “loan” at the top of the list when it comes to fan interest.

The reunion itself has become one of the county’s traditions. It was developed in 1998 when Jerry and fellow race fan Dave Norris came up with an idea to revive memories of Columbus’ racing history, especially as it applied to the old 25th Street Fairgrounds track and Columbus Speedway, which in the first half of the 20th century was a Central Indiana racing Mecca just off Indiana 7.

That first reunion in 1999 at the National Guard Armory near Columbus Municipal Airport was so successful that the promoters expanded it over the years.

Dave has since moved to Florida, but Jerry has kept the project going, building interest beyond local racing history to include forms of racing other than the dirt-track variety, which were the hallmarks of the fairgrounds and Speedway ovals.

One highlight of the reunions has been the dedication of each event to a “hometown hero.”

This year’s honoree is Ted Pfeiffer of Freetown, a popular driver at both of the local tracks who competed in USAC sprint car events in the early ’60s.

Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be contacted at 379-5620 or harry@therepublic.com.

 

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