Brownstown starts races; Cummins goes back to start with Indy 500

Brownstown Speedway will finally open its 2020 racing season tonight with a full racing program consisting of pro late models, super stocks, pure stocks, modifieds and hornets.

Due to the state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, however, there will be no spectators allowed in the grandstand seating area.

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History of diesel engine cars in Indy

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It turns out that the story of diesel engine cars at Indianapolis actually starts with the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911.

Clessie Cummins, who started Cummins Engine Co., crewed for Ray Harroun, who won the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911. In 1919, he started Cummins in Columbus. Over the years, Cummins entered cars in the Indianapolis 500 in 1931, 1934 and 1950, in addition to the 1952 Indianapolis 500.

In 1952, Cummins made a profoundly serious attempt to win the Indianapolis 500. At that time, the rules allowed diesel engines to be 6.6 liters (400 cubic inches) in size compared to 4.5 liters for normally aspirated engines and 3.0 liters for supercharged engines. As a result, Cummins prepared a 400-cubic-inch 6-cylinder turbocharged diesel engine that produced 380 horsepower.

Cummins also worked closely with Kurtis Kraft to produce a sleek design for the Cummins Diesel Special. To that time, engines in race cars at Indianapolis had been in an upright position; however, with an engine that was much bigger than the other cars, this would result in a noticeably big car.

To overcome some of these size problems, the motor featured an aluminum block and head with a magnesium crank case. The engine was also laid 5 degrees off flat, which provided three advantages: Reduced center of gravity, reduced the frontal area and offset engine provided more weight on the left (inside) wheels.

The design of the Cummins Diesel Special was definitely longer and lower than the other cars in the field, but it was heavier due to the larger engine.

Cummins hired Freddie Agabashian to drive the Cummins Diesel Special. After the car was tested the first time, everyone who was involved knew it was an extremely fast car, so the Cummins team became very secretive. They said nothing.

Agabashian held back for much of the month of May during Indianapolis 500 preparations until pole day, either by lifting off on the back straight one lap or by cruising through a turn on another lap. He never completed a whole lap under full power so as not to draw attention to the car’s capability and risk having the rules changed.

Then at 5:45 p.m. on pole day, 15 minutes before the end of qualifying, Agabashian and the heavy 3,100-pound Cummins Diesel Special, fitted with a fresh engine, won the pole position for the Indianapolis 500 by setting an individual lap record of 139 mph and a record four-lap average of 138 mph.

This qualifying speed was more than 1 mph faster than the runner-up. During Indianapolis’ remaining qualifying days that year, other cars went faster, but the Cummins Diesel was on the pole.

The race did not go as well for the Cummins Diesel Special. The turbocharger inlet was clogged with rubber and other debris. The car had to retire after 70 laps, or 180 miles, as the clogging became too bad. The car is listed as finishing 27th.

Soon after, the rules were changed by taking away the use of large diesel engines. A diesel engine has never powered a race car in the Indianapolis 500 since that spectacular year of 1952 when the Cummins Diesel Special won the pole.

Agabashian was respected as a test driver, he was nicknamed “Doc” for his uncanny ability to diagnose what was wrong with a sick car. A regular in the AAA National Championship (now IndyCar) for two seasons, he earned a comfortable living racing midgets instead.

The eldest son of Armenian immigrants, Agabashian started racing those small cars during the mid-1930s and won the 1937 Northern California Racing Association title. He was the class of the field in BCRA midgets after World War II, winning the 1946 championship for Jack London and repeating that success the next two years, having switched to George Bignotti’s stable.

That prompted Agabashian to make his IndyCar debut in the 1947 Indianapolis 500 when he finished ninth with a Ross Page Kurtis-Duray. He scored his only IndyCar victory in what was only his fourth start in the National Championship.

His J.C. Agajanian Kurtis-Offenhauser started from pole position on Sacramento’s California State Fair dirt oval in October 1949, and Agabashian led all but two laps that day to win at an average speed of 84.486 mph.

He was a full-time IndyCar driver in 1950, qualifying the Wynn’s Friction Proofing Kurtis-Offy on the front row at Indy and scoring two top-five finishes.

He qualified Andy Granatelli’s Elgin Piston Pin Kurtis KK500B-Offy on the front row again in 1953 and finished fourth in the hottest race in history with Paul Russo driving as his relief from Lap 105. Sixth at the finish in 1954, fourth on the grid in 1955 and 1957, Agabashian retired from the sport after failing to qualify for the 1958 Indy 500.

He then joined the Champion Spark Plug company and worked as an analyst on radio broadcasts of the Indianapolis 500 between 1959 and 1965 and again from 1973 to 1977. He is a member of both the National Midget Hall of Fame and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame.

This week in racing history

From 50 years ago at Brownstown, Jack Owens won the late model feature over Paul Crockett, Teako Ray, Dennis Boknecht and Junior Pace.

From 40 years ago at Brownstown, Ray Godsey won the late model feature race over Paul Crockett, Ira Bastin, Buck Ridenour and Roger Absher. Tony Moore won the hobby stock feature over John Mull, jack Taylor, Cooley Singer and Tony Godsey.

From 40 years ago at Twin Cities, Russ Petro won the late model feature over Dee Kramer, Tom Wieck, Jay Wilkens and Gary Herbert. Russ Smiley won the street stock feature over Bob Johnson, Dan Sallee and Don Walp.

Also, from 1980 at Haubstadt, Larry Gates won the sprint car feature race over Cliff Cockrum, Rick Ungar, Chuck Amati and Rickey Hood. Paul Crockett won the late model feature over Tom Helfrich, Fred Gerteisen, Mike Wallace and Dusty Chapman.

From 40 years ago at Putnamville, Roger Absher won the late model feature race over Larry Taylor, Terrence Johnson, Steve Barnett and Charlie Reed.

From 30 years ago at Bloomington Speedway, Chuck Amati won the sprint car feature over Gary Hayhurst Jr., Bob Kinser, Tray House and Gary Trammell.

From 20 years ago at Brownstown, Scott James won the Kenny Simpson Memorial Race over Jim Curry, Don O’Neal, C.J. Rayburn and Mark Barber. Todd Gilpin took the modified feature race over Darren Davis, John DeMoss, Matt Boknecht and Clint DeMoss. Robert Green grabbed the bomber feature over Josh Hayes, Greg hicks, Ben Baker and Jennifer Johnson.

From 10 years ago at Brownstown, Mark Barber won the pro late model feature over Steven Godsey, Zak Blackwood, Scott Graham and Alan Magner. John DeMoss won the modified feature over Devin Gilpin, Richie Lex, Clint DeMoss and Ryan Thomas. Cody Vanosdol won the pure stock main event over Jeremy Owens, Danny Hupp, Brent Howard and Mickey Hines. Bubba Woods took the bomber feature over Keaton Streeval, Aaron Fields, Josh Turner and Kelly Lee.