Gas turbine racing cars? Yes, that really was a thing in the Sixties and briefly it looked as if it was the future, as Richard Heseltine uncovers the story of the Trackburner…
From here to obscurity
Richard Heseltine’s weird and wonderful American cars from the past.
The Sixties witnessed a seismic shift in how IndyCars were designed. The front-engined Roadsters were on borrowed time the moment Jack Brabham and the Cooper Car Company rocked up for the 1961 running of the Indianapolis 500 and prompted jaws to slacken with their pace despite a serious horsepower deficit. Mid/rear-sited engines were clearly the way to go, even if several regulars at The Brickyard were slow to comprehend which way the wind was blowing. Not only that, it wasn’t just the positioning of engines that was undergoing a transformative period. For much of the decade, it appeared as though piston-power was about to be usurped by gas turbines. The car pictured here led the charge.
It’s just that few noticed. Strictly speaking, such methods of motive power were nothing new as a gas turbine-engined Kurtis Kraft-based offering dubbed ‘SAC Fire Boid’ (yes, really…) was used for demonstration purposes as far back as 1955.
What’s more, it had the support of USAF General Curtis ‘Bombs Away’ LeMay (himself a sometime Allard racer,) as it was used as a rolling billboard to promote high-tech careers in the Strategic Air Command.
It was later employed by Firestone for testing purposes. Three years later, the Boeing Aircraft Company approached Frank Kurtis to design a racing car with a turbine engine at the rear, but plans came to naught after the Indy 500 organising body, USAC, were either uncooperative or merely lackadaisical in providing assistance, depending on whose version of history you believe. Boeing didn’t want to go to the trouble and expense if its promotional tool wouldn’t be allowed to race.
Then came the car pictured here. For 1962, the winning entrant from the 1955 and ’56 running of the Indy 500, John Zink, teamed up with Boeing for another stab. This time, a car was actually constructed; a rear-engined and turbine-powered device conjured by Zink’s chief mechanic, Denny Moore. As with all of Zink’s cars, it was dubbed ‘Trackburner’. In the run up to the 1963 Indy 500, the car was tested at Zink’s private 5/8-mile circuit, only to crash first time out. Following this inauspicious debut, this brave new world was rebuilt and transported to Indianapolis where it was to be driven in the race by Dan Gurney. Contrary to several press reports from the period, ‘Handsome Dan’ was no mere newbie. He may have lacked experience in the great race, but he had already claimed honours in Formula One. Nevertheless, the Californian was obliged to undergo a ‘rookie test’ in a front-engined Roadster and, having passed with flying colours, he set about qualifying the latest strain of Trackburner. The car proved painfully slow thanks in no small part to horrendous throttle lag, to the point that he jumped ship and raced Mickey Thompson’s controversial Buick V8-engined ‘funny car’ instead.
Veteran charger Duane Carter was then given the task of making the cut in the Trackburner, but the 49-year-old couldn’t find the necessary pace. He ended up driving a front-engined Roadster in the race.
A third driver, Bill Cheesbourg, then had a stab, but he too couldn’t get it up to speed. Zink then threw in the towel and parked the car. It was left to other turbine-equipped single-seaters to prove the concept in future years, even if none ever claimed honours in the Indy 500.