The RACER Mailbag, January 12
Welcome to the RACER mailbag. Questions for Marshall Pruett or any of the other RACER editors can be sent to [email protected] Due to the high volume of questions received, we cannot guarantee that every letter will be published, but we will answer as many questions as possible. Posted questions may be edited for style or clarity.
Q: It’s surprising that DHL is sponsoring Romain Grosjean next year and not following Ryan Hunter-Reay to a new team. I thought DHL was a personal sponsor of Hunter-Reay. Did Hunter-Reay get the Zach Veach treatment from Andretti Autosport, or is there more to the story?
Additionally, Takuma Sato leaving Rahal Letterman Lanigan was also unexpected. Does he bring less Honda/Panasonic sponsorship to Coyne/RWR? Or does Christian Lundgaard bring a bigger check to the RLL team?
MARSHALL PRUETT: There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s get to it: I had heard that DHL was likely to leave after the COVID-affected 2020 season, which would have meant that RHR’s time with the team could have end seriously prematurely. Then I started to hear of a desire to do one more year together in the #28 Honda as a farewell tour, and from some of the comments the team made last year when Grosjean was announced, RHR entered 2021 knowing it was his last with Andretti Autosport, so that matches what I had heard from the driver’s side. Nothing like Veach to see here.
DHL was/is a sponsor of the team, and while they are still attached to No. 28 with Grosjean, the team has made it clear that other sponsors will be involved in the new GRO effort, which suggests that we we will see something other than the shipping company being the main sponsor of the car at each round.
Sato’s departure was something that shouldn’t have been a surprise; we documented Sato’s planned departure from RLL at least half a dozen times on RACER.com before it became official. Something similar to RHR; understood that 2020 was Sato’s last season with financial support from Honda/Panasonic to cover a good portion of the running costs of the #30 car at RLL. But then Taku went to win the Indy 500 for the marque and RLL, and there was no way Honda Japan would have its reigning Indy winner sitting on the sidelines for 2021.
After completing his final tour with RLL last year, I was unsure if he would continue as teams of similar caliber to RLL either had no available spots or required a huge increase in sponsorship requirements. Nonetheless, he and Dale Coyne and Rick Ware should be an interesting trio to watch this season. As for Lundgaard, the Renault/Alpine Academy to which he belongs is considered a quality investor in his Honda project n°30. The kid is very fast, so it looks like a wise move.
Q: I’ve used Mailbag twice before to ask about old Indy cars, once about the Parnelli VPJ 3 that was on the pole at Trenton in 1974 and then disappeared. Another time about the Lightning, a Roman Slobodynskyj design from the late 1970s that looked sharp but never won a race.
This time, I’m going to the bottom of the well of esotericism. My question is about the cicada. In the mid-1970s, when a design would run for three or four years, this car had a relatively poor career, qualifying for a handful of races but never Indy. It had a triangle-shaped monocoque that looked a bit like the 1972 Parnelli, and initially high-placed radiators just behind the driver’s shoulders. It was piloted by midfielders like Jigger Sirois and Dan Murphy.
What interests me about this car is a photo in a pit lane showing it somewhere with the Ferrari prancing horse logos. I read that at one time its creator intended to use a Ferrari V12 from the 512S and 512M program. I would like to know more if possible. I followed USAC at the time, and I would have thought a Ferrari-powered IndyCar would have received more attention. How would a massive V12 sports car perform in an IndyCar? Even in the 512, these motors look like beasts.
Finally, while researching the Lightning, I noticed that at least one car fitted the stillborn Drake V8. Another was fitted with a Cosworth DFX and piloted by Pancho Carter. Considering this car was designed around a four-cylinder Offy, that seems like a tall order. As an engineer, could you enlighten us on this?
Steven Meckna, Long Beach, CA
MP: I always love when another lover of obscure IndyCar designs raises their hand, and with the Cicada I got the chance to learn a lot about a car I knew very little about until you were asking me to go on a voyage of discovery.
I contacted my friend Mike Lashmett of the Vintage Indy Registry series which runs several times a year with IndyCar, then spoke with Rick and Jacques Dresang of the Kettle Moraine Preservation & Restoration store near the iconic Road America circuit of Wisconsin, and through all three, I have enough to write a little book. But since the Mailbag isn’t supposed to be where we do features, I’ll try to put something deeper together for May.
For now, here are a few snippets that you might be interested in, and with more time I can check or correct a few single-source items:
• The DIY Cicada Indy car was created by Plymouth, Wisconsin schoolteacher Harvey Weisse who, and this is my favorite part, built the car in his basement.
• Among the logical questions you might ask next is whether Mr. Weisse had a basement with some form of large opening to easily remove the cicada once it was finished. The answer to this question would be no.
• Many house demolitions and repairs were necessary to free the Cicada.
• Weisse had a background in mechanical engineering, and it is believed that he also worked at a technical college teaching that discipline.
• The Milwaukee-based (and renowned) Leader Card team tried the car at Indy in 1972 but it wasn’t fast enough. Bruce Walkup, Bob Harkey and Jerry Karl are said to have given it a whirl.
• Wisconsin’s Dan Murphy was also heavily involved in the Cicada, and beyond driving the car to its best finish of seventh at Michigan in 1974 where high attrition provided a flattering result, he would also have been one of rare Americans at the time to be approved by Ferrari to rebuild its flat-12 engines.
• Legendary Indy 500 chief mechanic George Bignotti, who worked for Patrick Racing when the Cicada was most active, liked the small team and sold them pit gear and a used Offenhauser engine to power the thing .
• Murphy had a huge car accident in Phoenix in 1974 and landed in the stands, but no spectators were in the area.
• The car has undergone a number of body changes, with the giant radiator cooling ducts atop the sidepods arriving towards the end of its era with the original design and ownership package.
• Ferrari-loving and sometimes incarcerated property developer Walter Medlin snapped up the Cicada at one point, and it was there that the dream of replacing the Offy with a Ferrari boxer engine based on a road car flat 12 came into play.
• In 1979, Medlin entered the Indy 500 with the car, and it had the Ferrari badge, but not the Ferrari engine. Bill Puterbaugh failed to qualify.
• The last race was at Milwaukee in 1979 where Puterbaugh finished 13and of 20 cars, retiring after 69 laps.
• La Cigale remained in Medlin’s possession thereafter and was part of its extensive car collection which was damaged when Hurricane Charley hit Florida.
• The car reappeared in the mid-2000s, seen on a large open car hauler, and was moved from Florida to Indianapolis.
• Medlin maintains a private collection in Indianapolis where the car is believed to live. According to an eyewitness, it was last seen without an engine or transmission. I couldn’t find anything to suggest a Ferrari engine was fitted to the car after its racing days were over.
Cars like the Cicada are one of the many things that make me love the IndyCar era of the mid-60s to mid-70s more than most. Ordinary people who dream of competing in the Indy 500 would find the money and the people to build as *** box from the ground up and go test their ideas and skills against the best in the business. And there was really no barrier to entry.
So a teacher like the late Mr. Weisse, who loved the 500 and had a valuable education to apply to creating his own car, gathered the resources to live out that dream. Although the car was far from exceptional when taking on Eagles and McLarens and other big shots, it was able to put on a show at key events chosen by the Cicada team where they had the best chance. to qualify.
Installing a wide and long Ferrari engine – I was told it would come from a 512BB road car – would have lengthened the Cigale’s wheelbase, thrown a ton of weight out the back and would have turning into a nightmare. And unless they had bolted turbos on the thing, it would have been very disadvantageous in terms of power. Idea lost in all respects. As for the Lightning, it was a streamline beauty with the Offy turbo installed. Swapping it out for a Cosworth DFX wouldn’t have been a major challenge as metal fabrication was an expertise found in every team and trying out new and different engines wasn’t uncommon. At some point, every serious team powered by Offy had to make the same change to the conquering DFX in the late 1970s to stay competitive.
I cannot adequately describe how much I miss the possibility of such things happening today in IndyCar.