The RACER Mailbag, January 12

Welcome to the RACER Mailbag. Questions for Marshall Pruett or any of RACER’s other writers can be sent to [email protected] Due to the high volume of questions received, we can’t guarantee that every letter will be published, but we’ll answer as many as we can. Published questions may be edited for style or clarity.

Q: It’s surprising to see 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’s. Did Hunter-Reay receive the Zach Veach treatment from Andretti Autosport, or is there more to the story?

Also, Takuma Sato leaving Rahal Letterman Lanigan was also unexpected. Is he bringing less Honda/Panasonic sponsorship to Coyne/RWR? Or is Christian Lundgaard bringing a bigger check to the RLL team?

Nolan Porter

MARSHALL PRUETT: There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s get rolling: I’d heard DHL was likely to leave after the COVID-affected 2020 season, which would have meant RHR’s time with the team could have come to a seriously premature end. Then I began to hear about a desire to do one more year together in the No. 28 Honda as a farewell tour, and from some of the comments made last year by the team when Grosjean was announced, RHR went into 2021 knowing it was his last with Andretti Autosport, so that aligns with what I’d heard on the driver side. Nothing Veach-like to see here.

DHL was/is a team sponsor, and while they are still attached to the No. 28 with Grosjean, the team did make it clear that other sponsors will be involved with the new GRO effort, which suggests we’ll see something other than the shipping company being the primary sponsor on the car at every round.

Sato leaving was something that should not have come as a surprise; we documented Sato’s expected departure from RLL at least a half-dozen times on RACER.com before it became official. Similar thing to RHR; heard 2020 was Sato’s last season with financial support from Honda/Panasonic to cover a fair portion of the operating costs for the No. 30 car at RLL. But then Taku went and won the Indy 500 for the brand and RLL, and there was no way Honda Japan was going to have its reigning Indy winner sitting on the sidelines for 2021.

After completing his final tour with RLL last year, I wasn’t sure if he’d continue since teams of similar caliber to RLL either had no available seats or required a sizable increase in sponsorship needs. Nonetheless, he and Dale Coyne and Rick Ware should be an interesting trio to watch this season. As for Lundgaard, the Renault/Alpine Academy he belongs to is believed to be a quality investor in his No. 30 Honda effort. The kid is seriously quick, so it looks like a wise decision.

Q: I’ve used Mailbag twice to ask about old IndyCars before, Once about the Parnelli VPJ 3 that was on the pole at Trenton in 1974 then disappeared. Another time about the Lightning, a Roman Slobodynskyj design of the late 1970s that looked sharp but never won a race.

This time I am going deep into the well of esoterica. My question is about the Cicada. In the mid 1970s, back when a design would race for three or four years, this car had a relatively undistinguished career, qualifying for a handful of races but never at Indy. It had a triangle shaped monocoque that somewhat resembled the 1972 Parnelli, and initially radiators placed high just behind the driver’s shoulders. It was driven by mid-fielders like Jigger Sirois and Dan Murphy.

What interests me about this car is a picture in a pitlane somewhere showing it with Ferrari prancing horse logos. I have read that at one point its creator had intended to use a Ferrari V12 from the 512S and 512M program. I would like to know more about this if possible. I followed USAC then, and I would have thought a Ferrari-powered IndyCar would have received more attention. How would a massive sports car V12 be effective in an IndyCar? Even in the 512 these engines look like beasts.

Finally, doing some research into the Lightning, I noticed that at least one car was adapted to the stillborn Drake V8. Another was fitted with a Cosworth DFX and driven by Pancho Carter. Considering this car was designed around a four-cylinder Offy, this seems like a difficult task. As an engineer, could you shed some light on this?

Steven Meckna, Long Beach CA

MP: I always love it when a fellow lover of obscure IndyCar designs raises their hand, and with the Cicada, I’ve had the good fortune to learn a lot about a car I knew very little about until you asked me to go on a journey of discovery.

I reached out to my pal Mike Lashmett from the Vintage Indy Registry series that runs a few times each year with IndyCar, and then spoke with Rick and Jacques Dresang from the Kettle Moraine Preservation & Restoration shop located near Wisconsin’s iconic Road America circuit, and across the three, I have enough to write a small book. But since the Mailbag isn’t meant to be the place where we do features, I’ll try and put something deeper together for May.

For now, here are a few snippets that might be of interest, and with more time, I’ll be able to verify or correct a few single-source items:

* The do-it-yourself Cicada Indy car was the creation of Plymouth, Wisconsin school teacher 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 that question would be no.

* A lot of home demolition and repair was required to free the Cicada.

* Weisse had a background in mechanical engineering, and it’s believed he also worked at a technical college teaching in that discipline.

* The Milwaukee-based (and renowned) Leader Cards 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.

The technically-minded amongst us can look at this shot of Dan Murphy failing to qualify the Cicada at Indy in 1975 and marvel at the the first hints of tall radiator cooling ducts, and the front suspension pullrods being attached to middle of the upper A-arms, rather than at the outer edge. The rest of us can look at the guy on the right and wonder who was the last person to wear patent leather shoes into the pits. IMS Photo

* Wisconsin’s Dan Murphy was also heavily involved with 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’s also said to have been one of few Americans at that time who was approved by Ferrari to rebuild its flat-12 engines.

* Legendary Indy 500 chief mechanic George Bignotti, who worked for Patrick Racing while the Cicada was most active, was fond of the little team and sold them pit equipment and a used Offenhauser engine to power the thing.

* Murphy had a huge crash in the car at Phoenix in 1974 and landed in the grandstands, but no spectators were in the area.

* The car went through a number of bodywork changes, with the giant radiator cooling ducts atop the sidepods coming towards the end of its time with the original design and ownership group.

* The Ferrari-loving and occasionally incarcerated real estate developer Walter Medlin got hold of the Cicada at some point afterwards, and that’s where the dream of replacing the Offy with a flat-12 road car-based Ferrari boxer engine came into play.

* In 1979, Medlin entered the Indy 500 with the car, and it did have Ferrari badging, but not the Ferrari engine. Bill Puterbaugh failed to qualify.

* Final race was at Milwaukee in 1979 where Puterbaugh finished 13th of 20 cars, dropping out after 69 laps.

* The Cicada remained in Medlin’s possession afterwards and was part of his vast car collection that was damaged when Hurricane Charley struck 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 said to live. According to one eyewitness, it was last seen with no motor, no transmission. I’ve found nothing 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 makes me love the mid-60s to mid-70s IndyCar era more than most. Regular people with a dream of competing at the Indy 500 would drum up the money and people needed to build a s***box from scratch and go test their ideas and skills against the best in the business. And there was no real barrier to entry.

So a schoolteacher like the late Mr. Weisse, who loved the 500 and had a valuable education to apply towards the creation of his own car, rallied the resources to live that dream. Even though the car was far from exceptional when pitted against Eagles and McLarens and other grand designs, it was capable of making the show at key events chosen by the Cicada team where they stood the best chance of making the field.

I cannot adequately describe how much I miss the ability for such things to happen today in IndyCar.