(first posted 4/2/2014) Jimmy Bryan won the 1958 Indy 500 driving for car owner/builder George Salih. Salih was an engineer and foreman for Meyer-Drake, the Los Angeles firm that produced the Offenhauser engine that won Indy from 1947 through 1964. In four of those races-1954, ‘55, ‘59 and ‘60, the entire field was made up of Offy power. Only Paul Russo in a Novi, (start 8, fin 33) in ‘56, and again in ‘57 (start 10, fin 4) nosed out Offys in those years.
The car that Bryan drove in ‘58, the Belond AP Exhaust Special, had also won the year before with Sam Hanks, an Indy veteran, behind the wheel. After Hanks accepted his quart of milk in the winner’s circle, he promptly retired from racing.
Salih was the creator of the laydown concept, and he built the chassis for the two 500 winners. The aluminum bodies and fuel tanks were built by another Indy legend, Quin Epperly who had begun his Indy car/sprint car career building aluminum bodies for Frank Kurtis after WWII. Interestingly, Salih’s laydowns won in ‘57 and ‘58 and cars built by Epperly came in second both times. After 1958 a laydown never again won the 500 although both Salih and Epperly remained involved at Indy until 1964.
What made the Belond AP Specials unique was the fact that Salih lay the Offy on its side, or nearly so, to achieve a lower center of gravity, as well as endowing the cars with some possible aerodynamic improvements.
Not surprisingly this arrangement was known as a “laydown” design. Salih’s laydown won its first two 500s, but that was it. As late as 1962 Bobby Marshman qualified on the outside pole with an Epperly laydown and finished fifth. The last laydown, also an Epperly, qualified 33rd in 1964 and finished 16th in the hands of Bill Cheesbourg. That was the end of the elegant laydowns and the last time a front engine car won (AJ Foyt in a Watson) the 500.
As a kid I devoured the info published on the back of the photo. One item that particularly intrigued my ten year-old mind was that the tires were filled with nitrogen. Sounded pretty exotic to me. I didn’t realize that what I was inhaling with each breath was about 80% nitrogen.
Its interesting that some tire dealers, such as Costco, make a big deal out of using only nitrogen today. In the days of bias-ply racing tires, chassis tuners did everything they could to keep tire sizes as stable as possible, and one way to do that was to run nitrogen. They probably could have run plain old atmosphere had they put enough driers on the output side of their air compressors, as it’s the water vapor that expands as the tires come up to temperature.
Anyhow, these days with everyone running radials, which don’t grow in diameter to the extent bias-plys did, it’s not as important, but tire dealers and Jay Leno like to pretend that this isn’t the case.
About a year ago Replicars announced a 1/18 replica of the Bryan/Salih 1958 Indy winner. I generally don’t collect cars this big-parking has become a problem, nor this expensive, but I’d been in love with this car since my dad gave me the Mobil promotional photo many years ago. So I bought it.
The detail on the car is commensurate with the cost, so I guess it was worth it.
George Salih financed the construction of the car out of his own pocket but was fired from Meyer-Drake for spending too much time at Indy. Salih died in 1984 just short of his 70th birthday. He is a member of the Racing Hall of Fame.
Jimmy Bryan died in 1960 at the age of 34 of injuries sustained at the Langhorne Speedway just north of Philadelphia, a fast but treacherous one-mile dirt oval, while driving a USAC Champ Car.
Bryan is a member of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and The Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. He was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in part for his winning the Race of Two Worlds at Monza, Italy in 1957.
There has been confusion as to who built the car that Hanks and Bryan drove to wins in the ‘57 and ‘58 Indy 500. Some sources claim that Quin Epperly was the builder, as he indeed was for the Demler Spl that finished second in the ‘58 500. But in correspondence with Phil Reilly, a noted restorer of Indy and Formula 1 cars, Reilly emphatically states that the Belond Spl was built in Salih’s home garage in Whittier, CA. Epperly did contribute sheet metal work (aluminum) such as the oil tank, seat and body, but the concept for the laydown and the construction was all Salih. Salih and Epperly worked closely together and Epperly had Salih’s permission to build his own version of the laydown, as evidenced by the Demler Spl. and a number of other, later, laydowns.
Reilly and his staff restored this car prior to its appearance at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 1998.
The bark of an Offy is memorable. It’s a bucket list item. Find one. Listen to it. Die happy.
This photo gives a good indication of a laydown, in this case the #54 Epperly driven by Bobby Marshman, relative to the Watson dinosaurs. Marshman qualified on the outside pole at 149.347 mph and finished 5th; #3 Rodger Ward in a Watson qualified in the middle of the front row at 149.371 mph and won the race; and Parnelli Jones in the #98, also a Watson, qualified on the pole at 150.370 mph and finished 7th. Parnelli was the first driver to qualify at over 150 mph and would win the 500 in 1963.
Phil Reilly in the blue shirt has a soft spot for the Laydowns as he has two in his collection. The #33 Bignotti-Bowes Spl was driven to a 6th place finish by Johnny Boyd in 1959. The #5 Bignotti-Bowes Spl was driven to a 25th place finish in 1960 by A.J. Foyt.
The #5 began life in 1959 as a Kurtis laydown and was driven at Indy by Jud Larson. Larson only qualified the car 19th and was caught up in a four-car wreck on lap 45 finishing 29th. Following the race the car was sent to Epperly’s shop in California where it received a new frame and bodywork forward of the seatback along with an Epperly front axle and steering. In 1960 A.J. Foyt qualified the car 16th and finished 25th at the 500 when the clutch gave out. Later that year Foyt finished 2nd in both Milwaukee races and 3rd at Trenton, the only other paved tracks on the USAC trail other than Indy.
Reilly just doesn’t rebuild and restore vintage race cars, he also drives them. Reilly’s shop is in Corte Madera, Marin Co., CA, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
I would like to thank Phil Reilly for the time he has taken to answer my questions, the insight he provided, and for the photos that he supplied.
Check out Phil’s web site: http://www.philreillycompany.com
A detailed technical comparison of the “laydown” and upright roadsters is here