Among the many builders of Indianapolis 500 cars, the names Frank Kurtis, A.J. Watson and Quinn Epperly stand out, primarily for their work during the glorious era of the 1950s through the mid-1960s. Over the years, however, many other talented and resourceful builders turned their hands to the craft. One of these was Russell Snowberger. His heyday came during the so-called “Junk Formula” years, when Indy rules were skewed toward production engines.

Louis Rassey, the owner of a gas station and, later, a machine shop, was a racing aficionado who leapt headlong into the sport after World War II, using Snowberger chassis and Meyer-Drake Offenhauser power. Eugene Casaroll’s highly successful Automobile Shippers company sponsored Rassey’s entries at the Indianapolis 500 from 1946 through 1950. The car offered here from the Milhous Collection is confirmed as car number 36, entered by Louis Rassey as part of his two-car effort in the 1950 Indianapolis 500 and sponsored by Eugene Casaroll’s Automobile Shippers.

Driven by George Lynch, the car offered here did not manage to qualify for the rain-shortened race in 1950. Following Indianapolis, this Snowberger-Offy was extensively campaigned on the USAC circuit with a roster of colorful drivers whose names will be familiar to most fans of the era, including “Spider” Webb, Bill Schindler, Johnny Fredricks, George Hammond, Fred Agabashian and of course George Lynch, who piloted the car three additional times that year after Indianapolis. Its best finish for 1950 was during September at Pikes Peak, where Hammond finished in 4th.

Having enjoyed pride of place in the lobby of the Milhous Collection for years, it remains both a fitting tribute to the heroic era of American motorsports and a great example of the ingenuity and competitive spirit displayed annually at Indianapolis. As such, it wonderfully exemplifies America’s rich racing legacy.

SCM Analysis


This car, Lot 803, sold for $192,500 at the RM Milhous Collection auction on February 25, 2012.

Although Indianapolis has had a long, continuous — except for World War II — history of racing, the cars that raced have not been an equally continuous evolution. Particularly in the front-engined era, the cars fit into a series of rather distinct categories corresponding to the rules that were in effect at various times. A serious collection of American racing cars would ideally include examples of each of the categories, so an overview of what they are and how they fit together seems like a good place to start in understanding our subject car.

Riding mechanics

From the beginning through 1922 was the era of the two-person racers with a riding mechanic. They started out with huge engines (the 1911 Simplex used a 597-ci, 4-cylinder), but technology was improving almost daily, and by 1920, there was a 3-liter (181-ci) limit. The riding mechanic was necessary in this era for practical reasons; fuel pressure had to be kept up, tires needed changing, and all manner of parts broke on regular occasion.

Cars from this era were almost exclusively production-based, and manufacturers owned and entered the cars as a sales promotion. The private racer and professional team hadn’t been invented yet. These cars are extremely rare and are coveted anchors to a few major collections.

Gorgeous, ultra-expensive jewels

Beginning in 1923, the first big change in the rules ushered in the cars of the Roaring Twenties.

The cars had become purpose-built racers and were reliable enough that a riding mechanic was superfluous, so single-seaters took over. Technology had developed to a point that a 2-liter (122-ci) limit was put into place. The other big change was that the entrants had become almost strictly private teams that purchased or built their own cars and relied on prize money (or wealthy patrons) to pay the bills.

The result was race cars with no pretense of road usability. They were delicate, tiny little weapons for the dirt ovals and board tracks that flourished throughout the country and, of course, Indianapolis in May.

As supercharging became more effective, the engine limit was dropped again in 1926, to 1.5 liters (91-ci). The cars, mostly Millers by now, were absolute jewels, but racing was becoming prohibitively expensive. A top team could spend $50,000 just to run Indy — a stupendous amount when a new Chevrolet cost $600.

The Junk Formula era

Racing’s governing entity, the AAA, decided that something had to change, so they made rule changes — effective for the 1930 season — that essentially got rid of the purpose-built racers in favor of a less-expensive, production-based approach. This ushered in what has become known as the Junk Formula era. Two seats and a rider were required, supercharging was eliminated, and production-based engines up to 6 liters (366 ci) were allowed. Apparently this was not the result of the stock market crash of 1929, but the timing was right. The cars that ran during the “Junk” years were wonderfully diverse and interesting, and the racing was excellent and close (if not very fast). However, the cars from this era have never carried the panache or collector value of the ones that came before or later. Ironically, a production-based car never did win during the Junk Formula era, as the top cars were all Miller and Offy racers modified to fit the rules.

The age of the upright racers

Starting in 1937, with an improving economy and a greatly improved and safer Indy track, the decision was made to go back to a pure racing formula.

The International Grand Prix rules were implemented, which called for single-seaters with either 4.5-liter (272-ci) normally aspirated or 3-liter supercharged engine limits.

In theory, this would allow the great European teams to come race, but with World War II looming, this was not to be. Several Maseratis, Alfa Romeos and a single Mercedes were brought over — the Maserati with huge success — but the great majority of the field from 1938 through 1952, and particularly after the war, were Offenhauser 270-powered cars that served both on the dirt tracks and the Indy oval.

These cars were simple, inexpensive, and robust, and have become known as the “upright” cars, as the driver sat that way, straddling the drive shaft, with his head and shoulders way up high. Our subject car is an excellent example of this genre.

Indy roadsters

In 1952, Frank Kurtis was given the task of building a racer for the Cummins diesel people. They wanted to use a huge, turbocharged truck engine, and Kurtis decided to fit it in by laying it on its side with the driveshaft on the left beside the driver instead of under him. This both allowed the driver to sit very low in the car and moved a substantial portion of the car’s static weight onto the left wheels. In a speedway turn, the centrifugal force balanced the weight onto all four wheels for better grip. Aerodynamics and handling were both hugely improved. Although the Cummins Special did not win, a new design paradigm was instantly established, and within a few years, the upright cars were gone from Indy.

Instead of being tall and narrow, the new cars became low and wide. The new look reminded people of the hot-rod track roadsters that were racing in California. The name stuck, and Indy Roadsters became the final category of front-engined Indy racers, evolving and dominant until the mid-engined revolution of the 1960s made them obsolete.

Brutal to drive, pretty to see

With the exception of some of the production-based cars from the Junk Formula era of 1930-36, no Indianapolis racer from the 1920s to the present can be used for more than collection display and occasional “go scare yourself silly” outings. They can be judged on beauty, mechanical interest, rarity — and how well they fill an empty spot in somebody’s garage or museum.

Indy failure, but with a strong race history

The Snowberger we are considering today was markedly unsuccessful at Indy, but it is a real car with good history from the USAC championships of the 1950s and even Pikes Peak.

It has an iconic and striking appearance, with a great (and historically correct) color scheme — all the better to exemplify the glory and excitement that was Championship racing in its heyday. I’m told that it was assembled as a display piece, not a runner, but that’s okay, as it probably wasn’t bought to be one.

Compared with the cars it likely will (or certainly could) sit beside, it was not a lot of money to invest — the engine alone is worth a substantial chunk of what was paid. All in all, I would say it was fairly bought as an interesting and beautiful display piece.

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