Courtesy of Worldwide Auctioneers
  • Fifth-place finisher at 1957 Indianapolis 500 with Andy Linden
  • “Smokey” Yunick’s first Indianapolis 500 entry (1958)
  • Driven at Indy in 1958 by Motorsports Hall of Fame inductee Paul Goldsmith
  • AACA Senior First Place Award and Race Car Certification
  • Multiple awards; appearances include 2005 Goodwood Festival of Speed
  • Great presence; offered in top operating and show condition
  • Crowd pleaser with “Offy” power and onboard starter

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1957 Kurtis Kraft 500G Indy Racer
Years Produced:1953–60 (classic Indy Roadsters)
Number Produced:Approximately 50 Kurtis, 120 total various makers
Original List Price:$20,000 ($10k for chassis, $10k for engine)
SCM Valuation:$308,000 (this car)
Chassis Number Location:Tag on frame in engine compartment
Club Info:Historic Champ/Indy Car Association
Alternatives:1952–60 various manufacturers Indy Roadsters
Investment Grade:A

This car, Lot 30, sold for $308,000, including buyer’s premium, at the Worldwide Auctioneers’ sale in Scottsdale, AZ, on January 17, 2018.

I wrote this paragraph over 13 years ago and it still applies: “There’s something about Indy Roadsters that just oozes ’50s Americana. They’re the big, muscular farm boys with butch haircuts, a trucker’s tan and an aggressive smile, sort of daring you to take them on. They never went to college for all that sophistication stuff, never saw much reason to. They’re all about being real strong, fast against their peers, and lookin’ good to the others at the drive-in.”

In the 1950s, America stood confidently astride the world with “can do” optimism and a cocky assurance that the way we did things was always the best. If globalization even existed as a word, it meant us showing the rest of the world how to do things better. Sophistication, tact, and humility were attributes for a different time and place; at that time, the racing cars that had evolved in the U.S. specifically to succeed in American automobile racing ruled our imaginations.

A better race car

The evolution of American oval-track racers has had a number of distinct steps from 1911 to the present. The phases most relevant to today’s subject started in 1937, when Indianapolis adopted the international Grand Prix rules of the time (single-seat, 4.5-liter [272-ci] normally aspirated or 3-liter supercharged cars). The intent was to get the
European teams to come to Indianapolis to race, but with a few spectacular exceptions, that never worked out. What did happen is that American builders who had been playing with dirt-track racers modified those cars into something that would work on a four-mile paved oval for 500-mile races.

These cars are known as the “upright” racers because the driver sat in the middle of the car above the driveshaft with his legs on either side of the transmission. They were tall and narrow, almost exclusively powered by the Offenhauser 270 engine, and they dominated Indianapolis until the early 1950s.

In 1952, the Cummins Engine people hired Frank Kurtis to build a suitable Indianapolis racer using their diesel truck engine. Faced with the reality that the engine was very tall and heavy, Kurtis came up with the idea of laying the engine on its side in the chassis. This allowed the center of gravity to be dropped substantially and moved to the left, and it allowed the driveshaft to go down the left side of the car, beside the driver instead of under him.

Although that car was never much of a success, the concept blew everybody away. Instead of tall and narrow, the car became low and wide, and the engine mass offset to the inside of the “always turn left” racer meant that centrifugal force loaded all tires more equally in the turns so they had better handling. By 1953, all the competitive cars followed this lead and had offset the engines and drivelines to the left side, beside the driver. Since the Offy engine wasn’t nearly as tall as a diesel, they remained upright in the chassis. The new look reminded people of the hot-rod roadsters that were popular in California, so they became known as “Indy roadsters.”

The final step in the evolution of this concept came in 1957, when builders started laying the Offy engine on its side, thus further lowering the profile and center of gravity to create what became known as the “laydown roadsters.” These cars dominated Indy until the Europeans arrived with their mid-engined revolution of the mid-1960s and changed everything. The categories are thus “uprights,” “roadsters” and “laydown roadsters.”

From France to Indy

The Offenhauser engine is every bit as iconic and all-American as the cars it powered, and its evolution is equally fascinating. The story begins in 1912 in France, where three intuitive driver/mechanics built a radically new grand prix engine for Peugeot. It was the first dual-overhead-cam engine and used four valves per cylinder — an entirely new concept. For the 1913 version of the engine, they devised a gear-tower cam drive, made the intake valves larger than the exhausts, and designed a barrel-shaped crankcase with circular support webs for the main bearings to give an extraordinarily stiff and strong mechanical base for the cylinders. On top of that they created the world’s first dry-sump oiling system. It was the first “modern” racing engine.

Peugeot was very successful with the car in Europe and decided to send several cars to Indianapolis in 1913 and 1914. Once here, one of the cars made it to California, where it was sent to Harry Miller’s shop for repairs. Recognizing a brilliant concept, Miller more or less stole the design and started making his own racing engines, which, with some evolutionary changes, dominated American auto racing through the 1920s. Miller later sold the design to his head mechanic, Fred Offenhauser. The Offy engines in Indy Roadsters remain remarkably similar to their 1913 Peugeot ancestor: evolved, of course, but recognizable.

Deafening exhilaration

Returning to the sunburned, muscular farm-boys-with-an-attitude image for a moment, nobody has ever suggested that these cars are easy or comfortable to drive. They are brutal, intimidating, hot and noisy. The driver is exposed to everything, with his right elbow not three inches from the rear tire (or from the Speedway outside wall if you dare get that close to it), the engine is hard-mounted to the frame and shakes like a crazed paint mixer at all speeds, and the methanol fuel is dumped into the intake stacks at about a gallon a lap with appropriate fumes, heat and smoke. The noise is deafening, and if something goes wrong, what happens to you is purely a matter of luck. Sounds like a pretty good definition of exhilarating, doesn’t it?

In spite of the intimidation factor, they can be a lot of fun to drive. I have maintained a sister 500G for a client for over 25 years, and every few years we take it to a suitable event to stretch its legs. Yeah, it’s heavy, hot, rough, noisy, and a little scary to drive, but with suitable caution it’s not particularly dangerous, and wow, does it give you an appreciation for the guys who drove these things for real.

A dedicated market

The market for these cars is small but very real. As the ultimate automotive expression of John Wayne and Dwight Eisenhower’s America, at least one belongs in every racing-oriented collection of Americana. Chromed, polished, and brightly painted for maximum impact from new and with history and heroism dripping off even the lesser examples, these are classic “shiny objects” to anchor any serious showcase garage. They seldom come available, though, and almost never at auction, so the market is difficult to follow.

Values generally range from $250,000 to $600,000 and up, with originality, sponsorship (color scheme), history and famous drivers being the primary variables. The upright cars and laydown roadsters are more rare than classic roadsters and thus more valuable. Our subject car was a good, if somewhat ordinary, example and sold at the lower-middle of the range. At that price, I would say it was fairly bought.

(Introductory description courtesy of Worldwide Auctioneers.)

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