The Cummins Diesel Special at the 1952 Indianapolis 500

I was watching television the other day and saw a commercial about Cummins Diesel engines being in a certain brand of pickup trucks.  I think that it was the Dodge pickup trucks.  The commercial, which includes some grainy film of a race car, briefly notes that a Cummins Diesel engine proved itself at Indianapolis in 1952.  I was curious about that claim, so I did some looking into the 1952 Indianapolis 500 and the Cummins Diesel Special.

The Cummins Diesel Special at the 1952 Indianapolis 500

It turns out that the story of diesel engine cars at Indianapolis actually starts with the first Indianapolis in 1911.  Clessie Cummins, who started the Cummins Engine Company, had crewed for Ray Harroun, who won the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911.  In 1919, he started the Cummins Engine Company in Columbus, Indiana.  Over the years Cummins entered cars in the Indianapolis 500 in 1931, 1934, and 1950, in addition to the 1952 Indianapolis 500.

With the car on the transporter, its low profile can be seen

In 1952 Cummins made a very serious attempt to win the Indianapolis 500.  At that time the rules allowed diesel engines to be 6.6 litres (400 cubic inches) in size compared to 4.5 litres for normally aspirated engines and 3.0 litres for supercharged engines.  As a result, Cummins prepared a 400 cubic inch 6-cylinder turbocharged diesel engine that produced 380 horsepower.

Cummins also worked very closely with Kurtis Kraft to produce a sleek design for the Cummins Diesel Special.  To that time the engines in the race cars at Indianapolis had been in an upright position.  However with an engine that was tmuch bigger than the other cars, this would result in a very big car.  To overcome some of these size problems the motor featured an aluminum block and head with a magnesium crank case.  The engine was also lain 5 degrees off flat which provided three advantages:

  • Reduced centre of gravity
  • Reduced the frontal area
  • An offset engine provided more weight on the left (inside) wheels.

The design of the Cummins Diesel Special was definitely longer and lower than the rest of the cars in the field.  But it was heavier due to the larger engine.

Cummins hired Fred Agabashian to drive the Cummins Diesel Special. After the car was tested for the first time, everyone who was involved new that they had a very fast car.  So the Cummins team became very secretive about the car.  They said nothing.

Agabashian held back for much of the month of May while at the Indianapolis 500 preparations until Pole Day by lifting off on the back straight one lap or by cruising through a turn on another lap.  He never completed a whole lap under full power so as not to draw attention to the capability of the car and risk having the rules changed.

Then at 5:45 pm on Pole Day, 15 minutes before the end of qualifying, Agabashian and the heavy, 3,100 lb, Cummins Diesel Special fitted with a fresh engine won the pole position for the Indianapolis 500 by setting an individual lap record of 139 mph and a record 4 lap average of 138 mph. This qualifying speed was over 1 mph faster than the runner up car!  During Indianapolis’ remaining qualifying days that year other cars went faster, but the Cummins Diesel was on the pole.

Cummins Diesel Special at the Brickyard

The race did not go well for the Cummins Diesel Special.  The turbocharger inlet was clogged with rubber (or as David Hobbs calls it – “clagg”) and other debris.  The car had to retire after 70 laps or 180 miles as the clogging became too bad.  The car is listed as finishing 27th.

Soon after the rules were changed, by taking away the possibility of large diesel engines.  As far as I know a diesel engine has never powered a race car in the Indianapolis 500 since that spectacular year of 1952 when the Cummins Diesel Special won the pole at the Indianapolis 500.

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11 Responses to The Cummins Diesel Special at the 1952 Indianapolis 500

  1. robgt81 says:

    Nice write up! With the domination of Audi at Le Mans with a diesel its a shame that Cummins don’t have the appetite for getting involved with racing again, its part of their history afterall.

    • That is a good point that I had not thought of. Perhaps Cummins might try racing again. One problem nowadays is that there are few rather free rule races that allow for innovation. Back in the 1950s, Indy car racing was basically “run what you brung”. Now there are many rules (in most series) that govern what kind of engine can be used. Maybe with Audi’s success, some race series managers will open racing up to diesel engines.

      Steve

  2. clignecourt says:

    I agree with both above mentioned statements. But as far as I know, the range of Diesel engines made by Cummins doesn’t include small ones, capable of being installed on a car. So a new development would be necessary, ie high costs, and even when victories what advantages? Only prestige I fear (of course it’s pleasant), but what way to transform that into serial production, capable of installation on serial cars? In the States, it’s gas and not diesel for powering serial cars… So I don’t think the Cummins Company meets such a decision. Nevertheless, all the best!

    • Diesel cars in the United States are somewhat increasing in popularity. I think that Audi’s success on the race track with diesel engines has helped a great deal. VW is also making some good diesel street cars. Things have changed a great deal since Cummins appearance at the Indy 500 in the early 1950s.
      Steve McKelvie

  3. clignecourt says:

    Because of living in the States, you surely better know the actual situation than me, living in France. But a couple of months ago, I read somewhere that the States were importing gas from France, which authorizes thinking there still is a strong use of gas engines. And as you say yourself, that are foreign motors which seem to reign in the US (VW-Group, which encompasses Audi). That are not American motors… Even if there are (or were) great US makers in the Diesel area: Detroit Diesel, Fors, Little Jo (?), some joint-ventures with German makers (MAN), some very large 2-stroke Diesel for Navy ships, and many others the name of which I forgot… The question is: does America presently want to build itself small diesel motors for powering compacts and subcompacts, or prefers importing them – and the cars with them, too -? Clear, if US want to, it will be a success. In a neighbored area, I remember the M-60 tank which was very agreable to drive and which I suspect was not so “thirsty” than the present Abrams and its beautiful turbine. True also that power and speed aren’t the same for both M60 and M1… More than two decades separate them. To sum up, I think it will be a deal between oil industry, engine builders and of course Government agencies, these latters for instance for catalytic converters, crude oil import policy, etc. I only do hope for America that the tax-payer will’nt again be hammered by new taxes when diesel utilization increases…, as it’s the case for us.

    Sincerely yours,
    Pierre Clignecourt

  4. clignecourt says:

    Hello to all,
    I would have been interesrested in a reply, either by the blog-keeper or by other people interested in the debate gas/diesel…
    All the best.
    PC

  5. Sharon Jones says:

    My Dad, Billy Chapman of Farmville Virginia was interested in, and was in some, races in the 1950s, tells me there is a video clip of the Cummins 1952 turbo powered engine in the Indy 500. He wanted me to find it. But so far, I’ve been unsuccessful. With your vast resources do you think you can dredge it up?
    Sure would appreciate it for my dad. Someone in Richmond, Virginia I was told had a copy of the clip but I’ve misplaced his name. It had to have been on a national tv station at the time.
    Thoughts?

    • Hi Sharon,
      When it comes to Indy 500 issues you are only half right about about my resources. Rather than vast resources, I would say that I have half vast resources.

      I would guess that the best source of info about this car would be Cummins Diesel. If you were to contact Cummins’ they might be able to help you get a video of this car.
      I agree with your Dad about the existance of video of this car. I think a saw a few seconds of video of the car in a diesel commercial on television in the last couple of years.
      Steve McKelvie

  6. Paul Beyer says:

    Hi Steve, I have a 1600′ reel of 16MM sound and color film of the 1952 race directly from Cummins Engine Co. I worked for a Cummins distributor for 23 years before retiring in 2001. I have run this film twice on a Singer 16MM sound projector and I believe it is about an hour long. The reel is 14″ in diameter. I was going to put it on eBay. Any interest?
    Paul

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