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Part 4: Patrick Racing, a brief history up to 1989



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1989 Indianapolis 500


A few things happened in 1989 which would all lead to what we were to witness in 1990.

U. E. (Pat) Patrick was one of the most prominent team owners in American single-seater racing during the seventies and eighties, and also one of the most successful ones. He had been a founding member and one of the strong men behind CART, so here‘s a short overview of his years as a team owner, in order to visualize why his status is justified.

Active in racing since 1970, Patrick Racing had won the “500” twice up until 1988. The first three years had not been earth-shaking but that changed from 1973 on when Patrick Racing fielded new Eagles, hired chief mechanic George Bignotti and obtained STP sponsorship. Success came instantly. The first time Patrick Racing won at Indianapolis - incidentally also the first-ever victory for Patrick Racing - Gordon Johncock won the tragic rain-shortened 1973 race. His team mate Swede Savage had a devastating accident in the race, did survive initially but then died early July due to his injuries. Furthermore, a fire truck speeding in the opposite direction through the pit lane in the direct aftermath of the accident had run into one of Patrick’s mechanics, who did not survive this contact. Johncock had won one of the “500”s everyone wanted to forget.

Not the real car but a replica of Johncock’s winning 1973 car, a 1973 Eagle-Offy. The rear wing on this replica is much smaller than the original car’s. Wing width was reduced after 1973. Patrick Racing was one of only a few teams using this particular type of front wing. (photo HG)

The real car that won the 1973 Indy 500 appeared at the IMS museum early 2011 as part of the collection of winning cars, exhibited in the museum to commmorate the centennial of the 500. (photo HG)

In 1982, still driving for Patrick, Johncock won the race that nobody who saw that one ever wants to forget. Like in 1973 when it happened to Art Pollard, a driver got killed on pole day, Gordon Smiley losing his life in a nightmare crash. Like in 1973, Johncock’s team mate retired from the race after an accident. But unlike Savage in 1973, Mario Andretti survived uninjured. And unlike 1973, this time the race went the full distance and became a real thriller. Rick Mears made up seconds within the last laps, an unforgettable battle royal between Johncock and Mears ensued in the last two laps. Johncock won the race, 0.16 seconds ahead of Mears. Until 1992 this was to remain the shortest distance ever between the first two finishers ever.

The Penske PC10 used by Mears in 1982 was a visitor at the IMS Museum in May 1989. During the second week of practice, Johncock’s winning Wildcat was taken out of the line of winning cars and a display of the finish of 1982 was created. (photo HG)

Between these two Indy victories Patrick had gained fame and a reputation by building his own cars, the Wildcats, powered by a much improved version of the venerable Offy four-cylinder, the so-called DGS. Patrick was a strong supporter of keeping the old Offy alive and competitive against the much more modern Cosworth DFX engine.

Patrick, a former oil man, took the name for his cars from wildcatters, men who searched for oil on their on and their own luck and fortune.

The first Wildcats debuted in 1975. Patrick started to build his own cars two years before his friend and opponent Roger Penske began to do the same. Johncock was an early retirement but his team mate Dallenbach appeared to have the race locked up until the engine failed on him after 162 laps. Because a downpoor ended the race prematurely Dallenbach still ended up 9th. One year later the race once again prematurely ended because of rain, right at the moment the battle was heating up. The Wildcat drivers were classified 3rd and 4th. But 1977 was heartbreaking when Johncock led the race to have his engine fail with only 16 laps to go. The two other Patrick cars driven by Wally Dallenbach and Johnnie Parsons ended up 4th and 5th.

Gordon Johncock’s 1982 race winner, the 1982 Wildcat PR8B-Cosworth (photo HG)

Gordon Johncock won the last-ever race with an Offy four-cylinder in April 1978. At Indy he finished 3rd like in 1976. Patrick’s new second driver Steve Krisiloff finished 4th.

In 1979 Patrick threw in the towel on fighting the V8s with four-cylinders to join the Cosworth brigade. Wildcat-Cossies were built for the 1979 season but the Patrick team also used Penske PC6 chassis that year and again in 1980. But the team appeared to be in quite a turmoil that year. In 1979 CART and Indianapolis were shaken up by the Chapparal 2K ground-effects car that showed everyone the way to go. Patrick Racing built their own ground-effects Wildcat but Patrick and George Bignotti were also involved with the construction of another ground-effects car, called the Phoenix. As a result, the team had no less than three different cars in the race: Tom Bagley drove a Wildcat, Johncock was in a Penske PC6 and Gordon Smiley raced a Phoenix. Only the Phoenix was a true full ground-effects wing car.

From 1981 on the team used Cosworth-powered Wildcats, having learned massively about wing technology from the Phoenix. But the team had also lost a valuable asset: George Bignotti had left the Patrick outfit to set up his own team. However, the team was strengthened by the arrival of Mario Andretti who came over from Penske Racing and Bignotti’s place was taken over by Jim McGee. Andretti and McGee had worked together before in the second half of the 60s. Together the had won Indianapolis in 1969 and USAC titles in 1965, ‘66 and ‘69. McGee had also been the chief mechanic when Rick Mears won the 1979 race.

Mario Andretti was initially declared winner of the 1981 race but only after Bobby Unser was penalized a lap for passing under the yellow. When it turned out Mario had done something similar the one-lap penalty was converted into a massive fine and Mario was second again.

As mentioned, the 1982 race did go to Team Patrick. The 1983 Wildcat-Cosworth, however, couldn’t be tamed and Patrick gave up on building his own cars to become another March customer.

Spotted in May 2011, not entirely original anymore, but underneath its modified bodywork was one of the 1983 Wildcat chassis, the last of the breed. (photo HG)

Gordon Johncock, about the steadiest part of the team, drove his last race with Patrick in 1984 to be succeeded by Emerson Fittipaldi. A second and sometimes a third car ended up with a variety of drivers, among them Rich Vogler, Don Whittington, Chip Ganassi and Kevin Cogan. From 1986 on the team fielded only Fittipaldi and Cogan. The team failed to score a lot a top-10 results for a while but the one year they had two cars in the top 10 was heartbreaking. Kevin Cogan was leading the 1986 race under the yellow but was caught out when the race went to green for the final two laps. Bobby Rahal passed him and won the race. Fittipaldi was classified 7th but it could have been better if not for some late race engine difficulties. Heartbraking as the loss was for Patrick Racing, it is more than likely that had Pat Patrick been given the chance of picking to whom he had to lose the race, he would have chosen the team that did beat him. The race was won by Bobby Rahal for the Truesports Team, and it was a very emotional victory for Truesports since its owner, Jim Trueman, was losing his battle against cancer. He died 11 days after the race. Very likely that, in these circumstances, having won the race twice himself, Pat Patrick could accept losing this race to Truesports and see a worthy opponent win at Indianapolis in the final days of his life. But regrettably for Kevin Cogan, 1986 turned out to have been his best-ever chance on victory at Indianapolis in his career.

From that time on Patrick Racing was no longer sponsored by STP. During several years the Patrick cars had been entirely sponsored by STP, in other years STP acted as an associate sponsor. But from 1986 the famous oval decal disappeared from the Patrick cars. With Johncock also gone, the image of the team had changed.

In 1987 the team became one of the few granted the use of the Ilmor-Chevrolet V8 that had been debuted during the 1986 season by the Penske team. The team was strengthened even more in 1988 with the arrival of chief engineer Mo Nunn. Nunn had been the constructor of the Ensign F1 cars, a team which had always been among the backmarkers since Nunn never had the luck of obtaining decent sponsorship. In 1984, when Ensign ceased to exist, Nunn went over to CART to join Bignotti-Cotter, so he had been in CART for three seasons when he joined Patrick Racing (1984, ’86 and ’87). His cars finished either second best (’84 and ’87) or second to last (‘86).

In 1988 Patrick focused on Emerson Fittipaldi while obtaining March 88Cs. He found out soon enough the 88C was uncompetitive against the Lolas and Penskes so during the month of May the team obtained a Lola T87/00 from Newman/Haas but despite Emerson’s wishes to try the Lola the team focused on the March for the “500”. Their commitment was rewarded with a second-place finish. It makes one wonder what the team could have achieved had they tried the Lola after all. Shortly after Indianapolis the March was ditched and Emerson finished the season with the Lola.

During the eighties the team remained competitive but their results didn‘t stand out as anything truly spectacular. In 1986, 1987 and 1988 the team scored two race wins each season. Nonetheless, Patrick Racing was still rated a top team at the end of 1988 but the most interesting period of Pat Patrick Racing, certainly from a technical point of view, had been the Wildcat years, also because the Wildcats left an impression on the rich history of Indianapolis not just through the efforts of Patrick Racing itself.

Patrick had sold off some of his Offy-powered Wildcats in the seventies and a few of them gained fame and glory for their new owners. Female driver Janeth Guthrie used one in 1978 and despite a severely injured hand she took 9th place and lots of respect with the car.

This slightly modified 1977 Wildcat III-DGS was used by Janet Guthrie in 1978. Until Danica Patrick’s arrival on the scene Guthrie’s 9th place was the best performance ever for a woman in the race. (photo HG)

Another privately owned Wildcat-DGS of fame was Sherman Armstrong’s car. Due to all kind of political chaos the Speedway was forced to allow 35 cars to take the start in 1979, instead of the usual 33. But despite the fact it was the largest starting field ever after the war, it contained only one debutant: Howdy Holmes driving Armstrong’s Wildcat. Holmes finished a very creditable 7th. His “Rookie of the year” status was based on performance too instead of being the lone rookie in the field.

An orphaned backup in 1980, the Wildcat was prepared for Gary Bettenhausen to give this old veteran driver a chance to qualify. He qualified the car as the slowest in the field but finished an impressive 3rd in what was to be the last decent finish ever for a Offy four-banger engine.

One of the most successful Wildcats of them all was this 1976-type Wildcat II. Wally Dallenbach finished 4th with it in both 1976 and 1977. From 1978 on it was a Sherman Armstrong entry. Tom Bigalow finished 21st in 1978, Howdy Holmes 7th in 1979. Finally in 1980, Gary Bettenhausen was the slowest qualifier in 1980, yet finished third on the last-ever occasion that an Offy completed the full 500 miles. Definitely one of the most illustrious of all Wildcats ever built. (Indianapolis Motor Speedway photos, used with permission)

Bettenhausen narrowly beat Gordon Johncock in a Patrick-owned Penske-Cosworth PC6 in the process… The Amstrong-entered Wildcat had made the race while another much more fancied Armstrong entry, the March-built Orbiter had failed to do so…

Another Wildcat entered in that 1980 race was a true crowd favourite. Rookie Roger Rager had built a Chevy V8 stock block into a type-1979 Wildcat. According to Rager the engine had started its life powering a school bus! Rager even led two laps in the race, be it under the yellow flag, but the car was an early retirement in lap 55 due to an accident.

The Wildcat days gained Patrick one statistic in Indianapolis history that is still a burden to several US racing fans. The winning 1982 Wildcat remains to this day the last-ever car with its chassis built in the USA. Every other winning car since had its chassis built outside the USA, primarily England (March, Lola, Penske, Galmer, Reynard and G Force) or Italy (Dallara).

Patrick Racing’s efforts within racing have been quite interesting because of the Wildcats he built and fielded, one of them always being driven by his faithful driver Gordon Johncock. The bright red cars used between 1975 and 1977 were really good looking and attractive to see.

To my knowledge, there has not been that much published about the Wildcats. Maybe they appear less glorious than some other cars they fought against. Nevertheless, the Wildcat brand certainly performed well at Indianapolis and was a worthy competitor. The 72-76 era is often described as the Eagle-McLaren years. McLaren M16s won in even years, Eagles won in the odd years, all of them Offy-powered. A constant factor to keep an eye on in those years was AJ Foyt and his Coyote-Foyt. But from 1975 on, the Wildcats turned into cars that could not be ruled out. Gordon Johncock became the 1976 USAC national champion, driving a Patrick-owned Wildcat-DGS.

Gordon Johncock’s 1976 Wildcat-DGS in which he won the USAC drivers title that year. In the early years of their careers the Wildcats used engine covers but from 1977 on the DGS powered “cats” left their engines exposed. (Photo: Brian Brown, used with permission)

Chief mechanic George Bignotti was deeply involved with the preparation of Patrick’s Eagles and partly responsible for the design of the Wildcats and their preparation up until 1980.

In the years from 1975 to 1983, 26 Wildcats participated at Indianapolis. And although only one of them ever won the race, in general they performed very creditably. The following stat may prove this. In this stat I have separated the Patrick entries from the privateer efforts. Every D stands for a DGS four-cylinder powered car, a C stands for a Cosworth-powered entry. Finally, a Y stands for a Chevy stock block-powered car.

Classification Patrick Racing Privateer entry Total
1 C 1
2 C 1
3 D,D D 3
4 D,D,D 3
5 D 1
7 D 1
8 C 1
9 D,C D 3
10 C C 2
11 D 1
14 C 1
15 C 1
21 D,D 2
22 C 1
23 Y 1
28 C 1
31 C 1
33 D 1

No less that 9 out of 26 (1/3rd of them all!) starting Wildcats were classified in the top 5, 16 out of 26 cars finished in the first 10. Quite an impressive record for the brand. In addition to the 1982 victory at Indianapolis, Wildcats won 10 other USAC and CART races over the years.

Perhaps this article about Team Patrick’s history and the attention I gave to the Wildcats will be seen as too extensive in a series devoted to an Alfa Romeo-powered March. But I think it is appropriate to give this tribute to a remarkable team, which was an important factor within USAC racing and at Indianapolis in the years from 1973 up until 1988. Not in the least because of the fine-looking cars they built over the years that were among the last of the American-built single-seater chassis gaining starting spots at Indianapolis, run by an owner who pleased the traditional fans of Indianapolis through his perseverance in keeping the legendary Offenhauser engine alive and competitive. The team's results may not have been as incredible compared to that of his arch rival Roger Penske but the battles between Penske and Patrick at Indianapolis in 1981 and 1982 belong to the best battles ever between two powerful teams at the zenith of their existence up until that moment in time.

It proves beyond doubt that when Alfa Romeo decided to get into Indycars it was worth considering teaming up with Patrick Racing. Apart from the two victories at Indianapolis, the team also took three runner-up positions, all scored between 1981 and 1988. The team had a pedigree in racing that was bettered by only a few teams.

Still, Pat Patrick was finished with racing and planned his retirement during 1988.