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Unique Car Refused To Lay Down in Popular Victory for Hanks in 1957

The victory by Sam Hanks in the 1957 Indianapolis 500 was one of the most popular in the entire history of the event, both with the crowd and with the other participants. Hanks had been trying there since 1940, and at six weeks short of 43, was at that time the oldest winner ever to enter Victory Lane. While this may well pale in comparison with the longevity of the stars of the 1980s and early 1990s, the fact is that back in the treacherous days of the 1950s, there just weren’t a great number of 40-plus-year-old race drivers running around.

But there is so much MORE to the 1957 triumph. Not only was Hanks such a sentimental favorite, but the car he was driving was strictly experimental, put together on an extremely limited budget. It sat lower than anything previously seen at the Speedway, with the top of its hood being only 22 inches from the ground. How was this possible? In defiance of all previous racing logic, the engine lay almost flat, being only 18 degrees shy of completely horizontal. 

The car was the brainchild of George Frank Salih, a senior engineer and plant manager at the Meyer & Drake Offenhauser engine works in Los Angeles, and chief mechanic on the tiny Belanger Motors Special which had won the 1951 “500” in the hands of Lee Wallard, then dominated the remainder of that year’s National Championship season with Tony Bettenhausen claiming eight out of 13 races.

In May 1952, Freddie Agabashian had caused a major upset by winning the pole position at Indianapolis with a massive 401-cubic inch Cummins Diesel-powered car, boosted by the track’s first ever turbocharger. The car had achieved an incredibly low center of gravity by having its six-cylinder engine laid over on its side. Whether or not Salih was directly influenced by the Cummins approach has never been clear, but he did tell an admirer in a London hotel in 1964 that he first began toying with such a design around that same time.

“I began doodling on napkins and so forth,” Salih said, “and I kept coming up with basically the same shape. The funny thing is that I didn’t intend for the engine to be laid down, but rather I HAD to do that in order to get it to fit into the shape I wanted!” 

During the next few months and even years, Salih talked over the concept with numerous colleagues, who virtually all doubted it could possibly work because of inevitable oiling-up problems.

“But,” Salih protested, “the engine doesn’t KNOW it’s on its side!”

Among those he tried to convince was Murrell Belanger, owner of the 1951 winner and the man for whom Salih was still crew chief up through 1953. But it was a little too revolutionary for this northern Indiana sportsman. 

Salih “came off the road” in 1954 and left Belanger for Al and John Jones of the Indianapolis-based Jones & Maley Plymouth and DeSoto dealership.

These long-time race enthusiasts were the sponsors – and shortly thereafter the owners – of an experimental Offenhauser-powered car Frank Kurtis, Louis Meyer, Dale Drake and Ted Halibrand had all originally gone in on together as an “R & D” project. Because it did not compete in any of the other races, George would be on the job at Meyer & Drake for most of the year and then take off each May to come back to the Speedway. The driver in 1955 and 1956 was Sam Hanks.

Hanks came awfully close to winning in 1956. He got tangled up in a multi-car accident just past the 20-lap mark, dropped far down in the running order while limping around for almost an entire lap on a flat tire, then roared back to take second place behind Pat Flaherty, losing by less than 21 seconds. After all the years of coming so close, then to learn back in the garage area that Flaherty’s throttle linkage had broken AFTER he had taken the checkered flag, Hanks began to talk of retirement. 

Salih, in the meantime, had pitched his concept to Al and John Jones, but like everyone else, they too had their reservations. Obligated to run their car again in 1957, George towed it back to his home on Millikan Avenue in Whittier, California and immediately began prepping it for the following May. With everything buttoned up by around the end of July, he pushed it over to one corner of the garage and began to lay tubing in the middle of the floor. Time was marching on and so, if he couldn’t get anybody to invest in his concept, then by golly, he would simply start building it HIMSELF and try to interest somebody in it later on. 

The weeks rolled by and it began to take shape. Salih’s typical routine was to come home each evening from Meyer & Drake, have a little supper with his wife, Freda, and then go out to the garage to labor until the wee hours of the following morning. On most evenings he would be joined by his close friend and fellow “500” mechanic, Howard Gilbert, the two of them working side by side on the frame as if they were brothers. For 1957 and, indeed, for the next several years thereafter, Salih would always insist on listing the ever-protesting “Gil” as CO-chief mechanic, while those fascinated with astrology might enjoy learning that Gil and George actually shared the same birthday – May 12.

Then came the memorable evening when Sam and Alice Hanks were invited over for dinner. Out went the men to the garage and Salih tried to keep a straight face as he ushered Hanks inside. He watched with amusement as round and round paced the wily veteran, his eyes widened and darting. He’d stop, kneel down, look underneath, grunt, stand up, pace some more, grunt again and constantly be bending over to examine the workmanship from every possible angle. 

“So this is what we’ve been working on, Dad,” said Salih casually, “Dad” being a nickname he traded with most of his associates. “The only problem is I haven’t figured out who I’m going to hire for a ‘shoe’.” 

“What do you mean, Dad?” asked Hanks as he stood up with a puzzled look on his face, adding, “Who were you THINKING of hiring?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Dad,” toyed Salih. “Parsons.  Or Tony. Somebody like that.”

“Parsons or Bettenhausen?” roared Hanks, “What about ME, Dad?”

“You, Dad?” enquired George in mock surprise, “I thought YOU retired.”

“Hey, wait a minute,” countered a defensive Hanks, “I said I was THINKING of retiring,” whereupon he bent down for further inspection. “No, Dad,” he muttered under his breath, “Ole Sam is driving this S.O.B.”  

Which he did….for no retainer.

In 1957, Salih and Gilbert took the rolling frame to the legendary fabricator Quin Epperly for the purpose of crafting the body. 

It was getting to the closing date for 500 entries…and still no takers.

To the rescue came Sandy Belond, proprietor of the very successful Southern California Muffler Corporation, a hot-rodder at heart and a devotee of anything experimental from a technical point of view. No, he didn’t want the responsibility of being a car owner again---been there, done that---but he WOULD be interested in helping out. Thus Salih’s little beauty became the Belond Exhaust Special, for a sum never officially revealed but believed to be far in excess of the norm for such an arrangement in those days.   

Salih went ahead and entered the car himself and began to prepare to tow it to Indianapolis. But he had used up all of his savings, mortgaged his house, cashed in the fund he had been saving for his daughter’s college education and was well on his way to falling $18,000 in debt. Just before he departed for Indianapolis, a chance meeting lined him up with a representative for the English Lodge Spark Plug Company, who agreed to pay George $1000 if he would use Lodge plugs. 

“That deal with Lodge saved my butt,” he said later. “Without it, I don’t know how I would have found the money to get to back to Indianapolis for the month.”

The pretty little car, now painted bright yellow with red striping, arrived in the garage area and immediately began to draw a crowd. “It’s for sale,” George would point out at every opportunity.

“What do you think?” prospective owners would ask of their friends. 

“It’s an experiment,” would inevitably come the reply, “How do you know it’ll even run one lap?”

“The reason for the design,” Salih would say facetiously, “is that my garage is so small, I HAD to make the front end this low in order for it to fit under the workbench.”

The car began to practice and there were several minor setbacks. They had to pass up the first day of qualifying---on which only nine cars completed their 4-lap runs---and with day two rained out, they finally made it on the Saturday of the second weekend, nailing down 13th starting position with a very respectable average speed of 142.812 mph. There had been a slight reduction in engine sizes for this year, the Offies being cut back from 274 cubic inches to 255 in an effort to slow the cars down. So far, it did not appear to have made much difference. 

The asking price was still $30,000 but George later admitted he was now seriously considering anything in the region of $18,000, merely to get out from under the debt. Still there were no takers.

Things didn’t look any brighter during the so-called carburetion runs the day before the race, when a tiny leak was discovered in the rear end. So while Hanks and Sandy Belond stayed up until 10:30 that night, quietly playing gin rummy in the lobby of the Graylynn Hotel on North Pennsylvania Street, their wives ‘kibitzing,’ Salih and Gilbert were out at the track until around midnight tearing down and patching up the gear tower. 

And so it was that on race morning Salih prepared to place it all on the line as an extremely reluctant car owner. He felt as if he was standing on the edge of a chasm. 

But what was this?  From 13th starting position Sam was up to 8th by the end of the first lap. He was seventh on lap two and fifth by lap four.

Could it last?  The venerable 4-cylinder Offenhauser engine had been acquired from Louis Meyer, for old time’s sake on the friendliest of terms and not all of its contests were exactly brand new. It had long since been the standing joke around Meyer & Drake to call out every time a part was defective or placed to one side, “Hey, give it to George,” or, “Put it in George’s car.”

Hanks kept moving to the front and at around 30 laps began to embark upon the unthinkable by challenging his friend of 20 years, Paul Russo, at the wheel of one of the awesome crowd-pleasing V8 supercharged Novis.

Down each straight the Novi would pull away, but into the turns the superior maneuverability of the Belond would allow it to get closer. On each straight the deficit was proving to be less and less, Sam eventually able to pull right up to the rear tail fin of the Novi as the two of them would exit the turns. Next Hanks progressed to the point where he could actually pull alongside the Novi in the turns and even edge ahead before reluctantly being overpowered again on the straights. 

“Man, that thing was loud,” recalled Hanks in later years. “Believe me, you’ve never experienced ‘noise’ until you’ve run with your right ear next to the exhaust of a Novi.”

Back and forth they went, but with the inevitable re-pass by the Novi coming later and later each time until the fateful 36th lap, when Hanks finally pulled it off.

“I could hear it coming,” Hanks said. “But when I made it into the turn without him coming around me, I knew I had it.” 

But it wasn’t over yet because another longtime friend, Jim Rathmann, came into the mix and for the entire second half, the race was between these two. Pre-race strategy had called for two pit stops but the unexpected pace drove up the rate of fuel consumption to the point where a third stop became necessary. Rathmann was only two seconds behind at 140 laps but faded to a 21-second deficit at the finish as Sam won the race going away. He finished in 3 hours 41 minutes and 14.25 seconds, knocking eight minutes from the 1954 record of Bill Vukovich and raising the average speed from 130.840 mph to 135.60l. 

So much for the reduced engine sizes cutting down the speeds. 

Hanks took the then traditional two extra precautionary laps to ensure that, indeed, 200 laps had been completed, and then he headed down the brand-new separated pit lane. There wasn’t a crew member who didn’t come out to wave at him as he glided down to the south end of the pits towards the beckoning Victory Lane enclosure. Blipping his engine, he took off his goggles and rapidly spun them by the strap on his right forefinger. He waved with one hand and then the other and then, gloriously, with both hands at the same time. He slowed as he made the final left turn into Victory Lane and momentarily buried his face into his uniformed left arm.

Moments later he told sportscaster Charlie Brockman over the Speedway Radio network and the public address system, “Yes, that was it. This was my last ‘500.’”  

“Why, Sam,” observed Brockman, “I believe you’re crying.”

“Yes, Charlie, I am,” replied Sam, “And I believe you are too.” 

As indeed he was.

Sam eventually left Victory Lane and walked back to the garage with Alice on his arm. Jim Rathmann came up to hug him as they walked alongside while third-place finisher, Jimmy Bryan, the AAA and now USAC National Champion, also gave Sam a bear hug.

They arrived at the Salih garage only to find the doors locked. Salih was still in Victory Lane, standing by the car, being greeted by well-wishers and still in a state of disbelief. It would be another 10 minutes before he made it to the garage. In the meantime, interviewers were clambering to conduct “one on ones” with Hanks and they were duly accommodated just down the way in the friendly rival Dean Van Lines camp of Bryan. The camaraderie among the teams was especially strong in those days.

Alice Hanks received a total of THREE telegrams from her very close friend, Lois McGrath, whose husband Jack had perished in a racing accident 18 months before. She especially cherished the last one, which read: “Can I have your old minks?”

Not so happy was Dick McGeorge of the Champion Spark Plug Company. Salih, as mentioned earlier, had used Lodge plugs, and the irony is that the advertising budget for Lodge’s tiny office in the United States was so meager that it was unable to capitalize on the upset victory.

When Salih finally returned to his garage, he was greeted by Bob Wilke of Leader Cards, Inc., who spun around in front of George, bent down and pointed to his buttocks, saying, “Kick me right here.” He had been one of the prospective buyers. He was followed shortly thereafter by Peter Schmidt, the portly entrant of the car driven on this day by Eddie Sachs. He limply held up a check he’d made out to George for the purchase of the car during the preceding days but which he had deliberated over actually parting with. 

“Sorry, Dad,” chuckled George, “She ain’t for sale now!!!”

Legend has it that Schmidt had the check mounted in a picture frame and hung it over his mantelpiece for the remainder of his life.

But the incredible storybook victory by Salih did not come without a price. True, he had pulled off the impossible and had made a substantial amount of money, for even after paying Hanks his portion (believed to be the then standard 40%) of the eventual record total of nearly $105,000, and giving bonuses to his helpers and taking care of various other expenditures and loans, he still cleared several thousand dollars. But there were to be some niggling tax problems to deal with during the months to come, and due to a disagreement with Louis Meyer over time away from work, George was no longer at Meyer & Drake. The ordeal had also taken its toll on his general health, and throughout that summer, he was to experience a recurring nightmare in which he felt as if the bed was being lifted up by the headboard and that he was sliding off the end. 

On a happier note, Salih didn’t have to look far for a new driver. Jimmy Bryan had said on more than one occasion, “Hey, if the old man [Hanks] ever retires, I’d like to drive for you.” When that opportunity arose and George cautioned him, “Don’t forget, Dad, we don’t have a dirt car,” Bryan responded with, “Not a problem. I’ve been thinking of cutting back anyway.” 

Salih, Gilbert and Bryan made a great team. When Bryan showed up to be fitted for the car, he noted with amazement that into the upholstery running alongside the driver’s left hip, Salih had taken the trouble to have three little loops stitched in so that Bryan could store his favored cigars for chewing on during the race. “Dad,” said Bryan, “You think of everything.”

It would be nice to report that the 1958 race went off without a hitch, but that would be severely stretching the truth. A multiple car accident on the very first lap knocked out about one quarter of the field while severely hampering the progress of several others. More importantly, it took the life of the very popular Pat O’Connor, who is understood to have been Bryan’s closest friend among the drivers. Indeed, many insiders suggest Bryan was never quite the same man after that. 

But he persevered on this day, grimly went about his business and won the race. And finishing second and fourth were “laydowns” Epperly had built himself. 

It seems hard to comprehend now, considering the modern way of going about motorsports, but the fact remains that a car which won the Indianapolis 500 TWO YEARS IN A ROW, was built, for all intents and purposes, by two men in their SPARE TIME in the garage next to the home of one of them. 

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