Cummins History at the Indianapolis 500

Cummins Diesel Special

For over 100 years, the Indianapolis 500 has been a racing tradition.  To honor our long relationship with the race, we’d like to share some of our special memories of Indy with you.

For the race's 100th running we celebrated the connection between our Indy racing heritage and the dependable Cummins performance you know today with the exciting “Better. From Start To Finish.” video, posted on the CumminsEngines YouTube channel and embedded below.

Also on the CumminsEngines YouTube channel, you’ll find some historical video clips, including an endurance record set at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1931 and footage from the 1952 qualifying laps in our “Cummins History” playlist (also embedded below).

We hope you’ll enjoy this summary of some significant moments in Cummins history as we took part in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” over the years:

Cummins and the Indy 500

1911 - The first Indianapolis 500 As a young man in central Indiana, Clessie Cummins was well-known for his mechanical abilities.  He worked for a short time in four early automotive-related industries before settling at Nordyke and Marmon, which produced the Marmon car.  On May 30, 1911, Clessie served as a member of the pit crew for the Marmon Wasp.  Driver Ray Harroun was the first winner of the Indianapolis 500 mile race.

1931 - 500 Miles on $1.40 worth of “furnace oil.” The Great Depression was hitting hard during the race’s 20th year. Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Eddie Rickenbacker was having a tough time finding cars to fill out the field, but letting a diesel-powered car into the race was unheard of. There were not any rules governing diesels, and the AAA’s contest board had to allow the diesel car to race as a special engineering entry because the car was too heavy and the engine displacement too large to qualify under existing rules.

Cummins didn’t expect to win, but he and his crew had a different achievement in mind – he just wanted a chance to show the world the fuel efficiency and durability of the diesel engine. The #8 Cummins Special qualified with an average speed of 97 mph.  Two days later, with Dave Evans behind the wheel, it became the first entry ever to run the entire race nonstop, finishing 13th on just $1.40 worth of “furnace oil.”

1934 - The race track becomes a test track.1934 Cummins Diesel Indy Car
Three years after running the Cummins Special at the track, Cummins returned with not just one, but two competing engines, in the Number 5 and Number 6 cars.  Cummins was interested in testing the effectiveness of 2-cycle versus 4-cycle designs for durability and efficiency.  During the race, the 2-cycle engine had numerous issues while the 4-stroke Number 6 ran smoothly -- until the 270-mile mark, when the driver stripped the gears pulling out of his very first pit stop.  The test may have sealed the fate of the 2-cycle engine – Cummins diesels have been 4-cycle ever since.

1950 - Speed records fall to “The Green Hornet.” Sixteen years passed before a Cummins diesel appeared again at the Indianapolis Speedway.  By then, Cummins engines were a staple of the commercial trucking industry, and Cummins engineers wanted to demonstrate that these workhorses could also run like thoroughbreds.  They crafted a 4-cycle Cummins Model JS-600 engine in lightweight aluminum, and added a supercharger.  The engine used for qualifying produced 345 brake horsepower (bhp) at 4,000 rpm.

Dubbed “The Green Hornet,” the car qualified at 129 mph and started in 33rd position.  On race day, it steadily picked off half the field, and was in 16th position when a mechanical failure forced it out of the race.  Later that year, the same Cummins race car would set six U.S. and international land speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats.

1952 - The only diesel ever to capture the pole. In 1952, Cummins returned to the Indy 500 with another innovation new to the speedway: turbocharging.  The car had a unique side-lying engine design, which enabled an offset drivetrain and lower center of gravity for better handling on the banked turns.  The #28 Cummins Diesel Special was also the first Indy car ever tested in a wind tunnel for aerodynamics. 

The results were amazing.  Freddie Agabashian took #28 out on the brickyard and tore the tread off of his front right tire while capturing the pole with the fastest one-lap time (139.104 mph) and four-lap time (138.010 mph) in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history. The Cummins Diesel Special was retired midway through the race as the turbocharger inlet became clogged with rubber debris from the track – but it had established turbocharging as a viable technology on the track, as well as helped engineers refine improvements to the breakthrough Cummins PT fuel system.

1987 - A last-minute entry races into the history books. The 1987 Cummins car’s sponsorship was a result of several last-minute decisions. The car itself had actually been previously retired from racing and was on display in a hotel lobby. Two weeks before the race, Cummins and Penske Racing teamed up to sponsor the car and enter the race, and at the last minute  the #25 Cummins Holset car found a driver who knew a thing or two about racing – three-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser Sr.  Unser employed some outstanding pit strategy throughout the race, finally moving into first position on the white-flag lap for the win. 

Cummins honors the innovation and inspiration that have come as a result of this legendary event.  The same love of engines and technology that inspires owners, drivers, and crews at the track inspires our engineers, researchers, and service professionals here at Cummins.  Like a seasoned pit crew, we recognize that for our customers dependability is key, because when the day is done, the finish line for today is the starting line for tomorrow. The drive that led Cummins pioneers to use the Indianapolis 500 as a proving ground for Cummins technology is the same drive that helps our customers win today, by constantly improving our products and our service to you. Thank you for depending on Cummins.

Cummins Indy Racing Video and Historical Videos
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