Driving A Vintage Race Car As A Visceral Haven

It takes a special breed of person to enjoy driving a vintage automobile whether hot rod, restoration, or race car. Ask anyone who has received their driver’s license in the past decade what “setting the choke” means and you’ll soon find all the benefits of today’s cars have all-but erased the style and technique of driving early cars.

The automotive world is filled with individuals who love to look at cars from the 20s, 30s, and so on, but would never think of driving them regularly. A few years ago, we were on a trek from Portland, Oregon to Wendover, Utah for Bonneville Speed Week. We were happily churning the miles in a 1926 Ford Model T and we only had one incident where anyone questioned our ability to safely navigate the 700-mile trip. After informing us, “the safest way to get this thing there is to put it on a trailer,” the officer’s only statute against us was the way the owner registered the vehicle. Since the owner wanted to drive the car daily, he didn’t want a limiting plate that dictated when, and where he could drive the car. He hadn’t had an issue for years and with a short detour to the DMV to get a different form of registration, we drove the rest of the trip without issue. We understand the fine line between “legal” and “illegal” as mentioned in the video.

An old Indy racer isn’t likely the first thing to come to mind when considering driving a vintage car on the street, but John Bianchi doesn’t give it a second thought!

In this mini-documentary about John Bianchi and his vintage Indy 500 racecar, John describes why he enjoys driving the car and hits the nail on the head about what makes driving an old car so fun. The car in question is an honest-to-God, actual Indy 500 race car that has morphed through life and was fortunate enough to wind up in John’s collection.

When he said he wanted to drive it between his house and his shop, I thought he was nuts. And pretty much, he is! – Marshall Woolery

Most of us have dreamed of driving a race car at some point and grew up with TWO “car shows” on TV – the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500. The seeds of John’s passion were planted a little closer to home, in that his father, Mario Bianchi, was an accomplished race car driver in the Northwest Auto Track Association. John’s formative years were forged around the automobile, and like many Americans, in 1968, he then focused on a career.

The car is just one of several that adorn John's collection of "hobby cars."

He retired in 2018 and in only the last 10 years of his 50-year career did he begin collecting “hobby cars”. The years in-between were filled with simple, “taking care of business.” Since then, John has amassed a nice collection of cars, which includes a nice sprinkling of vintage, exotic, and race cars. The car that is central to this story is an early Indy racer that not only spent some time on the big oval but also spends a fair amount of time on the streets around Seattle, Washington.

A Street Racer

John grew up listening to and viewing the races in the 40s and 50s. He explains the purpose of purchasing this car as, “a piece of your past that you reach for every now and again,” explaining how our cars can transcend life, taking us back to a simpler time. The crackle of the race through those old speakers is clearly felt in John’s heart as he presses the start button on the dash.

John’s dad was an accomplished racer in the Northwest Auto Track Association and John has many newspaper clippings about his father’s wins.

As the video explains, the car started life at the hands of the late Harry Miller of Indy car fame. It was designed and built in 1931, along with two other cars. Unlike the others, which had big, eight-cylinder engines, this one utilized a much larger V-16 (two inline eights joined together). As such, the car competed in the 1931 and ’32 Indy races, but both times, failed to finish. The race car went through numerous owners who replaced the engine with a four-cylinder Miller engine (which would become the famed Offenhauser design), shortened the car to 100 inches, and narrowed the body to a single-seater.

The car made several other attempts at winning the Indy 500 before it was reportedly retired in 1950. The car’s last effort at Indy was thanks to Ed Shreve in 1948 when he purchased the car and installed the GranCor (Granatelli Brothers) V8 Ford engine. Shreve got sponsored by Ford dealer and Indy announcer George Hoster and had his name put on the car.

The car had been raced at the famed Indy event off and on, and in various configurations from 1931 through 1950.

This is the configuration John purchased the car and he and Marshall Woolery of Thunfield Rod & Custom have restored the car to this build. Marshall recalls John’s willingness to hit the road in his racer, “When he said he wanted to drive it between his house and his shop, I thought he was nuts. And pretty much, he is!”

John checks the rear-view as he drives his Indy racer around Washington.

As we know, driving a vintage car is a different experience, but driving a vintage race car on the street is an entirely different experience altogether. That becomes clearly obvious as John pumps up the car’s fuel system by hand, since the quartet of Stromberg 81 carbs atop that GranCor-topped, flathead V-8 don’t have a mechanical pump to feed them. At a time when most folks are “updating” their rides to make them more streetable, we were quite impressed that Mr. Bianchi chose to keep the experience all race car, even if it meant putting pressure in the fuel system manually. Other deviations from today’s typical driving experience would be the hand-operated drum brakes, which are called into action with a jewel-adorned handle outside the car’s body. John best explains the simplicity of the early car’s build when he states, “it’s busy in the cockpit!”

There is a hand pump under the dash, just like what was used at Indy. Also, the brakes resemble a stagecoach more than a modern car, using a handle outside the car's bodywork to apply the liquid brakes. The dash plaque is the original one from the car's Shreve era, which was donated to John by an enthusiast.

You’ll also note that the car rides on real knock-off Rudge wheels and the era-perfect Firestones all have tread on the right side of the contact patch. This causes those with a touch of OCD and a taste for symmetry to go batty and doesn’t do a thing beneficial for anything short of left turns. John states that driving the car is as much a visceral experience as it is an emotional one. “The car is made to turn left. The car wants to “hunt”, it’s made for a smooth surface,” he says. “If you’re over 50 miles-per-hour, you can really feel it in the car.” He questions who is actually in control at times.

The chassis was shortened and narrowed to remain competitive and the car was eventually built using a Ford Flathead V8 using GranCor speed parts. The rare GranCor heads and four-Stromberg intake are still on the car.

But, he says, “it’s a great feeling… an exhilaration of speed!” Therein lies the reason many of us choose to walk past today’s air-bagged, sound-proofed sedans and slide behind the wheel of a minimalist example of automotive history. Being fully submerged in the experience, rather than reliving a modern rendition, can be so gratifying to those who can understand the language being communicated through the sounds and shakes of a vintage ride. This video captures that aura perfectly and we’re grateful to John Bianchi and the folks at eGarage for sharing it through this video. Take a few minutes and go for a ride with John in his 1930s Indy racer. We think you’ll agree that the coolness of some cars is how well they unfurl a by-gone era, not today’s highways.

About the author

Andy Bolig

Andy has been intrigued by mechanical things all of his life and enjoys tinkering with cars of all makes and ages. Finding value in style points, he can appreciate cars of all power and performance levels. Andy is an avid railfan and gets his “high” by flying radio-controlled model airplanes when time permits. He keeps his feet firmly grounded by working on his two street rods and his supercharged C4 Corvette. Whether planes, trains, motorcycles, or automobiles, Andy has immersed himself in a world driven by internal combustion.
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