'Wouldn't you really rather drive a Buick'- race car? And Help the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America

By: Mark Moskowitz MD

Important Buick Race Cars at the 2020 Mecum Indy Auction.

Until the 1980s few would have thought of a Buick as a competition thoroughbred.

Buick accomplishments had been sparse. Among the few highlights was a 1909 win in the first major automobile race held at the newly constructed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Louis Chevrolet in his Buick had dominated the first half of the 250-mile dirt race. Blinded by glass shards and dust, he was forced to relinquish the lead to fellow Buick pilot, Bob Burman, who was awarded the Prest-O-Lite Trophy.

March 82C Chassis #1

courtesy of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America

A scant two top series NASCAR wins had been scored. In 1955, the Buick of Buck Baker won the dirt 100 miler at Charlotte and Herb Thomas's Buick took the checker at Raleigh.

From 1961 to 1963 GM produced a 215 cubic inch aluminum V8. Buick and Oldsmobile had similar blocks with different cylinder heads. Mickey Thompson and Dan Gurney helped lead the rear engine revolution when they brought a Buick to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1962. Famously the 215 block was used by Repco to power Jack Brabham to four consecutive Grand Prix wins and the 1966 World Championship.

And the highest exemplar of Buick horsepower was the gas-powered dragster of 'TV' Tommy Ivo. He set multiple NHRA records with twin side by side Buick 'nailheads' and then increased the number of Buick powerplants in the front of his slingshot dragster to four. The sanctioning body ruled it 'for exhibition only'.

Buick's major racing exposure seemed to have come from pacing the Indy 500. Buick V-8s had guided the field in 1939, 1959 and 1975. Country singer, Marty Robbins, drove the classic's first V-6 powered pace car, a turbocharged Buick Century, in 1976. (Regal and Riviera turbocharged V-6's would make their appearance in 1981 and 1983).

In 1974 Buick production fell nearly forty percent. Lloyd Reuss became Buick's chief engineer in 1975 and would soon become Buick General Manager. Under his leadership, Buicks were downsized and assumed a performance bent. Soon Buick racers would seem to be everywhere.

'Wouldn't you really rather drive a Buick'- race car? And Help the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America

courtesy of Don Hunter Smyle Media Archives

In 1981, NASCAR downsized. The wheelbases of Cup division cars were shortened to 110 inches. Richard Petty won the February 1981 Daytona 500 in a Buick. Darrell Waltrip drove his Regal to successive drivers' championships in 1981 and 1982, a period during which Buicks won 47 of 62 races on their way to back to back NASCAR Manufacturer's Championship. Buick driver, Bobby Allison, won was the Cup champion in 1983.

'Wouldn't you really rather drive a Buick'- race car? And Help the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America

courtesy of Don Hunter Smyle Media Archives

The turbocharged V-6 contested the IMSA prototype or GTP class in 1985. Set in a March chassis, the Buick proved itself to be fast, qualifying on the pole for the Daytona 24-hour race. Driver John Paul Jr. claimed 'Our race car had a Buick V6 engine which had 1000 horsepower! That was the most power I ever had in a race car!'. Reliability issues, probably due to excessive boost, plagued the team. Sans turbocharger, the V-6 proved more durable and enjoyed more success in the IMSA GTP Lights series.

But the real jewel was Indy. Lloyd Reuss opined that he would rather have Buicks racing than pacing the Indy 500. He had already lured Herb Fishel from Chevrolet to develop the Buick Special Products Group. Fishel approached the legendary Smokey Yunick with no success. He next approached Gary Knutson of McLaren. The British based company had a record of success at Indy and in Can Am and Formula One. Gary had worked on the Chevy Chaparrals and already had experience with the Buick Turbo V-6.

McLaren Engine head Wiley McCoy began work order #859. He'felt (March 82C) Chassis #1 would be the perfect platform because it had all the performance we needed, having won the 1982 Road America 200, and hadn't been crashed. It served us well.' Thus, ex Formula One driver Hector Rebaque's winning mount became the McLaren test mule.
'Wouldn't you really rather drive a Buick'- race car? And Help the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America

courtesy of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America

Results came quickly. Two March Buicks made the Indy grid in 1984. Pancho Carter and Scott Brayton were the sole Buick representatives in 1985. They qualified first and second! The test mule was retired and repainted in the livery of Jim Crawford who brought his Lola Buick to sixth in 1988.

'Wouldn't you really rather drive a Buick'- race car? And Help the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America

courtesy of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America

Multiple fastest laps and pole positions followed but no Indy wins. Al Unser brought Buick its best finish, a third place, in 1992. Buick turned development and engine naming to Menard. By 1997 the entire Indy field had moved to Oldsmobile or Infiniti power.

Throughout the Buick-Menard period, Scott Brayton stood fast with the marque. His best Indy finishes were in sixth place in 1989 and 1993. The popular driver won the pole in 1995. And again in 1996. A Friday practice crash in a back-up team car took Brayton's life nine days before he could start his fifteenth Indy 500. For the next 13 years, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would award a Scott Brayton Trophy.

Brayton's two Indy pole winning cars are being offered at Dana Mecum's Indy 2020 sale. Joining them in a lot designated as the Speedway Collection are the G-Force cars of Arie Luyendyk and Scott Goodyear, the first and second place finishers in the 1997 Indy 500.

On Saturday (July 11), the car that started it all and surely a 'polesitter' in any Buick fan's collection, the March 82C Chassis #1 will cross the block. George Levy, its executive director, informs 'all the proceeds from the auction will benefit the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America which means not only will the car find a great new home but it will continue to help preserve the sport's history'.

Photo credit: Motorsports Hall of Fame of America
Don Hunter Smyle Media Archives
Mark Moskowitz MD
About Mark Moskowitz MD
Mark Moskowitz MD is a retired surgeon, racer, and car collector. He is director and curator of The Museum of Automobile History (pvt), manages the estate of renowned automotive artist, Carlo Demand, serves on the Board of Directors of Carolina Motorsports Park and is Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors of The Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. He is a frequent contributor to multiple motoring publications. Dr. Moskowitz is a member of International Chief Judge Advisory Group and has been privileged to judge concours events at Boca Raton, La Jolla, Santa Fe, Arizona, Greenwich, Hershey (the Elegance), Radnor Hunt, Cobble Beach, Hilton Head, Dusseldorf, Knokke-Heist, Monticello Raceway and Delhi, India. Dr Moskowitz has served as chief judge for the race car concours at Monticello Raceway, the Trump Charlotte Concours and the Miami Concours.

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