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Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance – Great Offy Drivers Seminar presented by UBS

 Tim Considine (left) moderated The Great Offy Drivers Seminar with (L-R) Sonny Meyer, David Hobbs, Al Unser, Bobby Unser, Parnelli Jones and Sam Posey.  [Steve Zautke photo]

Fernandina Beach, FL (March 10th, 2014) – A capacity crowd of over 800 motorsport enthusiasts jammed the Talbot Ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton at Amelia Island on Friday, March 7th for the Great Offy Drivers Seminar presented by UBS.  The panel moderated by former actor and racing historian/author  Tim Considine, included Indianapolis 500 winners, Parnelli Jones, Al and Bobby Unser.  Also included was legendary engine builder, Louis “Sonny” Meyer and former “500” drivers, David Hobbs and Sam Posey.

The 1973 Indianapolis 500 winning Eagle-Offy now owned by Bruce McCaw.  [Steve Zautke photo]

The 1973 Indianapolis 500 winning Eagle-Offy now owned by Bruce McCaw. [Steve Zautke photo]

Why the Offenhauser engine?  Since their first Indy 500 victory in 1935, Offenhauser (Offy) engines ruled the Indy 500 and the American National Championship. Offy engines powered Indy winners, Champ Cars, midgets, racing powerboats and even sports cars, winning 33 American National Racing championships across 41 seasons of competition.

Hobbs took control of forum from the very beginning by announcing that, “Posey was the only driver less qualified than him to be on the panel.” That was just the start to the 90-min plus of good-natured jabs and kidding from the hall of fame panel.  Hobbs also complemented those attending, who filled the lovely Talbot room to capacity.

Considine got things going by asking the panel what their first encounter driving an Offenhauser-powered car.  Al Unser reminisced attending a United States Auto Club (USAC) race at Phoenix in 1964 and finding an unassigned upright styled Offy-powered dirt car. Al spoke to the car owner and soon found himself behind the wheel.  Al added, “I’m just a kid wondering if this thing was gonna blow up just sitting there as it just started to rumble and shake.”  Al got out on the track and the vibration started to go away as the RPMs started to rise. “I was feeling pretty good and several cars blew right past me like I was sitting still” Al chuckled.

Parnelli remembered driving a 220-Offy sprint car owned by the Morales Brothers in California and later several 110-Offy powered midget race cars, and as he did, winning many races. Bobby Unser added, “Offys were it.  They were the top of the pecking order.”  Adding that you were at the top of the game when you were finally driving an Offenhauser racing car.  He also mentioned how they would vibrate at lower RPMs, “Your hands would fall asleep, because the steering wheel shook so much.”

Al Unser signs an autograph for a fan after the Great Offy Drivers Seminar.  [Steve Zautke photo]

Al Unser signs an autograph for a fan after the Great Offy Drivers Seminar. [Steve Zautke photo]

Meyer, son on three-time Indy winner Louis Meyer, who co-founded Meyer & Drake Engineering which  were the primary builders of Offenhauser racing engines after World War II. Sonny’s engines and cars won 19 Indy 500 poles and 24 500s. In 2013 he was inducted into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Hall of Fame. Meyer explained that he personally built 260 110-inch Offenhauser midget engines at Meyer-Drake .  Offenhauser book author, Gordon E. White who was in attendance added when asked, that over 800 Offenhauser engines in total were built.  Sonny added that the development for the Offenhauser engine never stopped, adding that by 1973 they were running close to 1200-horsepower, with 17:1 compression and turbochargers with 135″ of boost.  Sonny Meyer also added that they changed to angle of the Offy from 36 to 24-degrees after reading about how Messerschmitt did the same during World War II.

The subject turned to the huge speed gains made by Bobby Unser along with his engineman  John Miller of All American Racers (owned by Dan Gurney) in 1972.  Bobby explained the horsepower gains and how they did it, however Al brought down the room when he added, “because Bobby knew how to cheat.”  Which Parnelli laughed and started to clap. Bobby then told several stories which included trying to scare mechanic Chickie Hiroshima and later fellow driver Gordon Johncock with rattlesnakes at Phoenix Raceway.  He also explained how he cheated the ill-conceived pacer light system used at Indianapolis for several years in the 1970’s. He tried to explain that he wasn’t cheating because they didn’t have rules about what they were doing.  Bobby then added “Everybody cheated but Al.”  To which Sam Posey added “the common denominator of the panel is ‘cheating’.”  The crowd roared in approval.

It was that type of symposium, a delightful mix of technical observations and fantastic ribbing and amusing stories living up to what Founder and Chairman of the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance Bill Warner described  earlier, “With five legends of the sport and David Hobbs, The Great Offy Drivers Seminar is an insider’s look at a storied period in American championship racing from depression era American track racing through the end of the seventies.”

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Steve Zautke, a Milwaukee, WI native, was raised in the sport of auto racing. His father, Bill, was a movie photographer that shot racing footage at tracks such as the Milwaukee Mile and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the 1960’s and 1970’s Steve’s first professional job in racing was as an Emergency Medical Technician at tracks such as Angell Park and Hales Corners Speedway (1988-1991). Steve has also worked for the Milwaukee Mile as videographer, in media relations and historian (1993-2011). Steve also has worked as a reporter for Racing Information Systems (RIS) and has written features for ‘Vintage Oval Racing’ and ‘Victory Lane’ magazines. Most recently, Steve has written a book on Road America for Arcadia Publishing. ( http://www.amazon.com/Road-America-Nascar-Library-Collection/dp/1467111457 ) Steve co-hosts “Sparky’s Final Inspection” a motorsports-based radio show with hosts, Steve “Sparky” Fifer and “NASCAR Girl” Summer Santana on Sports Radio 1250AM in Milwaukee and is also available on the internet at www.Sportradio1250.com. A member of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame Induction Committee, Steve follows all types of racing from the dirt tracks to Formula One.