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Cummins at the Indy 500 - Diesel Alley

How A Cummins Diesel Dominated The 1952 Indy 500

Photography by Courtesy Of The Motor Trend Archives

For weeks, only those closest to Fred Agabashian knew what his #28 Cummins Diesel Special could do. Fred, a diminutive 38-year-old in his prime dubbed Fearless Freddie by Motor Trend magazine, had a diesel-powered secret he dare not share with his competitors or members of the Indianapolis Speedway's old guard.

Imagine his suppressed grin, knowing his 1952 Cummins-powered Kurtis Kraft race car-an odd-looking, unbelievably heavy, and impossibly low-riding curiosity-was in fact so much more. Fred was an Indy 500 veteran and knew this track. He knew the difference between run-at-the-front fast and pull-away-from-the-field fast. He'd driven all types of cars, but never had he driven anything like this. Then again, no one else had either.

The #28 Cummins Diesel Special IndyCar looked different from anything that had come before. It was built to take advantage of the 1952 Indy 500 race rules that allowed four-cycle diesel engines that were twice as big as their gasoline competition. To take full advantage of this, the #28 Cummins Diesel Special was packed with a turbocharged 6.6L inline-six diesel engine that was reported to make 380 hp.

Columbus, Indiana's Biggest Secret
Clessie Cummins, a self-taught engineer and promotions whiz, had used the Indy 500 now and again to show the world how durable his diesel engines built in nearby Columbus, Indiana, were. By 1952, Clessie had retired, but the company's idea that it could compete in the world's most famous race remained.

To prove its point, Cummins set out to build a '52 NHH 6.6L turbocharged race engine with an aluminum block, head, and magnesium crankcase. Renowned chassis builder Frank Kurtis of Glendale, California, built the car. At Kurtis' recommendation, Fred Agabashian was hired to drive. That spring, the Modesto-born (California) driver and the Cummins team tested in a wind tunnel in Wichita, Kansas, and then at the Indianapolis Speedway. The car was powerful, and not just qualify-and-get-in-the-race powerful, either. Fred and Cummins knew that almost immediately.

"We've got a rocket ship here," Fred was reported to have said. That was the good news. But at the same time, it was not the kind of news that would make many outside Cummins' hometown particularly happy. For weeks, only those closest to Fred knew what the car was really capable of. Cummins made sure of that.

Cummins Race Team
Nearly everyone who worked on the 1952 race team was a Cummins employee-Clessie's brother Don (who spearheaded the operation), Nev Reiners, Thane Houser, Bill Doup, Mike Fellows, Art Eckleman, and Joe Miller. The seven of them "worked day and night on the car since it had arrived" at Cummins in early 1952, The Columbus Republic newspaper reported that May.

"It was a homegrown type of thing," Harry McCawley, an associate editor at The Republic who writes about local history for the paper, told Diesel Power recently. "Fred was really the only outsider in the group." They were homegrown, and in the racing community at least, relatively unknown.

Nev, the chief engineer and mechanic, was definitely not a "racing guy." The 1952 Indy 500 would be for him two races: his first and his last. Aside from Fred, the only real racing guy was Thane, who'd been a riding mechanic and driver at the Indy 500 in 1931. However, even Thane wasn't a hired gun for the 1952 Indy race team. Rather, he was a full-time Cummins employee.

"They underplayed themselves," said Donald Davidson, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's track historian. "They said, 'We don't know anything. We're a bunch of farmers from Columbus.'''

Farmers they weren't though. They were savvy, experienced engineers and mechanics who'd been building some of the world's most innovative engines for years. And they came from a community that loved cars and racing.

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