Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

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Is an old dog ever really too old to learn a new trick? Are people ever too old to learn something new? Like many that come here to this site, I like to think of myself as fairly knowledgeable about the history of the Indianapolis 500. Many people I know can recite a lot of facts and trivial tidbits going as far back as the 1970s, but beyond that – things get a little fuzzy for them.

I’m a little bit different. While I’ve tried to study and learn about all of the decades in the history of the race from the 1910s to the present, the decade that gets fuzzy for me are the 1980s. I’m pretty good with the forties and fifties. I feel I am very knowledgeable about the sixties and seventies, mainly because I was there; but the eighties are my weak spot, when it comes to my Indianapolis 500 knowledge. I’m not even sure why that is. But it also happens to be the only decade since the 1950s that I never attended a race there. Keep in mind, I always watched the race throughout the eighties – either on the Sunday night replay prior to the 1986 race, or the live broadcast from 1986 on.

I graduated college in 1982, just a couple of years later than I should have. Maybe it was because I trying to focus on making it in the real world (probably not); or just trying to chase girls, now that I was free from the academic constraints of college life (probably so). But the decade of the eighties is the only decade of my life that I did not follow IndyCar very closely. I followed it, but it is not an era that I am comfortable rattling off facts about.

Perhaps that’s how I missed one particular story. For decades, I’ve been aware of the Ferrari 637 – the car that Ferrari built, supposedly to run in CART and the Indianapolis 500. It was suspected of being a political ploy by Ferrari, to gain leverage in Formula One, for whatever the dispute of the moment was. I even wrote a post about it here, back in June of 2009.

But somehow, the story of the Lotus 96T escaped me.

I’m just curious how many of you knew of the Lotus 96T. To be perfectly honest, I had never heard of the car until I saw a picture of it posted in one of the many IndyCar Facebook groups I belong to. Unlike the Ferrari, this car had every intention of racing in CART and in the Indianapolis 500. It’s good to know that at my ripe old age, I can still learn some nuggets of racing history – even if it never happened on the track.

Most of us are familiar with the story of how Lotus, Colin Chapman, Jim Clark and Dan Gurney came to Indianapolis in 1963. We are also very familiar with the failed attempt of the Lotus name making a return to IndyCar, as an IndyCar engine manufacturer in 2012.

I say “the Lotus name”, because the name on those woefully underpowered engines said Lotus, but the proud company had been sold to a concern in Malaysia known as Proton. Other than the name, there was no connection to the innovative cars of the sixties and seventies that were designed by Colin Chapman. When Chapman suddenly died of a heart attack in 1982 at the age of fifty-four, things went into a state of disarray at Lotus.

But their Lotus 95T, designed by Gérard Ducarouge, proved to be very competitive in the 1984 Formula One season. Lotus was impressed enough with the caliber of racing in CART, but they also saw financial opportunities – not only in the US, but in the international markets that CART was moving into.

They had their eyes on the 1985 CART season and the 1985 Indianapolis 500. But Lotus had no interest in buying customer cars through March or Lola – they wanted to bring their own chassis. They made some modifications to the 95T, and this modified chassis – mainly in the area of strengthening the tub, in order to withstand hitting a concrete wall at over 200 mph.

The car was good looking, especially compared to the bulbous-nosed March of the time.

Lotus T96

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There are conflicting stories as to why the car never raced. One story says that the CART owners conspired against a Lotus “works” team invading their series. Longtime reader, Steven Kilsdonk, had an interesting story on the Facebook post, about how Al Unser, Jr was targeted as a possible Lotus driver. As the story goes, Little Al met with the Lotus designers, who said that the car would run with one spring and shock setup at all the tracks on the 1985 CART schedule. When Al, Jr. laughed at their ideas, it was not well-received.

Other reports say that there was not a whole lot of mechanical modifications between the 95T of Formula One and the CART-bound 96T. Being competitive at Imola or Hockenheim, does not guarantee success at Indianapolis or Milwaukee.

Whatever the case, we now know that the car never turned a wheel in CART. We also know that Lotus went on to have hard times in Formula One, and the team disappeared from Formula One for more than a decade, only to resurface in name only.

Would racing success in the US made a difference in their fortunes, had they pursued their plans of competing in CART and the Indianapolis 500? Probably not. But it is interesting to think what twist and turns may have taken place within IndyCar, had Lotus entered the series in full force in 1985.And I’m also glad that I can be taught something new regarding IndyCar history. I suppose old dogs can learn new tricks. I guess we all can.

George Phillips

3 Responses to “Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks”

  1. That is a gorgeous race car.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    The car is certainly a looker, but pretty is not always fast, just ask Bryan Herta and Tarso Marques about the 2000 Swift.

    Even so, I’m disappointed that Ferrari and Lotus never gave CART a go. Especially so since the F1 offshoot that did hit the CART track in the 80s, the Ligier LC02 that Kevin Hogan drove at Long Beach in 1984, was a very unattractive (and uncompetitive) car.

  3. James T Suel Says:

    I had heard of the Lotus program in that decade. Cant say I knew a lot about it. I looked at it the same way I did Ferrari project, was not gonna happen. At Indianapolis I always though that Lotus was light and delicate. Yes the 65 car was a success and it advanced the thinking at Indy. But Gurney and other Americans built better race cars for the speedway. Of course thats just my opinion. But I have been there every year since 1960, and in the garage and pits since the mid 70s. The the history.

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