The Fast Rise and Fall of the Galmer

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Although it’s hard to believe, the 1992 Indianapolis 500 ran thirty years ago this month. That race is known for many things. First of all, it is one of the coldest 500s in history. I sat there on that cold day that barely cracked 50°, but with the wind – it felt like it was below forty. It is also known as the race that was completely dominated by Michael Andretti, until he fell out with eleven laps to go. Most notably, it is known for the closest finish in the history of the Indianapolis 500 – officially .043 seconds between the winning car of Al Unser, Jr. and the second-place car of Scott Goodyear.

What has sort of gotten lost in the past thirty years is that 1992 was the debut of the Galmer chassis – the car that won the race. 1992 was curiously the demise of the Galmer chassis, as well.

Back then, it became popular for some teams to emulate Formula One and build their own chassis. Three teams in the 1992 Indianapolis 500 constructed their own chassis – Team Penske ran the PC-21 (Penske Cars) for Rick Mears and Emerson Fittipaldi, and the PC-20 for Paul Tracy. Truesports ran the American-built Truesports 92C (which became the ill-fated RH-01 the next year). Galles-Kraco also debuted their own chassis – the Galmer G92.

In 1988, Rick Galles formed a joint-venture engineering research and development firm, with renowned British engineer Alan Mertens. The new venture was Galmer Engineering, combining the first three letters of each of their last names. Their goal was to maximize the Lola chassis that Galles Racing was now using with Al Unser, Jr. as their driver, along with most of the CART paddock. In 1990, Galles Racing merged with Kraco Racing, owned by Maury Kraines. This brought a second car to be driven by Bobby Rahal. The combination of Galles, Kraines and Mertens led to Unser, Jr. winning the 1990 CART PPG Cup.

This led to bigger dreams and ultimately the decision to build their own in-house chassis for the 1992 CART season.

Building your own chassis is a high-risk, high-reward proposition. If you get it wrong, you’ve sunk millions into an absolute sled. Few teams had the ability to switch chassis in the middle of the year, like Team Penske did in 1986; when their PC-15 was not getting the job done. Roger Penske didn’t hesitate to pull the plug, and he ordered new March 86Cs for his three drivers. Few owners had that ability. That’s why most teams in the early nineties, stuck with the proven Lola.

But if you got it right, then your drivers had something that no one else in the field had – such as the PC-17 of Team Penske, that Rick Mears drove to victory in the 1988 Indianapolis 500, and Danny Sullivan used to win the 1988 CART championship. Whenever teams considered building their own chassis, this is what they thought of – the potential reward.

Teams needed four things in order to build their own chassis – time, money, expertise and patience. You needed time to plan your chassis the right way. A project of this magnitude could not be rushed. Money is certainly critical. It’s sort of like racing – if you can’t afford many crashes by your driver, you probably don’t need to be doing this. If you can’t afford mistakes staring out, you’re probably better off sticking with the Lola – even though most of your competitors have the exact same car.

Obviously you need a proven chassis engineer that knows what they’re doing, or it wouldn’t matter how much money you had. It would be a waste of time. Lastly, the team owner must have patience. Mistakes will be made. You are doing this because you want something no one else has. That means you need to try new things. Most will not work, but every now and then – you’ll nail it.

I’m not sure when the trio of Kraines, Galles and Mertens made the decision to commit to their own car, but I would imagine it was during the 1990 season. By the end of the 1991 season, we were already hearing about the Galmer chassis that the team would be using in 1992.

After 1991, Rahal moved on to buy the assets of Patrick Racing and was able to secure a lease for a Chevy-A engine – the engine built by Ilmor, that had been the premier power-plant since the late eighties. In a complete swap, former Patrick driver, Danny Sullivan, took Rahal’s spot at Galles-Kraco. For better or worse, Sullivan and Little Al would have the only two Galmers in the field for 1992.

It normally takes a while for a new chassis to be successful. Truesports had introduced their new chassis in 1991, and the results were not great. It never earned a podium in 1991, and Scott Pruett probably got everything out of it by soldiering it to a tenth place finish in points. It was worse in 1992, and Truesports folded at the end of the season. The chassis and the program was bought by Rahal-Hogan Racing for 1993, with disastrous results.

One had to wonder if the Galmer would bring the same fate to Galles-Kraco, a team just one season removed from winning the championship, and finishing second and third in the 1991 season.

When we saw our first pictures of the Galmer, it was strange looking compared to the 1991 Lola that we were so used to looking at. It had a needle nose that steeply sloped downward. The movie Batman Returns made its debut just a month after the 1992 Indianapolis 500. When I saw Danny DeVito’s Penguin his nose reminded me of the Galmer.

Penguin

It was also the first Indy car in quite a while that did not have any type of windscreen. The Reynard would follow suit a couple of years later, but the Galmer was the first. The roll hoop was also very distinctive, as it seemed taller and had an aggressive looking forward slant to it. The cowling featured a lower sleek design, than the previous year’s Lola.

Lola

Galmer

The Galmer did surprisingly well in its first outing at Surfers Paradise, placing fourth and fifth. Neither driver wound up on the podium, but for a first time outing, it was something of a pleasant surprise. At Phoenix, Unser, Jr. finished fourth again, while Sullivan finished twelfth.

It was at Long Beach, when everyone took notice of the brand new Galmer. In the late stages of the race, Al Unser, Jr. led while trying to win his fifth race on the streets of Long Beach. Danny Sullivan was right behind him in second, showing that the Galmer/Chevy was the package to beat. In the closing laps, Danny Sullivan made a move to the inside to pass his teammate. Unfortunately, they touched and Little Al spun into the runoff area. Sullivan continued on for the win, in only the Galmer’s third race – and the last race before heading into the Month of May.

The experts said the Galmer would not be expected to do well on the big ovals like Indianapolis and Michigan. It had the Chevy-A engine, which was getting a little long in the tooth; compared to the Team Penske Chevy-B, or the new Ford-Cosworth XB in the cars of Newman/Haas and Chip Ganassi Racing. But the Galmers hung in there all day, and when Michael Andretti’s Lola/Ford quit on him; Unser was right there to battle for and earn the win. Sullivan finished fifth in his Galmer.

After the Indianapolis 500, Unser, Jr. went on to capture five podiums with the Galmer, and six more Top-Ten finishes. His lowest finish for the entire 1992 season was eleventh at Nazareth – on his way to third in the championship. Sullivan did not fare as well, but still earned one more podium after the Month of May along with seven more Top-Ten finishes , while finishing seventh in points.

On paper, this looked like it was one of the most successful debuts for a new chassis constructor in history. It was even more successful than the debut of the Reynard two years later, except that the Reynard won in its very first outing. The future looked very bright for the Galmer.

Somewhere along the way, the team decided to pull the plug on the Galmer by the end of the 1992 season.

There are conflicting reports on when that decision was made. Donald Davidson says that the decision to scrap the project was actually made on the morning of the Indianapolis 500, but the decision was held secret. Other reports say that they were still trying to massage the chassis throughout the summer of 1992, but finally made the painful decision to not move forward for 1993.

Regardless of when the decision was made, it ultimately came down to money. Alan Mertens has been quoted as saying that the team underestimated how much money it took to fund a brand new chassis. To do it again for 1993, would have taken more than Galles and Mertens were willing to spend. Plus, at some point – Maury Kraines announced he was pulling out, because in 1993 the team was back to just Galles Racing. I imagine losing the backing from Kraines factored into the decision, but I don’t know that for certain.

The Galmer did have life into 1993, as a used car. Dominic Dobson drove the year-old Galmer, modified with 1993 specs, in three races in 1993 – including a twenty-third place finish in the 1993 Indianapolis 500. After an eighteenth place finish at Laguna Seca, the Galmer never turned a wheel in CART competition again.

I have no idea what kind of money was poured into developing the Galmer, but I’m sure it was a lot. It’s a shame they bailed on the project so soon, because it really was successful in its first season. But they probably made the right decision, if the first year far exceeded their proposed budget. It was probably only going to get worse from there. Instead, the Galmer has become an interesting footnote in the history of the Indianapolis 500.

George Phillips

9 Responses to “The Fast Rise and Fall of the Galmer”

  1. 1993 was peak Lola in Indycar

  2. That was the era of the best looking cars.I had to watch the 1992 in the Sierra Nevada mountains on a black and white for some reason singal was pulling in a station all the way from San Jose that day.Never got the signal again on the TV the rest of the year from San Jose California

  3. Let’s never forget, had it not been for the incredible cold of the ’92 Indianapolis 500 that swallowed up most of the top competitors into the wall, that Galmer sled never would have won the race. Also, George may have forgotten that Alan Mertens was also the designer of the ill fated Penske PC 16 of 1987 that was a disaster for Team Penske. Penske actually walked away from the PC 16 mid-May in favor of year old March 86Cs for the 500. IMO, Mertens was not exactly a very good designer.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    The swoopy cockpit with the forward slanting roll hoop and lack of windscreen was very reminiscent of the Formula 1 cars of the early 90s, take a look at these F1 car profiles from 1991: https://twitter.com/adelaide_gp/status/888214515904466944

    Such overt F1 imitation wouldn’t be seen again until the Penske PC-27 in 1998, with its raised nosecone.

    It was a pretty car that would have probably gone on to more success had the budget been there. Hey, we could say that about the early 80s Eagles, the 2000 Swift, and maybe even the Penske PC-27 had it not been saddled with Mercedes and Goodyear equipment.

  5. John Oreovicz Says:

    There’s plenty of detail about the history of the Galmer in “Time Flies: The History of PacWest Racing” including extensive interviews with designers Alan Mertens and Andy Brown. Bruce McCaw acquired Galmer from Rick ‘Pard’ Galles and used it to enhance the team’s Lola and Reynard cars. Mauricio Gugelmin led the most laps in the 1995 Indianapolis 500 and PacWest was one of the strongest CART teams on superspeedways in the late 1990s. It’s unfortunate that the politics of the era prevented Gugelmin and Mark Blundell from competing in the Indianapolis 500 in those years.

  6. John Oreovicz Says:

    Incidentally ‘Jonny Says’ above has mistaken Alan Mertens for Alan Jenkins, the actual designer of the Penske PC15 and 16 duds.

  7. Bruce B Says:

    In this time period, Al Unser jr was at the top of his game. I think he probably pushed it to its limits more than any other driver could have. I agree with others who claim the Galmer was a slow sled indeed. And the car itself did not deserve a 500 win, but Little Al valiantly fought Goodyear off at the end.

  8. I always thought the Galmer was a bit awkward looking with the cockpit position and the roll hoop design. Either way it was a shame that Galles didn’t continue with the project as they didn’t exactly set the world on fire in 1993 when they went back to Lola’s. Interesting footnote is that Burns racing entered a Galmer in the 1994 Indy 500 but it never appeared at the track, the preliminary entry list I saw had Rocky Moran listed as the driver.

  9. What a finish. What a driver Unser was. Fun to think about that race again.

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