Generally, “what goes around comes around” is considered a cliche, or even a joke when the subject is oval-track racing. But for former Indy 500 racer Dennis Firestone, that phrase became reality when he was re-united with a car he used to drive.
Firestone, a native of Townsville, Australia, who lives in Pomona, California, was 1977 SCCA Formula Ford national champion and three years later was rookie of the year in the CART Indy car racing series. He was a five-time starter in the Indianapolis 500 and had qualified for a sixth but sustained a career-ending crash on Carb Day, the last pre-race days for teams to shakedown their cars on the famed Brickyard track.
Recently, along with the Indy Racing League’s Desert Diamond West Valley Grand Prix races, a Vintage Desert Classic for vintage Indy cars was staged at Phoenix International Raceway and Firestone was there with two cars — a 1979 March mini-Indy (Super Vee racers used in a short-lived U.S. Auto Club Mini-Indy series, which Firestone won in 1979) as well as a 1981 Eagle he had raced at Indianapolis.
The Eagle is All-American Racers chassis No. 8106 and is powered by a naturally aspirated Chevrolet stock block engine. The car’s original owner was Top Fuel drag racing chassis builder Lil’ John Buttera.
The car was entered in the 1982 Indy 500 for BCV Racing and was driven by Firestone, who qualified at 197.2 mph, good for 21st position on the 33-car starting grid. His race day was shortened after flywheel bolts sheared after only 92 of the anticipated 500 miles.
The car and driver parted ways — until Firestone, an Australian native now living in Southern California, found the car hanging, like artwork, on a wall in a private collection
Firestone thought the car deserved to be on a race track rather than a wall, so he negotiated its purchase.
Restoration of the car was finished in time for the recent exhibition laps at Phoenix and allowed Firestone to be the only driver on the track who had driven the same car in competition.
Among the other significant cars in the vintage Indy event at Phoenix were a pair of Offenhauser-powered 1972 Olsonite Eagles, wearing No. 6 and No. 92.
The No. 6 car had been driven by Bobby Unser, the only Indy car driver to win two Indy car races in the same calendar year at Phoenix; driving the new Roman Slobodynski-designed, wedge-shaped Eagle-office, Unser won both the season-opening and -closing events when both were held in 1972 at Phoenix.
Despite having such an incredible 1972 season, the chassis was sold. Interestingly, many of its ancillary parts, and even its turbocharged 159 cid Offy engine, were installed on a previously unused Indy car tub for the Phoenix vintage event.
The No. 92 car was raced by Arlene Hiss in 1976 at Phoenix. She was an amateur SCCA road racer and former wife of Indy car driver Mike Hiss. She became the first women to compete in an Indy car race, qualifying 21st out of 22 starters.
During her qualifying sessions at PIR, eight cars — including those of Indy car veterans Gary Bettenhausen and Billy Vukovich Jr. — were not go fast enough in time trials to make the field.
In the race, Hiss drove with the intention of finishing the race and she was the final car running at the checkered flag. However, her pace was slow and her performance drew criticism from many other drivers.
As a result, her provisional license was not extended and it was left to Janet Guthrie, who debuted at the next race at Trenton, to be the first woman to compete at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Photos by Nicole James