The first carbon-fiber monocoque in Formula 1 racing debuted in the 1981 McLaren MP4/1, designed by the brilliant John Barnard. Although an all-carbon-fiber Indy car wasn’t approved to race until 1991, Jim Trueman’s Truesports team was the first to incorporate the new ultralightweight, superexpensive material in an Indy car — driver Bobby Rahal’s 1983 March Type 83C had a carbon-fiber undertray.
Carbon fiber wasn’t on my radar until my friend and Car and Driver colleague Patrick Bedard crashed so spectacularly in the 1984 Indy 500 — hitting the wall, flipping his car, and barrel-rolling into the infield, finishing with the car in pieces — that everyone watching the horrific crash presumed he was dead. The two large pieces remaining when the action stopped were Bedard’s engine and his carbon-fiber tub, with him strapped inside. Alive. The car and its tub had done the job, absorbing the bulk of the massive force generated by Bedard’s accident — shredding, exploding, and keeping it from killing him.
That July, I flew to New Jersey to attend CART’s first Indy- car race at the Meadowlands, a new 1.68-mile street circuit built in the parking lot of Giants Stadium, itself built atop a landfill and surrounded by swampland. I was there to write a story about the mechanics on the Arciero team of driver Pete Halsmer.
It was a seminal time in the sport. Road courses were just beginning to gain traction in open-wheel racing. Both Bedard and Halsmer were accomplished sports car drivers who were among those making the transition to the oval track-dominated CART series. Some of the old-time oval racers were just as accomplished making left and right turns, but others weren’t cutting it, and there was much acrimony among the fast young bucks and the old backmarkers.
Carbon fiber was not top of mind, but it soon would be. Stench was top of mind. It had rained four inches in two days, and the incessant cries of seagulls filled the fetid air.
The start of the race was frantic, with the top teams hiding their choice of race tires (rain or slicks?) until the last second. When the top two cars on the grid appeared with slicks, five cars dove into the pits on the pace lap to change tires. My story went to hell in a handbasket on the seventh lap, when Halsmer decided that he, too, needed to come in for slicks. His crew, exhausted and decimated by illness and a defection, tried to top off his already-full tank and set the car on fire. My story all but evaporated when the Arciero team packed up on the spot and headed home to California.
I tried to soldier on, attempting to interview the teams that had stayed to prepare for the next race in Cleveland. Trudging from pit to pit, I faced a wall of silence when it wasn’t outright hostility. But there was one jolly team in the corner working on Dick Simon’s broken car. “When is this story going to run?” asked crew chief Larry Curry.
“December,” I said.
“OK, we’re all going to quit before that, so you can hang with us.”
Simon was famous for being in the most Indy-car races without a win. Ever. At fifty, he was the oldest driver in the field. Known for being tighter than the bark on a log, Simon had his name stenciled with his partner Ed Pink’s on everything, including the broom. Pink-Simon. The crew referred to him as Pink Dick. Here at the Meadowlands, he’d crashed on lap 19 of 100, and the crew was demoralized.
The gearbox needed an overhaul, which Curry made quick work of. Damage to the carbon-fiber side pods was pretty extensive, though, with many tears and cracks and one large, gaping hole the size of a dinner plate. The smallest repairs could be patched with flexible carbon-fiber cloth and a specially blended epoxy, but that hole was another story.
Curry came up with the blasphemous idea of filling the hole with Bondo and sent me (in my new role as team gofer) to the auto-parts store for a can of the trusty pink goop. What I’ve never revealed: I was actually the one assigned the job of repairing the carbon-fiber side pod of Dick Simon’s Indy car with Bondo. Curry sanded and painted it. “Let’s hope he doesn’t crash at Cleveland, or there’s going to be a pink plastic Frisbee lying on the track.” He spun during qualifying.