Bob's Resource Website (2007)
Studebaker Indianapolis 500 Novi Race car

The Novi was called the greatest car never to win the Indianapolis 500 mile race, yet it became an Indy icon without ever entering the winner's circle.

In 1937, Indy ended its "Junk Formula" that allowed engines up to 6.0 litres. It was instituted in 1930 to permit cheaper stock block engines, and it was superseded in 1938 by international Grand Prix rules permitting displacements of 4.5L naturally aspirated or 3.0L supercharged.

Brothers Ed and Bud Winfield, makers of racing carburetors, wanted to build an Indy car for the new formula. They landed sponsorship from Lewis Welch of Novi, Mich., who made Ford parts and rebuilt Ford engines.

Welch wanted a V8, and asked that it be named after his home town of Novi. The Novi engine would be installed in a Harry Miller-designed Ford front-drive chassis that raced at Indy in 1935.

Work on a 3.0L supercharged Novi began in 1940 in the shop of legendary racing engine builder Fred Offenhauser, with design by Leo Goosen, America's only full-time racing engine designer.

It was a 90-degree, oversquare (bigger bore than stroke), 16-valve V8 with gear-driven double overhead camshafts and hemispherical combustion chambers. A large front-mounted, intercooled centrifugal supercharger was spun by a horizontal shaft from the rear of the engine. It breathed through three Winfield carburetors, and, at 8,000 rpm, the blower was turning at 42,000, producing up to 30 psi of boost.

Almost miraculously, the Novi engine was ready for the 1941 race. It was rated at 450 horsepower when a typical Offenhauser had 300. The front-drive Novi was always heavy, thirsty and hard on tires, and it qualified in 28th place at 194 kilometres an hour. Ralph Hepburn finished the race in a trouble-free fourth position.

In 1945, following the Second World War interruption in racing, Welch had Goosen design a new front transaxle that allowed lower engine mounting. Emerging racecar builder Frank Kurtis produced a new chassis and a low, sleek body, and the car, not just the engine, was now called the Novi.

In the Novi Governor Special, Hepburn did the four-lap qualifying at 216 km/h for the 1946 Indy. No car had ever done more than 211, and although late qualifying placed it 19th on the grid, the Novi was touted as a shoo-in winner.

By Lap 12, Hepburn was leading, but brake woes on Lap 56 and a long pit stop dropped him to 13th. He climbed to fourth by Lap 122 when a broken valve finished him.

In 1947, the two Novi Governor Mobile Specials qualified. One broke a piston on Lap 62, and the other finished fourth.

Tragedy struck in 1948, when one of the Novi Grooved Piston Specials hit the wall in qualifying, killing Hepburn and launching a jinxed reputation for the Novi. Dennis (Duke) Nalon took over and qualified fastest at 212 km/h. Nalon drove well, but he came in third due to a refuelling glitch. It would be the Novi's best finish.

In spite of Nalon and Rex Mays qualifying first and second in 1949, the jinx struck again during the race when Nalon hit the wall and Mays' engine failed.

The Novis failed to qualify in 1950 but were back for 1951, when Nalon broke all records, gaining the pole at 220 km/h. Chet Miller's Novi qualified but, unfortunately, both drivers failed to finish.

For 1952, Nalon and Miller returned, and Miller stunned Indy with a fastest-ever 224 km/h qualifier. But both Novis broke their supercharger driveshafts during the race.

Nalon and Miller had stronger supercharger drives installed and removed the intercoolers for 1953. Miller was attempting 225 km/h during qualifying when he hit a wall and died. This took heart out of the effort, and though Nalon qualified, he was never in contention. He spun out on Lap 191.

The 1953 race would be the last Indy for a front-drive car; the Novi front drivers failed to qualify in 1954 and '55. For 1956, the Novi engines were fitted to Kurtis rear- drive chassis. New rules reduced displacement to 2.7L in 1957.

Modifications were tried, but in 1961, after 20 years of attempting to win at Indy, Lou Welch sold the Novi assets to Andy Granatelli of Studebaker's Paxton supercharger and STP additive divisions.

Granatelli and crew coaxed the Novi to more than 700 hp, without a win. In 1964, Granatelli applied its power to four-wheel drive. It proved inconclusive. In any event, four-wheel drive was made unnecessary by new, stickier tires and the change to rear-engined cars. Novis didn't finish in 1964 or '65, and they failed to qualify in '66.

Thus ended the exciting but ill-fated Novi's odyssey, one that had promised so much but delivered so little.