252: 1963 Meskowski Sheraton-Thompson Dirt Championship
255 cu. in. Offenhauser double overhead cam inline four-cylinder engine, Meyer-Drake two-speed transmission with reverse, tubular front axle and Halibrand Championship rear end with three-inch open tube axle, front and rear cross-torsion bar suspension, and Halibrand four-wheel disc brakes.
The Ex-A.J. Foyt two-time USAC National Championship-winning
For the 1964 USAC season, the reigning champion Sheraton-Thompson racing team, led by George Bignotti, returned in grand style, armed with a beautiful, state-of-the art Dirt Championship car built by the legendary Wally Meskowski. While similar to the very successful 1960-1963 car, Meskowski made a number of subtle improvements that effectively exploited the hard-charging driving style of A.J. Foyt.
The new chassis continued to utilize Meskowski's trademark placement of two hydraulic shock absorbers at each wheel, except for the left rear position, where only one shock absorber was mounted. Power-assisted steering was added, to reduce steering effort and driver fatigue. The oil tank was repositioned internally to the rear of the chassis, which improved weight distribution slightly. The most significant improvement was an upswept frame and belly pan, otherwise known as a 'kick up', designed into the right rear corner of the car. This feature was added in response to Foyt's flat-out driving style, and prevented the right rear chassis and belly pan from bottoming out while exiting corners under full throttle.
This well-seasoned team absolutely dominated the 1964 USAC calendar, winning a fourth National Championship in only five seasons. Its record-setting 10 victories out of 14 races, including five victories with the team's Watson roadster on pavement and five dirt track wins in the new Meskowski, has been duplicated just once, by Al Unser in 1970. The eventful 1965 season was marred by a severe accident during the January 17 NASCAR race at Riverside, where Foyt suffered a broken back and serious internal injuries. Incredibly, Foyt later attempted to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, and managed to score two dirt track wins along with three victories on pavement. While Foyt did capture the pole in 10 events, the National Championship proved elusive.
However, Foyt and the Meskowski are best remembered for what was later hailed as 'Foyt's Greatest Ride'. While the new wave of rear-engined 'funny cars' began to overwhelm the traditional roadster-style Champ cars by 1965, Foyt and the Meskowski stunned the racing world at Milwaukee on August 12. Transporter delays prevented the Sheraton-Thompson team from delivering their Lotus-Ford in time for qualifying sessions, but Foyt, undeterred, chose to qualify with the Meskowski dirt car instead. After literally spraying off the mud of the previous day's dirt race, and a quick switch to pavement tires, Foyt received permission to take two extra practice laps before qualifying. Incredibly, Foyt grabbed pole position! Only tire problems and a late pit stop denied Foyt the win, yet he still managed to take second place behind Gordon Johncock.
After the 1965 season, Bignotti left the Sheraton-Thompson team, crossing over to the Vel's Parnelli Jones racing team, ending one of the most successful partnerships in the history of motorsport. In 1966, Foyt was sidelined after suffering severe burns in June during Indy car practice at Milwaukee, but he managed a stunning comeback in 1967. Foyt won his fifth USAC Championship, including three victories on dirt, combined with a third Indianapolis 500 victory and two other wins in the Ford/Coyote rear-engined pavement car.
Retired in 1968, the car was sold by Foyt to Lou Senter, a long-running USAC team owner. The faithful 'Offy' was replaced with a Ford four-cam racing engine at some point, and later, was replaced with a small-block Chevrolet V8 engine, with an eight-inch setback. A roll cage was added, and the car was actively campaigned as late as 1984 by Senter, with Bob Cicconi at the wheel, until a crash at Eldora, Ohio. The late Vic Yerardi, who had wanted to purchase the car, happened to be at Eldora that very day, and immediately purchased the car from Senter. According to Yerardi, Senter accepted the offer, and threw in the original tail and upholstery, some original wheels, and the original rear end assembly.
Yerardi and Bobby Seymour restored the chassis over a three-month period with help from Louie Seymour. Surprisingly, a stranger, who met Yerardi by chance at the Hoosier 100, introduced himself as a former crewmember on this car, and offered the original front axle to Yerardi. After obtaining the front axle, the car was restored to its former glory, carrying its original tail, rear end and upholstery. Utilizing period photographs, the bodywork was performed by Jerry Weeks, including the faithful refabrication of many panels. Keith Hanson recreated the beautiful white finish, with blue, red and gold leaf accents, originally applied by Dean Jeffries. In the interest of authenticity, Jeffries was consulted to correctly match the paint codes.
After restoration was complete in 1988, the historic car was actively campaigned and displayed by Yerardi at vintage races and shows throughout the United States, ultimately winning an AACA National Senior Award in 1988. In late 1999, the car was purchased by Mr. MacPherson, and displayed at Joe's Garage, along with the other significant Sprint cars offered here, including the 1960 Bowes Seal Fast Special, the 1963 Urgo/Kuzma, the 1962 Bromme 'Andy Gump', and the McCluskey 'Tamale Wagon'..
Impeccably restored, with many period competition victories and driven to two USAC National Championships by the great A.J. Foyt, this 1963 Meskowski-built Sheraton-Thompson Championship Dirt Car is a lasting tribute to its owners, drivers, and restorers.
It truly epitomizes an era when aspiring champions were required to run on both dirt and pavement. It will certainly provide a welcome entry to a growing number of vintage racing car events, including, most appropriately, the Vic Yerardi Memorial, where it may very well remain the star attraction.