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Sprint Cars & Champ Cars The big brother(s) to the midget these open wheel beasts have a rich heritage in our auto racing memories.



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Old 02-07-2013, 11:46 AM   #1
Mitch G.
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Default Al Unser Sr. and the Johnny Lightning dirt car

Here's an interesting topic regarding a specific race car, the wonderful Grant King built championship dirt car owned by Vel Melitich(sp?) and Parnelli Jones. They chose Al Unser as their driver, Al was on fire in the latter part of the 1960's. Winning his first dirt champ race at Nazareth, Pa on July 13, 1968.
For 1969 the "Vels / Parnelli" team ordered a new Grant King champ car and installed a screaming 4 cam Ford V8, instant winner. Unser wins 100 mile contest on DuQuion, Il one mile dirt fairgrounds oval, 09/01/69, and again on the Indianapolis Fairgrounds mile for the "Hoosier 100", 09/06/69, and close out the dirt portion of the National USAC championship at Sacramento CA, mile dirt oval, 09/28/69.

Unser wheeling the 1969 dominant dirt car at Sacramento.
For 1970 Parnelli Jones secures "Johnny Lightning" sponsorship for their championship car effort, the last year that dirt races counted toward the National USAC title. The Grant King creation was dominant on the dirt again, winning at Springfield, IL 08/22/70, DuQuoin, IL 09/07/70, Sedalia, MO 09/17/70, and Sacramento, CA 10/04/70.

Unser wheeling the Johnny Lightning Special in 1970
For 1971, The Grant King built monster now wears #1 as Al Unser Sr. goes down in history as the last "real"(having to win on dirt, pavement, and road courses) national auto racing champion (Unser won the Indy 500 in 70 and 71 in the rear engine Lola version of the Johnny Lightning car). The dirt cars were on their own as a racing series starting in 1971, the only had 4 races, of which Unser won the "Hoosier 100" at the Indy fairgrounds.

Unser winning 1/4 of all the dirt car races in 1971.
Now, here's where I'm speculating a bit, using photo evidence as I can't find much in print. For 1972 I believe Parnelli Jones has a roll cage welded to the trusty Grant King dirt car, now with Viceroy Cigarettes as sponsor. The car is still a winner, Unser wins at DuQuoin, IL on 08/20/72, and snags another "Hoosier 100", on Indy's fairgrounds dirt mile, 09/09/72.

I think this is the Johnny Lightning car, now with a roll cage in 1972, I think roll cages were not mandatory on USAC dirt cars until 1972. Note the "A" shaped support bars behind Unsers head built into the roll cage.
For 1973, Parnelli and his biz partners convince Mario Andretti to team with Unser, for the few dirt races, and have Grant King built Mario a brand new champ dirt car. Andretti had not been on dirt in sometime, but showed his never ending skill, by winning his first time back on dirt at Springfield, IL on 08/19/73. Unser brings the older King creation home 1st at DuQuoin, IL on 09/15/73.

The "Super Team", Andretti in the #15, brand new Grant King 4 cam Ford, Unser in #2, it's the roll cage that tells me the #2 car has a "add on cage". Grant King always put a "X" behind the drivers head, on his roll cages.
1974 and the Super Team, Unser is in a new Grant King car, both cars are identical, look at the roll cage structure, Unser and Andretti dominated the 1974 dirt races winning half the races.

Al Unser won at Syracuse, NY, dirt mile, 07/04/74, Al is in #1, I maintain a newer Grant King champ dirt car.
By 1975 most of the open wheel legends were getting away from midgets, sprints, and dirt champ cars, Andretti had given up dirt for good after 1974.
Unser still gets it done on the dirt miles, wining at Springfield, IL on 08/16/75 his last win on dirt.

Unser near the end of his dirt days, Unser went on to win 2 more Indy 500's, and numerous other Indy car wins (4 Indy 500's) one of the best all time American open wheel drivers.
Now, I don't now for sure, but I believe the Johnny Lightning car was located, and fully restored, cage cut off, and now lives in the Unser Museum in New Mexico.

From the Unser Museum, what a beauty eh? The other Grant King dirt car that Andretti drove, is in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum. I posed this question on another web site, and have not yet had anybody verify that the Johnny Lightning Grant King dirt champ car in the Unser Museum is the original Johnny Lightning car built in 1969.
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Old 02-08-2013, 04:16 PM   #2
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Default Re: Al Unser Sr. and the Johnny Lightning dirt car

Mitch, I love that 4cam car, GREAT Pictures!!
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Old 02-09-2013, 12:51 AM   #3
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Default Re: Al Unser Sr. and the Johnny Lightning dirt car

I was born in the wrong place and the wrong time to witness Champ cars on dirt.
However this GMP 1/12th scale model takes pride of place in my collection.
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Old 02-10-2013, 12:01 AM   #4
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Default Re: Al Unser Sr. and the Johnny Lightning dirt car

I was fortunate enough to go to a lot of Hoosier Hundreds with my dad in the late 60's and early 70's. We started running cars there in 77. I remember watch Foyt , Andretti, the Unser brothers and the like.

The Johnny Lightening cars of Al were beautiful to watch. The driver sat up in the saddle, for everyone to see.Those cars were spectacular.
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Old 02-11-2013, 01:19 AM   #5
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Default Re: Al Unser Sr. and the Johnny Lightning dirt car

I was lucky enough to see Mario win with the Viceroy car in Sadalia MO. in 74. Hit the same exact mark every turn, every lap. Amazing talent and car
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Old 02-11-2013, 08:30 PM   #6
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Default Re: Al Unser Sr. and the Johnny Lightning dirt car

I saw the Unsers, Mario and AJ amoung others at the Illinois Sate Fair Grounds in either '71 or '72. The thing I remember most is seeing AJ during hot laps, with one hand on the steering wheel, and the other resting on the rim of the cockpit, just like a sunday driver, as he through the car into the first turn. Those guys were amazing.



Thanks, Dave Russell
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Old 02-11-2013, 08:51 PM   #7
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Default Re: Al Unser Sr. and the Johnny Lightning dirt car

.....'Wow Mitch, what a topic! On one of the other sites, someone asked; "If you had your pick, which vintage race car would you most want to drive?"

'For me, no question, the Vel's Parnelli Jones, Johnny Lightning Special #2 on a 1-mile dirt track!

OK, for the 2006 "Legends of Ascot" at the Perris Auto Speedway, Al Unser was the grand marshall/guest of honor. And for that, Parnelli Jones brought along Al's Viceroy Special #1 Grant King-Ford DOHC. Parnelli (himself) towed the car over from the museum in Torrance (CA) with a black Ford F-150 truck with the Viceroy car on top of an old, dilapidated, open trailer.

Al and Parnelli "hung out" at the display area where all the other vintage cars were. But, the Viceroy car was right in the middle of it all, for everyone to take notice. Later that afternoon, the sit-down dinner was served and introductions were presented for Hall of Fame inductees.

That night, during intermission for the SCRA sprint cars, the vintage cars were allowed their turn on the race track. Al Unser suited up in one of his original Hinchman, Johnny Lightning firesuits and climbed into the Viceroy car to warm up and hot lap. Unfortunately, Parnelli did not bring a low enough gear for the 4-cam Ford to turn adequate RPM and really sing. What's kind of funny is, to be honest, the car sounded like a sick, 289 Ford! Al pulled it in and that was it for the night.

I did ask Parnelli where all of the rest of the Grant King dirt cars went? He claimed that he and Vel gave Al the original car for Al's museum down in Albuquerque (NM) Naturally, Parnelli's still got the #1 Viceroy car for his own museum in Torrance (CA); the rest of the cars, 'not sure. It should be noted that Parnelli's museum is private.

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Old 02-11-2013, 09:10 PM   #8
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Default Re: Al Unser Sr. and the Johnny Lightning dirt car

1. Al Unser at Sedalia (MO) 1970 -- photo: courtesy Greenfield Gallery

2. Al Unser -- Hoosier Hundred -- 1971 -- photo: courtesy Greenfield Gallery

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Old 02-12-2013, 12:10 AM   #9
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Default Re: Al Unser Sr. and the Johnny Lightning dirt car

Mario Andretti -- Hoosier Hundred -- 1974 -- photo courtesy: John Mahoney

Last edited by LittleFauss; 04-04-2014 at 08:15 PM.
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Old 02-12-2013, 10:21 AM   #10
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Default Re: Al Unser Sr. and the Johnny Lightning dirt car

Holy smokes LittleFauss! that's the kind of info that really brings a topic to life. That photo of Big Al, and Parnelli at Perris is fantastic, talk about two living legends, what a great event that must have been. And you guys who were lucky enough to get to see any of these cars and drivers race, gee whiz am I jealous! I think I'd walk from Florida to DuQuoin, IL to see those cars and drivers run on the dirt mile again.
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