The story behind the huge missing piece in Ferrari’s trophy cabinet

Elizabeth Blackstock
The Indy 500 eluded Enzo Ferrari, despite his love of the great race.

The Indianapolis 500 was the one leg of motorsport's 'Triple Crown' that Enzo Ferrari was never able to win with his team.

Enzo Ferrari oversaw countless successes in both Formula 1 and endurance racing, but there’s still one big race victory the Italian team has coveted: The Indianapolis 500.

Alongside the Monaco Grand Prix and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 500-mile race at the 2.5-mile banked oval track in Indiana represented one of the greatest races in the world as Enzo Ferrari began exploring the motorsport world.

It was even included as an event on the Formula 1 calendar for the first 10 years of the sport’s existence as a way to give the primarily continental championships a more international flavor. Even European motorsport fans of the early 1900s were entranced by the danger and glory on offer in the American race.

And Enzo Ferrari was one such fan. His infatuation started in 1915, Luca dal Monte writes in the book Enzo Ferrari: Power, Politics, and the Making of an Automotive Empire.

An edition of a magazine titled La Stampa Sportiva had highlighted the Italian racers who had competed in the 500 during the race’s fourth running, which included a notation that Ralph DePalma had lowered the track record at the event that year.

As dal Monte writes, a teenage Ferrari pointed to the photo of DePalma and stated for the very first time that he wanted to become a racing driver.

When DePalma took victory in 1919, Ferrari only solidified his desire to become one of the most notable Italians in motorsport history.

DePalma’s win helped popularize the oval race within Italy’s motorsport scene, but no one was quite as desperate to compete there as Enzo Ferrari. In 1936, when Ferrari was in charge of Alfa Romeo’s racing department, dal Monte reported him saying: “For several years, I have nurtured the idea of a trip to America.”

And not only was Ferrari interested, he was prepared.

“The organization of a trip to America has already been planned and studied in its outline a few months ago,” Ferrari reported; he had heard that the Indy 500 would soon be changing its regulations to allow a greater variety of cars to compete, which would have meant Alfa Romeo wouldn’t have had to build a special machine just for one event.

Iconic racer Tazio Nuvolari, who was racing with Alfa, was also keen to contest the race. However, that proposed rule change never came, and Ferrari opted to send his Alfa Romeo racing team to the Vanderbilt Cup instead.

After the end of World War II and the creation of the Scuderia Ferrari Formula 1 team, the Indy 500 became one round of the World Championship; however, the rules that governed the creation of Indy cars and the running of the 500 were so different from the rules that dictated F1 that there was no benefit in spending money, manpower, and time developing a competent racing program.

No F1 team ever made the trip to America for the event.

Not for a few years, that is. In 1951, Ferrari sent one of his employees to spectate the race, taking notes and determining just how challenging it would actually be to participate.

Ferrari’s profile was growing in the U.S. thanks to Luigi Chinetti, who had begun courting rich clientele who wanted to order one of Ferrari’s bespoke cars, and it seemed as if the time was right for participation.

And so, in 1952, Ferrari became the first F1 team to enter the Indianapolis 500.

Enzo Ferrari approached the race with big dreams that slowly began to peter out as the time for the race actually arrived. Initially, Scuderia Ferrari planned to field two 4500 open-wheel cars that would be raced by Alberto Ascari and Nino Farina — but that never quite came to fruition.

In reality, Ferrari sold three 4500 cars to American teams, and he fielded one for the Scuderia, to be raced by Ascari.

What had once seemed to be a full-force attack on the American racing scene quickly faded away.

Ferrari had gotten cold feet, and when the month of May came around, he only sent five crew members to Indianapolis. Rather than trying to win the race, he was claiming that it would be an “unofficial technical expedition with scouting purposes.”

Perhaps he sensed what was to come; the Ferrari 4500 driven by Ascari simply wasn’t cut out for the high speeds, banked turns, and long straights at Indianapolis. Ascari set the 19th fastest speed in qualifying; for a field of 33 cars, it was a fairly promising performance. The three customer Ferraris failed to make the grid.

During the race itself, the Ferrari 4500 proved it was simply incapable of tackling the 500-mile distance. On lap 40 of 200, the spokes of one of Ascari’s wheels bent. The race ended there.

The race was a dismal failure. Ferrari himself quickly pretended that the 1952 Indianapolis 500 had never happened, and the Italian press — reporter Giovanni Canestrini from Gazzetta dello Sport had accompanied the Ferrari crew to America — never reported on the participation.

Ferrari never again tried to launch such a valiant effort to compete in America; the closest he got was providing an engine for the 1956 race.

However, Ferrari’s infatuation with the 500-mile race never quite went away, even if he never again seemed to be prepared to mount another challenge in the event. Instead, the Indy 500 became a playing chip for Enzo in 1986.

Why? Well, in the mid-1980s, a war was raging between the Formula One Constructors Association, led by Bernie Ecclestone, and the FIA, led by Jean-Marie Balestre.

The powerbrokers for the two most important organizations in F1 had been battling for control of the sport since the start of the 1980s. FOCA represented the interests of privateer teams, while the FIA enjoyed regulations that favored the continental teams run by manufacturers.

Ecclestone and Balestre had been at loggerheads for years, and Enzo Ferrari had regularly been caught in between them. He knew the importance of the Scuderia to F1, and by suggesting that he might broaden his horizons to focus on American racing was perhaps intended to be a wake-up call for the heads of the sport.

By November 1985, Scuderia Ferrari embarked on an effort to build an open-wheel car for the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) series in the U.S., which would have included an outing at Indianapolis. Enzo Ferrari himself confirmed the existence of the program, as well as the fact that Andrea de Cesaris would serve as the driver.

“In regard to our American participation, after our debut race we will decide whether we will build two or three cars,” Ferrari stated at the March 1986 reveal of that year’s Formula 1 car, the F1-86. By July — two months after the 500 — photographs revealed images of a new single-seater called the 637 Indy at the courtyard of Ferrari’s Fiorano test track.

On October 12, news leaked that the 637 Indy would make its debut with the Truesports team at the race in Laguna Seca, perhaps with Bobby Rahal as the driver.

And that was it. No one heard of the Indy program ever again.

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There were several reasons for that decision. First and foremost, Fiat — which had bought out Ferrari — decided to rein in the spending and instead focus entirely on developing a competitive F1 program.

Further, Ecclestone and Balestre had begun to resolve their differences; Enzo Ferrari had shown that the Scuderia didn’t need Formula 1 to survive, but both Ecclestone and Balestre could agree that F1 needed Ferrari. Enzo’s very real threat of moving to American motorsport was enough to reconcile the differences between two distinct egos.

That was the final time Enzo Ferrari made an attempt at the Indy 500. Two years later, in 1988, the formidable head of Italian motorsport died; with him went the Scuderia’s sentimental ties to Indianapolis.

The Indy 500 was always going to be an outlier for the Scuderia thanks to differences in competition rulesets and technology, and it was primarily Enzo’s personal affection for the event that kept its presence in the back of the Scuderia’s mind.

It remained the only race that Enzo Ferrari coveted but never won.

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