Dick Ferguson of Glendale admired the gleaming silver Indy car that was being packed safely inside a 48-foot trailer for the 2,100-mile journey to Indianapolis. The car was a March 86C. Made of space-age carbon fiber, it had a 2.6-liter Cosworth power plant and a top speed exceeding 220 miles per hour on a straightaway. It also had good bloodlines--Michael Andretti had driven it in the 1986 Indy 500.
But here’s what Ferguson liked most about the car: It was his. Ever since he made his Indy 500 driving debut exactly 10 years ago--and won Indy rookie-of-the-year honors--Ferguson, 39, has been a journeyman, always driving someone else’s car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which put him at the mercy of car owners.
More than once a ride has been taken from him just days before the race. At Indy in 1985, Ferguson was yanked from the Kapsreiter Bier car when a British driver, Derek Daly, paid the car’s owner an undisclosed amount of money to let him drive it, an increasingly common practice in recent years. According to Auto Racing Digest, “Money, not talent, is one’s best friend when looking for an Indy-car ride today.”
Money talked, and journeymen drivers like Ferguson walked. So did the rest of his five-man team, which Daly replaced with his own. “It’s like some guy giving Tommy Lasorda a million dollars to keep Fernando on the bench so he can pitch,” Ferguson says bitterly. “It’s really an uncouth procedure. I felt the business had no scruples, that a man’s word didn’t go very far.”
In the early ‘80s, Auto Racing Digest called Ferguson “one of the remaining journeymen struggling to make a living in Indy cars.” But when Ferguson realized that the days of a journeyman were numbered, “I had to rethink the business,” he says. If he wanted to be at the controls in another Indy 500, he would have to take control of his career. He would have to become an owner.
Last year, Ferguson and long-time friend and associate Terry Quinn formed a partnership with Two’s Company, a Sun Valley company that specializes in exotic car commercials for television (the Isuzu atop the mountain is their handiwork). Ferguson had the driving wherewithal, mechanical ability and political savvy; Two’s Company had the assets, including top-of-the-line body and machine shops.
“It was a natural for us,” Two’s Company president Tom Harkess says, “to go into auto racing.”
This month’s Indy 500 is the company’s first foray at the Brickyard. Ferguson, who has qualified for five Indys and driven in two, flew to Indianapolis and met the trailer at the speedway last Friday in preparation for this weekend’s qualifying trials. His hopes of being in the final field of 33 rest on his crew’s ability and his car’s durability. Money is still a factor at Indy.
“A lot of cars don’t make it because the owners run out of money and engines,” Ferguson says.
Last September, the company--the Worldwide Motor Sports Division of Two’s Company--bought the March 86C for $50,000. It was a “roller"--a shell without an engine. They spent an additional $200,000 for two turbocharged Cosworth Ford engines. Working in a bright, spotless room at Two’s Company headquarters, Ferguson, mechanic Gerry Cook and crew chief Randy Cook--Jerry’s “distant cousin,” Ferguson says--spent a total of 300 hours preparing the car for certification by the U. S. Auto Club.
“We’re on a shoestring (budget),” Ferguson says, “and we do most of the work ourselves. Roger Penske will spend $3-$4 million a year on Indy-car racing. Our start-up costs are a quarter-million dollars. We have a budget of $40,000 a race after Indy"--for the 15-race PPG Indy Car World Series circuit. But if their car breaks down on or before Memorial Day, “the 500 could be our last race,” Ferguson says.
Ferguson knows firsthand the danger that lurks at every turn. In ’79, while he was driving a ’72 Eagle Offy for Penske, the engine burned a piston on the opening lap and Ferguson had to drop out. The next year, in a Penske PC6, he was caught in a 12-car pileup when rookie Bill Whittington crashed on the 12th lap. Ferguson woke up in a hospital with a concussion and broken toe.
But there was danger off the track as well. In 1981, Kraco Enterprises hired him away from a racing team Bobby Unser had assembled. The Compton company made him its No. 1 driver and backed him with a $1.2 million budget. Ferguson finished fourth for Kraco in the Michigan 500 and did well in other big races, but on May 1, 1982, “I got the bum’s walk,” he says. Without explanation, Kraco replaced Ferguson and his team with an all-British team that “was willing to work for less money,” Ferguson theorizes.
“It was the low point in my career,” he says, “and the start of my heartbreak at Indy.”
Indy aside, Ferguson can’t complain about his racing career. It is, after all, exactly what he has always wanted to do. Ever since he was a child growing up in Glendale, “Cars have been my attraction and my destiny,” he says.
Back then, car builders like A. J. Watson and Frank Curtis built Indy cars in Glendale and that city “was the mecca of racing and speed in the United States,” Ferguson says. He remembers his father taking him to Riverside International Raceway to see “the best drivers and the best cars in the world.” His childhood memories include “wanting every model car in the toy shop” and the “bone-chilling” excitement of waking up at 7 a.m. on Memorial Day and listening to Sid Collins announce the Indy 500 on radio.
Ferguson inherited his mechanical prowess from his father, who recently retired as head of the machine shop at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. When he was 14, he got an after-school job as a mechanic’s helper at Dio Bros., a Glendale auto shop that specialized in Ferraris. After a two-year stint in the Air Force, he became a mechanic at Hollywood Sports Cars, a high-volume Ferrari dealer. In 1976, he was among six top mechanics from around the world who were invited by Ferrari to its main factory in Maranello, Italy.
For two months, he went to school and worked in the factory learning the intricacies of new Ferrari engines and gearboxes. When he returned to the United States, he prepared Paul Newman’s Ferraris for the actor’s racing debut and also solved a potentially costly problem for Ferrari. Drivers in the United States were having problems shifting gears on new Ferraris, so Ferguson road-tested the model on Mulholland Drive and discovered that the synchro gear was out of round, a condition that wasn’t a problem if the car was run wide open when it was cold.
“A European driver could take his car on the Autostrasser and be up to 150 right away,” Ferguson says. But in Los Angeles, Ferrari owners had to drive bumper to bumper like everybody else.
After leaving the Air Force in 1969 because of an illness he picked up in the Philippines, Ferguson raced midgets and small formula cars at local tracks, winning 26 races in a two-year period. If he got his mechanical skills from his father, his racing talent came from his mother’s side of the family. A relative of his mother was a Sicilian named Rudy Carocchiola, who raced cars for Hitler in the 1930s until his career ended when “a bird hit him in the eye” during a race, says Ferguson, who also inherited his dark hair and olive skin from his mother.
In the mid-70s, Ferguson worked his way into Formula 5000 cars. In 1978, he did well enough in big races at Ontario and College Station, Tex., to get invited to try out for the 1979 Indy 500. Rookies have to get approved at the speedway before being allowed to practice with the veterans. Ferguson had to show his ability to drive at controlled speeds on the track before “they took my rookie stripes off the car.”
Even though he was driving a Penske car, Ferguson wasn’t on the payroll. He hauled the car to Indy on a flatbed truck, worked on it himself and “had to borrow money to get home.” He got mechanical help from Randy Cook, a stranger who “walked off the street” and volunteered to work for nothing. Ferguson also was befriended by George Thornton, an owner who had a car entered in the ’79 race.
“I liked him right away,” says Thornton, who lives at Malibu Lake. “He was a helluva shoe--you got to stand on the gas pedal to be a shoe--but he also had a mind like A. J. Foyt, who can drive a car and figure out what’s wrong with it.” Thornton later hired Ferguson to drive his car in other races.
Ten years later, Ferguson is still a shoe, but his financial situation has improved to the point where his car can be shipped to Indy in a “big, shiny trailer like the big boys use,” he says. Still, Ferguson is at a disadvantage against drivers who are backed by big money. For example, some drivers have an engine just for qualifying--it’s faster than the race engine but will last only a few miles.
“I expect the pole to be 220 miles an hour, but because we can’t afford an engine just for qualifying, we don’t have a legitimate shot at it,” says Ferguson, who thinks he will have to average 210 m.p.h. for four laps to qualify.
But regardless of his success, Ferguson’s journeyman days seem to be over. “You used to be able to go to Indy with helmet in hand and get a ride,” he says with a trace of nostalgia. “The owner would give you three changes to get the car up to speed. The first change he’d let you make was the springs. Then he would let you change the sway bars. If that didn’t work, he would change drivers.”