Aircraft-Like Refueling On The Fly
Photo: Buz McKim, from the collection of Olin Hopes
The credit for the technique doesn’t belong to the automotive firmament but instead, to the aviation pioneer Alexander P. de Seversky, who in 1923 figured out a way to refuel one U.S. Army Air Service biplane from another one buzzing alongside, filled to bursting with aviation gasoline. Today, nobody does air-to-air refueling better than the U.S. military. In the world of cars, though, it’s largely an unknown practice, except for three days at the new Daytona International Speedway in 1960, when Buick decided on a novel (and nearly forgotten) way of refueling a car at speed.
It was a unique exercise in durability conducted by Buick, which advertised the test as “10,000 Miles in 5,000 Seconds.” It involved a moderately prepped 1960 Buick Invicta hardtop, one of 8,960 produced that year, which circled the superspeedway under the clock with a brace of early NASCAR stars doing stints as the wheel. The objective was to keep the Invicta rolling at an average speed of 120 MPH, an effort that would eventually set multiple international records. But it took a second Invicta hardtop to make everything happen, and to prove that the never-tried trick of fueling one car from another, at maximum speed, would actually work.
Today, the Buick effort is arguably the least-known of several prominent manufacturer evaluations that took place on Daytona’s yawning high banks during the track’s first decade of existence. According to Buz McKim, founding director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte and an authority on early Daytona race history, Rambler held a long-distance test for its new models in 1961, two years after the superspeedway opened, that ended when one of the drivers fatally crashed. Mercury showed up around 1964 with a 100,000-mile run wringing out its new, restyled Comet line.
Buick, however, was the first. The two cars it brought to Daytona were both Invicta hardtops that were powered by Buick’s brawniest offering, the 401 cu.in. Wildcat V8, which thumped out 325 horsepower. The first one, which would actually do the record run, was mildly modified with Firestone racing tires, reinforced racing wheels (very likely supplied by the Holman-Moody stock car skunk works in Charlotte), a roll bar (likely also from Holman-Moody), hood tie-downs and auxiliary gauges that monitored functions like the temperature of the rear end and Super Turbine automatic transmission. What was most unusual was the tubular apparatus on the deck lid, which incorporated a wide basket.
Throughout the duration of the test, the record-setting Invicta would be refueled every half-hour, and every two hours would come into the pits for a tire change and a driver change. Two record runs were attempted, but the first was aborted after a collision with an animal.Photo: Buz McKim, from the collection of Olin Hopes
The second Invicta was equipped with a similar external system on its side, which held a nozzle and a line leading to a massive fuel tank located where the rear seat used to be. The trick – and in those years, that’s what it was – involved getting a running start with the fuel-filled Invicta just as the record runner zoomed into view. The Buicks would match speed and the “tanker” driver would align his car so the nozzle was captured by the basket on the rear of the record car. The pressurized Pure gasoline would then surge into the test car’s ventilated fuel tank, 15 gallons in six seconds, usually while both cars were charging down Daytona’s long backstretch.
This car-to-car refueling took place about every half-hour as the test Invicta roared around the track. Doing it right required a disciplined hand, which is why Buick assembled an all-star lineup of driving talent for the Invicta test that included Edward “Fireball” Roberts, Marvin Panch, DeWayne “Tiny” Lund, Larry Frank and Bobby Johns, with local short track hero Larry Flynn also on the team. Among the clutch of mechanics who worked the test was Olin Hopes, then a crew member for the famed Daytona Beach race car builder, Ray Fox. Prior to that, Hopes had turned wrenches for the pioneering NASCAR mechanic Red Vogt and the early Hudson Hornet star Marshall Teague. Hopes, 87, is believed to be the last surviving participant in the Buick test.
“To be honest with you, I don’t even know how I got involved with it,” Hopes remembers today. “I was just standing around when Buick showed up with these cars, and the next thing you know, I’m involved.”
The car-to-car refueling was performed as a way to cut down the amount of time the Invicta spent in the pits. Essentially, the drill was to refuel the car on the fly about every 30 minutes, and change tires every two hours, at which time a driver swap would also occur. Even this was anticipated by the Buick engineers. They fabricated a special ramp that the Buick would mount during each pit stop.
“I just jumped right in,” he recalls. “Buick had one guy for each tire with their air guns in the pits. They also had a forklift to pick the car up in the air instead of a jack. The car would come in, get up on the ramp to get it off the ground, and then I’d use the forklift to get the car further up just enough so the drivers could get out while the crew changed all four tires and put more fuel in.”