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Perhaps no individual advanced the role of Indy car mechanic more than George Bignotti, who died Friday at age 97.
Bignotti tuned or engineered seven Indianapolis 500 winners between 1961 and 1983, including triumphs for A.J. Foyt, Graham Hill, Al Unser, Gordon Johncock and Tom Sneva.
"George did a good job and was awful smart the way he ran his race team," said Jim McGee, who ultimately surpassed Bignotti's long-standing record of 85 Indy car race wins as a crew chief. "He ran it more like a business before anybody else did.
"You have to give George credit because he was ahead of his time. He knew how to pick drivers and he knew how to pick owners so that he had the right equipment and driver to win. That was a lesson in itself, watching the way he operated."
|Al Unser won his second of four Indianapolis 500s in 1971 aboard the Johnny Lightning P.J. Colt/Ford tuned by chief mechanic George Bignotti, right.|
Bignotti began working on Indy cars in the mid-1950s and gained fame as Foyt's chief mechanic during Foyt's impressive run at the top of the sport in the early '60s. They teamed to win 32 races, including the 1961 and '64 Indianapolis 500, as well as USAC national championships in 1960, '61, '63 and '64.
But the partnership between two strong personalities dissolved midway through the 1965 season.
"We got pretty disgruntled and at Langhorne, Foyt said he didn't want to run," Bignotti said in 2004. "He had been out late the previous night after winning a Sprint Car race. He ran a few laps and we parked the car and I told him we were done."
Despite the acrimonious split, Foyt remained on good terms with Bignotti and counted him as his toughest rival.
"I'd say he was one of the greatest mechanics that was ever at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway," Foyt said. "We had such a close relationship and even though I went on my merry way, we were still close up to his death."
"We did so much racing together and in '64, we were just unbeatable," Foyt added, recalling a year in which he won 10 of 13 races. "We had a lot of arguments up and down but they weren't arguments like people think. We both respected each other a whole lot. I damn sure respected him for what he was doing on the cars and I think he respected my driving ability."
Bignotti moved on to field cars for New Orleans oil magnate John Mecom, winning the 1966 Indianapolis 500 with Hill. Near the end of the decade, he teamed up with driver Unser, and a joint move to Vel's Parnelli Jones Racing netted them back-to-back Indy wins in 1970 and '71.
|Al Unser, Mark Donohue and George Bignotti visit before the start of the USAC INDY 150 Champ Car race at Indianapolis Raceway Park in July 1970.|
"George was strong-minded and gave us very reliable cars that were not always the most innovative or flashy but always fast enough to win," Jones recounted. "Reliability back then was different than it is now, and George's cars were always prepared to go the distance -- whether it be 100 or 500 miles -- dirt or pavement."
"He was great to work with and he taught a lot of mechanics the trade," Jones added. "Everyone on the circuit learned by watching him, some as team members and some as rivals."
Bignotti then built Patrick Racing into a powerhouse later in the 1970s before forming his own team in partnership with Dan Cotter in the early '80s. Although his experience dated back to the roadster era, Bignotti was a key figure in adapting the ground effect aerodynamic theories being pioneered in Formula 1 to Indy car racing.
Although he worked with many top-flight drivers during the course of his long career, Bignotti still rated Foyt at the top.
"A.J. was a great driver," he said. "He could drive just about anything, and he wasn't bad to get along with. We never raised our voices at each other in the garage, though in front of the public, he would blow his top. Foyt won 27 races for me and Al Unser won 25, both winning twice at Indianapolis."
"Jackie Stewart was a fantastic driver," he added. "I also enjoyed working with Graham Hill, who was originally a mechanic. They were pretty nice and I learned a lot from them because they were very efficient. If you said 2 o'clock, they were there at 2 o'clock."