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Big Man with an Indy Wrench
Kim Chapin
May 24, 1971
George Bignotti, linchpin of a $600,000 racing operation, is a mechanic of such immense talent that he may well be more important to the hottest 500 team than his driver—who is none other than defending champion Al Unser
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May 24, 1971

Big Man With An Indy Wrench

George Bignotti, linchpin of a $600,000 racing operation, is a mechanic of such immense talent that he may well be more important to the hottest 500 team than his driver—who is none other than defending champion Al Unser

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Shaw, Rose, Vukovich, Foyt, Jones, Andretti—the names roll easily off the layman's tongue; names etched on a hundred kinds of souvenirs and printed in a score of record books; names secure to posterity as the heroes of Indy past and present. And properly so, for theirs was to win, through various combinations of skill, luck and mechanical aptitude, the most famous race of them all, the Indianapolis 500—one, two, even three times—and no one would deny them their glory.

Yet a driver is only as good as his equipment, and for each of these drivers there was an equally dedicated, if faceless, man whose particular talent was to build the car that, on a boisterous day in May, went faster for a longer period of time than any other in the field. These men are called chief mechanics, and while their names are painted on the sides of their creations, they are there in considerably smaller letters than those of the heroes.

Consider, for example, George Bignotti, as he stands next to the pit wall at the Ontario Motor Speedway on a strangely cold California afternoon. Of medium height and weight, he is not a particularly imposing man. A fleshed-out, angular face and thick hair verify his Latin name. Through thick glasses he watches intently as the Johnny Lightning 500 Special,' driven by Al Unser, the latest American racing hero, finishes the last lap of a tire test (which is to racing what spring training is to baseball), and as the gold-on-blue streak screams past he snaps his stopwatch, then breaks into a wide grin and rubs his hands together. Things have gone well.

Above the grandstand, in a plush restaurant separated by soundproof glass from the wail of the 650-hp Ford turbo-charged engine, Parnelli Jones smiles, too. He is no longer the proud terror of the speedways (only occasionally does he race these days); no, today his tastes are more of the boardroom and the double-breasted pinstripe suit. He and Vel Miletich, a Southern California friend and business partner, are the owners of the Johnny Lightning Special and of a sister car driven by Joe Leonard, and only his bristling crew cut and cold, darting eyes are reminders of what Parnelli once was. In the early 1960s Jones and A. J. Foyt carried on some of the most furious battles ever seen in big-car racing. Trouble was, Jones was rarely around at the finish and won only six of 59 championship events. Foyt's mechanic in those days was this same George Bignotti.

"I lost a lot of races to George," Jones says. "I led so many and then had to sit back and watch Foyt win them." And so in January 1969, just when the Vel's Parnelli Jones Ford Racing Team was beginning to go strong, Jones hired Bignotti. It was possibly the best decision of Jones' life, and perhaps also a bit of long-delayed revenge. Unser, who had been with Bignotti since 1966, came along as a not insubstantial part of the deal, but Miletich, when asked which of the two he would have taken had he been forced to choose between them, said tactfully, "I wouldn't want to answer that."

Indeed, this year cold statistics have clearly confirmed what most racing people have suspected for the last ten years: that George Bignotti, a 53-year-old San Franciscan who now lives in Indianapolis, is the best chief mechanic in the history of the Championship Trail. At the start of this season Bignotti-prepared cars had won 51 championship point races and George promptly went two for two in the new year, as Al Unser won in Argentina and at Phoenix. For the fifth year one of his cars bears No. 1, symbolic of the national driving championship. No other mechanic in the country can claim as many championship-race wins, and not since the heyday of A. J. Watson in the '50s and early '60s has any mechanic swung such a big wrench in the 500. Beginning with Foyt in 1961, his cars and drivers have been in Victory Lane no fewer than four times—an extraordinary achievement.

Last year, of course, the Bignotti-Unser team did it all. They won the 500 from the pole and nine of 18 other championship races en route to the national title. Watching Unser lap the field at one Milwaukee event after just four miles of racing, Bignotti said, "I feel sorry for the rest of these guys."

He really meant it, too, for Bignotti is basically a gentle man who often seems out of place in the Middle America atmosphere of championship racing, where the humor, such as it is, still runs to—or rather against—broads, blacks and hippies. In Bignotti's boyhood, spent on a truck farm near San Francisco, his father raised produce for hotels and restaurants in the city. He got into racing through an older brother, Al, who campaigned big cars in the Bay Area, and it was a short step from hero worship of an older brother to the point where George first served as an apprentice mechanic, then built and occasionally raced his own cars.

In the 1940s and early '50s Bignotti held a variety of jobs, suffering at one time or another as the manager of a florist shop, as a big-band dance entrepreneur and as a worker in a shipyard. But racing was never far removed from his life, and in 1954 he came to the Speedway for the first time as the chassis man on a roadster driven by Freddie Agabashian. Two years later he made a decision: "I decided I could build a car as good as anything I'd seen at Indy."

A chief mechanic of an Indianapolis-type racing car is many things. First, he is the middleman in a host of relationships that are the most crucial part of a modern, complex racing team. He has the immediate responsibility of controlling and wet-nursing a collection of rather fragile egos that are never too far from the breaking point, not the least of which may be his own. Obviously, the most important relationship is that between a chief mechanic and his driver, and except for matrimony there is none more susceptible to friction.

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