Briggs Cunningham, a millionaire/sportsman based on Long Island, N.Y., was a pioneer in American sports-car racing. Not afraid to get his hands dirty, he designed and raced them himself.
In 1955, Cunningham designed an all-American entry for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He commissioned Meyer-Drake to build an Offenhauser engine that would fit the race’s three-liter rule.
It was the only one of its kind. Cunningham raced it several times before heading to Le Mans where rules called for all cars to run on gasoline. Offenhausers were built for alcohol and never ran right on gasoline.
Eighty-three people were killed when a car careened into the crowd during the race. Cunningham finished the twice-around-the-clock race, but didn’t have the heart to continue racing.
Frank Callandrillo, known as Frankie Cal, had admired his neighbor Mike Caruso’s sprint car. He wanted one, too.
Years before, Cal had worked in California with another young man named Troy Ruttman. Knowing he was a racer, Cal asked Ruttman if a sprint car was available.
Ruttman recommended Ernie Casales’ stretched midget. Driver Joe James towed it east to Reading, Pa., where Cal crashed it to end his brief career. Needing an engine in 1956, Cal bought the Cunningham Offy. Soon Cal found it lacking in power as it was 40 inches shy of the 220 c.i. limit.
Meyer-Drake had no pistons for its one-on engine. Cal, a gifted woodworker, molded a piston out of wood, sent the mock-up to Jahn’s pistons and received a new stock of pistons.
The engine ran perfectly. The car, which as a midget won the Turkey Night Grand Prix at Gilmore Stadium in 1950, saw Rex Records get nosed out by Tommy Hinnershitz at Reading in 1957.
The car ran until 1963 when Bob McCoy raced it at Phoenix. Cal retired it to his garage. Museum owner Marty Himes found out about it and wanted the car. Years later, Himes acquired the car and ran it at numerous antique-racing events.
While running at New Hampshire Int’l Speedway in the ’90s, a loud noise and lots of smoke poured from the car. Himes thought his steed was done. He took it to the late Ken Hickey, a noted “Offy Doctor.”
Hickey found the engine to be a mess. He did repair it. The extra piston replaced the one which burned. He told Himes the engine was worth $50,000.
The engine was perking again, but a fire at the museum damaged the car. After sitting idle for seven years, Himes brought to car to his reunion at Riverhead Raceway. After a few laps, the engine fired up and after a few clean-up laps, the old Offy’s roar was heard again.
Cunningham’s 54-year-old engine sits in the car in the Himes museum, ready to run again.