As a child in the early 1900s, Frank Kurtis helped his father work in a Colorado blacksmith shop, repairing horse-drawn buggies that still plodded through the Western mining towns.
Forty years later, Kurtis was designing race cars that dominated the Indianapolis 500 in the 1950s. The automotive world had zoomed forward at breathtaking speed during those 40 years, and Kurtis helped lead the way with race cars that were every bit as fast as the changing times.
From his Los Angeles-based shop, Kurtis designed and produced more than 120 Indy cars – including five winners – as well as more than 500 midget racers. His work has led to Kurtis being named to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame 2008 Induction Class.
Joining Curtis in the Class of 2008 are Art Arfons, Robert “Red” Byron, Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins, Everett “Cotton” Owens and Ralph Seagraves. The group will be enshrined into the Hall of Fame on April 24.
Kurtis, who died in 1987 at age 79, was a non-racer who absolutely loved the sport, according to his son, Arlen Kurtis.
“His main love was racing, that’s for sure,” Arlen Kurtis says. “He never really did much other than work on the cars. He didn’t do any driving. But he loved to go and watch the races. As a kid, I remember going all the time down to Gilmore Stadium in Hollywood and watching the midgets run. He was very active in racing in that respect.”
But his true passion was taking the basic skills he had learned as a young blacksmith and creating race cars that could slice through the air ever faster.
“He just had a love of designing these things,” Arlen Kurtis says. “In later years, once he got a car into production, he kind of turned it over to the crews and stuff in the shop (at Kurtis-Kraft Inc.) and let them run with the production part of it. His main thing was trying to come up with some new innovation.”
He certainly did that. Kurtis began designing and building race cars in the early 1930s out of a four-car garage at his Los Angeles home. But his career took off after World War II, when his midget cars were put into production. The combination of the Kurtis chassis powered by a smaller version of the famous Offenhauser engine proved to be virtually unbeatable for the next 20 years.
Kurtis reached his peak in the motorsports world during the 1950s, when cars he produced routinely filled out two-thirds of the starting grid at the Indy 500. His cars won the prestigious race five times in a six-year span, beginning with Johnnie Parsons in 1950.
Kurtis cars took the top three positions in the 1951 race and captured the top six spots in 1953. Bill Vukovich drove a Kurtis car to consecutive Indy 500 victories in 1953 and ’54, a feat that would not be duplicated for nearly 20 years.
His presence at Indianapolis finally began to fade in the early 1960s, but by then Kurtis had turned his attention to the design and construction of the Start Carts for the SR-71 Blackbird, the world’s fastest airplane. The Frank Kurtis Company built those carts and spares for Lockheed Corporation well into the 1980s.
“There are just so many things that he’s done. It’s pretty impressive,” Arlen Kurtis says. “I always thought as a kid, ‘How am I going to follow in his footsteps?’ He had some pretty big shoes to fill. It was always amazing watching the stuff that he did.
“But he was kind of a soft-spoken guy. He never really tooted his horn or anything. So I’m glad that he has gotten some of the recognition that he has.”