Photos courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Before there were engineers, aerodynamicists, shock dynos and computers, there was George Bignotti.
“As far as I'm concerned, he was the greatest mechanic that ever turned a wrench on an Indy car,” said A.J. Foyt on Friday evening after learning that Bignotti (LEFT AND BELOW, with Foyt in 1961) had passed away earlier in the day at age 97. “In his day, there was nobody better and I'm quite sure if he was still around today he'd be just as tough to beat.”
Bignotti was synonymous with success at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where he was the chief mechanic on seven winners with Graham Hill (1966), Gordon Johncock (1973), Al Unser (1970 and '71), Tom Sneva ('83) and Foyt ('61 & '64). A native Californian who was a good midget racer, Bignotti had a knack for tuning engines and chassis when he showed up at IMS in 1958.
“George was ahead of a lot of people,” continued Foyt, who scored 27 Indy car wins and four USAC national championships in the six years (1960-'65) he spent with the man who became known as the Master Mechanic. “He was a very good engine man and knew a lot about racing fuels and he was also a good chassis man.
In 1964, Foyt and Bignotti captured an amazing 10 of 13 champ car races and then split up midway through the following year.
“I was bullheaded and we hollered at each other quite a bit but it went in one ear and out the other for both of us,” recalled Foyt with a chuckle. “Sure, we had our differences but we always respected each other. I gave him 110 percent and what I liked about George is that he gave me the same thing. I was wanting to start my own deal after '64 anyway, but we did something together that season that nobody's topped yet.”
Working for Vel's Parnelli Jones Racing and paired with Unser, Bignotti worked his brilliance for back-to-back wins in the Johnny Lightning Colt in 1970 and 1971.
“George was a super guy and was a key to our winning Indianapolis with Al,” said Parnelli Jones (kneeling, ABOVE, with Unser, Bignotti and co-owner Vel Miletich after '71 Indy win), from his office in Torrance, Calif., “but he was also an important part of our National Championships with Unser in 1970 and Joe Leonard ['71 and '72]. He was strong-minded and gave us very reliable cars that were not always the most innovative or flashy but were always fast enough to win. His cars were always prepared to go the distance, whether it be 100 or 500 miles, dirt or pavement. George was meticulous and had an eye for detail. He was great to work with and he taught a lot of mechanics the trade.
“Everyone on the circuit learned by watching him, some as team members and some as rivals. We always wanted to think outside the box and constantly be innovative but George pushed back to make sure we were steady and could go the distance and finish. That's what wins races, finishing every lap. George will be missed by everyone in the racing community and our thoughts go out to his family."
While A.J. and Bignotti butted heads, Johncock (with Bignotti after his '73 Indy win, ABOVE) took the other approach with his ace mechanic.
“I wouldn't tell George how to fix the car – he knew a lot better than I did,” said Johncock, who also had Bignotti's Wildcat in front at Indianapolis in 1977 before breaking down. “I just let him go about his business because I trusted him and he was very sharp. Look at his record. He had good people around him but they all wanted to learn from him because he was the best.”
An avid golfer, George was still playing at age 90 and Foyt stayed in touch. “He'd had a little stroke sometime in the last couple years but I just talked to him a month ago and he was as sharp as a tack,” said Indy's original 4-time winner. “I understand he went to sleep last night and didn't wake up, so that's not a bad way to go. He lived a long time and had a hell of a run.”