Diesel domination at the Indy 500


While at the Cummins’ Jamestown (New York) Engine Plant for part of its 4oth anniversary celebration earlier this month, I had an unexpected illumination: a history lesson on the company’s involvement with the Indianapolis 500 race.

I was surprised to learn that Clessie Lyle Cummins, founder of the Cummins Engine Company in Columbus, IN, in 1919, had worked as a member of the pit crew for the Marmon Wasp race car in the very first Indy 500 in 1911.

To showcase the Cummins diesel engine, the Cummins entered the 1931 race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a Model A Duesenberg that had an 85hp four-cylinder diesel.

Cummins didn’t expect to win. I leaned. Instead, he and his crew just wanted a chance to show the world the fuel efficiency and durability of the diesel engine.



The Cummins Special race car qualified with an average speed of 97 mph. It finished in 13th place. However, it was the first entry to run the entire 500-mile race nonstop without a single pit stop.

For the 1934 Indy 500, the company entered two race cars to test the effectiveness of 2-cycle versus 4-cycle engine designs for durability and efficiency, Cummins historians enlightened me further. During the race, the 2-cycle engine had numerous issues while the 4-stroke engine ran smoothly.

Cummins returned to the race in 1950 with a car powered by a 6.6L, six-cylinder Cummins truck engine.


Pole position

In 1952, the #28 Cummins Diesel Special became the only diesel ever to capture the pole at the Indy 500. It was equipped with 380hp diesel and featured a new innovation to the speedway: turbocharging. 

This race car also had a unique side-lying engine design which enabled an offset drivetrain and lower center of gravity for better handling on the banked turns. 

What’s more, the #28 Cummins Diesel Special was the first Indy car ever tested in a wind tunnel for aerodynamics. 

The results were amazing, according to historians at Cummins. Driver Freddie Agabashian “took #28 out on the brickyard and tore the tread off of his front right tire while capturing the pole with the fastest one-lap time (139.104 mph) and four-lap time (138.010 mph) in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history.

“The Cummins Diesel Special was retired midway through the race as the turbocharger inlet became clogged with rubber debris from the track – but it had established turbocharging as a viable technology on the track, as well as helped engineers refine improvements to the breakthrough Cummins PT fuel system.

Who knew?