1958 John Fray Special Champ Car
Engine no. 137
In the decade of the Fifties, before the mid-engined revolution hit Americas oval tracks, dozens of creative designers and craftsmen all over the country created race cars to the champ car template. The physical layout and visual appearance had been set in the Thirties by legendary builders like Harry Miller, Fred Duesenberg, Myron Stevens and Wilbur Shaw but with development and the availability of technologies, skills and materials developed during the war the champ car continued to evolve and improve.
In the postwar era Champ Car fields were dominated by chassis built by Frank Kurtis, supported by multi-car builders like Emil Diedt and Lujie Lesovsky. Yet the entry lists still were peppered with lesser known builders for whom the opportunity to build and frequently to enter their own champ car was a dream come true.
Their names pop up even on Indy entries: Bromme, Del Roy, Turner, Pankratz, Travis, Marchese. Some were recognized champ car crew chiefs, putting their own touches on chassis based on accepted practice, but others both at Indy and on major oval tracks around the country, were local designers, engineers, fabricators and craftsmen who laid out chassis of their own design and conception, put welding rod to steel and hammer to aluminum and created cars that sometimes made it to The Show at Indy but more frequently populated the regional series that were the backbone of the AAA National Championship.
One of those was John Fray, a Bridgeport, Connecticut engineer and fabricator who in the late Fifties built three innovative open wheel race cars, two configured as sprint cars and the other as a champ car. Only the champ car is known to survive and it is this remarkably original and complete car carefully preserved for over thirty years by just two owners.
The John Fray Special incorporated several unusual features for its time including transverse torsion bar front and rear suspension, 12 Airheart disc brakes on all four wheels and a number of lightweight features which contributed to its unusually low weight of just 1,600 pounds. It was campaigned by Fray with a number of drivers into the Sixties at tracks like Trenton, Langhorne, Syracuse and even venturing as far afield as Milwaukee in search of competition.
Drivers included Bruce Jacobi, Don Branson, Burt Brooks, Jim, Hemmings, Hal Reddeberg and Don Gillett.
Appreciation of the John Fray Specials features is made more significant by its originality. It retains its original paint, interior and complete configuration. All the physical evidence as well as its history over the past forty years supports the conclusion that it was never wrecked or reworked.
Fray believed strongly in using lightweight, high strength materials and the John Fray Special evidences his ingenuity in reducing weight in many parts including magnesium sheet side panels, engine mounts and suspension brackets, fiberglass tail and extensive use of high strength 4130 chrome moly steel in the chassis frame, front and rear axles and torque tube. The drive shaft and rear axles are 4140 chrome moly steel. Body panels that are not fiberglass or magnesium are hand-hammered aluminum.
Frays experience in the requirements of effective journeyman racing is obvious not only in the specification of the John Fray Special but also in details like fastening every panel on the Special, including the instrument panel, with quick-acting Dzus fasteners so anything and everything was quickly accessible for service and adjustment. Breakaway aircraft fittings on the fuel system are an early application of safety engineering which positively shut off fuel flow in the event of a serious accident.
He couldnt leave the engine alone, either, boring the 220 Offy (#137) out to 234 cubic inches. Breathing through a Hilborn-Travers mechanical fuel injection system running methanol from a pressurized 48 gallon fuel tank in the tail, the John Fray Special drives through a multi-disc clutch and two-speed gearbox to a Halibrand quick change center section. The Offys dry sump lubrication system draws from a four gallon exterior oil tank that doubles as the oil cooler.
In addition to the transverse torsion bar springs the suspension uses Monroe tube shocks at the front and currently has a set of Carreras on the rear. Dual master cylinders are fitted with a balance bar (Fray used the horse and buggy term whiffle bar for it) to adjust the front-rear bias. 16 Halibrand magnesium knockoff disc wheels mount the rubber.
The Sixties saw rapid changes in champ car construction and the rise of the mid-engined cars. The John Fray Special was retired and eventually acquired in completely original condition by Lester Gerard of Remsenberg, NY, a justice of the New York Supreme Court. Gerard carefully preserved it for decades until it was acquired by the present owner in July 1995.
His first priority was to get the engine rebuilt, entrusting it to Offenhauser specialist Ken Hickey in Ambler, Pennsylvania. It was to be the last engine completed by Hickey, who finished it in September 1998. Other mechanical systems were reworked and prepared for track use without interfering with the John Fray Specials originality and carefully preserved condition. Since the 1999 season it has been used regularly at New Hampshire International Speedway and at Flemington Speedway in New Jersey until it closed.
In addition to its wonderful preservation and patina, the John Fray Special is a top notch vintage oval race car, regularly used by its current owner who reports that it routinely laps NHIS faster than 270 Offy powered Champ Cars and Roadsters. Its responsive handling and the huge torque of its Hickey-built Offy make it a delight to drive. It is a real runner, not a trailer queen he says. You can stay on it all the way through the corners.
A simple, straightforward champ car, the John Fray Special is not only ideal for joining the increasingly popular vintage oval racing scene but also, because of its originality, an object lesson in how these cars were built and maintained when new without the interruption of a restoration and restorers and owners interpretations of fit, finish, function and layout. It is a rare opportunity to acquire a successful Offy-powered Champ Car with known history and exceptional patina and condition.