Joe Huffaker, 1927-2022
(By Marshall Pruett | March 24, 2022 4:26 PM ET, Racer.com)
One of motor racing’s supremely inventive characters has passed. Joe Huffaker, whose free-thinking Indy 500 creations, numerous junior open-wheel and sports car designs, and racing teams made significant contributions to the sport, died in late February at the age of 95.
Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Unser made history at the Speedway in a Huffaker chassis that carried the first turbocharged Offy engine. Formula 1 and Le Mans legend Pedro Rodriguez got his first taste of the Brickyard in a Cooper chassis retrofitted by Huffaker with an Aston Martin engine — the marque’s only Indy appearance. Who could forget the Indy chassis he formed with Porsche engines mounted at the front and back, or his innovations with his liquid-filled suspensions? And we haven’t even touched on his closed-wheel concepts.
Never short on criticisms and complaints, Uncle Bobby wasn’t a fan of the Huffaker chassis he used during his maiden run at Indy, but even the old crank from Albuquerque had to admit, “Joe was really a good builder.” That was high praise from the late racing legend.
Born in 1927 in Indiana, it was a move out west to the San Francisco Bay Area where the Huffaker name would become forever linked to British cars and motor racing. Having built a couple of homemade race cars in the 1950s and competed under the pseudonym “Harry Hotcake” on a few occasions, it was Huffaker’s turn towards learning to weld and the other race car fabrication arts where his immense creativity was provided an outlet.
A connection with Kjell Qvale, whose pioneering foreign car importation and sales business brought the products of BMC — the British Motors Corporation — to the West Coast, led to Huffaker taking charge of the San Francisco-based BMC Competition Department. It wasn’t long before their race car brand “Genie” was among the most prolific names in North American racing; at one point in the early 1960s, more Genie Formula Juniors and sports racers were being produced than any other domestic constructor.
“When I went to work for Qvale we ran a [Jaguar], one of the lightweight Jags and I maintained all those and did motors and all that for him,” Huffaker told me in a 2011 interview. “I decided I thought I wanted to build a series of cars. Formula Juniors were just coming out in Europe. So we started building Formula Juniors and we built a whole run of those, front engine and rear engine cars. We built a bunch of small Genies, which were 1100cc to 2-liter, and we made the larger cars — V8s, Ford- and Chevrolet-powered — and built 20 of those.
“While we were doing that, he came up with the idea of going to Indy and he bought a Cooper. Put an Offy engine in it, stretched the chassis little bit. Had it about two thirds done and he came back from England with an Aston Martin engine that the factory talked him into. They said, ‘This is a great thing. You’ll sell Astons. Put this in the car and run it at Indy. That’ll be great.’”
Joe, second from right, with Pedro Rodriguez at Indy in 1963. IMS Photo
Rodriquez qualified on his 1963 debut but was bumped from the field of 33 and later crashed the Cooper-Aston while trying to get back into the show. Huffaker had a better idea for 1964 and got approval from Qvale to build three new cars from scratch, using four-cylinder Offenhauser engines built by Meyer-Drake. Enter Huffaker’s sleek MG Liquid Suspension Specials which earned a best finish of 13th by sports car veteran Walt Hansgen, and three of the cars made the race in 1965 with Jerry Grant joining Bob Veith and Hansgen.
Sports car veteran Walt Hansgen drove Huffaker’s MG Liquid Suspension Special to 13th at Indy in 1964. IMS Photo
As customer sales began to pick up, Huffaker’s best Indy 500 result followed in 1966 as Eddie Johnson drove to seventh at Indy in a car owned by the late Tassi Vatis; Bobby Unser placed eighth in his turbo Huffaker-Offy.
Bobby Unser started the turbocharged era at Indianapolis with Huffaker in 1966. IMS Photo
If setting the trend with a turbocharged Indy car wasn’t enough of a design challenge for Huffaker that year, he was asked by his old fabrication mentor and midget racer Al Stein to build a chassis to carry a pair of air-cooled flat-six Porsche engines.
“He says, ‘Hey, I want to build a car and go to Indianapolis and I want to put two Porsche motors in it.’” Huffaker recalled. “He had [East Bay Porsche specialists] Lukes and Shorman, and they built the motors, as a last-ditch thing to do in racing.
“I said, ‘I kind of doubt that’s going to work very well but it’ll be something to do.’ I couldn’t talk him out of it. Without tying the front and rear together some way I didn’t think it would be very good. Nowadays, you could do it electronically but then you couldn’t do that. Anyhow, we built it. It’s not that difficult to do. It was pretty straightforward. You build a rear engine and put another one in front. The front engine drove the front and the rear engine drove the rear.
“It was just the mechanical linkages between the two. As I recall, we didn’t have a clutch; it was straight through into one of the drives, into one of the engines, and the other one fired up and pushed it off. So we only had that one gearbox in it.”
Huffaker stretched convention further with this two-engined Indy car in 1966. IMS Photo
The twin-engine Huffaker-Porsche creation wasn’t the first Indy 500 design to carry two motors, but it was definitely the last. Journeyman driver Bill Cheesbourg did his best to qualify, but the car would not venture beyond 150mph in a year where the pole was set at 165mph. Huffaker said scraping in at the bottom of the field remained possible until one of the Porsche motors digested something that wasn’t combustible.
“Would’ve made the race with that thing the last day of qualifying; he was running fast enough. We sucked a bird in the intake and bent the valves on one side and we didn’t have time to get it going again,” he added.
As the Indy 500 projects began to decline, Huffaker and Qvale turned their attention to other forms of racing with BMC-related products. SCCA regionals and nationals and the SCCA Trans Am and Can-Am series kept Huffaker’s team busy; production-based racers representing Jensen-Healey, Triumph, Mini, and more spring forth from the team in the 1970s on through the 2000s. As one of the few independent road racing specialists on the West Coast that was capable of designing and building its own cars and engines, Huffaker Engineering developed into a powerful entity where auto manufacturers and privateers found a willing home for their various ambitions.
With high-volume chassis production demands slowing down in the 1980s, Huffaker Engineering came to the forefront as a powerful presence in IMSA’s smaller GTU and GTP Lights classes. Building and fielding factory-linked Pontiac Fieros, the small mid-engine coupes were a success with 16 wins earned by Bob Earl and Terry Visger across 1985-’87 as the GTU category began to grow. It was a switch to prototypes in the GTP Lights class where the Huffaker team established itself as hardened competitor using the same four-cylinder Fiero engines it built and tuned for GTU.
Huffaker’s Spice-Pontiac took three wins in 1988 and added its biggest victory the following year as Dan Marvin and Bob Lesnett combined to claim the GTP Lights win at the 12 Hours of Sebring. Huffaker’s team also earned a reputation as one of the fastest pit crews in IMSA as the outfit routinely won the lucrative Pit Stop Competition events that were held by the series.
Huffaker’s GTP Lights team brought some ingenious tweaks to the IMSA game. Marshall Pruett archive
Among the tricks that came to light which helped in Huffaker’s expeditious tire changes, his son Joe Jr. revealed that not all of the tall bottles that powered the pneumatic air guns contained oxygen or nitrogen. One bottle was filled with helium, which the team used to overinflate the tires they saved for the competition…and with the wheels expanded to balloon-like proportions, the heavy metal wheels and rubber tires were lighter and easier to remove and install… Huffaker Engineering’s former shop in the paddock at Sears Point — known today at Sonoma Raceway — was adorned with countless oversize checks they received for winning those pit stop events.
After retiring from running the operation on a day-to-day basis in 1991, Huffaker’s business remained active in the sport. In a cross-generational program involving Kjell Qvale’s son Bruce and Huffaker’s son Joe Jr., the company brought the Mangusta marque to life in Trans Am where the Huffaker-Qvale Motorsports team claimed the 2000 championship, and on an amateur racing level, Joe Jr.’s immense success in the SCCA with countless Runoffs championships has kept the family name aloft since his father downshifted a few gears.
A relocated Hoosier with a pioneering mind and the hands of a craftsman, Huffaker’s legacy is one of fearless engineering pursuits. Between the first roadsters he fashioned together as a teenager and the more renowned race cars that bore his name or ideas, Huffaker was drafted at the age of 27 and served his country in the Korean War. In 2007, he was inducted into Sonoma Raceway’s Wall of Fame and one decade later, the SCCA added his name to its Hall of Fame.
Married in 1949, Huffaker is survived by his wife Jean, three children, three grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.