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By Vintage Motorsport Magazine- Written by Ted West
Having a phone conversation with Dick Simon is like reading a really good book; you just sit back and let it roll. At age 81, Dick has lost none of the optimism and unbridled verve that made him one of the more accomplished drivers and team owners in postwar Indy-car racing. Today, he’s likely to apologize for lacking the sharp recall he once had for elates and people. But then he starts spinning stories in such telling detail and good-natured empathy that it’s hard to believe he missed a comma or a semicolon.
We caught up with Simon at his yacht brokerage in Dana Point, CA, just after he'd given his remodelers marching orders for redoing his wife Dianne's new kitchen. Fresh from discussing backsplashes and counters, in the blink of an eye, he was waist- deep, describing the intricacies of managing high-tempred, painfully uncertain pro drivers trying to qualify CART cars at the Indy 500. For him, it’s no transition at all. He talks about both with the same intense enthusiasm you reserve for your favorite hobby.
The difference is, Dick Simon functioned at the highest level in one of the most demanding technical automotive exercises in the world. Yet to this down-to-earth Seattle native from modest beginnings, technically demanding exercises like putting an Indy car through Indianapolis' Turn l at 10-tenths, throttle pop-riveted to the floor, was just a matter-like everything else in Dick Simons carefully examined life--of figuring it all out with welt-grasped common sense.
Racers love to make the technical side of racing seem hopelessly arcane impossible for the "common" mind to grasp. In his decades around Indy cars, Dick Simon was the "common" mind. He understood all the complexities in vivid detail-even when some of his own professional drivers didn't. Yet he could (and still can) explain those complexities in language that simplifies them accurately, accessibly, nothing lost in translation.
As a driver, he was an intuitive master at tuning chassis for maximum grip, balance, and speed. He carried that experience forward as an owner and team engineer. He could hear the real problem by interpreting even the vaguest abstracts from his drivers, then converting these to straightforward, effective technological solutions-sometimes almost completely unrelated to what the driver sincerely believed was wrong.
In no time, we're talking about one of his many fine team drivers. (By his own count, his team handled 36 drivers at the Speedway.) Raul Boesel had just had a new qualifying engine installed the night before, and he was struggling unsuccessfully to obtain the same speed he'd run with his practice engine. Unable to do so, Boesel decided to send his car back to the garage for an engine change, believing his brand new turbocharged Cosworth V8 was no good. Dick Simon, managing five team cars at the time, saw Boesel’s car being rolled to the garages, and halted it in its tracks to ask why. Simon knew that, according to Cosworth, the new engine was the "good one," and he had the highest faith in Cosworth's word. Simon also knew it was customary whenever a new engine was installed to fit the car with new tires.
But Boesel insisted the engine had no power- and unhappily, his lap times seemed to reflect that.
Against all logic, Simon ordered the car turned around and sent right back to the racing pits. He believed the engine was everything Cosworth said-he would investigate further. First, he researched the tires that had been put on the car during the previous night's engine swap. Sure enough, the new tires had different "stagger," the critical tuning of their rear rolling circumference, crucial to bending the car effortlessly left into Indy’s left turns at speed. The chassis wasn't making a smooth transition into the turns, costing it speed, and Boesel had concluded the engine was weak.
The car was returned to the correct rear tire stagger from before the engine change. Instantly, Boesel's speed skyrocketed. A "natural" as a driver, he was inherently extremely fast when the car was right. But like many pros, when his car wasn't tight, he couldn't always analyze its exact weakness. It took a different kind of "natural"- a chassis demon like Dick Simon-to read the problem and pinpoint a solution. The car restored to correct stagger, a "small" change, Boesel put the "good" Cosworth on the front row for the 500- and everyone looked good!
Dick Simon was born September 21, 1933 in Depression Seattle. But his working-class family had a telling disadvantage; Dick's mother suffered from multiple sclerosis, and the greater part of his father's income from the family bakery business was devoted to caring for her. As a direct result, Dick was required to busy himself with after-school jobs to earn extra money. For a laid-forward young man like Simon, though, this proved no impediment.
In no time, Simon had not one but three paper routes-the staple of cash strapped boys in the early post-World War II years. In fact, he was so busy delivering papers each morning that he took to stealing his father’s car, so he could deliver them fast enough to make school on time. When this strategy was discovered, his father, seeing its logic, helped him lie to the state, at age 14, that he was old enough for a driver's license. From there on, Dick executed his three paper routes each morning "almost legally" and made it to school in plenty of time.
Confirming his entrepreneurial talents, when the family car developed a mechanical problem, Dick repaired its water-pump pulley himself without a word. He could take care of himself. The rest of the world would grasp this soon enough.
At age 16, he worked at a Seattle commercial ship repair yard, working as a parts runner from 3-12 p.m. every day. And when he wasn't doing that , he was baking doughnuts in early morning at his father's bakery. In school, the athletics coaches wanted him to try out for football, and he would have liked that-but he had no time. In the winter, he found enough free time to go skiing with his friends on weekends. By the end of high school, he was so good that every four-event ski competition he entered-cross-country, downhill , slalom, and ski-jumping he won!
Crash And Burn
As the local combined-event champion, Simon was offered a two-year skiing scholarship to Wenachee Jr. College in Wenachee, WA. Graduating from there, he got a two-year scholarship to the University of Utah and moved to Salt Lake City. After graduation, he went into the insurance business. But he particularly loved ski jumping, and one evening after an event, he saw a team of parachutists in the night sky, flares on their feet, gliding down through the darkness.
In no time -as will be expected of any young person who ends up driving Indy cars- Simon was voluntarily jumping out of perfectly serviceable aircraft in midair. By 1965, he'd parachuted so often that he had executed 600 midair baton passes... and he was getting bored.
By this time, Simon was partners with Steve Biljanic in the local parachute center, and they were scheduled to do an exhibition jump at the local racetrack. They got a standing ovation from the crowd, and the race promoter said, if he provided four cars, would they like to do a 10-lap race for the crowd?
Well ... yes!
Simon fell in love with racing that night. He bought a race car from the track owner in mid-season 1964-and promptly put it over the wall. He raced in five events that season, and crashed in every one of them. He was fast-very fast-but he had things to learn. That was when Steve Biljanic suggested he join forces with Steve’s brother, Mark, to buy a new-and much better-race car. The two joined forces and bought a proven left-offset Grant King roadster, and they powered it with an equally fine Mickey Thompson 1/2-in.-stroked racing Ford 289 V8.
With his new, infinitely better equipment, in 1965 Simon went from featured crasher to established star. In fact, when the Canadian-American Modified Racing Association pro stars-soon to be USAC Indy stars-Billy Foster, Jim Malloy and Art Pollard came to town, unknown Salt Lake City "bumpkin" Dick Simon proved their equal, racing them wheel to wheel. Locally, he was virtually unbeatable, winning 20 of 21 races. He was so dominant, the crowd began booing him for ruining their evening!
But ever the entrepreneur and wage earner, Simon hadn't had quite enough jumping out of fully functioning aircraft. In 1966, he was in a team of parachutists hired for a week-long night-Oare exhibition at a local event. On the last night, the winds were blowing 50 mph, and most of his group opted out for safety reasons. Not Simon. He was determined to fulfill his contract.
Out he jumped. The wind blew his chute closer and closer to the roof of one of the tall grandstands. Unable to maneuver, he crashed onto the roof, the wind drove the chute over the edge, and he crashed straight down, his fall unbroken. He broke his back and was taken to the hospital. After three days, all his bodily functions ceased. The gas build-up resulting from the trauma put him in a coma, and he was given last rites. Finally, the doctors came home from a fishing weekend and released the internal pressure build-up. He came out of the coma and recovered quickly. Although Simon by 1985 had switched to a part-time driving schedule, he ran at Indy and brought in Indy rookie Raul Boesel in a second car. They finished 26th and 18th, respectively.
By age 35, fully recovered, he was president of three insurance companies, he'd been out of racing three years, and like Willie Sutton staying out of banks for three years, he needed some excitement.
At the end of these three dormant years, Simon and his friend Gordon Lord were talking about racing. Simon hadn't scratched that itch for too long, and Lord said, listen, you've been talking and talking about it. You've shown you can race with Pollard and Malloy and Foster-Indy veterans. Go to Indy!
When Lord was right, he was right.
Simon's first step was to go racing in SCCA. No Bugeye Sprite driver, his road racing began in a full-bore B-Procluction Corvette at a Regional race in Las Vegas. Winning the race, he immediately graduated to the National race the same weekend. He got his National license and won. But he was told he couldn't go to Indy without demons treating some professional open wheel experience.
Done. In 1969, he bought a white SCCA Lola-Chevy Formula 5000 car from Carl Haas. At his first FSOOO event, a complete unknown , he qualified a half second faster than David Hobbs, Sam Posey, and the other established series stars . He was blisteringly fast-though he never showed quite that stark superiority again. Yet the blank white car, driven by the round-faced Simon, was instantly a factor. He ran six races and won three.
Simon's open-wheel credentials established that SCCA FSOOO season, at the end of 1969, he paid second-tier Indy-car owner/designer Rolla Vollstedt $12,000 for a chassis. Next, he went to Dan Gurney with a line of credit and financed a used turbo-Offy. Gurney told him the engine would have to be overhauled. Agreed. He would go to his first Indy 500 with less than the best package. On the plus side, he had seasoned Indy wrench Keith Randal working on the car. This fulfilled the Indy beginner's Golden Rule: "Inexperienced driver-experienced mechanic."
Dick Simon was inexperienced at Indianapolis, certainly, and that hoary venue is a place to be respected. Yet Simon brought with him an intuitive nature, considerable chassis insight, and the seasoned confidence of a man well into his 30s. He wasn't "your average rookie."
As if to prove this, Simon's first Indy move was, from a shut-up-rookie point of view, radical and fraught with uncertainty. Early in the Indy month, he ordered the crew to take off the car's sway bars. They refused-so he took them off himself. He ran the same lap time. At speed, the car had no suspension travel-none'. Impressed, his people said, "Well, Simon, what're you going to do".
Only one thing to do--they relocated the shock mounts to give the car suspension travel. Simon qualified the car far faster than it had run in the five previous seasons. It ran well in the race, too, until the Offys turbo blew. They changed the turbo, and Simon finished 13th.
If not triumphant, the 13th-place finish was fortuitous. Simon owed $18,000 to Dan Gurney for the engine. The purse for 13th was $18,000 and change. Gurney was paid in full.
And Simon -Gordon Lord be praised- was now an Indy driver!
The First Lady
A few years later, in 1976, Rolla Vollstedts driver was rookie Janet Guthrie, widely publicized and ungallantly pooh-poohed by
people who've never gone faster than 85 (It should be noted that in 1978, she finished 9th in the Indy 500 with an unmentioned
broken wrist. Would you?).
Vollstedt had considerable respect for Simon, owing to his success with Vollstedt's formerly troubled chassis. And Simon's consistently strong performances on a modest budget, coupled with his relentlessly optimistic approach, qualified him, in Vollstedt’s mind, as the right person to help Guthrie find her way around the Speedway.
Simon's first step was to rent Ontario Motor Speedway and let Guthrie run some laps in her new Indy car. It was a completely foreign experience for her, and not surprisingly, she found the long, uncharted turns and blunt, threatening wall intimidating. Simon told her she was "pinching" the turns-distorting their natural arc. The key, he said, was to "let the car go" out to the wall.
He put it in a way none of us would welcome: "The wall is your best friend." To grasp the concept, he put Guthrie at the wheel of her rental car, with a coat-hanger protruding 12 inches from its right-side door. He told Guthrie to go out and get used to turning laps so close to the wall that itwould wear the coat-hanger in half grinding against the wall. Only then would he put her back in the Indy car.
She looked him in the eye. Got into the rental car and began turning laps.
After a handful, she came back in. "How's that?"
The coat-hanger was gone-and so was most of the door handle!
Simon beamed. From there on, she improved quickly and steadily. She consistently ran at Indy eight to 10 inches from the wall. In Simon's words, she learned to "let the car- and the set-up-do what it wants" ... on the limit of adhesion at hundreds of miles an hour.
She had the stuff.
In 1973, Simon got an urgent Friday-night call from Talladega. A friend 's year-old NASCAR Petty Dodge was dead slow, and nobody knew what to do. Would Simon come down and have a look?
Dick and his good friend, racer John Martin, hurried clown Saturday, the day before the race, arriving at mid-afternoon. They had no time to lose, with only one session left to qualify for the race. And NASCAR godfather Bill France Sr., at the height of his glory, told Simon he required Indy car guys to run some practice laps before attempting to qualify. It wasn't unreasonable. A mid-70s NASCAR stocker had as much in common with an Indy car as Roseanne Barr had with Raquel Welch.
With 15 minutes left in practice, Simon gave the Dodge a once-over. He added some right-rear "wedge"-stagger, to you. With seven minutes left, France said, get going! With no practice, Simon ran through steeply banked Turns 3 and 4 wide open. Then he was able to do Turns 1 and 2 flat, as well ... when the Dodge Hemi burned a piston'.
But France nodded okay-Simon had gone fast enough to attempt to qualify. With no time to put another engine it, the Hemi's dead cylinder was deactivated. On seven cylinders, running around the bottom of the track, Simon was able to qualify near the back, in 52nd . The team raised $5,000, and for the next day's race, it swapped its V7 for a rented V8.
With the new engine, Simon raced from 52nd to l0th in nine laps. He managed to work his way through an early wreck and got as high as 3rd, before the car suffered a series of flats. The team didn't have enough new-tire replacements and was forced to run
used tires. Still, Simon got up to 3rd three different time s, he recalls, eventually finishing a creditable 6th.
He later raced at Daytona, but he and Marty Robbins came together and ran up to the wall. His cars damage was repaired, and he says he still finished 10th.
But Simon's first love was Indy cars, and there he remained. His team flourished in the '80s, commonly running five cars under his own name and Paragon Racing, headed by his wife, Dianne. Besides Raul Boesel, he provided rides for some of the top Indy car names, including Arie Luyendyk, Scott Brayton, Jimmy Vasser, Raul Boesel ran with Simon's team for a number of years. Scott Pruett, and many others.
His own best races were his last two. In 1987 and 1988, he finished 6th and 9th and was among the fastest cars-no bad thing for a 55-year old!And he was in good company. In 1987, he was the only car running as fast as Mario Andretti, both of them beaten by the slower but enduring Al Unser Sr.
It wasn't until after his retirement as a driver, though, that he accomplished one of the major achievements in his long career. He was engineering as many as seven Indy cars at a time, when Lyn St. James, herself a star Ford factory driver in SCCA Trans-Am and IMSA GTP, let it be known that somehow, some way, she wanted to get into an Indy car. Simon told her she'd need a sponsor, because getting a test was expensive. But keep going with Ford, he said, and maybe a chance would turn up.
Time passed, and she kept talking to him. Finally, at the end of the 1988 season, he had an engine that still had some miles left in it. He called her on Sunday night after the last race, and said, if you want to test, be at a track in Memphis first thing in the morning. Rookie tests normally cost $40,000, but in this rare instance, he said, she could test for free.
She dropped everything to get there, and at first, she couldn't find the track-a small road course built onto the local drag strip. A young European candidate was on the track when she arrived. The team fitted her to her car, while the other driver did 30 or so laps. Simon briefed her as much as he could about clutch take-up and the cars other basics.
She strapped in, revved the engine, but accidentally dropped the clutch too suddenly. The car hopped violently 45 degrees sideways. To her credit, she caught it before it banged the pit wall. From there, she adapted quickly. Immediately, she was
faster than the European. Impressed, Simon said he'd help her try to find a sponsor.
She was on the way-but the way was rough. She got 149 "no’s" over a four-year period, before a sponsor finally said, yes. ].C. Penney would give her a $1.8 million Indianapolis budget. It didn't match the $3 million given teammate Boesel by Duracell, but it was sufficient to mount a serious effort. In 1992, her first Indy 500, she finished a strong 11th and easily earned Rookie of the Year honors for Dick Simon Racing. It was his first Rookie of the Year, after successfully placing numerous rookies in the 500. St. James' J.C. Penney sponsorship continued for three years.
Racing, however, can be a two-faced master. There are those who have good fortune and finish well in spite of not having dominant speed. Others with good speed seem hounded by bad racing luck. This ill luck can take the form of poor mechanical reliability, or more frustrating, innocent involvement in unavoidable crashes. At Indy, St. James' bad luck, crashing out several times in others' mishaps, may obscure how well history views her.
At her high point, though, she was among the best. In 1994, her third Indy, she was two places from the front in the qualifying line, when Boesel finished his qualifying run. Dick Simon hurried to Boesel to find out how the car had been important because St. James' set-up was the same. Boesel told Simon the car was "too perfect." (Owing perhaps to linguistic difficulties, Brazilian Boesel had the odd mannerism, Simon remembers, of calling the car "too good" when it was pushing, and "uncomfortable" or “nervous”when it was loose, never using the words "understeer" or "oversteer.") Boesel’s set-up had just missed the pole by a few hundredths of a second.
Immediately, as St. James was pushed forward in the line, next to qualify-Simon ordered a half-turn increase on her front wing. Her eyes got huge inside her helmet. She'd had no chance to practice with this set-up!
But Simon reassured her. He bent down to the cockpit: “Just don't lift." Her visor went down. The car pulled onto the track. And for four qualifying laps, without interruption, the telemetry readout stayed bright green. She scuffed the "Goodyear" off both right-side tires against the wall ... but she never lifted. She qualified sixth-on the outside of the second row!
As happened for Lyn, things didn't go her way in the race- she finished 19th. But after qualifying, no one could deny it, she was a front-line Indy-car driver. Simon notes proudly, she sat ahead of Jacques Villeneuve, Emerson Fittipaldi and Mario Andretti- three world champions!
If her sponsorship money was slow ... Lyn was fast. And Simon says she could communicate what the car was doing really well, the trademark of the professional. In 1995, her J.C. Penney sponsorship ended, but Simon told her to stay in town. Subway showed interest, then balked. She found a small manufacturer of joint replacements, Biomet-and at the last minute, a Chicago automotive dealer chipped in. She qualified the car but was caught up in the horrific first-lap crash involving Stan Fox and Eddie Cheever. She finished 32nd. Lyn ran seven Indy 500s, but without dispute, her five best were with Dick Simon Racing.
And So It Goes
Dick Simon, like his star, Lyn St. James, was not immune to the vagaries of fortune. He became involved with a partner in his racing team, and when team franchises in CART, Indy's sanctioning body at the time, became worth millions each, he was unable
to cash in, disqualified by his partner's undisclosed legal past.
Simon started another Indy car team, with sponsorship from Tokheim and Mexmel, the biggest manufacturers of fuel pumps and aircraft insulation, respectively . .. only to have both declare bankruptcy the same year. He was deeply in debt for the racing team, but bankruptcy protected both sponsors against liability. He owed over $ 10 million and had less than $10.5 million in assets.
So what does a guy do if he has a five-day parachuting contract, and on the fifth day, the winds are blowing 50mph over the landing site"?
Simon paid off all his debtors and moved to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, to care for his wife's ailing mother and father with the $72,000 that remained to him. He got into real estate and started all over. When his wife's parents had passed, he and Dianne moved back to Dana Point, California, where they started the yacht brokerage they still run.
Dick isn't getting any younger. A while back, he began feeling tired-too tired. His doctor said be bad five severely damaged arteries. So he got five bypasses. Then his back gave out, and he had to have spacers inserted where three of his vertebrae were grinding against each other.
Complaints? Hell no!
“I’m like a 25-year-old again!" he booms today He’s just as optimistic and full of life as he was the first time I talked to him, when he showed up in that fast, blank-white
Lola-Chevy F5000 in 1969. Dick was determined back then that he was a man who was going somewhere.
With a big smile in his voice today ... he hasn't changed much at all.