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The Novi was first used in 1941 under the "Winfield" name and produced over 450 hp (340 kW), an amazing output for the time. It was fitted to a 1935 frame built for a Miller engine, but it was very difficult to handle.
After World War II, the Novi returned in 1946 with 510 horsepower (fitted in a more advanced Kurtis Kraft front-wheel-drive chassis) and performed beautifully, setting the track record and leading 44 laps in a car driven by Ralph Hepburn. Drivers such as Paul Russo and Duke Nalon later drove cars powered by the engine at notable speeds, but were unable to win. In 1949, Nalon's Novi was involved in a spectacular crash, where he hit the wall in Turn 3, rupturing the gasoline tank and creating a napalm-like 'wall of fire' most of the way through the turn.
The engine's crowd-pleasing 'shriek' was caused by its gear-driven centrifugal supercharger which turned at five (5.35) times the crankshaft speed, thus giving it a banshee-like scream at full power. The engine's four-camshaft and oversized valve design also gave it an exhaust noise much louder than other engines of its period, resulting in a deep-bass roar that sounded like a fighter plane. Some claimed that the noise actually rattled their teeth. The whole Novi package became as legendary as its dangerous reputation, particularly after veterans Hepburn (in 1948) and Chet Miller (in 1953) both died in practice trying to control the overpowering vehicle. In addition, the engine's own power often caused it to break down prematurely, ending several promising victory chances.
After years of haggling, Frank Kurtis finally convinced Novi owner Lew Welch to switch to a rear drive chassis design that would be much more competitive than the increasingly obsolete front-drive chassis. Featuring a prominent tail-fin, Kurtis designed the new Novi that has been described as the most beautiful roadster ever seen at Indianapolis.
In 1956, Paul Russo qualified in eighth position. The second car driven by Jimmy Davies failed to qualify due to technical complications on the last day. During the race itself, Paul Russo leapt out to an early lead in the new finned Novi. Russo led the Indianapolis 500 for the first 21 laps. At that point, a tire blew in the South-West corner throwing Russo and the Novi into the wall and out of the race.
In 1957, a new sponsor financed the Novis, now re-branded as the Automobile Air Conditioner specials. Driven by Paul Russo and Tony Bettenhausen both cars qualified. Russo finished an impressive fourth, and Bettenhausen finished fifteenth.
The cars returned in 1958 driven by Paul Russo teamed with Bill Cheesbourg. During practice, Grand Prix world champion driver Juan Manuel Fangio drove the Novi while he was ranked as a 'rookie' at the Brickyard. Speculation coursed through the pits that the world's most famous driver would pilot the legendary Novi in the race, but it was not to be.
In a later interview, Fangio described his experience with the Novi and its owner, "Mr. Welch wanted me to test the Novi and I liked to do it; and I found that I could not be in conditions to drive any other new car (in spite Mr. Welch offered him an important amount of money to qualify and race his Novi). I did several laps at 135mph as an average, and I enjoyed them a lot, especially when I noticed Paul Russo was also in the track at the same time, with a similar car."
Eyewitnesses to Fangio's Novi test noted that Fangio gained perceptibly on Russo who could not pull away from the 'rookie' driver on his first outing in a car that was deemed difficult to drive. Fangio described his shakedown cruise in the Novi, "I went out to the track only once with the Novi. I did about 10 laps and I was glad to find that the other driver of the team (Paul Russo) could not pass me, nor even close the gap. The Novi was the only V8 engine in Indianapolis by then. It had a mechanical turbine and the power came suddenly at high revs, so being a difficult car to stop, like all the ones that used compressors. Even if the BRM had a 16 cylinders engine, the Novi reminded me of that one for sure. The high power at high revs was hard on the tyres, and it was very difficult to drive at Indianapolis because we had to accelerate while turning."
Following what he described as frustrations with the other car he had been offered (an Offenhauser powered roadster) and the bureaucratic complications arising from sponsors and team contracts that prevented him from driving the Novi, Fangio left Indianapolis to drive in the French Grand Prix instead. Welch's failure to land Fangio as his driver meant the Novi lost what could have been its best chance for an outright win at Indianapolis. In the 500, Russo finished eighteenth, and Cheesbourg finished tenth overall.
The Novi received its 'last hurrah' when colorful car owner Andy Granatelli purchased the rights to it. Granatelli's team put the Novi's distinctive shriek back into action from 1961 to 1965, developing a 4-wheel-drive version in 1964 in an attempt to effectively harness the extreme power. Its notable drivers during this period were Jim Hurtubise, Art Malone, and Bobby Unser. The Novi engine was last used at Indy in 1966, when a qualifying crash ended its career.
Despite never powering a Championship Car race winner, few engines have become as much of a 'celebrity' in automobile racing as the Novi. In fact, the Novi has the rare distinction of never having won any race.
The final STP-version of the Novi V8 had a revised 2-stage centrifugal supercharger and was 2,741.29 cc (167.28 cid) with bore and stroke of 81.28 x 66.04 mm (3.2 x 2.6 in). At about 140 in Hg (~65-70 psI), power output of 837 bhp (624.2 kW) at 8,200 rpm was claimed. This was equal to 305 bhp/litre (5.0 bhp/cu.in) and a brake mean effective pressure (b.m.e.p.) of 483 lb/sq.in.
Karl Ludvigsen, Novi V-8: Indy Cars 1941 through 1965, Iconographix, 2001.