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George Bignotti was the best at turning a wrench


Manny, Moe, Jack.

Maybe the Fram Oil Filters guy.

George Bignotti.

These are the famous mechanics. If the category on “Family Feud” was “Guys Who Walk Around With Grease Under Their Fingernails” and you answered any of the above, Richard Dawson would think you were smart and give you a peck on the cheek.

But here’s the deal: Neither Manny Rosenfeld, Moe Strauss or Jack Jackson, nor the Fram Oil Filters guy, served as crew chief on a winning Indianapolis 500 entry.

George Bignotti won seven Indy 500s as crew chief.

He was the original Mr. Goodwrench.

Think about it: A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears are the greatest Indy 500 drivers of all time. Each won four times.

George Bignotti, who died at his home on the Canyon Gate golf course Friday at age 97, won it seven times. Even Bobby Unser could do the math.

Bignotti won it twice with the irascible Foyt behind the wheel. Racing people who were around back then say you should have seen those two go at it.

Sometimes it sounded like rams locking horns in Gasoline Alley. Their discussions often were louder than those old turbocharged Offenhausers.

“I was bullheaded and we hollered at each other quite a bit, but it went in one ear and out the other for both of us,” Foyt told Robin Miller, the noted auto racing writer, upon learning of Bignotti’s death. “Sure we had our differences but we always respected each other.

“As far as I’m concerned, he was the greatest mechanic who ever turned a wrench on an Indy car.”

Turning the wrenches. That’s an expression that is used a lot in describing guys who work on race cars. I think it was used for the first time shortly after A.J. Foyt shook hands with George Bignotti.

Foyt and Bignotti teamed to win 10 of 13 races in 1964 before splitting up, a percentage of success that no driver-crew chief combination has ever matched.

They won Indy twice, and then Bignotti won it with Graham Hill, the debonair Englishman, and then with Al Unser twice — if you collected Hot Wheels-style cars, then you probably remember the Johnny Lightning Special with the yellow lightning bolts — and then with Gordon Johncock and finally with Tom Sneva, the former math teacher from the Pacific Northwest, in 1983.

I once was in George Bignotti’s home on the golf course, when I was writing a column on his ex-wife Kay, the daughter of three-time Indy 500 winner Louie Meyer, who lived in Searchlight. Kay was among the first women allowed into Gasoline Alley, a few years before Janet Guthrie showed she could race with the boys. Long before Danica Patrick.

Tom Sneva’s helmet was sitting on top of the television.

George wasn’t home that day. He probably was off rebuilding a transmission somewhere, or overhauling an engine, or turning his wrenches on something that sped into corners and flew down straightaways, because that is what George Bignotti was famous for.

I met him once. It must have been 1997, the second year the Indy Racing League ran at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He was long retired by then, into his eighties. He was sitting in the garage eating lunch, by himself, after a press conference or something.

It was probably just a coincidence that the great crew chief George Bignotti was eating lunch by himself. This never would happen back at Indy, or at Pocono, or even at Trenton, when the Indy cars used to race in New Jersey. So I went over there and introduced myself, and we chatted about old Indy 500s we had seen.

This was the year the Indy Racing League switched to a new formula that was much lower tech than the old one.

I remember George Bignotti saying there wasn’t much to these new cars, just four wheels and an engine. And that maybe he would come out of retirement and start turning the wrenches again, because whereas he might not know a lot about these newfangled dynos and hooking up a race car to a computer and whatnot, he still knew how to work on four wheels and an engine.

After lunch that day, I remember trying to call my buddy Flip back in Indiana, because Flip was the guy I always went to Indy with, and to the race at Milwaukee the following week. We would take his van, the one with the shag carpet in back, and one time Flip’s van crapped out on the other side of Lafayette.

Neither of us knew the first thing about cars. I said maybe it was just a fan belt, because that is what I always say when a car suddenly stops running. I asked Flip if he could fix it.

He just stared and said, “Who do I look like, George Bignotti?”

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski