#PrimalNumbers №9: 1957 Sam Hanks Salih Belond Special

This is another in an ongoing series of our #PrimalNumbers project. Read more about the project and see our others here.

A 1957 Indy 500 team portrait showing our protagonists, starting with Sandy Belond (the tallest person in the photo). To his right, George Sahil, with Howard Gilbert next to him. Sam Hanks mans the helm of the №9

In the first edition of #PrimalNumbers, we talked about the immortal number 32 carried by the Marmon Wasp, the first car ever win the Indy 500. Our next series installment is also painted on the side of a yellow Indy winner: it’s the №9 driven by Sam Hanks to victory at the Indianapolis 500 in 1957 (after which — and I mean immediately after, right in victory circle — he retired).

As is the case with so much of Indy history, the people behind the machines are as interesting as the cars. When it comes to this particular #primalnumber, while we selected it on the basis of aesthetics, we stayed for the human tales of persistence, entrepreneurship, and ingenuity behind it. The interwoven life stories of the three principal protagonists behind this triumphant machine are deeply inspiring.

But before we explore their connections, let’s walk around the car, and geek out on that №9.

Download Black/White (.png, .jpg, .eps), Yellow/Black (.png, .jpg, .eps)

The #primalnumber at the center of our attention graced the right rear flank of 1957 Belond Exhaust Special. Keeping with the grand tradition of innovation at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, this car was all about going faster by being a bit more ingenious than your competition.

It was the first “laydown” roadster — its Offy motor cranked at 18 degrees from horizontal in an attempt to improve aerodynamics and handling. This at a time when the dominant Kurtis and Watson designs ran their Meyer-Drake Offys sitting bolt upright. This creative thinking paid off: not only did it triumph in 1957, but with Jimmy Bryan at the wheel it conquered the following Memorial Day event as well, making the Belond Exhaust Special the first car to win twice at the Brickyard with two different drivers.

The design of this #primalnumber is driven by the period brand language of Belond Exhaust Systems, which you can see here:

The Belond identity, which you can see shared in the Hanks №9 design.

It’s a striking design. The feather-like plumage defining its asymmetric border is far cry from the traditional round number surrounds seen on many race cars. If we were to categorize it from a biological perspective, it’s variant species of the winged logos so typical of the visual zeitgeist of the 1950’s. Clever too is the decision to use a black surround to keep the number the same yellow as the rest of the car. It makes the number really pop without distracting from the overall color theme. In sum, the livery of this car is as original and free-thinking as its mechanical layout. Given the nature of the people who put it on the grid, that should come as no surprise.

Sandy Belond was the sponsor of the №9 in 1957, but that title doesn’t do him justice. He was much more than just the money guy. In fact, he was a lifelong friend of driver Sam Hanks, and their friendship went back two decades to the pre-war California racing scene, where the two built dry lake race cars together. He was a racer to the core, and his eponymous company produced racing parts for racers and people who aspired to be one. Relative to today’s racing scene, where sponsorships are handled by brand managers at large — sometimes faceless — corporations, Sandy Belond and his muffler business were another kind of animal, more personal and passionate about racing for the sake of racing.

Race cars are nothing without their drivers, of course. By the time 1957 rolled around, Sam Hanks had already tried his hand 12 times at winning the Indy 500, to no avail. With the persistence of a person pushing hard to fulfill a life’s dream, in May 1957 Hanks arrived at Indianapolis in focused on one thing: winning in the ride funded by his friend Sandy. Before the green flag, TIME magazine quoted him as saying: “This is the only ambition I have left in racing. When I win the 500, I’ll hang up my goggles so fast it’ll make their heads swim,” which is exactly what he did from Victory Circle. In late 2016 we saw Nico Rosberg drop a retirement bombshell a few days after becoming the F1 champion, so imagine the impact of an Indy 500 winner quitting with a bottle of milk in hand? The incisive mentality it took to make that kind of decision was something Hanks shared with his team owner George Salih.

George Salih believed he had come up with a better way to hustle around Indianapolis Motor Speedway. As an engineer at Meyer-Drake, he understood the theory and practice of racing, all of which which informed his thinking about the Indy 500. Countless other tinkerers, mechanics, and engineers have entertained similar daydreams at one time or another. But Salih was so committed to making his vision reality that he was willing to lose his day job to make it so.

He built this paradigm-busting car in his home garage in Whittier, California. Working with mechanic Howard Gilbert and fabricator Quinn Epperly (who formed the body panels, seat, and oil tank), Salih audaciously birthed the Belond Exhaust Special under the roof he shared with his wife and daughter. He then took it to Indiana and proceeded to blow away the competition. Can you imagine telling your life partner that you’re going to bet the farm on an untested concept designed to win a contest of speed half a continent away? Or that your obsession with winning just cost you your job over at Meyer-Drake? (True story) What a remarkable human being was George Salih.

Crowds surround Sam Hanks in victory lane, Indianapolis 500 in 1957 (source: IUPUI)

Design innovations tend to look obvious in retrospect, but in the moment they’re nothing of the sort. When I consider the vision, courage, and stamina it takes to create, ship, and win with a bold innovation like the Belond Special, it darn near takes my breath away. Here’s a post-race photo of the winning team — you can still feel their grit and determination across the 60 years of racing history that have since passed:

We’re passionate about #primalnumbers because the desire to win is a primal impulse. And we believe that racing is one of the most evocative expressions of that impulse.

Racing is about learning faster than your competition. It’s not a coincidence that cookie-cutter numbers tend to grace cookie-cutter racing cars. They both represent stagnant thinking. We’ve found that the game-changing designs are almost always graced by distinctive numbers that evidence a strong point of view. If you want to win, you draw different, paint different, engineer different, fabricate different, drive different — you think different. You open your mind to what works and what doesn’t. You literally see and learn more than the person the next car over. That innovator’s mindset, the drive to take on the primal challenge of competition, is the mark of a truly great racer, be it a car or a person.

#Primalnumbers, as it turns out, matter a lot. Let’s keep looking and learning.

Keep an eye out for more #PrimalNumbers as we post them. And drop me a line on Twitter if you have suggestions of numbers we should save next.