Frank J. Dochnal

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Last updated: 21-March-2004


Before Formula One Formula One After Formula One

Before F1

An F1 obscurity worthy of fellow American Tom Jones

In December 2001, we were proud to bring you the world exclusive story of one of Formula One's great obscurities, American Tom Jones. However, over the years Jones was not the only former Grand Prix driver to have the anoraks stumped. Another was his fellow American, Frank J. Dochnal, about whom Steve Small's encyclopedic 'Grand Prix Who's Who' said this: "Along with Tom Jones, perhaps the most obscure character in this book, whose fleeting appearance ... seems to be the sum total of his achievements."

Admittedly, there has always seemed to be less intrigue about Dochnal than about Jones in nostalgia circles. Perhaps this was to do with the fact that his one-off F1 attempt at the 1963 Mexican GP predated Jones by several years. More likely, though, was the fact that there was no controversy over his identity and nationality as there was for Jones, and nor did the recorded reasons for his failure to start the race in Mexico City have the whiff of a good story as they did in Jones' case.


The pride of St Louis, Dochnal becomes a mechanic in the US Navy

Nevertheless, after Jones was found, the search for Dochnal began in earnest here at F1 Rejects. After initially tracking him down in the city of St Louis, it took several attempts before our UK Correspondent Stephen Slater obtained a telephone interview with him, and there was an even more interminable wait before he responded to our request for pictures from his career. But now, in another world exclusive, we can finally unmask the other half of the mystery American duo, and bring to you the story of Frank J. Dochnal.

Born and bred in St Louis, Missouri, Dochnal attended Roosevelt High School, and became interested in racing cars and bikes when he obtained his drivers' licence. However, before he ever started competing, he learnt his trade as a machinist and mechanic, and served in the United States navy during the years of World War II. But perhaps the grim realities of wartime encouraged him to pursue his hobby with more initiative, and after he left the navy in 1945 he began to contemplate becoming a racer.

Dochnal's first steps in racing were in midgets. Here he takes a well-earned victory at Farmer City, Illinois in the late 1950s.
Dochnal's first steps in racing were in midgets. Here he takes a well-earned victory at Farmer City, Illinois in the late 1950s.


Starts in midgets, progresses to club sportscar racing in Austins

Initially, he took a path well trodden by many budding American drivers by starting off in midget and sprint racing on the short-tracks in and around Missouri. He made his debut at Makin in Illinois, and until 1955 continued to race extensively in this category. He was not without success, taking a victory at Farmer City in Illinois, for instance, but he also endured the not-so-pleasant side of racing, when once he wrote off his midget in a heavy accident that left him in hospital.

By 1955, when he moved to California, he was well into his mid-thirties and purely a club or local racer at heart. However, the move to the west coast also encouraged him to branch out into sports car racing. He firstly bought an Austin Healey 6 before upgrading to an Austin Healey Le Mans, racing both classic machines in club races in California virtually every second weekend. Known in local circles as 'Doc' Dochnal, and with his trademark number 132, here was someone racing purely for the enjoyment of it.

Formula One

Spies a T51 for sale and jumps at the opportunity

Indeed, cars were very much his life. In the 83+ years he has been alive, Dochnal has owned, by his count, 64 cars, racing cars and motorcycles. Perhaps it was this passion that caused his divorce from his first wife, who was not particularly keen about his racing, but perhaps it also brought him together with his second wife, Anna-Marie, who for most of his racing career became his chief mechanic. And it was also his love of cars that put him onto the road towards the 1963 Mexican GP.

In 1962, he chanced upon a Cooper T51 for sale in England. The Cooper T51 was, of course, a pioneering type of machine, made famous by works Cooper legend Sir Jack Brabham as the first giant-killing rear-engined car to defeat the front-engined beasts in the World Championship. Dochnal fell head over heels for the vehicle, and, by now into his forties, he hoped to get behind the wheel of a real race car for the first time in his career. Purchasing the T51, he had it shipped over to America.

Dochnal's Cooper-Climax T51 on display at one of the race meets in 1962 when he drove the car in club competition.
Dochnal's Cooper-Climax T51 on display at one of the race meets in 1962 when he drove the car in club competition.


Powerhouse drive from the back of the grid at Riverside

He received the car on a Thursday, and by Saturday he was already racing it in a club event at Riverside in California. Because he had entered late, Dochnal was forced to start from the back of the grid, and with the race only being 50 miles long, there was not much time for him to make places up. But, demonstrating the potential of the car, he performed what the late Ken Tyrrell would call a 'burn from the stern', passing every car in the field to take an amazing debut victory in his new car!

This incredible performance got him well and truly hooked on open wheeler competition, and he continued to race his T51 well into 1963. That was also the year that the first World Championship Mexican Grand Prix was to be held in Mexico City, and having heard about the event, Dochnal decided that he wanted to enter it. So he contacted the organisers who, obviously keen to bolster the grid, invited and even enticed Frank to bring his T51 down south.


Coffee pot keeps him popular, as he gets to grips with the track

Now into his forties, this was hardly what one would call a big break - indeed, Dochnal believes he would have retired from racing after the event regardless of the result - but nevertheless it was an opportunity to race against the big guns of world motorsport, such as Jim Clark, Graham Hill and John Surtees. Frank and Anna-Marie drove down to Mexico City, where they found their accommodation and other needs already having been catered for by organisers obviously keen to please.

Though he didn't know anyone else, he and his wife soon became quite popular because they had the only coffer grinder and pot in the paddock! But what they didn't have were mechanics, and after acquiring a few locals to service his T51, complete with a Climax 1.5-litre engine and Dunlop tyres, he was ready to start learning the track and bringing down his times before qualifying the following day, although considering his age, the age of the car, and the level of competition, it was unlikely that he would be particularly competitive.

Dochnal in action in his Cooper-Climax T51 in 1962-63. He would soon take the car south to Mexico.
Dochnal in action in his Cooper-Climax T51 during 1962-63. He would soon take the car south to Mexico.


The car is damaged, and Dochnal's helmet gets hung up

But just as he began getting used to the tricky layout it began to rain, and Dochnal was caught out in the esses after the hairpin. Spinning off, the crashed the T51 back-end first, destroying the right-rear suspension. Although they tried to repair it, this was in vain because the suspension was made of magnesium, which could not be welded. Hugely disappointed, Dochnal was forced to watch the rest of practice and the race from pit lane, his dream of mixing it with the big guns having evaporated.

He witnessed a dominant weekend by Clark, who took pole by 1.7 seconds, and who then won the race from Brabham by over 100 seconds. Having flirted with glory but been given a reality check on the track, he was now given one off the track as well when, back at the hotel, Anna-Marie insisted that it was about time he retired from competitive racing. Given his age, Frank didn't need much convincing, and with his 'Did Not Qualify' at the 1963 Mexican GP, his driving career was over.

After F1

Joins Agajanian as team mechanic for Parnelli and Vukovich, Jr.

Dochnal returned to California, where he sold his T51, still in its smashed-up condition, to another local who repaired it and then used it for more club racing. Frank himself was then invited to Indianapolis, not as a driver, but as a mechanic for the team owned by flamboyant entrant J. C. Agajanian. In an Agajanian car, the legendary Parnelli Jones had just come off a victory in the Indy 500 in 1963. With Dochnal on the team, Jones went on to finish 2nd in 1965, while Bill Vukovich, Jr. took rookie of the year honours for Agajanian in 1968.

But after spending eight years in Indianapolis, in around 1970 he returned to live in California when he was offered a job by Howard Hughes, as a research development machinist in one of his companies. Hughes was, of course, the eccentric multi-millionaire aviator, philanthropist, businessman, movie producer, playboy and Las Vegas recluse extraordinaire, on whom the character Willard Whyte in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever was not-so-roughly based!

Bill Vukovich, Jr. and team at the Indy 500 in 1968. Dochnal stands fourth from the left.
Bill Vukovich, Jr. and team at the Indy 500 in 1968. Dochnal stands fourth from the left.


Long time USAC official, member of Indy Old Timers' Club

However, Frank was still very much involved with motor racing, having been made an Indy technical official by the United States Auto Club, a position he held for over 13 years. With his experience and technical knowledge, he also assisted CART when that organisation was first established, despite the bitter conflicts between USAC and CART at the time. Then, in 1984, in recognition of his contribution to the Indy 500 over the years, Dochnal was made a member of the Indy Old Timers' Club, an honour only bestowed upon winners of the Indy 500, and those with over 20 years of service to the race.

Frank and Anna-Marie continued to live in California until 1997, when the latter sadly passed away. As a result of this, Frank moved back to St Louis, where Anna-Marie was buried. Now, despite being an octogenarian, Frank maintains an active lifestyle, despite claiming to have no other hobbies and to be merely 'taking it easy'. We thank him for the information about his career and the photographs he generous provided for us, and in assisting us to compile this profile.

Click here to read our exclusive
Interview with Frank!

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