The image captured my imagination—a photograph taken on the white, high banking at Monza. A rolling grid of fifties-era Indy roadsters and bringing up the rear was a pair of D-type Jaguars. I was probably ten years old but it was clear to me even then that something was wrong with this picture. How did I know D-types? Because I owned a Matchbox car of one and it was a favorite.
A match race pitting Indy roadsters against European Grand Prix cars had been volleyed about for years. During the summer of 1956, USAC Director of Competition Duane Carter sat down with Italian promoters and hammered out the details. Tire wear was a huge concern as the Firestones being used at Indianapolis weren’t designed for the amount of downforce the roadsters were likely to encounter. As a result, a new tire was developed and Firestone headed to Monza with their test mule and veteran pilot Pat O’Conner. In short order O’Conner was clocked at 170.8 mph, beating World Champion Juan Fangio’s track record by nearly 10 mph!
The news spread like wildfire and soon after the factory Ferrari and Maserati teams withdrew from the event citing that it was “too hazardous”. Germany’s Mercedes Benz and England’s BRM team followed suit and it was starting to look like only American iron would participate. Then two weeks before the event, an entry was filed by the Scottish Ecurie Ecosse Team for three Jaguars. The Jags had finished first and second at LeMans that year and though underpowered in comparison to the roadsters, accepted the challenge.
Tony Bettenhausen broke the one-lap qualifying record in the Novi at 176.826. He was followed by the nine other Indy cars (seven of which shattered Fangio’s record). The Jaguar’s best speed was 151.635- a full twenty miles per hour slower than most of the roadsters so they filed in at the back.
The 500 mile contest was divided into thirds, each of sixty three laps. There was to be an hour break after the first and second segment to allow for servicing of the vehicles. Bettenhausen brought the field around for the green flag and hesitated, expecting the starter to wave it vigorously. In Europe the starter need only “display” the green flag and seeing this Englishman John Fairman pulled his Jaguar out of formation and motored around the stumbling roadsters. He was first to hit the banking and a check of his rearview mirror revealed that no one else was in close pursuit. You can imagine the response of the crowd when the days’ slowest qualifier led the field coming down to the start/finish line.
It took a full lap around the 2.6 mile course for the Offenhauser engines to clear out and the Novi plummeted backward outside the top five. Then the roadsters exploded past Fairman with Eddie Sachs snatching the point followed by Troy Ruttman and Jimmy Bryan. On the second lap Bettenhausen’s Novi awoke, powered by the Jaguar and ran down the leaders. The popular Novi led the third circuit then headed for the pits with a throttle linkage problem. Bettenhausen returned to the action and gave the crowd a thrill before retiring for good with a broken sway bar.
Bryan won the first segment followed by six roadsters and the three Jaguars. During the hour long intermission major repairs were necessary to keep the roadsters in the fray. The Indy cars were bottoming out coming off the parabolic curves- frames were cracked and fuel tanks developed leaks. Meanwhile the Jaguar crews casually swapped tires and topped off their fuel- no repairs were necessary.
Only the Novi failed to make the start of the second segment. The sway bar was replaced but the fuel tank could not be. The rest of the roadsters were cobbled back together and eleven cars took the green flag. Cigar chomping Bryan was again the leader when the checkered flag fell. He was followed by three other roadsters and the Jaguars in fifth through seventh. The other entries fell out with mechanical problems. The drill between the second and third segments was much the same but this time only eight racers made the call. One roadster was late due to the replacement of engine bolts.
The final segment was won by Ruttman but Bryan was second and Johnny Parsons was third. Due to attrition Fairman finished fourth followed by both of his teammates. Bryan (with the sleeves ripped free from his driving suit) was declared the overall winner and received nearly $35,000 for his efforts. Fairman was awarded fourth with the other D-types in fifth and sixth respectively. They didn’t receive much for their days work other than the respect and admiration of their fellow competitors. The Ecurie Ecosse Team was formerly invited to partake in the 1958 Indy 500 but regrettably, they declined