Game Changer

By the early sixties, the Formula One teams of Grand Prix racing had evolved from a front engined configuration, to a rear. Though the rear engined lay out had been experimented with over the years at Indianapolis, the concept had yet to be successful. A state of the art Indy Car in 1960 was a ponderous 1,700lb sled propelled by a ground pounding Offenhauser engine. There were various chassis manufacturers but basically they were all alike. Thirty three of them took the green flag at the 500 that year, but their reign was about to be challenged.

Father and son, Charles and John Cooper of England along with their driver Aussie Jack Brabham, had led the rear engine revolution in Formula One. They captured the World Championship in 1959 and were in the United States pursuing a second title in the fall of 1960. Indy winner Roger Ward encouraged them to bring their Grand Prix car to the Speedway for testing and the team agreed. Riding on their standard road racing rubber with their tiny Coventry-Climax engine, Brabham attacked the two and a half mile oval with unexpected gusto. No one on hand had ever seen a car carry more speed through the corners. Their lap times would have easily qualified them for The 500 and an ecstatic Ward begged them to return in May. The team professed not to have the funds to pursue such an endeavor. That was when fellow road racer (and heir to the tissue fortune) Jim Kimberly stepped forward to offer sponsorship.

The team clinched the 1960 Formula One crown and arrived in Indianapolis the following spring to little fanfare. Their car had a slightly larger engine than the Grand Prix version but was still significantly smaller than the Offenhausers. Plus the Cooper itself was dwarfed by the roadsters; it was dubbed “a funny car” and not considered a threat by anyone. In addition to all else, it was painted green which was considered “bad luck” at the Speedway.

Brabham and his team were unfazed by the naysayers and went about their race prep. They knew they didn’t have the fastest car- You didn’t need to have the fastest car to win a 500 mile contest. They knew their engine was reliable and would go the distance. They also knew that like all of their competitors, they would have to make pit stops along the way. The Cooper weighed about 700 pounds less than the average roadster so it would be easier on tires. The Coventry-Climax engine also got better mileage (twelve mpg compared to two or three) so fewer stops were anticipated.

Brabham did a respectable job in qualifying (starting thirteenth) and drove a conservative race. In retrospect too conservative, the driver admitting later that he could have pushed harder. They still needed three pit stops, probably because their Dunlop tires didn’t hold up as well as the tried and true Firestones everyone else was using. The roadsters blew by the Cooper all afternoon but Brabham held his own through the turns. When A. J. Foyt took the checkered flag at 200 laps, Brabham was in the ninth position.

The Indianapolis establishment was slow to recognize Brabham and the Cooper’s accomplishment. Seemingly only the astute realized that they had changed the course of Indy car design going forward. Mickey Thompson returned in 1962 with a brace of rear engine cars, one of which qualified eighth. Then in 1963 Colin Chapman arrived from England with his Ford powered Lotus cars. These cars were a match for the Offenhauser horsepower-wise and only a fluke kept them from Victory Lane. In 1964 Roger Ward himself finished second in an American built rear engine car- one of twelve that qualified for the 500 that year. Then in 1965 Jimmy Clark won the race outright in Chapman’s Lotus. Four more rear engined cars followed him across the line. In fact, only six of the thirty three starters that year had their engines mounted in front of the driver. In 1966 the last roadster qualified for the Indianapolis 500 and ironically was eliminated on the first lap. So the revolution that the little Cooper started in 1961 had completely changed the face of Indy car. The process took five years.

Though Jack Brabham is included in the Indianapolis Hall of Fame, he has received little recognition for his influence on “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing”. Fortunately he won other accolades like a third World Championship in a car of his own design (1966). He was also knighted by the Queen of England (1978). “Sir” Jack Brabham retired as a driver at forty four and lived to the ripe old age of eighty eight. A documentary about his life in racing is due for release next year
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