Doug Nye: Flirting with the '500 – the UK's near 60-year love affair with Indy

31st May 2017
new-mustang-tease.jpg Doug Nye

Well, even some of the old curmudgeon brigade – of which for at least part of the time I am a fully paid-up member – are beginning to nod and think that, well yes, maybe, there is a different atmosphere emerging in pinnacle-class motorsport right now.


It has become apparent through mass-media coverage, the occasional nice gesture – like Kimi Raikkonen's sympathetic interaction with that distraught child fan during the Spanish Grand Prix – and then Fernando Alonso’s foray to the Indianapolis 500 Speedway classic in the USA really proving incredibly successful in returning that great event to a genuinely worldwide spotlight… as it used to enjoy when many of the Goodwood greats first began to explore the possibility of earning some serious money there, during the 1960s…

While the extremely pleasant – and apparently utterly fearless – Takuma Sato last Sunday became the first Japanese to win middle-America’s oldest and greatest surviving motor race, it was great to see British young guns Ed Jones and Max Chilton finishing third and fourth, and Pippa Mann 17th while Jack Harvey and Jay Howard – despite both being sidelined by accidents – also ran well before running out of luck.

What was even more cheering was to see Max Chilton actually leading the ‘500’ for 50 laps and Alonso leading for 27 before his car’s Honda engine failed so abruptly, and after 179 of the 200 laps he smoked to a halt at the exit end of the pits.

This all took me back to the drama and excitement felt within the motor racing world in 1961 when Jack Brabham and John and Charlie Cooper accepted the offer of financial backing from American road racer Bill Kimberly to build a tailored version of their World Champion rear-engined Formula 1 car to tackle that year’s Indy ‘500’. Jack was handicapped by running just a 2.7-litre Coventry Climax FPF engine against the full 4.2-litre fuel-injected Offenhausers of the mass American establishment. But his little rear-engined car’s pace through Indy’s four turns made their eyes pop, and the writing was plainly on the wall for the kind of beam-axled front-engined Indy roadster pen-wheelers that had ruled the Speedway since the early 1950s, and in many ways since the great race had been founded – back in 1911…

Dan Gurney in his sister team Lotus-Ford Type 29 - 1963 Indy ‘500’ - finished 7th in the Indy ‘500'

Dan Gurney in his sister team Lotus-Ford Type 29 - 1963 Indy ‘500’ - finished 7th in the Indy ‘500'

Not that Indy racing technology could be dismissed as being backward. For left-turn-only racing on banked and semi-banked courses, it was good enough. Its adoption of really high-boost supercharging and turbocharging, fuel-injected engines, aviation-style disc brakes, driver-safety seat belts, roll-over hoops, nerf bars – all came way ahead of backward road racing Formula 1. But while USAC-run American

But while USAC-run American speedway racing seemed awash with commercial advertising-funded money it remained really the preserve of tiny, sometimes almost one-man, ultra-specialist mechanics working for generous and ambitious private owners and emerging effectively as constructors in their own confined right. An abortive Indy programme by the Ford Motor Company back in 1935 had proved such a disastrous and brand-demeaning flop that big industry remained warned-off speedway racing into the 1960s. Indy became a hugely publicised and promoted pond, inhabited by little fishes. The great factories with global aspirations – like Mercedes-Benz and Alfa Romeo – confined their real racing focus absolutely to major-league road racing with their Grand Prix and sports cars.

But while Jack Brabham and Cooper ran at Indy in 1961, and learned so much while finishing 9th, American road race driver Dan Gurney fancied a more advanced technology-bridging foray in 1962. He accepted the offer of Indy entrant John Zink to drive his ‘Trackburner’ special, which combined a Formula 1-derived Lotus 18/21-type chassis with a rear-mounted Boeing gas turbine engine. The unlikely combination didn’t work, but Dan recalled it as being more than competitively quick through the turns, then bog slow out of them as he had to endure the throttle lag of the gas turbine engine winding back up to ramming speed…while the big 4.2-litre Offies just rocketed away from him.


But Dan had fast developed into one of the world’s top three or four road racing drivers. He was deeply impressed by the technology and pace embodied in Colin Chapman’s innovative, stressed-skin ‘monocoque’ chassis design of the Lotus 25 in which Jimmy Clark began winning World Championship-qualifying Grand Prix races through ’62. And Dan flew Colin to Indy that year to experience the ‘500’ at first hand.

Colin once told me how he couldn’t believe the sight “… of all these front-engined old dinosaurs heaving and wallowing their way around – it was as if I’d been taken back pre-war and was watching the Tripoli Grand Prix or something…”. Dan had good contacts at the Ford Motor Company. He and Colin made a persuasive duo. Ford’s corporate memory of the 1935 brand-bashing Miller-Ford Indy car disaster had long-since faded, and they listened to the road racers’ vision of a Lotus 25-like car powered by a Ford V8 engine to attack the ‘500’ in 1963. The programme was quickly approved – two Lotus-Ford 29 cars were fielded in 1963 to be driven by Jimmy and Dan – and Jimmy finished a rousing second…

This was big time, huge media attention, and a big payday. The more astute members of the Indy establishment work up, and followed the Cooper/Lotus rear-engined configuration lead. In 1964 Lotus-Ford returned, and screwed-up badly by attempting to run Dunlop road racing technology tyres on the unforgiving Speedway. But in 1965 at the third attempt Jim Clark and Lotus-Ford – by this time with full 4-cam racing engines – won the Indy ‘500’ outright.

Crystal Palace Formula 2 meeting, Whit-Monday 1965 - Colin Chapman and Jim Clark celebrfate their Indy ‘500’ victory in far away middle-America - the car was part of Jimmy’s winnings…
1966 Indy ‘500’ winner - Graham Hill in his Lola-Ford T90 ‘American red Ball Special’

In London the BRSCC organised a live TV feed “by satellite” at the Odeon, I think, Leicester Square. High-tech racing cars on frontier-tech telly. It was a fantastic evening – and JC and Lotus won – perfection.

In 1966 it was the turn of the great, intensely well-respected Eric Broadley – who died aged 88 just last Sunday – to win Indy with Graham Hill driving his company’s gorgeous Lola-Ford T90 creation, and we were into a period of British dominance at Indianapolis – certainly in terms of chassis technology. But there was a dearth of British driver success, from 1967 until 2005 – 38 long years – until Dan Wheldon won the ‘500’.

Two years later Scotland’s Dario Franchitti won his first ‘500’, going on to win it twice more, in 2010 and 2012, with Dan Wheldon victorious for his second time in between – in 2011. Right now British Indy-winning hopes ride with the new generation drivers like Jones and Chilton, Harvey and Howard. They have a glittering past on which to build.

Images courtesy of The GP Library

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