DEC 02nd 2015
Doug Nye – Remembering 'Black' Jack Brabham
Doug Nye began writing about racing cars at ‘Motor Racing’ magazine in 1963-64. Today he is a multiple award-winning motor sports journalist and author of over 50 years’ experience, with some 70 books to his name. He is Goodwood Motorsport’s founding Historian and consultant and fulfils similar roles for Bonhams Auctioneers and the Collier Collection/Revs Institute in Naples, FL, USA. He is a member of the National Motor Museum Advisory Council at Beaulieu, Hants, and is a regular columnist for ‘Motor Sport’ magazine, while contributing to many other specialist periodicals worldwide.
At next year’s Goodwood Revival, we will be paying special tribute to Sir Jack Brabham, three times Formula 1 World Champion Driver, in unique combination with having been also twice Formula 1 Constructors’ World Champion. When the (in-period) often enigmatic Australian won the third and final Drivers’ Championship title of his career – in 1966 – he also became the only man ever to win the Championship in a car bearing his own name.
So John Arthur Brabham was, indeed, a man of extraordinary achievement. He also spent much of his career – both formative and fully-established – as a frequent Goodwood habitué. In testing tyres for Dunlop and Goodyear, and in putting his own Motor Racing Developments company’s ‘Brabham’ racing cars through their paces, he must have completed more laps of the old Motor Circuit than any other top-line racing driver – frequently putting in 50-100 laps, and sometimes more, per day.
He became a much admired and always welcome friend and guest of ‘Freddie’ March – the 9th Duke of Richmond & Gordon, the Motor Circuit’s creator, father of the present Duke and grandfather of the present Earl of March. But since Lord March created the Goodwood Festival of Speed and Revival, Sir Jack Brabham (he was made our sport’s first Knight in 1979) became much more than a towering motor racing legend and a genuine hero to all of us who worked on these projects. He also became a tremendous supporter, and a dear and immensely valued friend.
Indeed ‘Black Jack’, ‘Blackie’, ‘The Guv’nor’, was more than just an illustrious three-time Formula 1 World Champion Driver. In the manner in which he proved to be the driving personality behind Cooper Cars’ development of rear-engined racing car design to World Championship-winning prominence, the man Denis Jenkinson nicknamed ‘The Nut-Brown Australian’ cemented the most significant single configuration change in the entire history of top-level motor racing. And there’s still more.
When he prompted John Cooper to follow the encouraging noises being made by Indy veteran Rodger Ward and enthusiast-sponsor Bill Kimberly in 1959-60, he ended up by running a Formula 1-based rear-engined Cooper-Climax, built to contemporary USAC oval-track racing regulations, in the 1961 Indianapolis 500. And where Jack and Cooper led there, so Colin Chapman, Dan Gurney, Jimmy Clark and Lotus would follow… Again the configuration change which revolutionised an entire category of major-league motor racing owed its ignition to… guess who? And there’s even more…
‘Blackie’ was one of the most naturally taciturn, modest, quietly capable, world-class sportsmen who has ever graced any world-class sport, bar none. When he died in May 2014, aged 88, an Australian fan described his character perfectly as ‘determined and reliable with a natural reserve verging on shyness, but with an inner steel which made him a formidable opponent in “battle”. Maybe my schoolboy patriotism was somewhat idealistic, but make no mistake Sir Jack personified ALL of those qualities by the bucket load.’
During his frontline racing life Jack was hard for anyone to get to know. His taciturnity was matched by that of his long-time pen-pal designer Tauranac (even from Cooper days in the later 1950s, long before they founded Motor Racing Developments Ltd together in 1961 to build their MRD/Brabham cars). Jack’s long-time racing mechanics, ‘Noddy’ Grohman, Tim Wall and Roy Billington were also men of vanishingly few words. As was the tall, prototype ‘quiet American’ Dan Gurney, Jack’s long-time team driver. And so too was Dan’s eventual successor alongside Jack – Denny Hulme.
Put them all together and the Brabham garage was for years absolutely the quietest place in Grand Prix racing. Trappist monks would have been too noisy. But Jack’s focus was always elsewhere.
And this great man wholeheartedly, and freely, fostered the careers of younger racers that he admired. There was little trace of the modern retarded-development, spoiled kid antipathy towards a team-mate’s success. While Jack possessed the most immense Alpha-male competitiveness, his 16-year frontline career (1955-1970) was characterised by the selfless encouragement, help and support he gave so freely to Bruce McLaren, Dan Gurney, Denny Hulme, Jochen Rindt and Jacky Ickx – and, in a smaller way, to so many promising young Brabham customers.
Upon his passing Dan Gurney released a heartfelt tribute: ‘Bruce and I merely followed where Jack led. He showed us both the way…’ While Jack won Championships with his Brabham cars, Bruce did so with his McLarens, and Dan too with his AAR Eagles. John Surtees would follow the same path, driver to constructor. All were very, very special sportsmen-engineers with – to varying degrees – real entrepreneurial flair.
For years, in fact, ‘Black Jack’ was not just an always-competitive, for too long much under-rated racing driver, he was also (as Graham Hill declared) ‘the wiliest old bugger in motor racing – and I’m fed up with it!’ Graham also said, at Sir Jack’s farewell bash at the end of 1970, that ‘…once Jack goes, I’m it. The last of the Mohicans’… the oldest racing driver in contemporary F1.
‘He was from a very special generation – a very special type of world-class racing celebrity.’
So what a stupendous contribution ‘Black Jack’ made to our game. There’s absolutely no point here in revisiting his entire career. It’s all there on the web and in dozens of books and magazine articles. But he did make his northern-hemisphere racing debut here at Goodwood on Easter Monday, 1955, and he did win our last Easter Monday International, in his works Formula 2 Brabham-Honda, on Easter Monday, 1966.
Jack was such a rare mixture – apparently such a taciturn and private ‘bloke’s bloke’, but in fact – increasingly so after his retirement from frontline racing pressures, and after his second marriage – so ready to grin, share a joke, return it with interest, and a man who never, ever, forgot his roots.
He related to everyone and anyone, totally without airs and graces. He’d always talk and socialise just as comfortably with pauper or plumber as President or Prime Minister.
He was from a very special generation – a very special type of world-class racing celebrity. They tended to be older, more widely experienced, more worldly-wise, more stable, more in contact than modern sporting superstars. These men, who bestrode the racing world in the ’50s and ’60s, might race together as F1 team-mates one weekend, then against one another in F2 or sports or touring cars – or at Indianapolis – the next.
They lived and raced, and travelled and toured together. No holds were barred on track, no quarter asked and none given, yet that group of top-level drivers had a firm bond off-track – of varying warmth – but nonetheless, unmistakably though thrown together, they became a band of brothers.
The cost was great. On average two drivers a month, at some level, died racing during Jack’s career. More got hurt, many really badly. But despite his many years of racing right out there – often on his trademark, spectacular ragged edge – Jack escaped injury until a tyre failure while testing at Silverstone in 1969 broke his ankle. Into 1970 the toll mounted rapidly – Bruce McLaren, Piers Courage, and finally Jochen Rindt. Jack’s Dad– who had always been his most avid supporter – joined the voices of his first wife, Betty, and other friends in urging him to retire. ‘You’ve had a good run – don’t push your luck…’
So he took the decision he’d quickly regret, reckoning in fact he could have gone on for another four or five good years, and retired aged 44. Many of his rivals – not just Graham – were both pleased and relieved to see him go. For years his tactics on-track had often been – ahem – ‘muscular’. His early dirt-track racing, midget car, experience at home on the Sydney Showground and similar had honed a tail-out, none-shall-pass driving style characterised by his intense hunched-forward racing style, dark-stubbled chin tucked down. Mirrors? What mirrors? Sir Jackie Stewart memorably corrected me once by declaring ‘Some will say that on-track Jack was always unpredictable. That’s absolutely not the case. In fact he was entirely predictable. You never had a clue what he might do next…’
After listening to Graham Hill’s tour de force speech at his 1970 retirement bash, Jack responded: ‘After all that, I’ve changed my mind, I really don’t want to retire. When I first came to England I used to get a lot of comments about Australia. John Cooper in particular used to ask me whether we used knives and forks out there… He was sure we were all descendants of convicts. Well, probably right – but the thing that really had me worried then, was that I was back in the country where they all came from…
‘And I was absolutely certain too – after being here a while – that they hadn’t caught them all… People like Alan Brown, John Coombs, Roy Salvadori, Cliff Davis, ‘Chopper’ Tyrrell, Colin Chapman, Innes Ireland, Graham Hill – you name it, there was plenty here they hadn’t caught…’
Every one of those great names had at some stage been a front runner here on our Goodwood Motor Circuit. We are privileged beyond belief to share an awesome heritage, and it will be an honour, over the weekend of September 11-13, to pay heartfelt tribute to one of the very brightest stars in the Goodwood firmament – Sir Jack Brabham.
Photography courtesy of The GP Library