The Racing Capital
of the World
May 29, 2016
April 10, 2012 | By John Oreovicz
Rubens Barrichello’s arrival in America as a full-time IndyCar Series driver got longtime open-wheel racing observers thinking about the rich legacy of Formula 1 drivers who have competed in the Indianapolis 500, including eleven standout stars who won the F1 World championship before or after their experience at Indy (or during the same year, in the case of Jim Clark).
Since the official start of the Formula 1 World Championship in 1950, the following F1 drivers have attempted to participate in the Indianapolis 500:
– Italian ace Alberto Ascari won 13 Grand Prix races and the F1 World Championship in 1952 and ’53. During the course of the 1952 season, Scuderia Ferrari entered four cars in the Indianapolis 500, which from 1950-60 counted as a points-paying round of the F1 campaign. Ascari was the only driver who qualified one of the lightly modified Type 375 Ferrari 1 cars, which utilized a 2.5-liter V-12 engine. The V-12 reportedly lost out to the customary Offenhauser-powered cars in the Speedway’s short chutes due to a lack of torque. Ascari qualified 19th at 134.308 mph and ran 12th in the race until a rear hub failed on the Ferrari, breaking one of its wire wheels.
– Emilio ‘Nino’ Farina won the inaugural Formula 1 title in 1950 and continued to race F1 through 1955. In 1956, he participated in Indianapolis 500 practice, but he crashed and failed to qualify. A year later, Farina returned to Indianapolis, but his car was involved in fatal a fatal crash with backup driver Keith Andrews at the wheel on May 16, 1957. Farina did not return.
Juan Manuel Fangio
– Regarded by many as the greatest driver of his era, five-time F1 champion Juan Manuel Fangio never drove in the Indianapolis 500, but he completed his rookie test and practiced for the race in 1958. According to the Indianapolis Star, racing tycoon Floyd Clymer offered Fangio up to $6500 in bonus money if he competed at Indianapolis, saying “I’m not convinced you could even qualify.” Fangio accepted the challenge and said he would donate any money he received from Clymer to charity. Despite spinning on May 4, Fangio completed his rookie test in the Dayton Steel Foundry Special on May 8 and topped 142 mph in practice. However, on May 15, he withdrew from the effort; a spokesman explained “the car is not in the optimum condition to permit Mr. Fangio to uphold his reputation as a world champion race driver.”
– Jack Brabham was the first driver to win the Formula 1 World Championship in a rear-engine car (in 1959), and in 1961, the two-time defending F1 king and the John Cooper team entered the Indianapolis 500 with an uprated version of their Cooper-Climax F1 car. With an engine bored out to 2.7 liters (compared to the 4.2 liter capacity of the standard Offenhausers), Brabham’s car produced less than half the horsepower of the frontrunners. But the Cooper’s extremely light weight and superior handling due to its rear-engine placement made it much faster than the front-engine roadsters through the corners. Brabham qualified on the fifth row, but admitted he was too conservative in the race as he attempted to preserve his tires. Believing he could have come home in fifth or sixth place had he pushed harder, the Australian had to be satisfied with ninth place. “It really triggered the rear-engine revolution in Indy car design, we picked up around $9000 in prize money and it was a terrific experience,” he recalled in his autobiography. Brabham returned to Indianapolis in 1964, ’69 and ’70, driving Brabham chassis built by Motor Racing Developments, but he never again finished the ‘500.’
– In the 1950s and ‘60s, several American drivers competed in Formula 1, including Californian Dan Gurney. After finishing 20th in his initial Indianapolis 500 start in 1962 in the Mickey Thompson Special, Gurney arranged a meeting between Team Lotus founder Colin Chapman and the Ford Motor Company that resulted in a Lotus-Ford attack on Indy in 1963. Teamed with works Lotus F1 driver Jim Clark, Gurney and the team demonstrated the superiority of rear-engine chassis, with Clark finishing second and Gurney seventh. Gurney drove Lotus cars at Indy again in 1964 and ’65, and in 1966, his All American Racers firm began constructing its own Eagle F1 and Indycar chassis, scoring victory at Indy in 1968 with driver Bobby Unser. Gurney’s fortunes as a driver improved at Indianapolis in the last three years of his career, with finishes of second, second and third in 1968, ’69 and ’70; Eagle chassis won at Indianapolis again in 1973 (Gordon Johncock) and ’75 (Unser).
- Jim Clark won the Formula 1 World Championship in 1963, the same year that he and Team Lotus made their Indianapolis debut with a stunning second place finish that proved beyond a doubt that rear-engine cars were the way of the future at the Brickyard. Clark earned pole position for the 1964 race, but tire troubles forced him out early. He returned in 1965 to produce one of the most dominant performances in the history of the Indianapolis 500, leading 190 of the 200 laps for an uncontested victory. Clark was second in 1966 but believed that he actually won, but the Lotus was uncompetitive in 1967 for his final Indianapolis appearance. He was killed April 7, 1968 in a Formula 2 race in Hockenheim, Germany, shortly after testing the turbine engine Lotus he was scheduled to drive in that year’s Indy 500.
– Walt Hansgen was one of the top American sports car stars of the 1960s and he twice competed in the F1 United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, finishing fifth in 1964. That was the same year Hansgen made his Indianapolis 500 debut with a 13th place finish; he came home 14th a year later but was killed in April 1966 while testing prior to the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
– Another highly regarded American sports car ace, Masten Gregory competed sporadically in F1 between 1957 and ’65, making 37 starts with a pair of third place finishes. Gregory raced once in the Indianapolis 500, finishing 23rd in 1965.