Many auto racing historians consider Jim Clark one of the greatest drivers of all time. Clark won 25 of the 72 Formula 1 races he contested before he was killed at age 32 during a Formula 2 race at Hockenheim, Germany.
A native of Scotland, Clark started racing sports cars when he was 20 years old and soon graduated to single seaters. Within four years, he had joined forces with Team Lotus founder Colin Chapman and made his F1 debut in the middle of the 1960 season.
Clark’s first F1 win came in the 1962 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps and he went on to win the 1963 and 1965 World Championships. In those seasons, he won 12 of 18 races.
In 1962, Dan Gurney, an American competing in Formula 1, got Chapman to meet with the Ford Motor Company to discuss an assault on the Indianapolis 500. That October, Team Lotus travelled to Indianapolis following the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen (won by Clark) for Clark to test the Lotus F1 car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Developing 175 horsepower from its 1.5-liter Coventry-Climax V-8, the Lotus had less than half the grunt of the contemporary, 415-horsepower Offenhauser-powered roadsters. But the superior handling of its lightweight, rear-engine chassis allowed Clark to lap the Brickyard at 143 mph, just 7 mph off Parnelli Jones’ 1962 Indianapolis pole speed.
The power gap was narrowed when the 1963 Lotus 29 appeared with its production-based Ford V-8 engine that produced 375 horsepower. Gurney and Clark drove the cars at Indianapolis, with Clark qualifying fifth and finishing second to Parnelli Jones. Gurney finished seventh.
There was a controversy during the race when it appeared Jones’ car was leaking oil. The black flag was never displayed, and Clark did not complain about Jones to his team or officials. “He did a damn fine job,” Clark said. Clark went on to drive the Lotus-Ford to the first Indy car race win for a rear-engine car later that summer at the Milwaukee Mile.
For 1964, Ford introduced its ‘quad cam’ V-8 engine, with double overhead cams over both banks of cylinders. Clark qualified his Lotus 34 on pole position at Indianapolis, but a Dunlop tire failure caused broken suspension and retirement from the race after just 47 laps.
Clark returned to dominate the 1965 Indianapolis 500 in the new Lotus 38. Although he was beaten to pole position by A.J. Foyt in another Lotus, Clark led 190 of 200 laps in one of the most dominant performances in Indianapolis 500 history. He won by 2 minutes and 5 seconds over Jones in the first Indy victory for a non-American driver since Dario Resta won in 1916.
“I realized things were going well just after the first pit stop,” Clark related in his autobiography. “The pit gave me a sign ‘plus 58 Parnelli’ so I knew I was a lap ahead of him. The A.J. Foyt passed me but I got another ‘plus 58’ sign which meant I was a lap ahead of both Parnelli and Foyt. After that, I knew we had won.”
Clark achieved another second place finish at Indianapolis in 1966 in a much more difficult race. In fact, Clark spun twice during the race and later reported “I actually spun six times, but caught four of them!” There was confusion in the scoring of the race, and Clark and Lotus boss Chapman were convinced they won. Clark actually drove to Victory Lane, only to find Graham Hill already there…
Clark’s final Indianapolis 500 in 1967 was his least successful, as he qualified 16th and dropped out with a holed piston after just 35 laps. But that was not his final appearance at IMS.
In early 1968, just weeks prior to his death, Clark tested the new STP-Lotus turbine car at the Speedway, and he was reportedly very excited at the prospect of racing the radical, wedge-shaped car.
Jim Clark’s legacy has been continued by a series of successful Scottish racing drivers, including Jackie Stewart, David Coulthard, and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner (and four-time IndyCar Series champion) Dario Franchitti.
One of the greatest moments of Franchitti’s life came in September, 2010, when he drove the Clark’s restored Indianapolis 500-winning Lotus 38 at the Speedway.
“That was pretty special,” Franchitti said. “It was a lifetime dream to drive that car, and to drive it here at the Speedway was incredible.
“Jimmy was an absolute tiger in the car, and obviously his exploits in the car kind of fired my passion,” Franchitti added. “But I think it was as much the guy he was outside the car that’s the reason he’s my hero. He was this quiet, simple humble guy. I thought, ‘I have to find out more about this man.’ And the more I found out, the more I discovered that this was a man I admired tremendously.”