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Brabham Ignited Technical Revolution at Indianapolis

Sir Jack Brabham was the two-time defending Formula One World Champion when he arrived at Indianapolis in 1961, his participation that May launching a major change in the face of racing at the Speedway forever by reintroducing the concept of placing the engine behind the driver. 

Rear-engine cars had appeared regularly at the track between 1937 and 1951, but only four had ever qualified and none had traveled beyond 47 laps until the 1961 effort by the Cooper Car Company of Surbiton, England. Driving a beefed-up version of the Formula One Cooper and with its 2.5 liter Coventry-Climax engine bored out to 2.7 liters (still well below the 4.2 liters displaced by the Offenhauser engines used by the other 32 participants), Brabham made up for the slight lack of speed on the straights by superior handling in the turns. He stayed with it for the entire 500 miles and came home in ninth position. 

Had it not been for rather sluggish pit stops, he could have finished several positions higher.

But the handwriting was on the wall. Rear-engine cars came more and more into vogue, with the 1966 field five years later containing but one front-engine car.

The seeds for the historic run had been planted in December 1959 when reigning “500” winner Rodger Ward went to Sebring, Florida, to take part in the very first Grand Prix of the United States that ended the 1959 F1 season. Although he had had some success that season by driving midget cars against sports cars on road courses, the combination he took to Sebring was totally outclassed. 

But Ward was extremely impressed during practice by the handling characteristics of the Coopers of Brabham and Bruce McLaren.

“Come to Indianapolis,” Ward suggested to both Brabham and team principal John Cooper, and just under a year later, they took him up on it.

In October 1960, right after a Formula Libre race at Watkins Glen, New York, Brabham arrived to take part in a private test at IMS, not only arranged by Ward, but apparently with Brabham even spending a night or two at Ward’s home.

While it was known that Brabham was a man of few words and would never use two words if one would suffice, it was probably not so well known that he possessed a rather dry and impish sense of humor. “In which direction would like us to go?” he enquired, tongue-in-cheek upon entering the pit area, knowing full well the answer. He had even enjoyed a season or two of “speed car” racing in Australia (the “Down Under” version of midget car racing) early in his career and so knew plenty about broad-sliding around a small dirt track.

Brabham reached lap speeds of 145 mph during the IMS test and even turned the car over to Ward for a few laps before returning to England.

In spite of the success of the 1961 campaign, Brabham did not return to Indianapolis until 1964, by which time he had long since left Cooper and had formed his own team. He built a car for John Zink which he would drive himself, and along with several of colleagues, like Jim Clark and Dan Gurney, Brabham spent a good portion of May criss-crossing the Atlantic by aircraft. He qualified the car for Zink but was obliged to retire on Race Day with a spilt fuel tank after 77 laps.

The Zink Brabham was then turned over to Jimmy McElreath for the summer, and it was during that time that chief mechanic Clint Brawner took the liberty of taking some measurements, soon to produce the first of several suspiciously similar-looking Brawner Hawk cars which were to carry a very young Mario Andretti to fame.

Brabham returned in 1968 – now with a third world title under his belt – and brought with him a pair of cars powered by Repco engines, the basis of which was the American Oldsmobile. Brabham had promised his wife that he would not drive in the race but would merely take part in practice and gather information to pass on to his driver, Jochen Rindt. He also had Masten Gregory in the second car, but only Rindt qualified, lasting a mere five laps.

Evidently the pact with Mrs. Brabham was over by 1969 because Jack was back to make a qualifying attempt, dropping out after 58 laps with ignition trouble, while Peter Revson, in the other car, soldiered home to fifth. Later that summer, Revson placed third and first in twin 100-mile USAC National Championship races on the road course at Indianapolis Raceway Park.

Brabham’s final year as a driver at Indianapolis came in 1970 when Jim Gilmore sponsored a brand-new Brabham-built chassis powered by a turbocharged Offenhauser. With his father on hand to watch him, Jack ran near the front and even led a lap until dropping out with piston failure after 175 laps. On the day before Labor Day, while Jack was contesting the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, NASCAR driver LeeRoy Yarbrough came within nine laps of winning the inaugural Ontario 500 with the Indianapolis car, dropping out with a blown engine while leading.

Brabham’s next visit to Indianapolis came 11 years later on the 20th anniversary of his historic run with the Cooper, the retired three-time World Champion beaming from ear to ear as he watched his son, Geoff, make his “500” debut and finish fifth.

It was rather ironic that while British racing drivers Henry Segrave and Malcolm Campbell had both been knighted, it was, in both cases, for their accomplishments in land speed record activity. And while Britain’s Stirling Moss and Scotland’s Jackie Stewart have subsequently been knighted for accomplishments in motor racing competition, the very first to be so honored was Aussie Jack Brabham. 

 

An intense competitor in his day, more than one driver over the years have said that one of the most intimidating sights they could possibly witness on a racetrack (in the days before full-face helmets) was to look in their rear-view mirror and see it filled with the perpetual five o’clock shadow on the jaws of a determined Jack Brabham.

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