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Clark’s Rear-Engine Victory in 1965 Was Evolution of Revolution at Indy

Note: This continues a series of feature stories highlighting historic milestones and anniversaries honored in 2020 leading up to the Month of May and Legends Day presented by Firestone on Saturday, May 23 at IMS.

When Jim Clark won the Indianapolis 500 in 1965, he made history by becoming the first driver to capture “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” in a rear-engine car.

Clark’s victory in the No. 82 Lotus powered by Ford, fielded by legendary team owner and car designer Colin Chapman, will remain a significant footnote in “500” history forever. But that breakthrough win was more of an evolution than a revolution.

The rear-engine revolution started four years earlier, in 1961. Legendary Australian driver Jack Brabham came to Indy in May 1961, just six months after clinching his second consecutive Formula One World Championship.

Brabham showed up at the Speedway with a Cooper chassis and a Climax engine behind the driver, urged to bring the machine to Indy by “500” winner Rodger Ward. The diminutive, lithe car provided a stark visual contrast to the hulking, front-engine roadsters of the day. It wasn’t the first rear-engine car at Indianapolis, but it would prove to be one of the most pivotal.

Most of the Speedway cognoscenti and teams and drivers within Gasoline Alley regarded Brabham’s Cooper-Climax as little more than a curiosity, especially since the Offenhauser engines that powered the other 32 starters in the field had a big advantage in straightaway speed.

But Brabham’s agile machine, with better weight balance due to the engine in the back, made up considerable ground on the roadsters in the Speedway’s four turns because of superior handling. Brabham qualified 13th and finished ninth in the No. 17 Kimberly Cooper-Climax, validating the possibility of success for a rear-engine machine at Indy. There had been rear-engine cars in the “500” from the 1930s through the early 1950s, but none achieved anywhere near the success of Brabham’s Cooper-Climax.

Still, it took an American racing legend to make the connection between Indy and Chapman that resulted in Clark’s historic and norm-breaking victory.

American Dan Gurney was starting his fourth season of driving in Formula One in 1962, when he also first came to IMS to race in the Indy 500. Gurney had one of the most creative minds in racing, and he was intrigued the previous year by Brabham’s Cooper-Climax.

After qualifying at Indy, Gurney flew to Zandvoort in The Netherlands for the Dutch Grand Prix Formula One race. He found Chapman in the paddock and urged him to come to Indy to see the “500,” especially Brabham’s unique machine. Gurney raved about the potential of the rear-engine car to Chapman.

Chapman at first was reluctant to travel across the Atlantic to see the car and the race, but he relented when Gurney offered to pay for his travel. Gurney knew Ford was considering a return to major-league auto racing in 1963, and he figured Ford’s power and budget matched with the engineering and design brilliance of Chapman’s Lotus chassis could be a match made in speed paradise.

Gurney then connected Ford officials with Chapman. A deal was struck between the manufacturer and Lotus for the 1963 Indianapolis 500, with Clark and Gurney as a dream team of drivers.

A production-based 4.2-liter engine, based on those in the Ford Fairlane and other Ford passenger cars, powered the Lotus chassis that Clark and Gurney drove in 1963. Clark qualified fifth and finished second to Parnelli Jones, aided by making only one pit stop while most of the rest of the field made at least three stops. Gurney qualified 12th and finished seventh after making two pit stops.

The revolution was underway.

In 1964, Ford committed to the rear-engine project with a dual-overhead cam V8 racing engine, powering seven cars in the field, all rear-engine machines.

Clark won the pole at a record average speed of 158.828 mph, more than 7 mph faster than Jones’ pole-winning average speed from the year before in the famous No. 98 Watson-Offy roadster nicknamed “Calhoun.” But problems with his Dunlop tires forced the Scotsman to retire after completing just 47 laps, credited with 24th place.

In 1965, it wasn’t a matter of if a rear-engine car would win the race – it was which one. Twenty-seven of the 33 cars in the race were rear-engine machines. There just six roadsters left, four powered by Offy engines and two by Novi engines.

Ford officials decided to make sure one of its cars drove into Victory Lane, launching an all-out assault on victory in 1965 at Indianapolis after seeing the promise of its new bespoke engine matched with Chapman’s nimble chassis at Clark’s hands in 1964. The auto manufacturer sent an army of engineers and executives to the Speedway that May to work on and oversee the effort, something that the shy Clark and his Lotus crew members admitted later made them uncomfortable due to the extra scrutiny.

As part of its increased focus on Indy, Ford hired the famous Wood Brothers team from NASCAR to handle Clark’s pit stops during the race. This annoyed Clark’s chief mechanic, David Lazenby, and the Lotus crew. But Ford’s edict won the day.

Foyt won the pole at 161.233 mph, driving one of the previous year’s Lotus-Ford machines. It was the first year Foyt raced a rear-engine car at Indianapolis. He practiced in a rear-engine machine in 1964 but choose to race in a front-engine roadster.

Clark started second and wasted little time moving to the front. He led the first lap, fell to second behind Foyt on the second lap and then passed Foyt on Lap 3 and led until his first pit stop on Lap 66. Foyt led until he stopped on Lap 75, and Clark led the rest of the way, lapping all but four other drivers.

The victory was assisted by the pit work of the Wood Brothers, who only added fuel during Clark’s two stops. Clark finished the entire 500 miles on the same set of Firestone tires. The mythology surrounding the Wood Brothers’ work has grown over time, as they performed the quickest service of the day but didn’t “revolutionize” the way stops were conducted as some have claimed in the ensuing years.

It also would be hard to call Clark’s victory a revolution, either. His crushing victory – by nearly two minutes over runner-up Jones – was a final plot point on an inexorable path that started to be hewn by Gurney and Chapman in 1962 after paying closer attention to Brabham’s revolution of 1961.

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